Costa Rica was one of the first Central American countries to perfect eco-tourism. Eco-tourisms’ goal is to utilize a countries beautiful nature and landscape in a way that showcases it for the world in an environmentally conscious and entertaining way. Ecotourism uses activities like; wildlife/birding adventures, rafting, zip-lining, fishing, trekking, and of course photography. For the last several years Aperture Academy has partnered up with Costa Rica Adventures to bring photographers to some of the most stunning locations in the country in search of birds, wildlife, and all of the colors of Costa Rica.
Our small group of four meets in San Jose at the lovely Hotel Bougainvillea for dinner to get to know one another and go over a few of the specifics of the trip. The grounds at the hotel are beautiful, and some of the group has already spent some time wandering the gardens in search of fantastic flora. Everyone is excited for the morning and our departure to Bosque De Paz, an ecological preserve high in the rain forest a couple hour drive from our current home in San Jose. We will meet our local naturalist and birding guru Charlie Gomez in the morning and his right hand man Marco (aka Nino) who is tasked with driving us from place to place safely, and helping Charlie to find the animals and birds we’ll be photographing during our time together. Most have had a long day of travel and are in need of a good nights’ sleep so we adjourn shortly after dinner and plan to meet at 7am for breakfast with Charlie and Nino.
Up early. Our group meets our Costa Rican guides, Charlie and Nino and get a little more familiarized with our plan for the week while enjoying a lovely buffet breakfast filled with fresh pastries, fruit, and of course that great tasting Costa Rican coffee. There’s no rush for our journey to Bosque De Paz, so we take an hour to explore the gardens of the Bougainvillea and photograph the wonderful patterns, textures, and colors of the various plant life.
After some time in the gardens we make our move back to the hotel to pack up our gear, and load up into our bus for the drive to the 2500-acre cloud forest reserve known as Bosque De Paz. Frederico and his wife, who own the area, have really created something special. Once used for farming, and virtually stripped of any plants in some areas…this area is now a lush and thriving cloud forest filled with a rich and diverse selection of flora and fauna. This place is a testament to the power of conservation. In addition to the amount of wildlife living within the cloud forest the area also is home to a large population of hummingbirds. These humming birds are also one of our main subjects to photograph while at the lodge.
Once we’ve checked into our lovely rooms its time for the real fun to begin. Our hosts set up a few natural flower arrangements for the hummingbirds. These arrangements are sprayed with the same sugar water mixture found inside the typical hummingbird feeders that are found throughout the property. These feeders are removed once its time for photography, and that leaves the flowers as the most desirable location for the hummingbirds to feed on. Shallow depth of field and ultra fast shutter speeds are a must to try and capture these little speedsters. One can only sit photographing hummers for so long before we need to stretch the legs…it was time for a nature walk to see if Charlie could call in a Quetzal…one of the most fantastic birds in Central America. Quetzals live in rotten trees high in the cloud forest. Lacking the long, strong beak of other birds, they need these rotten trees to hollow out and make a nest. The Bosque De Paz preserve has a couple of these birds that reside within the forest. It was Charlie’s job to call them in…and call one in he did!
Charlie has bird hearing, and he can distinguish the calls of any bird in the area, know what kind of bird it is, and then play back a recording of that very bird from a small speaker he carries with him and draw the bird in closer. Once the call has been heard, which is a difficult task itself, Charlie then has to find the bird visually with his eyes once it flies into the area. This was a chore that I found to be very difficult. Charlie was an expert, and could spot a bird, and find it with his spotting scope well before any of us knew it was there. It was a truly amazing thing to behold.
Seeing a Quetzal on our first full day was awesome! Some people go years without ever seeing this elusive bird. The remainder of our afternoon we spent on the grounds photographing the hummingbirds and some of the other little creatures that visited the feeing boxes that were set up.
That night after a wonderful home cooked meal we set out on our first night hike. The forest is noisy during the day, but it REALLY comes to life a night. A large portion of the mammals, amphibians, and reptiles are nocturnal and do all of their business at night. The coolest thing we found on our first foray into the darkness was an emerald glass frog. This little guy was hanging out on a leaf, and we were able to illuminate him with our night-lights and grab a few images of this great little frog.
It was a full day, and time for everyone to grab some much needed sleep and prepare for another fun filled day of exploration in the morning.
Up and at it early! With a breakfast of fresh fruit, Gallo de Pinto, and plenty of coffee and fresh juice in our bellies it was time to get off to photograph a giant waterfall. Catarata del Toro is a 200ft tall beauty that falls from the high mountains into a small bowl before flowing down into the lowlands. The first thing we noticed on our approach was how NICE the weather was! Charlie remarked that this was the nicest weather any of the groups he had been with had seen here. Well, special weather requires a special hike! After photographing this lovely falls from a couple vantage points along the rim, a few of us decided to make the long, steep hike into the amphitheater to view this monster waterfall from the bottom. The hike was steep, but the view was worth it. Once at the bottom I had the group train their cameras on capturing some different views of the lovely colors and textures. In addition to a wonderful view of the falls, there was ample foliage around to use as a foreground interest. It was a long steep walk back to the top, so we lingered a bit before starting to enjoy the falls.
Once back at the top we enjoyed an ice cold drink and trained our lenses on the beautiful foliage and hummingbirds that frequented this area. Back at Bosque De Paz we enjoyed our last dinner, had some great conversation, and got a great nights’ sleep to prepare for our morning drive to Arenal, our second stop in this amazing country.
After a nice breakfast it was time to set off towards the Volcanic region of Arenal. Arenal was very active in the late 60s, and had had various outbursts from time to time until 2010 when the activity subsided dramatically. Bits of steam still emanate from the crater, but the lava show that illuminated the night sky from time to time a decade ago has passed. Weather in this part of the country is ever changing, and it’s more common to have the volcano obscured by fog and clouds than to actually see it. When its fully visible, Arenal is a stereotypical conic shape, like the kind of volcano kids make for science projects. On our drive in we wee fortunate that we could see the volcano clearly from miles away. We made a couple stops to let the group get out and grab some shots of this wonderful mountain, and the great sky we had to accompany it.
Our first order of business was to grab some lunch in La Fortuna, the largest city near Arenal. Our lunch was fabulous…ceviche, fish, steak, chicken…we had it all. In addition to this wonderful food there was things to photograph as well! We saw our first sloth high in a tree outside the front of the restaurant. Charlie was able to show us, in great detail, this little creature from his spotting scope. While he was difficult to photograph, it was really neat to see one. There wer also a few little ponds behind the restaurant where we saw some great birds, and a female basilisk lizard.
Our accommodation for the next two nights is the lovely Arenal Observatory Lodge. This lodge sits high above the valley and forest, and had perhaps the BEST view of the volcano or miles around. Our rooms couldn’t be better; each has a balcony with a great view of the volcano. Like our previous hotels, this one has beautiful grounds filled with lovely flora and amazing birds and wildlife. When we’re not out on a scheduled hike or visit we can find ample subjects to photograph here.
The plan for the afternoon was to get a little rest in the hotel, then meet on the deck of the main lodge for a sunset shoot. The volcano was still fully visible, and the sunset was looking very promising. Sunset views from the deck of the observatory can get crowded, so I arrived early to get a spot for our group to shoot from. Sunset didn’t disappoint. We used grad filters, and polarizers to capture the warm setting sun illuminating the forest and side of the volcano. WOW! It’s rare to see the volcano for a full several hours without it hiding behind clouds, but to have full view of the mountain AND an amazing sunset is even more fun!
After a great dinner with the group we all retired to our rooms with anticipation of another full day of excitement.
Up early again! We gather on the observatory deck to watch the action on the feeding platforms. Fruit is placed high above the lodge on a makeshift perch. Local birds come from miles around to snack on this wonderful breakfast. Oropendolas, tanagers, and great currasows all came to grab some fruit. A squad of Coati, a raccoon-anteater like creature showed up to clean up whatever the birds dropped. I was quite a party for the lenses!
After breakfast we made a short hike to a local waterfall…in the mid-day this place is packed with locals trying to cool off in the hot midday heat, in the morning we had this place almost to ourselves, so we could slow the shutters down and capture some milky-smooth waterfall images.
Birds, wildlife, and a waterfall? That would be a full day for most…but we were just beginning. Our main stop for the day was the butterfly conservancy. Here they work on keeping the local butterfly and moth species healthy and breed them through all stages. Three separate butterfly enclosures house hundreds of individual butterflies from different climate regions of the country. One of the groups’ favorites was the giant blue morpho butterfly, Costa Ricas’ national butterfly. The weather was perfect and each butterfly enclosure was swarming with winged insects. Landing on hats, cameras, and backpacks these little guys were not shy. Everyone found more than enough subject matter to point their camera at. In addition to the butterflies, one of the enclosures has a great offering of the local frogs including poison dart frogs, and red-eyed tree frogs. The workers at the conservancy will open the doors of the frog cages so that we can get the best shot possible without the glare…what a treat!
With a great sunset already in the books at Arenal, we didn’t need to get any more shots of the mountain…it had spoiled us already! We spent our evening chasing howler and spider monkeys through the local trails. While none of these pesky primates came close enough to fill the frame of our cameras, we all got some decent shots of them as they scampered through the treetops about 40 yards overhead.
Our last dinner together in Arenal led to a great night sleep to the sound of rainfall and jungle calls. Everyone had had a long day, and the morning would see us board a plane in La Fortuna and fly out to Tortuguero National Park and our final location for the adventure.
We have an early flight, so there’s no messing around…it’s off in the bus to the small airstrip so we can make the short flight to Tortuguero. Nino helped us unload ou bags, and then bid us farewell until he would pick us up again in San Jose. Our pilot was a jovial guy who just loved to fly. We know this because he told us how much he loved his job. This was a good thing. He might have been a little crazy too, on our way in he wanted to show us a little different perspective of the canal system in the park, so he took us down low, just below the tree level so we could get an up close and personal perspective of these waterways we would soon be exploring via boat.
Once our plane touches down on a small runway right next to the Caribbean Ocean it’s time to load up in a small shuttle boat and sail across the main canal to the Tortuga lodge, our home for the next two nights. The weather has increased in temperature and humidity with each progressive stop…the temperature outside is almost 84 degrees, and the humidity is kicking in pretty good as well. Our rooms won’t be ready for a bit, so we go o the restaurant, overlooking the main river, and enjoy our first taste of the amazing lodge food. After breakfast we explore the grounds a little looking for bird and reptile life before preparing for our first boat cruise.
Paco, our driver was ready at 2:30 and we piled into our boat, cameras at the ready, and excited for the journey. Our day was spent navigating narrow canals looking for birdlife, and watching the jungle canopy reflect perfectly into the dark water. Jacanas, Ahingas, various Herons, Egrets, and Kingfishers were just a few of the numerous birds we saw. From time to time white-faced capuchin monkeys and spider monkeys could be seen frolicking in the treetops. It was an awesome first taste of what the park had to offer. A warm sunset lit the sky as we made our way back to the lodge for a wonderful dinner, and great company.
That night we went out on our second night shoot. A plethora of noises filled the air as we looked in high and low for creatures. We found giant moths, sleepy butterflies, and a host of spiders and other insects. We/I even fond a couple sleepy bats that decided they wanted to fly right at my face. There may or may not have been screaming involved. What happens in the jungle stays in the jungle.
While we didn’t find any frogs or other amphibians to photograph, the experience of exploring the jungle at night is always fun.
A full day of exploring the waterways awaited our group. We had two different boat tours lined up to explore other sections of the park. We found a lot of the same birds in different positions as well as saw our first caiman; a little guy nestled deep in some brush. We also got to witness our first tropical downpour firsthand. Once the first drops of water hit you, there’s about 90-seconds of time for you to put on your poncho, hide your gear in a waterproof bag and brace yourself for the water. You can literally watch the water coming at you, and within seconds the rain is on you.
The great thing about these little bursts of rain is that they temporarily cool things down, and usually only last a few minutes, and then its right back to the humidity and heat. I think everyone in addition to getting soaked, also got a little bit sunburned as well. It was another fun and exciting day on the water.
That night the lodge put on a special BBQ for us with steak, shrimp, chicken, and all the sides…the meal was served outside in a covered patio complete with a torch lit walkway to guide us to our table. It was a special way to put a cherry on top of a great trip with a fun bunch of people.
Departure Day…time to bid our wonderful lodge adieu and head back to San Jose. Our crazy pilot was waiting for us and informed us that he would be flying us over an active volcano. He had mentioned it on the way in, but I think we all thought he was joking. He was NOT. We flew very close to the crater of an active volcano…so close that we could smell the sulphur. It was very cool!
Once back on the ground in San Jose we were greeted by our good friend Nino, who had all our luggage and the bus already for our afternoon of exploring the areas around Carara National Park looking for Scarlet Macaws. Gone was the humidity that followed us around in Tortuguero, I was replaced by increased temperatures and a thick dry heat. Temperatures hovered around 95 degrees and Charlie let us know that it was not very conducive for finding parrots. We searched anyway, and while we didn’t find any parrots (other than 2 we saw flying away) we did find a beautiful motmot and a great little cooperative pygmy owl that we could shoot for awhile without him taking off.
Half our group had an extended stay and was off to Manuel Antonio National Park for a few more days of exploration. A shuttle came, grabbed them and the remainder of our group set off back towards the Bougainvilla for a last night of relaxation and Photoshop instruction.
Time for heading home; it had been a whirlwind trip filled with fun, laughs, great photography opportunities, wonderful food, awesome accommodations, and the morning screams of howler monkeys to wake you up each new day. We all came in as strangers, and left as friends. Two of our group even left married! They actually showed up that way, so that wasn’t a development that happened on the trip. Thanks to Charlie and Nino and their constant expertise, and efforts we were always rewarded with new birds every day and safe drives to and from all our locations. It was only a little over a week of time we spent exploring this wonderful country but the memories we made will last us forever.
Until next time,
Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy team!
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