Official name : Republic of Costa Rica
Area: 51,100 square kilometers (19,730 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Cerro Chirripó (3,810 meters/2,500 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Northern and Western
Time zone: 6 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 464 kilometers (288 miles) from north to south and 274 kilometers (170 miles) from east to west
Land boundaries: 639 kilometers (399 miles) total boundary length; Nicaragua 309 kilometers (193 miles); Panama 330 kilometers (206 miles)
Coastline: Total: 1290 kilometers (805 miles); Caribbean Sea 212 kilometers (132 miles); Pacific Ocean 1,016 kilometers (633 miles); Cocos Island (Isla de Coco) 62 kilometers (40 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers ( 12 nautical miles)
Costa Rica is located in Central America, which is between the North and South American continents. Nicaragua lies to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the east, Panama to the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest and west. With an area of about 51,100 square kilometers (19,730 square miles), it is the second-smallest Central American country, slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia. Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces.
Cocos Island is a dependency of Costa Rica. It is located approximately 480 kilometers (300 miles) off the Pacific coast.
Most of Costa Rica has two seasons: the wet season from May to November (winter months) and the dry season from December to April (summer months). Although the country lies completely within the tropics, elevation plays a role in the variations of its climate. Temperature is also determined by proximity to the coasts. The area known as the tierra caliente (hot country) in the coastal and northern plains, experiences daytime temperatures between 29 and 32°C (85 to 90°F). The tierra templada (temperate country), including the central valleys and plains, has average daytime temperatures from 24 to 27°C (75 to 80°F). The tierra fría (cold country) composes the land above 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) and has daytime temperatures from 24 to 27°C (75 to 80°F), but nighttime temperatures of 10 to 13°C (50 to 55°F).
The tierra caliente is characterized by heavy rains; the tierra templada receives regular rains from April through November; and the tierra fría is less rainy but more windy than the temperate regions. The average rainfall for Costa Rica is more than 250 centimeters (100 inches). Natural disasters that befall the country include occasional earthquakes, hurricanes along Atlantic coast, frequent flooding of lowlands at the beginning of the rainy season, landslides, and volcanic eruptions.
The landscape of Costa Rica varies from seasonally snow-capped mountains to seasonal marshlands to lush rain forests. The central highlands extend from northwest to southeast. The Atlantic and Pacific coastal lowlands are low, swampy, and heavily forested.
Costa Rica is bordered on the east by the Pacific Ocean and on the west by the Caribbean Sea. The country sits at the boundary where the Cocos Plate in the Pacific—a piece of Earth's crust about 510 kilometers (316 miles) wide—meets the tectonic plate underlying the Caribbean Sea. The Cocos Plate moves east at a rate of about 10 centimeters (4 inches) per year, causing occasional earthquakes in the country.
Though there are a number of small inlets along the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the two major ones are the Nicoya Gulf (Golfo de Nicoya) in the north and the Dulce Gulf (Golfo Dulce) in the south.
Cocos Island is an uninhabited dependency of Costa Rica. This volcanic island, located about 480 kilometers (300 miles) southwest of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, is covered with tropical rainforests.
There are a number of small sedimentary islands within the Nicoya Gulf, several of which are protected as wildlife refuges for roosting and nesting birds. Caño Island, located near the mouth of the Nicoya Gulf, is a 300-hectare (740-acre) wildlife refuge island that is covered with tropical rainforest and surrounded by coral platforms.
Along the coasts, mainly where the rivers empty into the ocean, there are extensive mangrove forests and swamps. The rest of the coastline offers numerous beaches. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is flat and open, with gray or black sand beaches, while the Pacific coast is irregular with hilly or mountainous peninsulas, coastal lowlands, bays, and deep gulfs.
With a surface area of about 85 square kilometers (33 square miles), the man-made Lake Arenal is the largest lake in Costa Rica. It is located in the northern part of the country near the Arenal volcano in the Arenal National Park.
Lake Cachí is another man-made lake located at the eastern end of the Reventazón River (Río Reventazón).
Lake Hule, south of San Miguel, is a natural lake set in a dormant volcanic crater. Lake Caño Negro is a seasonal lake (appearing during the wet season) near Costa Rica's northern border that is fed by the fresh waters of the Frío River (Río Frío).
The longest river in Costa Rica is the San Juan. It flows from Lake Nicaragua in Nicaragua along the border with Costa Rica to the Caribbean Sea, covering a total length of about 220 kilometers (140 miles). Tributaries to the San Juan rise in the volcanic highlands of Costa Rica. Although the San Juan River lies within Nicaraguan territory, Costa Rica has, by treaty, full rights of navigation.
The San Carlos and Chirripó Rivers, located near the border with Nicaragua, commonly flood during the wet season, turning the surrounding landscape into swampy marshlands.
There are no desert regions in Costa Rica.
The northern lowlands are broad and flat and, in some areas, they are cut off from the highlands by a virtually impassible hardwood forest. The region is made up of two separate llanuras (low-lying plains), the Llanura de los Guatusos in the west and the San Carlos Plains (Llanura de San Carlos) farther east. The llanuras make up one-fifth of Costa Rica's land area, and extend along the entire length of the San Juan River.
The Caribbean lowlands are covered with tropical evergreen rainforest. The Pacific lowland forests are typically dry, particularly in the northwest.
The most important area of Costa Rica is the Meseta Central. It contains two upland basins separated by low volcanic hills and is home to half of the population. Located in the temperate country, it lies between the Cordillera Central to the north and low mountains and hills to the south. The land surface of the Meseta is generally level or rolling, which is acceptable for agriculture.
The General Valley, drained by the General River, lies between the Cordillera de Talamanca to the north and the coastal mountains of the southwest. Almost as large as the Meseta Central, the General Valley is a relatively isolated structural depression that ranges in elevation from 183 to 1,066 meters (600 to 3,500 feet). River flood plains, terraces, rolling hills, and savannahs dominate the landscape.
Extending north and south throughout the center of Costa Rica are several distinct mountain ranges called "cordilleras." The Cordillera de Guanacaste, Cordillera Central, Cordillera de Tilarán, and Cordillera de Talamanca are all part of the Andean-Sierra Madre chain that runs along the western shore of the Americas.
The Cordillera de Guanacaste is volcanic in origin and stretches for 112 kilometers (70 miles) from the western border with Nicaragua to the Cordillera Central. The highest peak in the Guanacaste chain is the Miravalles volcano at 2,024 meters (6,640 feet).
To the southeast, the Cordillera de Tilarán is home to the Arenal volcano, one of the world's most active volcanoes. To the east lies Cordillera Central, which contains four volcanoes and the Meseta Central (which is also home to the capital city). Cordillera de Talamanca rises in the south, housing the country's highest point, Cerro Chirripó.
Lying at the heart of one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth, Costa Rica is home to seven active volcanoes, and sixty dormant or extinct ones. The active volcanoes of Irazú, Poás, Barba, and Turrialba rise near the capital city of San José. The remaining active to semi-active volcanoes are: Arenal, Miravalles, and Rincon de la Vieja.
The Caves of Venado are located south of Arenal Lake and Volcano. These seven-million-year-old caves were formed as water currents penetrated through the surrounding limestone rocks. About 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) in length, the caves contain at least four different species of bats and numerous types of spiders, many of which are endemic to the area.
About forty caves are located within the Barra Honda National Park in northern Costa Rica. The largest is Santa Ana Cave at 240 meters (787 feet) deep. The most popular among tourists are La Terciopelo, La Trampa, and La Santa Ana. These caverns house a large number of stalagmites, stalactites, pillars, cave earls, helicities, and other rock formations. The Barra Honda National Park was created specifically to protect these natural wonders.
There are no plateau regions in Costa Rica.
The man-made Lake Arenal was formed by construction of the Sangregado dam, located at the southeast end of the lake. The hydroelectric power created by this dam accounts for about 33 percent of Costa Rica's total electrical capacity.
Lake Cachí Dam, located at the eastern end of the Reventazón River, supplies hydroelectric power to San José, the capital city.
Cloud forests—lush forests at high elevations where the heavy mist and clouds almost always hang in the air—occur on Costa Rica's mountaintops. Monte Verde Biological Cloud Forest Preserve covers twenty-six thousand acres of forest, and houses two thousand plant species, four hundred bird species, and one hundred different animal species.
Baker, Christopher. Costa Rica Handbook . 3rd ed. Chico, CA: Moon Publications, Inc., 1999.
Creedman, Theodore S. Historical Dictionary of Costa Rica. 2nd ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991.
Dunlop, Fiona. Fodor's Exploring Costa Rica . 3rd ed. New York: Fodor's Travel Publications, 2001.