Costa Rica is a country in Central America bordered to the north by Nicaragua, to the north-east by the Caribbean Sea, to the south-east by Panama, and to the west and south-west by the Map of Central AmericaPacific Ocean. It lies completely within the tropics between latitudes 11 13' N and 8 N, and longitudes 82 33' W and 85 58' W. In addition, Costa Rica claims the Isla del Coco (25 square kms) at about 5 30' N and 87 05' W.
Geographically, Costa Rica is an extremely varied country despite its tiny size, which at 51,100 square kms, is almost half the size of the state of Kentucky in the USA, two-thirds the size of Scotland, or three-quarters the size of Tasmania in Australia.
Mountains and Volcanoes
A series of volcanic mountain chains run from the Nicaraguan border in the north-west to the Panamanian border in the south-east, thus splitting the country in two. The most north-westerly range is the Cordillera de Guanacaste, consisting of a spectacular chain of volcanoes which can be appreciated by the traveler heading south from the Nicaraguan border along the Interamerican Highway. These include Volcán Orosí (1487 meters) in the Parque National Guanacaste, Volcán Rincón de la Vieja (1895 meters) and Volcán Santa María (1916 meters), both in the Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, as well as Volcán Miravalles (2026 meters) and Volcán Tenorio (1916 meters).
Further to the south-east is the Cordillera de Tilarán which includes the renowned cloud forest preserve at Monteverde and, just north of the continually exploding Volcán Arenal (1633 meters), which is the most active volcano in Costa Rica.
The Cordillera de Tilarán runs into the Cordillera Central, which includes the famous Volcán Poas (2704 meters) and Volcán Irazu (3432 meters), both of which are semi-active volcanoes lying at the center of national parks named after them, and Volcán Barva (2906 meters), which is in Parque Nacional Braulio Carillo.
The most south-easterly mountains are associated with the Cordillera de Talamanca which is higher, geologically older, more remote and more rugged than the other ranges. About 16 separate peaks reach in excess of 3000 meters, the highest being Cerro Chirripó (3820 meters). Changing altitudes plays an important part in determining geographical, climatic and ecological variation.
The Central Valley
In the center of the highlands lies the meseta central (the Central Valley), which is surrounded by mountains (the Cordillera Central to the north and east, the Cordillera de Talamanca to the south). It is this central plain, between 1000 and 1500 meters above sea level, which contains four of Costa Rica's five largest cities, including San José, the capital. Over half the population lives on this plain, which contains fertile volcanic soils.
The Caribbean and Pacific Coasts
On either side of the volcanic central highlands lie coastal lowlands which differ greatly in character. The smooth Caribbean coastline is 212 kms long and is characterized by year-round rain, mangroves, swamps, an intercoastal waterway, sandy beaches and small tides.
The Pacific coast is much more rugged and rocky. The coastline is 1016 kms long, with various gulfs and peninsulas. In the north it is bordered by tropical dry forests, which receive almost no rain for several months each year, as well as by mangroves, swamps and beaches. Tidal variation is quite large and there are many offshore islands.
The two most important peninsulas are the Nicoya, separated from the mainland by a gulf of the same name, and the Osa, separated from the mainland by the Golfo Dulce. The Peninsula de Nicoya is hilly and dry. It is known for its cattle farming and also its beach resorts. The Peninsula de Osa on the southern coast contains the Parque Nacional Corcovado, which is one of Costa Rica's protected rainforests.