Ahhhh, Costa Rica! What an amazing photographic destination. This tiny country proudly shelters five percent of the world’s existing biodiversity and over a quarter of it is composed of conserved and natural protected lands. As you might imagine, a country with 9,000 species of flowering plants, 850 bird species, 210 mammal species, 225 reptile’s species, 215 amphibian species, and 300,000 insect species, has a mind blowing cornucopia of photo opportunities. Combine that with "Pura Vida", the local’s expression for “living the good life”, and you have the makings of a wonderful exotic experience!
Here’s a “brief”description of our 2023 tour.
Let us know if you might have interest in joining future Costa Rica adventures!
Day 1: Today was arrival day at the inviting Hotel Bougainvillea. Several of our small group of six arrived early enough to spend time exploring and taking photos in the hotel’s bountiful gardens. Numerous plant and bird species made for a great warm up with our cameras. The group met together for the first time at dinner, made introductions, and then gathered for a welcome slideshow by photography guide, Wayde Carroll (That’s me!). With visions of the possibilities to come we all retired for the day.
Day 2: In the morning we met with, and had a brief orientation with, our amiable Costa Rican cultural and wildlife guide William, and our driver Niño, who is also an excellent wildlife spotter. After a nice buffet breakfast, we hit the road in anticipation of our first destination, Bosque de Paz.
On the way we stopped at some roadside shops to sample some local treats and capture colorful photos of the friendly vendors. We also made a stop in the charming mountain town of Zarcero. Zarcero boasts a fantastic topiary garden, Parque Francisco Alvarado, which features uniquely sculpted trees and shrubs. The beautiful local Catholic church, Iglesia de San Rafael, which was constructed in 1895 with stunning stained glass, an arched ceiling, and a very tranquil atmosphere, was decorated inside with palm fronds and red ribbon in recognition of holy week. It was worth exploring with our cameras as well.
Upon arriving at our lodge in Bosque de Paz we were immediately treated to a plethora of hummingbirds flitting about several feeders. We barely made time for the hotel orientation and a bite to eat. We were all so eager to spend several hours photographing hummingbirds in a variety of settings. Niño set up a “feeder” with local flowers so we could capture natural looking images of the birds. What a way to dip into our first real photography session! It takes proper camera settings and serious persistence to capture these tiny birds in flight. We were able to photograph the violet sabrewing, the green-crowned brilliant, the purple-throated mountain gem, and the green hermit among others. Several other bird species made appearances as well as the adorable coati mundi and several agoutis! Niño discovered a resplendent quetzal nesting site and the group eagerly trekked into the forest and set up to hopefully capture this most revered bird. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours, it became too dark, and we never saw our elusive subjects. I thought it was great to see the group so dedicated to their photography and to see that spirits remained high even though we never spotted our quarry. William did a great job of pointing out various plants and explaining their medicinal benefits.
We had a dinner of wonderful local dishes before heading off to download our cards full of hummingbird pics.
Day 3: We awoke to a wonderful breakfast of local favorites: Gallo pinto, plantains, fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, local cheese, and of course Costa Rican coffee! It was difficult to not spend the morning taking more hummingbird photos, but we managed to pry ourselves away for the days adventure. Our destination was the spectacular Cataract Del Toro, a 300 ft. high waterfall pouring out of a volcanic crater.
On the way we came across a local, dressed in homemade rain gear, loading his horse with supplies. William made a connection with the caballero and secured permission for us to step out of the van and take photos of him in action for a few moments. These are the type of impromptu, unplanned, experiences that truly make travel special. When we arrived at the waterfall it was raining and somewhat cloudy. We managed to find some worthy plant subjects to photograph in the forest and before we knew it the rain had stopped, and the waterfall was in view! We all took a variety of images with our tripods so we could use slow shutter speeds to give the water a silky effect. Back at the lodge several of us couldn’t’ help but take more hummingbird photos. Later, I was seriously impressed with the dedication shown by the group as we again hiked out to the resplendent quetzal’s nesting site to spend another two hours in the rain in hopes of seeing the parent’s switching spots in the nest. We never saw them, but the time spent waiting and conversing amongst ourselves created a nice bond within the group.
Another wonderful dinner greeted us when we returned to the lodge and several of us stayed afterward to look at images from the previous two days. I always find that time to be well spent. It’s great to see guests excited about their images and to be able to see if someone is having any issues that should be addressed. I’m always inspired by the different viewpoints each group brings.
Today we made our way to the Arenal Volcano region. The scenic drive brings you through lush forests and small towns to the base of one of the most iconic volcanos you’ll ever see, weather permitting. Early in our drive Niño spotted a three-toed sloth with her young one nestled high in a tree. We got out for some photos and were lucky enough to have a moment when the mother and baby both lifted their faces. So amazing! We then made a quick stop for a break at the infamous “iguana bridge” in Murelle. A tree next to the bridge can host an impressive number of large iguanas. An interesting site worthy of a few photos. At one point we stopped to photograph the interesting textures found in a field of pineapples. Yes, pineapples! I found during post-processing that these made for super interesting black and white conversions.
We next stopped in La Fortuna. Another beautiful town that has benefitted from its proximity to the volcano. We spent time taking photos in the colorful town square and made time to sample a local gelato place. I can vouch that the coffee flavor is outstanding! Finally, we arrived at the spectacular Arenal Observatory Lodge, the only hotel inside Arenal Volcano National Park. On select days you can see Arenal in its full glory from each room and the restaurant, but on occasion mother nature keeps her beauty hidden by clouds. Such was the case for our group. But the grounds of the lodge still offer a plethora of activities and worthy photography pursuits. At any moment a wide variety of birds, reptiles, and mammals, may present themselves. From the observation deck at the lodge restaurant, we were able to photograph keel billed toucans, crested guan, gray headed chachalaca, montezuma oropendola, great curassow, yellow-eared toucanet, collared aracari, and several hummingbird species.
After spending some time with the birds, we all checked in and got settled in our rooms. We had a wonderful dinner at the lodge and some of us tried to find the red-eyed tree frog at the nearby frog pond. We found a couple, but it was raining so hard that we didn’t take any photos. Instead, we reveled in the unique opportunity to become drenched in a tropical rainforest downpour! It was quite an adventure that brought new respect for the quirkiness of mother nature’s temperament.
Again, I marveled at the attitude of the guests in the group. Everything was taken in stride! With another fun day in Costa Rica under our belt we decided to hit the hay and try again the next night.
Day 5: We had an early breakfast planned for this morning but most of us still ended up taking photos of birds in flight from the observation deck before then. The morning brought out blue grey tanagers, parrots, honeycreepers, and several coati mundi.
I love it when a group is so enthusiastic!
The lodge breakfast was great and bolstered us for another day chock full of excursions.
We spent this morning working on subjects that were perhaps even more difficult than the hummingbirds- butterflies. We went to an amazing butterfly garden that had several areas with butterflies from the different regions and climates of Costa Rica. Trying to capture a tight shot of a blue morpho in flight must be one of the most challenging photos ever. They always zig and zag and dodge and weave erratically.
Along with the morphos, we saw zebra longwings, small postman’s, monarchs, owl's eye, and the amazing glass wing butterflies among others. What a colorful visual treat! We used macro lenses to really get the detail in some of the wings when the butterflies held still on the leaves for a moment.
After lunch we opted for a nice walk to photograph the local waterfall. On the way we were lucky enough to see several Montezuma oropendolas flying in and out of their nests that were hanging high in the eucalyptus trees. The waterfall was roaring, and we were able to get some wonderful long exposures of the running water.
Once back at the lodge several of the group opted to get massages at the on-site spa. Some opted to spend some time at the wonderful pool and hot tub. We had another excellent dinner together before heading out for a night excursion to see what creatures might reveal themselves.
Both William and Niño were very diligent and found several red-eyed tree frogs and a cooperative slender hog nosed pit viper (We kept a safe distance of course!)
Using head lamps and small LED macro lights, we were able to create some interesting lighting effects and we all took turns capturing each subject. Taking photos surrounded by the deep dark of the rain forest is quite a challenging and rewarding adventure!
After such a full day we all went off to get ready for the next day’s departure to our next exciting location.
Day 6: This morning after an early breakfast we made our way to the La Fortuna airport where we boarded a small flight to one of the more remote and wild areas of Costa Rica - Tortuguero National Park. The one-hour flight was smooth and easy and gave us a nice overview of the Costa Rica landscape. The pilots were super fun and posed in some photos with the group once we landed.
Tortuguero sits just inland off the Caribbean and exudes a sense of mystery and wonder.
We took a short water taxi over to our lodge to get settled in there before lunch. As in Bosque de Paz, we could hardly get our cameras out fast enough once we arrived. The lodge grounds were thriving with creatures of all sorts. We immediately saw several types of lizards, toucans, poison dart frogs, and a green basilisk! It was torture having to stop taking photos, but we needed to eat lunch before heading out for our first tour of the canals in Tortuguero.
The afternoon canal tour did not disappoint! From our private small boat we got great images of anhingas, snowy and great egrets, the little blue heron, the green heron, kingfishers, northern jacanas, and more. We had a great session with a lone howler monkey just fifteen feet above and across from us. He didn’t seem to care at all that we were there. Maybe he even enjoyed the attention!
The canals are always a great place to capture details of the flora as well. Often you feel like you’re surrounded by the forest on both sides and above. A highlight of that first outing for me was when we took our boat to the mouth of the river where it meets the sea. There were several local’s chest deep in the surf casting fishing nets. We watched one young man deliver a huge fish to his family camped on shore. We had some nice sunset color as we made our way back to the lodge. We were able to get some nice images of the forest canopy silhouetted against the color filled sky.
We had a terrific dinner - all the meals on the trip were just fantastic- and then William treated us to another night excursion. This time we found a common rain frog, several lizards, and some large spiders. You never know what may turn up in the jungle at night!
Day 7: For our full day in Tortuguero we, of course, started off with a nice breakfast and coffee before heading out for a morning tour of the canals. On this excursion we were happy to be treated to time with white face capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys jumping from tree to tree (one baby clinging tightly to mother as she leaped), another three toed sloth out in plain sight, a tiger heron, cormorants, white lined bats, caiman, a blue heron nest with eggs, and an anhinga catching a fish! These along with several of the same species we saw the day before. Quite a productive outing!
We then took the boat over to Tortuguero Town and walked around checking out the local shops and people watching. The town is very colorful and many of the locals were happy to give us permission to take their photos.
We enjoyed one last wonderful dinner together out in the wilderness and retired early to pack for the flight back in the morning.
Day 8: Because we took an early flight back to San Jose, we had plenty of time to explore one last region. Niño met us with the van, and we headed out to the area in and around the Tarcoles River. On the way we stopped at a beach rumored to have scarlet macaws and the rumors proved to be true! We spent a good hour on the beach photographing these majestic birds frolicking in the trees. The harsh mottled lighting filtering through the trees made for difficult photography but we were able to capture a few birds in just the right spot with some even lighting.
Next, we took a private boat ride on the Tarcoles River. This brought us quite close to some extremely large crocodiles. We saw roseate spoonbills, a motmot, an osprey, kingfishers, and we had a flock of frigate birds circling above. We all got a kick out of a family of howler monkeys sharing a spot in a tree with a large iguana. Not sure if they were related or not...
After the boat tour we enjoyed a terrific lunch of local foods before making our way back to San Jose and the now familiar Hotel Bougainvillea, the place it all started! That night we had our last dinner together and then convened in a meeting room where everyone shared favorite images from the trip. It was wonderful to see everyone’s different perspectives and choice of subject matter. This was truly a great group, and we all had a great time together. Lots of laughs, sharing, learning, great food, and great coffee! I was very lucky to be along as their photography guide.
Day 9: Alas, our last breakfast together was very bittersweet. A couple of folks were continuing for extended time in Costa Rica and the others made their way to the airport. Such a great adventure we shared together. I hope to see everyone on another Aperture Academy adventure again in the future!
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