El Salvador is the only country in Central America with no Atlantic coast, tucked as it is beneath Guatemala and Honduras. At 21,000 sq. km (8,108 sq. miles), it is also the smallest country in the region, roughly the size of New Jersey and is somewhat dwarfed by its neighbors. Mountains run along its northern border, and the country's lush northern highlands hold its highest mountain, El Pital, at 2,730m (8,957 ft.), and from here, the landscape descends dramatically onto a broad, brown-colored coastal plain towards the coast. Several rivers run from these mountains, the most significant of which is the Río Lempa, which is also the source of the dam Embalse Cerrón Grande.

The hot, coastal plains are pockmarked with more than a dozen volcanoes, many of which hold deep blue crater lakes, the largest of which are Lago Llopango and Lago Coatepeque. The rich soil means much of the country has been deforested, with only two significant patches of protected natural forest left at Parque Nacional El Imposible and Parque Nacional Montecristo.

The coastal plains and protruding conical volcanoes continue southeast into Honduras and Nicaragua and as far as Costa Rica. Here, tectonic plates crunch together, and frequent eruptions and earthquakes make the entire area a geological hot spot. The dark Pacific pounds black volcanic beaches up and down the coast. An island-dotted tropical bay known as the Golfo de Fonseca lies between El Salvador and Nicaragua, denying both countries a land border. The Marabios mountain range rises in the northern lowlands of Nicaragua and holds belching volcanoes such as Mombacho and Momotombo, among many others. Central America's two largest lakes have formed on the Nicaraguan lowlands: Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua. The latter is the largest freshwater lake in Central America and the 20th-largest in the world; it is a third the size of El Salvador. The volcanic island Isla de Ometepe rises from the lake and is the biggest island of its kind in the world (located as it is in a freshwater lake). The lake also has several archipelagoes, including the Solentiname islands in its southeastern corner. Here, the lake drains eastward, skirting the central highlands, and into the Atlantic via the broad, majestic Río San Juan.

The northeastern landmass, the highlands, and the Atlantic lowlands together make Nicaragua the largest country in Central America, approximately the size of Greece at 130,000 sq. km (50,193 sq. miles). Coffee plantations and cloud forests cover the north-central highlands before they descend into dense rainforest, muddy swamp, marsh, and a myriad of deltas along the Atlantic coast. A narrow shelf of limestone rock extends several miles out into the Caribbean Sea, culminating in the twin paradise known as the Corn Islands, complete with a coral reef. High temperatures, humidity, and poor access mean Nicaragua's eastern Atlantic region is very much undeveloped. Because of this, Nicaragua can boast that one-fifth of its landmass is unexploited, with almost 809,371 hectares (2 million acres) of rainforest, which makes it the most significant tropical nature zone north of the Amazon. The region's longest river, the Río Coco, runs along the Honduran border, while the Río San Juan in the south partially forms the border with Costa Rica.

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