What is the terrain and geography like in Costa Rica?
A rugged central massif runs the length of the country, north to south, separating the coastal plains. Even though Costa Rica lies totally within the tropics, the range of altitudes produces wide climatic variety. The country has four distinct geographic regions:
The Caribbean Lowlands are hot and humid, and comprise about one-fourth of the total area of Costa Rica. It is the major banana-exporting region. The lowlands contain less than 10 percent of the population.
The Highlands are the economic, political, and cultural heart of the country, and include the Central and Talamanca mountain ranges and the Meseta Central where the capital, San Jose, is located. The Meseta, with elevations ranging from 3,000 to 4,500 feet, and adjacent areas contain nearly two-thirds of Costa Rica’s population. The region has rolling, well-drained land, productive soil, and pleasant sub-tropical temperatures, with an annual rainfall of 60-75 inches. The central highlands have most of Costa Rica's improved roads, and there is direct access to both coasts by paved highway and air.
The Guanacaste Plains comprise the rolling section of northwest Costa Rica, and include portions of the provinces of Guanacaste and Puntarenas, plus the Nicoya Peninsula. Despite having the lowest average annual rainfall and the longest dry season, the region is important for agriculture and livestock production as well as a popular area for tourism. The area contains 15 percent of Costa Rica’s population.
Southern Costa Rica is the wettest part of Costa Rica with some 10 percent of the population.
San Jose, with a metropolitan population of over one million, is almost completely surrounded by mountains, and just a few minutes’ drive from the center of the city are foothills that offer a country atmosphere and lovely views.
The central part of the capital is divided into four quadrants by Avenida Central running east and west, and Calle Central running north and south. The arrangement of streets is logical, but initially confusing: Odd-numbered avenues (avenidas) are located north of Avenida Central and even-numbered avenues are to the south; odd-numbered streets (calles) are east of Calle Central, and even-numbered streets are to the west.
Street names or numbers are seldom used. Locations are given in relation to some landmark that may, or may not, be well known, such as a public building, a monument, a prominent intersection, or even a grocery store or gasoline station. Distances are expressed in meters (“metros” in Spanish), and 100 meters is roughly equivalent to a normal city block. At times, the point of reference is a landmark that once existed but no longer is standing, a practice that works for long-time residents of San Jose but generally adds to the considerable confusion.
Most city streets in San Jose are paved, but many are narrow and rough, and congestion and noise are constant problems in the city. The pollution at times can be stifling. Potholes are a constant threat to the unwary, both in the city and in the countryside, and often are deep enough to damage vehicles. Open manholes are a danger as well, since theft of manhole covers seems to be a favorite activity in San Jose.
Downtown commercial buildings usually have two or three stories, but newer structures are much taller. Residential sections have many modern homes of brick, wood, or concrete construction, with either tile or galvanized metal roofs. Large one-story or two-story residences are found in the suburbs where Embassy employees live. Parks of all sizes are located throughout the city.
Altitude determines the climate throughout Costa Rica. Areas below 3,000 feet have average annual temperatures of around 80°, with little variation from month to month. The temperature drops from around 74° at 3,000 feet to 59 degrees at 5,000 feet. Above 5,000 feet, the average annual temperatures can range as low as 40 degrees to the mid-50s, with occasional frost during the coolest months.
The temperature in San Jose is generally pleasant, with two seasons distinguished mainly by the rainfall. The dry season runs from December through April and the wet season extends from May through November. Even during the wet season the mornings generally are clear, with the afternoons and evenings dominated by heavy rains nearly every day. Relatively high winds often are present during the dry season.
The average temperature in San Jose is 70 to 75° Fahrenheit. In December, the coolest month, the average temperature drops to around 65°. Temperatures drop into the 50s at night throughout the year. Humidity in San Jose averages 80 percent annually.