Geography and History of Costa Rica

Costa Rica

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Costa Rica, officially called the Republic of Costa Rica, is located on the Central American isthmus between Nicaragua and Panama. Because it is on an isthmus, Costa Rica also has coastlines along the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The country features numerous rainforests and a plethora of flora and fauna, which make it a popular destination for tourism and ecotourism.

Fast Facts: Costa Rica

  • Official Name: Republic of Costa Rica
  • Capital: San Jose
  • Population: 4,987,142 (2018)
  • Official Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Costa Rican colón (CRC)
  • Form of Government: Presidential republic
  • Climate: Tropical and subtropical; dry season (December to April); rainy season (May to November); cooler in highlands
  • Total Area: 19,730 square miles (51,100 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Cerro Chirripo at 12,259 feet (3,819 meters) 
  • Lowest Point: Pacific Ocean at 0 feet (0 meters)


Costa Rica was first explored by Europeans beginning in 1502 with Christopher Columbus. He named the region Costa Rica, meaning "rich coast," as he and other explorers hoped to find gold and silver in the area. European settlement began in Costa Rica in 1522 and from the 1570s until the 1800s it was a Spanish colony.

In 1821, Costa Rica then joined other Spanish colonies in the region and made a declaration of independence from Spain. Shortly thereafter, the newly independent Costa Rica and other former colonies formed a Central American Federation. However, cooperation between the countries was short-lived and border disputes frequently occurred in the mid-1800s. As a result of these conflicts, the Central American Federation eventually collapsed and in 1838, Costa Rica declared itself a fully independent state.

After declaring its independence, Costa Rica underwent a period of stable democracy beginning in 1899. In that year, the country experienced its first free elections, which have continued until today despite two problems in the early 1900s and in 1948. From 1917–1918, Costa Rica was under the dictatorial rule of Federico Tinoco and in 1948, the presidential election was disputed and Jose Figueres led a civilian uprising, which led to a 44-day civil war.

Costa Rica's civil war caused the deaths of more than 2,000 people and was one of the most violent times in the country's history. Following the end of the civil war though, a constitution was written which declared that the country would have free elections and universal suffrage. Costa Rica's first election following the civil war was in 1953 and was won by Figueres.

Today, Costa Rica is known as one of the most stable and economically successful Latin American countries.


Costa Rica is a republic with a single legislative body made up of its Legislative Assembly, whose members are elected by popular vote. The judicial branch of government in Costa Rica is comprised only of a Supreme Court. Costa Rica's executive branch has a chief of state and head of government—both of which are filled by the president, who is elected by popular vote. Costa Rica underwent its most recent election in February 2010. Laura Chinchilla won the election and became the country's first female president.

Economics and Land Use

Costa Rica is considered one of the most economically prosperous countries in Central America and a major part of its economy comes from its agricultural exports. Costa Rica is a well-known coffee producing region, while pineapples, bananas, sugar, beef, and ornamental plants also contribute to its economy. The country is also growing industrially and produces goods such as medical equipment, textiles and clothing, construction materials, fertilizer, plastic products, and high-value goods such as microprocessors. Ecotourism and the related service sector is also a significant part of Costa Rica's economy because the country is highly biodiverse.

Geography, Climate, and Biodiversity

Costa Rica has a varied topography with coastal plains that are separated by volcanic mountain ranges. There are three mountain ranges running throughout the country. The first of these is the Cordillera de Guanacaste and runs to the Cordillera Central from the northern border with Nicaragua. The Cordillera Central runs between the central part of the country and the southern Cordillera de Talamanca which bounds the Meseta Central (Central Valley) near San José. Most of Costa Rica's coffee is produced in this region.

The climate of Costa Rica is tropical and has a wet season that lasts from May to November. San Jose, which is located in Costa Rica's Central Valley, has an average July high temperature of 82 degrees (28°C) and an average January low of 59 degrees (15°C).

The coastal lowlands of Costa Rica are incredibly biodiverse and feature many different types of plants and wildlife. Both coasts feature mangrove swamps and the Gulf of Mexico side is heavily forested with tropical rainforests. Costa Rica also has several large national parks to protect its plethora of flora and fauna. Some of these parks include the Corcovado National Park (home to large cats such as jaguars and smaller animals like Costa Rican monkeys), Tortuguero National Park and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

More Facts

• Costa Rica's official languages are English and Creole.
• Life expectancy in Costa Rica is 76.8 years.
• Costa Rica's ethnic breakdown is 94% European and mixed native-European, 3% African, 1% native and 1% Chinese.


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Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of Costa Rica." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, February 16). Geography and History of Costa Rica. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of Costa Rica." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).