Geography and Climate
With a land area of about 19,700 square miles, Costa Rica is the second smallest country in Central America, after El Salvador. Its rapidly growing population of nearly three million is the second smallest as well, after Panama. Costa Rica forms a land bridge with coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans between Nicaragua and Panama.
The Atlantic Coast is a lowland, rather straight and with few good harbors, about 125 miles long. The Pacific Coast has two deep bays formed by the Nicoya and Osa Peninsulas, and is over 600 miles long. The ports of Puntarenas, with the new port at Caldera just to the south, and Golfito in the southwest corner of the country are in these bays. Many of the beaches we've mentioned line this coast.
Costa Rica has a mountainous backbone running the length of the country with just one very significant break, the Meseta Central or Central Valley. The northern mountains are a chain of volcanoes extending south from Nicaragua, including the Cordilleras Guanacaste, Tilaran and Central. Within this chain are active and dormant volcanoes, thermal springs, and many cinder cones. It's a very active zone with eruptions, earthquakes and steam clouds. South of the Meseta Central is the Talamanca Range topped by Cerro chirripo over 12,500 ft. high, continuing south into Panama.
The Meseta Central is by far the most important area of the country though it's only about 15 by 40 miles. This rolling area of rich volcanic soils has a spring climate all year thanks to its altitude of about 4,000 feet. Frost never happens and the main seasonal variation is rain. Temperatures vary widely according to altitude, with a few hundred feet making a real difference. Two-thirds of the people live here and it's one of the most heavily populated areas in Latin America.
People have described Costa Rica as "the Meseta Central and everywhere else." The bustling capital of San Jose and the nearby towns of Heredia, Alajuela, Cartago and Turrialba, plus a swarm of smaller villages, are indeed the center of government, industry, agriculture, and most important, the outlook, of Costa Rica.
South of the Meseta Central, bordering the western flank of the Talamanca Mountains, is the Valle de General, with its principal town of San Isidro de General. While it is lower and warmer than the Meseta Central, it isn't as crowded, and many farmers have moved into the area recently since the Interamerican Highway and the new road down the west coast from Esparza have connected this area more closely to domestic and international trade. No roads cross the Talamancas and few lead far into them.
The Nicoya and Osa Peninsulas have central ranges of hills to 3,000 ft., with some of the Nicoya hills being quite steep. The western coastal plain is generally rolling rather than truly flat, and extends from the Panamanian border northward, widening to form the cattle and rice country of Guanacaste, to the Nicaraguan border. Similarly, the eastern plain widens from south to north, forming a wide northern and eastern lowland north of Puerto Limon. The lowlands have a limited population, mostly in agriculture, few large towns, but do have some larger fincas or plantations.
Costa Rica extends from 8 degrees to 11 degrees north of the Equator, so the sun is never far from overhead (it actually passes over during April and September). The length of daylight hours varies only slightly all year and the average daily temperature in a given location may vary only a few degrees throughout the year. In San Jose, the daily highs are in the 70's, Fahrenheit, almost all year. Alajuela, a few hundred feet lower, averages several degrees warmer, while Limon and Puntarenas at sea level are usually in the high 80's or 90's during "summer", December through April. March and April are the warmest months and can be hot, even in the capital. November through January are the coolest, with occasional wintry chills from northern storms. There is much greater variation, especially in the mountains, between day and night temperatures at the same place. You will usually want a sweater or jacket at night in San Jose, and I wore one on a rainy night in a leaky boat in the Tortuguero Canals at sea level.
Altitude rather than season really controls temperature here. Frosts do occur on Chirripo and most land above 6500 ft. is in cloud forest, cool with fog or rain brought by the northeast trade winds. Mornings are often clear in the mountains, with clouds building in the afternoon.
Those of you who've joined the metric world will find the distances, altitudes and temperatures as given in Costa Rica easy. This U. S. resident has not yet learned to think metric and so will use miles, feet, and Fahrenheit, with apologies for any confusion.
Rainy and dry seasons and the amount of rainfall are controlled by the northeast trades, and the doldrums (a tropical zone of rising Air which follows the sun north and south), and the mountain chain running through Costa Rica. The dry season in San Jose and the West is usually December into April (May in Guanacaste) while it runs from February to April on the Atlantic Coast. Though the east coast is wetter, some areas in the southwest get extra rain because of being aligned with passes which allow the moist winds through. Wettest are spots in the eastern mountains where one station reported rain on 359 days in one year! However, on the drier northwest coast, there are few rainy days even in the wet season, and the rain then is generally in late afternoon or night.
Even rainy season shouldn't stop you if you allow for it. On October mornings in San Jose, I enjoyed the clear moist air, Poas Volcano with its steam plume against the blue sky, and flocks of chattering parrots passing overhead. All morning and early afternoon stayed dry, though clouds gathered. By late afternoon almost every day, the sky burst. People still out unfolded the umbrellas they always carried. I liked sitting on the roofed porch watching the rain gauge fill and overflow.
Golfito in the southwest actually has a climate much like the Caribbean coast, due to wind direction and mountain shape. One December evening there even an umbrella didn't help much in the four inches of rain that fell in two hours, but it was warm and the rain cooled the town after a hot sunny day.
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