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Costa Rica

Land and Resources

Meseta Central, Lake Arenal, colorful birds, Cordillera Central, Arenal Volcano

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The total area of Costa Rica is 51,060 sq km (19,714 sq mi). The country is bounded on the north by Nicaragua, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, on the southeast by Panama, and on the southwest and west by the Pacific Ocean. The uninhabited and densely wooded tropical Cocos Island, about 480 km (about 300 mi) to the southwest in the Pacific Ocean, is under Costa Rican sovereignty.

The distance across Costa Rica, from the Caribbean to the Pacific, varies from about 120 to 265 km (75 to 165 mi). The short, straight Caribbean coast is low and marshy and fringed with mangrove swamps and lagoons. It lacks good harbors. The more rugged Pacific coast is indented by the Gulf of Nicoya, where the port of Puntarenas is situated, and the Gulf of Dulce. Wide lowlands extend along the almost unindented Caribbean coast. The lowlands along the Pacific are narrower.

Although Costa Rica has lowland areas in the north and along both coasts, most of the country is mountainous. Its rugged highlands, about 900 to 1,800 m (about 3,000 to 6,000 ft) above sea level, consist of several mountain ranges, isolated and clustered volcanoes, and plateau areas. The highest peaks are in the south, near Costa Rica’s border with Panama, where the highlands rise to more than 3,700 m (12,000 ft). Several mountain ranges extend nearly the entire length of the country. These include the Cordillera de Talamanca, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera de Guanacaste. The highest peaks are Chirripo Grande (3,819 m/12,530 ft) and the active volcano of Irazu (3,432 m/ 11,260 ft). In 1968 the Arenal Volcano erupted for the first time in more than 500 years, causing extensive damage and loss of life.

A central plateau, the Meseta Central, is located between the ranges and contains the bulk of the population. Volcanoes have deposited volcanic ash on the plateau, making the soil here extremely fertile. In addition to the capital, San Jose, the central plateau contains the cities of Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago.

Rivers and Lakes

Costa Rica has no long rivers. The principal stream is the San Juan River, the outlet of Lake Nicaragua. The San Juan River forms part of Costa Rica’s boundary with Nicaragua to the north. The Reventazon River drains the southern central plateau, flowing eastward through deep gorges to the Caribbean. The Rio Grande de Tarcoles drains the northwestern part of the central plateau and empties into the Pacific. Costa Rica's only natural lake of any significant size is Lake Arenal, which is located on the eastern side of the Cordillera de Guanacaste.


The climate of Costa Rica ranges from tropical on the coastal plains to temperate in the interior highlands. Average annual temperatures range from 31.7°C (89°F) on the coast to 16.7°C (62°F) inland. Rainfall is abundant. Along the Caribbean coast annual rainfall totals 2,000 to 2,500 mm (80 to 100 in) or more. The Caribbean coast has seasons of more rain and less rain but has no well-defined dry season. On the Pacific side, near Panama, the rainfall is also heavy, but there is a short dry season. In San Jose on the central plateau, the rainy season lasts from May through October, and annual rainfall averages nearly 2,000 mm (77 in). Rainfall is greatest in the mountains. Annual precipitation in the country averages about 3,000 to 3,500 millimeters (120 to 140 inches).

Natural Resources

Costa Rica’s resources include its fertile soils and abundant rainfall. Good agricultural soils in Costa Rica are concentrated in the Meseta Central and in the river valleys. The mountainous terrain and the plentiful rainfall combine to provide waterpower, which the country has harnessed to generate electricity. About one-third of the country’s total land area is covered by forests. However, the government limits commercial use of the forests to prevent further deforestation. Mineral resources, including bauxite, are believed to be extensive but remain largely undeveloped. Although petroleum deposits are located offshore, Costa Rica has decided not to develop them to protect the environment. Fishing for tuna, sharks, and turtles is carried out along the coast.

Plants and Animals

Costa Rica’s forests contain rich stands of ebony, balsa, mahogany, and cedar. More than 1,000 species of orchids are found in Costa Rica. Wildlife is abundant and includes puma, jaguar, deer, monkeys, and at least 600 species of birds. Among the colorful birds to be seen in Costa Rica are the quetzal, the macaw, and the toucan.

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