San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

It rains and it doesn’t: Costa Rican seasons

When I first came to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, another student in my class asked the teacher why Ticos called the period between April and November “invierno (winter) and the period between November and April “verano (summer). His answer was pithy: “There are only two seasons in Costa Rica: Llueve y no llueve (It rains and it doesn’t).” 

This speaks precisely to the second question posed to me in a letter from a reader named David (TT, Jan. 7).

“It seems,” David wrote, “in Costa Rica many people [if not all] refer to summer as winter and winter as summer simply because it ‘feels’ warmer in the dry season and colder in the rainy season.” He went on to say that “… considering Costa Rica is at approximately 10 degrees north of the equator, the summer begins at the date of the summer solstice, and the same applies to the winter and winter solstice. An officially accepted term for these periods when located at the equator or within the tropics is wet and dry season.” He also made the point that this mistaken terminology “has indirectly permeated other areas of business” such as seasonal airline charges.

Before I reply to David, here, for our geographically challenged readers, is the deal:

There are three imaginary lines running across the surface of the Earth: the equator, the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The equator, of course, is the line around the middle of the Earth (where the Earth is widest in an east-west direction), and divides the planet into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. On the equator, the sun is directly overhead at noon near March 21 and Sept. 21 (the equinoxes, spring and autumn).

The tropics are the two lines where the sun is directly overhead at noon near June 21 and Dec. 21 (the solstices, summer and winter). The sun is directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Cancer on June 21 (the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of winter in the Southern Hemisphere), and the sun is directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Capricorn on Dec. 21 (the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere).

In fact, the word “tropic” comes from the Greek word meaning “turn,” referring to the fact that the sun appears to “turn back” at the solstices.

The Tropic of Cancer runs through Mexico, the Bahamas, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and southern China. The Tropic of Capricorn runs through Australia, Chile, southern Brazil and northern South Africa. The area bounded by the Tropic of Cancer on the north and the Tropic of Capricorn on the south is known as the “tropics.”

So here is my answer to David’s second question:

David … Well, yes, it’s an imbroglio. It makes no logical sense, but there it is.

It seems perhaps reasonable that places like Central America, lying between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, should eliminate spring and autumn, but begin verano on June 21 when the sun is directly overhead at noon and invierno on Dec. 21 when the sun is directly overhead in the region between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn – except that these periods correspond only in part to the wet and dry seasons. So, it would be most logical to eliminate these terms altogether and define the seasons as “wet” and “dry” or, in a tourist location like Costa Rica, “high” and “low.”

Forget it. Here again, usage rears its quirky head. While Mexico pretty much sticks to the same four seasons as the rest of North America (with the exception of some of the southern areas), it turns out that not only Costa Rica, but nearly all of Central America and Colombia just use the terms “invierno” and “verano” to define their wet and dry seasons.

The position of the sun notwithstanding, it tends to rain more in many places between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator from some time in April to some time in November, so all of the Central American countries and Colombia call this period “invierno.” And because the sun shines more in many places from some time in November until some time in April, they all call this period “verano.”

Moreover, there are no fixed dates as to when one begins and the other ends. “Winter” begins when the rains begin in the Central Valley, and “summer” begins when the rains diminish.

In other words, ¡Llueve y no llueve!

Mistaken terminology aside, this would appear to make some kind of sense, were it true. Alas! In Costa Rica, it is not. The fact is that Costa Rica abounds in microclimates.

Where I live, in the mountains at the entrance to the Cerro de la Muerte (the pass on the way from San José to the Southern Zone), it gets cold and rainy in December and January, when it is sunny in San José and high season on the Pacific beaches. Likewise, it is often warm and dry when the Central Valley and the Pacific beaches are all thunderstorms and gray skies. This is due to the influence of the Atlantic side, which does not follow the same weather pattern as the western side of Costa Rica. But even in the Central Valley, we hear how Alajuela is terribly hot, while Heredia, right next door, is not so hot. There are other examples of this throughout Costa Rica, especially where mountains are concerned.

If you don’t believe me, just take a drive some morning from Cartago, east of San José, to San Isidro de El General in the Southern Zone. The weather goes from cool to nearly freezing to hot and steamy in just a few hours, and all the vegetation changes accordingly.

So what’s a Costa Rican meteorologist to do? What else but go with usage?

And so, David, must the business world and all the rest of us.

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