... Geography: Overview ...
by Infocostarica Staff
Costa Rica boasts a tumultuous geographical past which is reflected in a lesser scale in its present. The variety of landscapes includes ample coastlines, mountain ridges, rivers and volcanoes, all of them compressed in an area which is approximately the size of West Virginia. Numerous ecosystems and micro-climates are the result of this incredible diversity.
The total area of Costa Rica is 19,653 square miles. From all the cardinal points, North to South and East to West, the longest distance is only 200 miles. The area is double the size of El Salvador, but the population is half, at 3.5 million people. Therefore, the only region where overpopulation is felt is in the Central Valley, where the capital city of San José is located.
There are five main geographical areas in the country: Tropical Lowlands (Pacific and Caribbean Coasts), the North Central Plains, the Central Valley and the Northwest Peninsula. The governmental divisions, however, include seven provinces: Guanacaste, Alajuela, Heredia, Limón, Cartago, San José and Puntarenas. Both the geographical divisions and the political ones display different climates and different formations. However, most of them include at least the following geological phenomena: rivers, mountains, valleys and volcanoes.
Costa Rica is a country where one of the main seasons is the rainy one, which means that rivers are abundant. The following are some of the biggest rivers: San Juan (border between C.R. and Nicaragua), Tempisque, Sarapiquí, Reventazón, Pacuare, Sixaola and the Chirripó. After heavy rains, these rivers can turn into avalanches of tree trunks and stones, called "cabezas de agua" (heads of water) which are extremely dangerous for unaware bathers; they can also cause large-scale floods.
The mountain ridges that stretch across the country from North to South, are a small part of the larger Andean Sierra Madre chain, which is present in the Western region of the Americas. The Costa Rican ridge is divided into the Cordillera of Guanacaste (North), Cordillera Central,Cordillera of Tilarán (Southeast), and the Cordillera of Talamanca(Southwest). The highest mountain in Costa Rica is located in the last mountain ridge and is called the Chirripó, at an approximate elevation of 12,450 feet. The ridges are interrupted by valleys, as in the case of the Central Valley and the Cartago Valley, which are extremely fertile areas.
The large quantity of mountains and volcanoes is due to the intense geological activity caused by two tectonic plates: the Cocos Plate(Pacific) and the Caribbean Plate (Atlantic). Their shifting, friction or collision cause numerous tremors and earthquakes, as well as the formation of ridges and volcanoes. The last large earthquake which occurred in 1991 and measured 7.4 on the Richter Scale, shook the whole country and caused much destruction in the Caribbean area. However, most seismic activity is very moderate and earthquakes such as this one aren´t usual.
The same observation applies to volcanic activity in the country. Even though there are at least 60 dormant or extinct volcanoes, only seven are active. Of course, the total area of the country being what it is, seven is plenty! Some of the most interesting national parks are created around volcanoes like the Poás or the Irazú.
Costa Rica is definitely a "Rich Coast" in the sense that it offers a tremendous variety of geological phenomena and formations. Even natural catastrophes such as floods and volcanic eruptions have contributed to the richness and fertility of the area. These forces of nature can't be seen purely as threats or disasters, since they are also the main cause of the nation's natural wealth.