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A brief history of Costa Rica I: The land and climate
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A brief history of Costa Rica I
The land and climate

Central America

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency map      
Arrow shows the location of Costa Rica in Central America
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By Clifford Fain Dukes, Jr.
Special to Retire NOW in Costa Rica

Costa Rica was not part of the original land mass of the planet, and following the Spanish conquest it was referred to as the most God-forsaken country on earth. It was created by dramatic seismic events and continues to live with and be vulnerable to them today.

Positioned nine degrees north of the equator Costa Rica enjoys a tropical climate with two principal seasons:

1.) the rainy season during June through November with slightly higher temperatures called winter due to that being the influenza season, and

2.) the dry season during December through May with abundant sunshine and slightly cooler temperatures called summer.

Relative humidity averages 90 percent during the rainy season and 50 percent during the dry season. With its numerous beaches and resort hotels, Costa Rica has developed into a major tourist attraction. Some estimates by the local government indicate that tourism related activities represent 30 percent of the total gross domestic product. It’s a fascinating country and a fun place to visit. It is the goal of this history to offer the prospective tourist or potential resident an understanding to more fully enjoy the country.


Some 250 million years ago the surface of earth had one land mass and one huge ocean representing approximately 30 percent and 70 percent respectively of the earth’s surface. Tremendous seismic and volcanic activity began breaking apart this land mass. This was followed by tectonic movement dividing and repositioning the original land mass into seven continents and five major oceans. At this point, North America and South America were separated by open sea that extended from approximately present day Rivas, Nicaragua to the current coast line of Columbia, South America.

The three tectonic plates beneath this open sea, Caribbean to the northeast and Cocos to the southwest and Nazca to the south became active around 150 million years ago. Violent volcanoes and subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate caused the formation of Costa Rica and Panamá. This created a land bridge between North and South America permitting the interchange of plant and animal life.

The formation of the Costa Rica portion of this land bridge took place in stages. Initially, four volcanic islands formed that today are known as Saint Elena Peninsula in the Northwest corner, Nicoya Peninsula on the central Pacific coast, Osa Peninsula at the Southwestern corner of the country, and Burica Peninsula southeast of Osa.

Continued subduction and volcanic activity lifted up a mountainous axis running northwest to southeast in Costa Rica and on into Panamá. This axis had four distinct sections:

1.) the volcanic range called Cordilleras de Guancaste,

2.) the Cordilleras de Tilaran that begin south of Lake Arenal,

3.) the volcanic Cordilleras Central running east to west and defining the northern boundary of Costa Rica’s Central Valley, and finally,

4.) the Cordilleras de Talamanca that are the largest and most extensive mountains in the country.

Volcanoes Poas, Irazu, and Turrialba in the Cordilleras Central are active at present along with the ever active Arenal in Guanacaste. The two major valleys in Costa Rica, Central and General Coto-Brus, widened
considerably during the formative years to their present width via tectonic movement of the bordering mountains.

Following the formation of the mountainous axis, wind erosion, intense ultra violet bombardment, torrential rains, water erosion, abundant landslides, and sedimentation filled in the gaps creating a fertile and porous volcanic soil.

Costa Rica is located in the Trade Winds belt blowing out of the East. The Trades, called alisios in Spanish, acquire a briny mist from the Caribbean surf then carry it over most of the country. This creates a very aggressive and
Observatorio Vulcanológico
y Sismológico de Costa Rica photo
Volcán Turrialbe during a recent eruption.
corrosive atmosphere for metals, paints, and the ubiquitous stucco structures.  One of the pioneers in developing ultraviolet and salt resistant paints for the Costa Rican market today is Sur Quimica de Costa Rica (doing business as Pinturas Sur).

Today the Central Valley accommodates about two-thirds of the country’s 4.5 million population and most of its industry. The El General Coto-Brus Valley is a significant producer of fattened cattle, grains, fruit, and tobacco.

Interestingly enough, the formation of Costa Rica and Panamá from the open sea resulted in waterways that later were used as cross continent canals. In Nicaragua, the San Juan River begins at Lake Nicaragua and runs eastward to the Caribbean acting as a partial border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Rivas, Nicaragua, on the west coast of the lake is only 19 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This was the preferred route from the East Coast of the U.S.A. to California during the gold rush years around 1849, since the overland trip was fraught with dangers. The water in the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua remain brackish to this day supporting the presence of salt water fish.

In Panamá the huge Gatun Lake facilitated the construction of the Panama Canal proposed originally by Spain, for easier extraction of gold from Peru as well as a shorter sea route to the Far East. Spain proposed the canal in 1524, and France initiated it in the late 1850s but later abandoned the project.  The U.S.A. completed the canal after the turn of the 20th century.

Costa Rica and Panamá are now part of what is termed the volcanic Ring of Fire, a circle of very active tectonic movement and volcanoes surrounding the entire Pacific Ocean.

Numerous fresh-water springs at the upper elevations of Costa Rica’s mountainous axis form rapid flowing rivers dropping north to the San Juan River, east to the Caribbean, and west to the Pacific. These rivers with their numerous dams and reservoirs allow Costa Rica to derive some 73 percent of its electricity needs from hydroelectric sources. Many of these rivers can be navigated across the coastal plains to the foothills of the mountains. Costa Rica also has several other green energy projects including wind and geothermal.

Costa Rica’s seismic/volcanic formation deposited marble in Saint Elena Peninsula, cement and limestone in the Nicoya and Osa peninsulas, and gold and copper ore deposits over most of the country. The Caribbean plains are the source of bananas and plantains while the Guanacaste plains represent the bread basket for the country. The mountainous regions are ideal for coffee growing and timber operations. Recently abundant quantities of gold and copper were discovered in the remote portions of the Talamanca mountain range near the border with Panamá.

The arrival of human beings to the Americas is still hotly debated. The most widely accepted theory is that they arrived via two routes:

1) freezing of the Bering Sea during the last ice age and

2) out-rigger canoes from Polynesian to South America. Both groups of immigrants drifted toward the intra-tropical zones and lived as nomads until around 3000 BC when they converted to a sedentary, agrarian life style.

Next: A brief history of Costa Rica II: Exploration HERE!

Text: Copyrighted 2010  Clifford Fain Dukes, Jr. Used with permission.


A brief history

of Costa Rica:

I. The land and climate
You are here now

II: Exploration 

III: Development of the Latin culture

IV: Government 

V: Economic considerations

VI: Some problem areas

Planning resources for would-be expats HERE!

Copyrighted 2014 A.M. Costa Ltda., San José, Costa Rica