The Natural Environment
Most of Costa Rica's population, approximately two thirds, lives in the Meseta Central, or Central Valley. In the heart of the temperate Central Highlands, the Meseta Central is an expansive valley at an average elevation of 5,000 feet (1,524 m) above sea level. Cradled by the placid volcanic slopes of the Cordillera Central to the north and the steep, forested slopes of the Talamancas, the lowland plateau of the Meseta Central is over 1200 square miles in area. A low range of hills, the Cerro de la Carpintera, run north-south dividing the larger Meseta Central region into two smaller valleys. To the west of the hills, San José, its sprawling suburbs, and most other major cities are located in the larger and more heavily populated half. The smaller Cartago valley slopes eastward, then falls steeply through the valley of the Rio Reventazón to the Caribbean Lowlands.
The climate in this region is consistently pleasant. The average temperature is approximately 74°F (23°C) throughout the year, and the skies are rarely overcast. Moderate yet dependable rainfall ensures that the nutrient-packed volcanic soil is ideal for farming. The Meseta Central is the agricultural center of the country; crops of strawberry, coffee and sugarcane are common, as well as dairy farms and horticulture farms. Above that, lush forests offer homes to a wide range of wild animals and plants.
Located in lowland Guanacaste, this region receives the least amount of annual precipitation; less than 20 inches (50cm) of rain per year. The terrain features stretching, golden savannas; plots of rare dry forests that colorfully bloom throughout the year; dusty, old cowboy towns; and white-sand beaches along the coastal fringe of the peninsula they call Nicoya. In recent years, the latter has been inundated with five-star resorts and golf courses.
This coastal region is characterized by its shoreline and the river gorge that scars the land directly east of it. The valley, shaped by the Río General that flows powerfully out of the Talamancas, is appropriately called the Valle de El General and is a popular destination for white-water rafters. In addition, the valley provides a valuable home for the country's fruit plantations south of San Isidro. The valley's role became fully realized in the 1950's when the Inter-American Highway linked it with San José and Panama; subsequently drawing immigrants and industry.
Between the Valle de El General and the Pacific lies a narrow mountain range in the north. Along this range, palm is grown in abundance; toward the south, as the the elevation drops into a coastal plane and precipitation gradually increases, banana is the primary crop. Further south, annual rainfall hits its peak (a remarkable 160 inches per year) on the extraordinarily lush and remote Osa Peninsula. The virgin rainforests of the Parque Nacional Corcovado gives refuge to jaguars, monkeys, macaws and other wildlife. The waters off of the peninsula are full of nutrients which attract humpback whales to the Bahía de Coronado, and game fish to the Golfo Dulce. Isla del Coco, about 300 miles (480 km) southwest of Costa Rica, offers superlative snorkeling and scuba diving, while Zancudo beach is a favored spot for the surfing community.
Costa Rica's most daunting peaks are a part of the Talamanca Massif, a chain of mountains that dominate the southern half of the country. This formidable range extends along a northwest-southeast axis from the Meseta Central to Panama. Cerro Chirrípo is Costa Rica's highest point, standing tall at an elevation of 12,526 feet (3,818 m). The Talamancas and the great valleys at its base are enveloped by the moist winds from the east, which feed the lush green forests that swathe the region. Growth is impeded, however, toward the top, creating the setting for one of Costa Rica's most revered natural attractions, the cloud forest.
The Northern & Caribbean Lowlands
Forest-covered flatlands define northern and eastern Costa Rica. Countless rivers drain into these plains, flowing down from the mountains of Central Costa Rica. Many of rivers empty into the Río San Juan, defining the Nicaraguan border. Other rivers drain into the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro.
Located where the Río San Juan converges with the sea, two villages, Barra del Colorado and Tortuguero, are major destinations for sportfishing and turtle-watching. Streaked with small, interlaced river channels, Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado and Parque Nacional Tortuguero are best explored by canoe.
The Caribbean coast runs south from Barra del Colorado all the way to the Panama border. Bordering the gray-sand beaches along the shore, the Talamancas stand high in the distance. Compared to the Pacific coast, the remote Caribbean shoreline possesses few towns of interest. Puerto Limon, Costa Rica's bustling east coast port city, is a common destination for tourists, as are the villages of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
In the Northern Lowlands, two cities are of great interest to visitors. Ciudad Quesada and Fortuna serve the remarkable national attractions of Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal and Tabacón Hot Springs.
Costa Rica measures only 180 miles across at its widest point, but four mountain ranges segment this tropical isthmus and serve to design its exceptionally varied terrain and climate. Here they are.
Cordillera de Talamanca
The country's oldest and southernmost mountain range, the Cordillera de Talamanca, features Mount Chirrípo at an elevation of 12,526 feet, the highest point in southern Central America.
Central Volcanic Range
Creators of Costa Rica's "bread basket", volcanoes Turrialba, Irazú, Barva, and Paós, have generated the fertile soil of the Central Valley over millions of years.
The Tilarán range
The Tilarán range in the northwest region of the country reaches a height of 5,500 feet at Monteverde. This range also encapsulated one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist destinations, Volcano Arenal.
The Guanacaste Range
The Guanacaste Range is farthest northwest, toward the Nicaraguan border. Five active volcanoes rest here, including Rincón de la Vieja and Miravalles, the latter being used now to generate geothermal energy.