Due to its varying topography and its dynamic atmospheric conditions generated by the oceans that flank it, Costa Rica is home to a broad spectrum of ecosystems. The term "ecosystem" is used to describe a community of biological organisms, the environment within which they live, and the complex interactions between the two. From its flourishing rainforests to the healthy marine environments of its offshore reefs to the arid mountains that split the country in half, Costa Rica packs a great deal of wilderness in very small space. Here is the variety that visitors can expect to see.


Rainforests boast the greatest species diversity of any ecosystem. The consistently warm temperatures and abundant precipitation provide a superb environment for a plethora of plants, fungi and animals.

The rainforest is truly multi-layered. Ferns and mosses coat the ground; short foliage and tree ferns occupy the next level; growth-stunted trees vie for holes in the canopy; shade-loving trees create a mid-level; and all are blanketed by the canopy of full-grown trees, sometimes reaching as high as 190 feet.

Rainforests can be found along the Atlantic Coast and Corcovado Peninsula, and in reserves such as the Sarapiquí and Gúapiles areas.

Cloud Forests

Rainforests of the highest elevation, or cloud forests, swathe the slopes of Costa Rica's mountains. Their name comes from the almost constant veil of clouds that envelop them. Warm air rises and condenses into clouds around the forests which soak up the abundant moisture. Because of the amount of moisture these forests collect, they provide a crucial watershed for areas below. Costa Rica's most well-known cloud forest is Monteverde, but others exist, such as Braulio Carillo National Park, Los Angeles Cloud Forest, Bosque de Paz, and the ancient oak forests on Cerro de la Muerte.

Dry Pacific Forest

Forest that receive less annual precipitation have more moderate ground water supply. To conserve water during the dry season, deciduous trees of the dry pacific forests will shed their leaves. The tree canopy is not nearly as high as it is in the rainforest. Many animals found in the dry pacific forest are usually seasonal visitors from other ecosystems. Tropical dry forests only occur in Guanacaste.


The paramo exists at the summits of Costa Rica's southern Talamanca mountain range. The flora and fauna of this area is hardy and tolerant. The plantlife is relatively dull in coloration and their resilient leaves are waxy to the touch. Animals of the area consist mostly of diminutive yet tough rodents and lizards which thrive in the hot sun.

Visitors to Costa Rica may see more of this ecosystem than they care to. Due to the vast deforestation of the area, the paramo of the highest peaks is creeping down the mountain, steadily transforming the wildlife of along its fringe. Paramo can be found Cerro de la Muerte, Chirrípo, and the high mountain peaks in Parque Internacional La Amistad.


This estuarine ecosystem exists on the fringe of the mainland, thriving on the blending of marine salt waters and the fresh water sources on land. A particular variety of trees suited for this challenging environment are the mangroves. The different types of mangroves (black, white, red, tea and buttonwood) do not share the same lineage and are from four entirely unrelated families. However, each variety has adapted in its own way to this harsh environment. Their roots are above ground to allow for aeration, and consequently they provide a perfect habitat for many species of developing marine life. A system of mangroves also acts as a filter for freshwater dumping into the ocean from lakes and rivers.

Mangroves can be observed at the estuaries of the Pacific Coast, the Río Sierpe boat trip to Drake Bay, the Atrocha route between Golfito and Zancudo, and the canals just north of Moín on the way to Tortugeuro.

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are animals, plants and geological formations existing in one very delicate system. They develop in areas of the coast where the water is most healthy and clear. They are habitats of biologically rich gardens occupied by a diverse selection of life forms, from microscopic unicellular algae and phytoplankton to a wide range of the world's most beautiful marine fish.

The coral structure is formed by unique plantlike animals that live within it. These organisms are filter-feeders, acquiring nutrients as they filter the surrounding water. A byproduct of this process is calcium carbonate, which, as it accumulates, forms the coral skeleton. The coral superstructure itself breaks incoming waves, creating a calm and inviting place where marine life can take shelter and feed.

Cora reefs can be found at Manual Antonio's third beach, the point at Cahuita, in Bahía Ballena National Marine Park. Recently mapped is the Manzanillo Reef, south of Puerto Viejo.

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Costa Rica 101

Costa Rica Ecosystems

Due to its varying topography and its dynamic atmospheric conditions generated by the oceans that flank it, Costa Rica is home to a broad spectrum of ecosystems.

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