Costa Rica’s varied geography means it features a multiplicity of ecosystems, ranging from mangrove and coastal rainforest to subalpine grasslands. The Central American isthmus served as a bridge between species living in North America and those of South America, thus promoting a mix of wildlife conditioned by local climates and orographic conditions.
Despite its small size, Costa Rica benefits from exceptional animal and plant biodiversity as a result of its position in the Central American isthmus. According to the GEO report produced by the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE), “Costa Rica is one of 20 countries in the world with a very high diversity of species expressed in total number of species per line unit. As a result, it may be the country with the highest diversity of species in the world, largely due to its geographic position between North and South America.”
Costa Rica is home to an exceptional birdlife: more than 200 species of migratory birds from Alaska or Australia winter here, and almost 850 species have been recorded on land. There are approximately 237 species of mammals and 361 species of reptiles and amphibians.
Plant biodiversity is also very high, with more than 10,000 inventoried species of vascular plants (green plants with conducting tissue), and new ones discovered each year. On their own, orchids number some 1,300 varieties.
Despite the government’s pioneering awareness, even limited environmental regulations proved difficult to enforce due to the country’s prevailing agricultural practices. Costa Rica’s emergence on the global economic scene in the second half of the 19th century was based on coffee plantations, then the fast-growing banana sector.
The agricultural boom resulted in massive deforestation. The portion of deforested land rose from 36% in 1960, to 58% in 1977, to 68% in 1984, and reached 89% in 2000. Even today, many farmers, cattle farmers and others make a living from logging. While some practice slash-and-burn and collect wood for fuel, others are drawn to the economic benefits of logging.
On the one hand, the government encouraged deforestation by allowing farmers to settle on land covered with natural forest, while on the other, it sought to conserve forest life, resulting – with support from the US – in the creation of conservation areas in the 1960s, the Biodiversity Act of 1988 and the creation of SINAC (National System of Conservation Areas) in 1989, which later became the Ministry of the Environment and Energy.
However, against the growing threat of deforestation, more than 27% of the land area has been earmarked for protection, of which 13% falls under the national park system, in order to safeguard the country’s different biotopes, wildlife and vegetation. Hitherto largely ignored by the world, except for a few scientists, Costa Rica started to appear on the radar in the 1980s, even more so in 1985 when all eyes turned to the small Central American nation.
Created in 1956, the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) deployed public relations and promotional efforts in North America, thus contributing to raise Costa Rica’s profile abroad. The ICT reaped the fruits of its efforts when, in the mid-1980s, tropical landscapes became a key factor for many visitors in selecting a destination, notably through ecotourism.
With its reputation for political stability, an influx of North American tourists, and the existence of vast protected natural areas, Costa Rica had all the right assets to position itself in the ecotourism market. The country is successfully transitioning its model towards tourism as international travel becomes increasingly popular.
Costa Rica’s coastline is almost 1,300 km long.
The Caribbean coast is characterized by black sand beaches; north of Limon, they are largely untouched natural beaches where turtles come to lay their eggs. The Southern Caribbean coast is characterized by small white and black sand picture-perfect beaches comparable to those of the West Indies.
On the Pacific side, the beaches are much larger and more suited to swimming, but also to water sports such as surfing, snorkeling, diving, sailing, fishing, etc.
A tropical climate prevails over most of the country, generally humid and hot.
The average daytime temperature is 24 C in San José, 29 C on the Caribbean coast and north of the country, 31-33 C on the Pacific coast. On high ground, the temperature drops fast: between 2500 and 3000m, it’s usually 5 to 15 C.
There are two distinct seasons in Costa Rica: the rainy season, known locally as “invierno” (winter), from May to November (brief but heavy downpours), and the dry season, called “verano” (summer), from December to April (sunny clear skies). The distinction is even more obvious in coastal areas. The central valley is wetter and prone to showers all year round.
A trip to Costa Rica is possible all year round, as it seldom rains for the whole day.
Each season has its own features: