Costa Rica: Natural Landscape

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, 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.


Costa Rica's climate is tropical and subtropical, with many microclimates depending on elevation, rainfall, topography, and the geography of each particular region. The dry season is from December to April, and the rainy season is from May to November.

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 Costa Rica, 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.

  • Cordillera de Guanacaste

  • Cordillera de Tilarán

  • Cordillera Central

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 percent 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 southPacificific 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 percent of the population. It is the central banana-exporting region.

The combination of 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

Islands and Archipelagos

Over 100 islands and island groups are located off Costa Rica's Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

    Notable Islands and Archipelagos

    • Cocos Island (Isla del Coco): also known as "Treasure Island," is of volcanic origin and the only island in the eastern Pacific with tropical rainforest. Surrounded by deep waters and part of the Cocos Island National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is renowned by scuba divers.

    • Islas Murcielagos: known as the "Bat Islands," this rocky archipelago is situated in the Pacific Ocean just west of Isla Colorada. It is part of the Santa Rosa National Park, a marine protected area.

    • Islas Santa Catalina: an archipelago of 20 rocky islets, "the Cats" are a popular diving destination just off the coast of Guanacaste Province.

    • Isla Calero: Costa Rica's largest island, situated between the San Juan and Colorado rivers and the Caribbean Sea in the country's extreme northeast, near the border with Nicaragua.

    • Isla Brava: a fluvial island near the border with Nicaragua.

    • Isla de Chira: a remote, private Pacific island in the Gulf of Nicoya.

    • Isla Damas: a small island near Quepos, on the central Pacific coast of Punta Arenas province, known for its mangrove-lined estuaries with a large variety of fauna.

    • Isla San Lucas: an island located off the Pacific coast in the Gulf of Nicoya that once housed a prison and is now a National Park.

    • Isla de Cabuya: an island off the Pacific coast in the Gulf of Nicoya, known as the Cemetery Island, dating back to pre-Columbian times and still used as a burial ground.

    • Isla del Caño: a small island and biological reserve in Corcovado Bay on the Pacific coast.

    • Isla Tortuga: "Turtle Island" is located southeast of the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast and is famous for its natural excursions and white sandy beaches.

    • Isla Uvita: officially "Isla Quiribrí," this small island is situated off the port at Limón on the Caribbean coast. Currently uninhabited, Christopher Columbus anchored his ships on the island for repairs during his final voyage to America in 1502.

    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: Water Bodies 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 common 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

    • Central American dry 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

    Administrative Divisions

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

    The seven provinces are:

    • Guanacaste: located in the northwestern part of the country bordering the Pacific Ocean; the capital city is Liberia

    • Alajuela: located in the north-central part of Costa Rica, bordering Nicaragua and just to the east of Guanacaste; the capital city is Alajuela

    • Heredia: stretches from the northern Nicaraguan border south to the city of Heredia near San Jose; the capital city is Heredia.

    • Limón: home to Tortuguero and Cahuita national parks, a remote area in the Caribbean Lowlands; the capital city is Limón

    • Puntarenas: the largest province runs along the Pacific coastline and is home to Corcovado and Manuel Antonio National Parks; the capital city is Puntarenas

    • Cartago: the smallest province hosts Irazú Volcano National Park; the capital city is Cartago which was also the national capital until 1823

    • San José: hosts the capital city and is a central hub of the country

    Map depicting the administrative provinces of Costa Rica

    Map depicting the administrative provinces of Costa Rica