Costa Rica: Natural Landscape

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Costa Rica: Natural Landscape

Tue, 10/25/2022 - 21:16
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Costa Rica is located in southern Central America, bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the southeast. The Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean form its eastern and southwestern coastlines. Its geography features coastal plains and rainforests separated by rugged mountains and volcanoes.

The Natural Landscape of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is located in southern Central America, bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the southeast. The Caribbean Sea forms its approximately 300 km (185 mi) eastern coastline, and the Pacific Ocean forms its southwestern coastline of about 1,000 km (620 mi).

There are about 79 islands in Costa Rica, the most remote being the nearly uninhabited Cocos Island and the largest being Isla Calero, with approximately 3,000 inhabitants.

The Pan-American Highway (Inter-American Highway) passes through Costa Rica and is composed of two segments: Carretera Interamericana Norte (Route 1) and Carretera Interamericana Sur (Route 2). The highest point in the entire highway occurs at the Cerro de la Muerte (Death Hill) at 3,335 m (10,942 ft).


Costa Rica is situated on the Caribbean Plate, bordering the Cocos Plate in the Pacific Ocean, which is subducted beneath it. This subduction forms the volcanoes in Costa Rica, which are part of the Central America Volcanic Arc.


Though ranking 129th in the world in size, Costa Rica ranks 23rd in terms of biodiversity, according to the Global Biodiversity Index, providing habitat for approximately 843 bird species, 212 amphibian species, 1,124 fish species, 240 mammal species, 262 reptile species, and 11,000 vascular plant species.


Conservation in Costa Rica is a remarkable success story that has gained global recognition. This small Central American country is renowned for its commitment to protecting its rich biodiversity, unique ecosystems, and natural resources.

Conservation efforts in Costa Rica have been instrumental in preserving its natural heritage, and the country serves as a sustainable development and ecotourism model.

Challenges to conservation in Costa Rica include habitat fragmentation, illegal logging, and the need for continued vigilance against unsustainable development practices.


Costa Rica's climate is tropical and subtropical, with many microclimates depending on elevation, rainfall, topography, and the geography of each particular region.

Costa Rica has two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The wet season runs from May to November, and the dry season runs from December to April. However, the climate varies depending on the region, with the Caribbean coast being more humid and rainy than the Pacific coast.

The average temperature in Costa Rica is 25 °C (77 °F), but it can vary depending on the altitude. The lowlands are warmer and more humid, while the highlands are cooler and drier.

A more detailed description of the climate in Costa Rica by region is as follows:

  • Caribbean Coast: The Caribbean coast has a hot and humid climate year-round, with temperatures ranging from 25 - 32 °C (77 - 90 °F). This region's wet season is particularly intense, with rainfall averaging over 4,000 mm (160 in) per year.

  • Pacific Coast: The Pacific coast has a more temperate climate than the Caribbean coast, with temperatures ranging from 22 - 28 °C (72 - 82 °F). This region's wet season is less intense, with rainfall averaging around 1,500 mm (60 in) per year.

  • Central Valley: The Central Valley is located between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and it has a mild climate year-round, with temperatures ranging from 18 - 25 °C (64 - 77 °F). This region's wet season is less intense than on the coast, with rainfall averaging around 1,000 mm (40 in) per year.

  • Highlands: The highlands are located in the north and south of the country and have a cooler climate than the lowlands. Temperatures in the highlands can drop below freezing at night, especially during the dry season.

Map of Central America

Location map of the countries of Central America

Natural Geography of Costa Rica


The mountain ranges of Costa Rica include two mountain chains that together run almost the entire length of the country, the Cordillera Volcánica in the north and the Cordillera de Talamanca in the south.

The Cordillera Volcánica in the north can be divided into three ranges from northwest to southeast.

The Costa Rican Central Valley (Valle Central) lies between the Cordillera Central in the north and the Cordillera de Talamanca in the south. The valley is divided into two parts by the Continental Divide. The eastern part drains into the Caribbean Sea, and the western part empties into the Pacific Ocean.

In the south of Costa Rica, another large valley, the Valle del General, lies to the southwest of the base of the Cordillera de Talamanca.

The lowland plains of Costa Rica can be divided into three groups:

  • the northern plains

  • the Caribbean plains

  • the Pacific plains

Topographic map of Costa Rica

Topographic map of Costa Rica

Geographic Regions

Costa Rica can be divided into six distinct geographic regions.

Northern Plains

This sparsely populated and mountainous region has many protected areas, lakes, lagoons, volcanoes, rivers, and waterfalls. Rivers that crisscross the area include the Peñas Blancas, San Carlos, Toro, Puerto Viejo, and Sarapiquí rivers.

The vegetation of the Northern Plains consists of evergreen rainforests and fertile plains. The iconic Arenal Volcano is located in the northwestern part of the region.

Northern Pacific Coast

With more than 600 km (375 mi) of coastline, the Northern Pacific Coastal geographic region (Guanacaste Province) covers the area from the border of Nicaragua to the Bongo River estuary in the Nicoya Peninsula. This "dry region" of Costa Rica includes both beaches and significant protected areas.

Central Pacific Coast

The Central Pacific region is a popular tourist destination, featuring many facilities and attractions, including its attractive beaches. This region of Costa Rica is wet and rainy. As a result, the hills that hug the coastline are biodiversity hotspots.

The forests include transitional forests with dry and wet tropical characteristics. These ecosystems provide a habitat for numerous plant and animal species. Protected areas include Manuel Antonio National Park and Carara National Park.

Central Valley

The Central Valley (Valle Central) is the population center of Costa Rica. About 70% of the country's population inhabits this region. In addition, the capital and main airport are located here.

The Central Valley region includes the metropolis of San José and its incorporated suburbs and major surrounding towns such as Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago.

Southern Pacific Coast

This region hosts one of the most bio-diverse environments on the planet, full of exotic endemic flora and fauna and some of the planet's most beautiful and remote tropical beaches.

The southern Pacific lowlands feature mountains, valleys, rivers, and an exuberant rainforest that merges with the Pacific Ocean, creating an array of ecosystems. The region includes the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park.

Caribbean Coastal Lowlands

Set between the Caribbean Sea and the foothills of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the Caribbean Coastal Lowlands is the least visited region of the country owing to its relative isolation.

The region is hot and humid and comprises about one-fourth of the total area of Costa Rica but contains less than 10% of the population. It is the central banana-exporting region. Heavy rainfalls, intense sunlight, high humidity, and diverse altitudinal floors create a wide range of micro-ecosystems.

The region hosts the La Amistad International Park, a Transboundary Protected Area that extends along the border between Costa Rica and Panama. Located within the Cordillera de Talamanca, the park contains one of Central America's significant remaining blocks of natural forest.

Map depicting the geographic regions of Costa Rica

Map depicting the geographic regions of Costa Rica

Mountain Ranges

Nestled in the heart of Central America, Costa Rica boasts an array of diverse mountainous regions spanning its northern border to its southern shores.

See more: Mountain Ranges of Costa Rica

Islands and Archipelagos

Costa Rica has several islands and archipelagos off its Pacific and Caribbean coasts. These islands and archipelagos offer a range of experiences, from biodiverse conservation areas to opportunities for cultural immersion and outdoor activities.

The country has a long coastline and diverse geography, home to various islands, each with unique charm and attractions. While some are popular tourist destinations, others remain relatively untouched and provide unique insights into Costa Rica's natural and cultural heritage.

See more: Islands and Archipelagos of Costa Rica

Bodies of Water

The water bodies of Costa Rica include many lakes, lagoons, rivers, and waterfalls. Most rivers that crisscross the country originate in the central volcanic mountains. Gulfs and bays pocket the coasts, while lakes and lagoons dot the countryside and fill mountaintop craters.

See more: Water Bodies of Costa Rica

Administrative Divisions

Costa Rica is constitutionally divided into seven provinces, further divided into 82 cantons and 473 districts.

See more: Cultural Landscape of Costa Rica

Natural Regions

Approximately one-third of Costa Rica's landscape is covered by dense, broad-leaved evergreen forest. These forests include mahogany and tropical cedar trees. Numerous evergreen oaks grow on the slopes of the southern Talamanca range.

Much of the northwest contains open deciduous forests, while palm trees are standard on the Caribbean coastline. Mangroves grow on the protected shores of the Pacific gulfs. In addition, mosses, orchids, and tropical plants are abundant.

Ecological Regions of Costa Rica

The following is a list of terrestrial ecoregions in Costa Rica defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Costa Rica is in the Neotropical realm. Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate.

Montane grasslands and shrublands

Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests

Tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests


  • Bocas del Toro-San Bastimentos Island-San Blas mangroves

  • Moist Pacific Coast mangroves

  • Rio Negro - Rio San Sun mangroves

  • Southern Dry Pacific Coast mangroves

  • Mosquitia-Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast mangroves

Costa Rica physiographic map

Costa Rica physiographic map