Costa Rica is situated on the Central American isthmus between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, with coastlines bordering the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea to the east and Pacific Ocean to the west. The country has a total land mass of just under 20,000 square miles (around 51,000 sq km) of which almost a quarter is a designated protected area or National Park. The major biological zones are defined as the northern dry forests and southern Pacific lowlands, which are separated from the east coast Caribbean lowlands by a continuous volcanic mountain range that runs down the spine of the country encompassing the central valley and plateau highlands. Across these regions you’ll find various biomes and habitats such as coastal mangrove forests and tropical lowland rainforests (0-500m), mid-elevation (500-1500m) pre-montane moist and wet forests, and higher elevation (1500-3500m) ecosystems that include the cloud forests and montane rainforests and, on top of the Talamanca mountains, the subalpine shrub and grasslands known as the ‘paramo' zone.
With its relatively small size, easily accessible geographical location and diverse terrain, Costa Rica is widely regarded as one of the top wildlife ecotourism destinations in the world. In fact there is probably no other place on the planet where you'll find so many natural habitats supporting such an incredibly rich and wide variety of flora and fauna in such a compact area.
One of the beauties of travelling through a country like Costa Rica with a range of environments and habitat types is that you’re likely to see different species at almost every location you visit. There are far too many species to mention, but on most wildlife lovers' 'wish list’ there will be primates (howler, spider and capuchin, and possibly squirrel if you’re in the right area), sloths (three and two-toed varieties), various reptiles, including lizards and snakes, rainforest frogs and insects, and a long list of avifauna from many of the exotic Neotropical bird families such as toucans, parrots, trogons, tanagers and hummingbirds. The incredible biodiversity is due to the fact that Central America is effectively a land-bridge that links the North and South American continents so, not surprisingly, there are now many birds, and some animals inhabiting the region that were not original species. The wildlife has evolved over time with movement both north and south as various species have slowly spread into, or migrated to and from, the area. Apart from those species you’ll encounter elsewhere in the Americas, Costa Rica does have a number of endemics, particularly in the highlands and southern Pacific lowlands; and quite a few defined subspecies - the most sought after being the Resplendent Quetzal. With almost 900 bird records, over 200 land and marine mammals and about the same number of reptiles, numerous amphibians and countless insects, you could make endless visits and still be finding new species on every trip.
One of the smaller channels in Tortuguero National Park
We first visited Costa Rica in 2011, when we embarked on a standard package “wildlife tour” that took us to four completely different locations and environments - Tortuguero (wetlands), Arenal (highlands), Monteverde (cloud forest) and the Osa Peninsula (lowland rainforest). I’ll start with a brief résumé of that particular trip.
Following an overnight stopover in San Jose, we travelled north by road and then by water to Tortuguero, which is situated in the northeast of the country on the Caribbean coast. It’s a remote area without any direct road access and, consequently, only accessible by boat or plane. We stayed at Mawamba Lodge. It was our first experience of being in a rainforest and we loved it. During the three days we were there we went out on a small boat to explore the inland maze of waterways and narrow channels. The wildlife viewing was good. We really enjoyed Tortuguero and were pleased that we would be returning to the area during our 2019 photography trip. Sadly the experience wasn’t relived, but I’ll come to that later on.
Green Heron [Butorides virescens]
We flew back from Tortuguero to San Jose and then by road to the Arenal Nayara Hotel at the foot of Mount Arenal - a totally different, and certainly much cooler, location than we had experienced on the coast. It was a good base for taking a day trip up to the remote Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge on the Nicaraguan border, which is a beautiful wetland area with numerous lagoons and inlets off the Río Frío.
We left Arenal to travel overland to Monteverde; the transfer starting with a short drive to Lake Arenal where we boarded a boat for a 40min crossing, following which we had a 4x4 drive on what must be the roughest roads we have ever encountered. Monteverde is a relatively isolated area high in the cloud forest, which turned out to be very cold and wet! We saw hummingbirds, but little else. We stayed in a rather basic cabin at El Sapo Dorado.
The final leg of the tour commenced with a long, but pleasant, road trip back to San Jose for another overnight stop before an early morning short flight south to Palmar Sur. We then travelled overland before boarding a small boat that took us down the Sierpe River and out into the Pacific Ocean. This was a great way to arrive at our last base, which was the beautiful Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge in the Corcovado National Park on the remote Osa Peninsula. The location of this lodge was perfect for exploring the coastal rainforest and for taking a boat trip out to Isla del Cano.
We always said we'd would go back to Costa Rica, so when we found out that Wildlife Worldwide was arranging a small group tour in April 2019, which was to be led by wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt - who we now regard as a friend having travelled with him to the Peruvian Amazon and subsequently to the Great Bear Rainforest - we made sure that our names were at the top of the list. I’m glad we did as it quickly became over-subscribed, which resulted in Nick agreeing to run two trips back-to-back in order to avoid disappointing a few people who thought they’d booked early enough! The other group were the first to arrive as our dates and arrangements had been carefully planned months beforehand. It was a busier time to go as it coincided with Easter and, unfortunately for them, they couldn’t stay at a couple of the lodges on the original itinerary. It became pretty clear that we had the better time because, as well as being able to stick near enough to the original plan without compromising the dates, we benefitted from the earlier group’s experiences. I won’t dwell on what was discovered on the first trip, but it was apparent that Nick had made a few changes and adjustments prior to our arrival. We were there from 28th April to 15th May, departing just before the start of the ‘wet season’. It's a less popular time to go as you're taking a bit of a chance with the weather, but you have the benefit of less people, which was borne out by Nick's comments about the number of other guests and visitors that were encountered compared with three weeks earlier.
When we visited Costa Rica in 2011 we had to fly via Miami with a considerable wait between flights. By the time we’d collected our bags and transferred to our hotel in San Jose it was gone midnight. We’d been travelling for around 27 hours. That’s all changed as BA now fly direct from Gatwick. We still had to leave home very early to get to the airport just after 6am, but with the seven hour time difference we were on the ground with our bags collected by early afternoon. It was a much more relaxing experience, further improved by discovering at the boarding gate that we’d been upgraded to Club Class. More importantly, the early arrival time allowed the group to meet up and transfer directly to our first lodge, Bosque de Paz, thereby avoiding the necessity of an overnight stay in San Jose.
We had two nights at Bosque de Paz, which was all we needed. It’s a small, privately-owned, friendly lodge in a beautiful location, nestled in the natural divide that separates the northwest boundary of the lower slopes of the Poás Volcano reserve from Juan Castro Blanco National Park. The rooms are quite basic, but better to wake up in the rainforest after a long day travelling than in a city hotel. We spent most of the full day we had at this location photographing hummingbirds that were either coming to flowers or feeders that had been placed in front of the covered veranda outside the dining room - the two main species being the Green-crowned Brilliant and Violet Sabrewing, with some occasional visits by the smaller Purple-throated Mountain Gem.
Green-crowned Brilliant [Heliodoxa jacula]
HUMMINGBIRD PHOTOGRAPHY : Whilst many Costa Rica bird photo tours spend a lot of time using complicated multi-flash set-ups and background sheets, we did not, nor would I want to. I know that it’s regarded as being the best way of getting 'great hummer shots' but, for me, the images that you get are too perfect and too clean. I far prefer a more natural approach and having some wing-blur in my photos. It’s a personal choice. Yes, we took feeders down for short periods to encourage the birds to go to flowers that had been picked and spayed with the same sugar solution that’s used in the feeders, but all hummingbird photography on Nick’s trips is kept relatively simple. That’s the way he works and it suited me just fine. I use my D850 and 500mm f/4, tripod mounted, with SB-700 Speedlight and ‘Better Beamer’ on a raised flash bracket. If there’s sufficient ambient light to allow a suitable shutter speed I’ll just use the flash on HSS (high-speed sync) for a bit of fill-light. Invariably though I will end up lowering the speed so that the flash is capturing movement. It’s then just a matter of finding a good balance between the camera’s ambient exposure settings and the flash output. It’s all a case of trial and error and certainly more challenging than having three or four perfectly positioned flash guns helping you! And, at the end of the day, how many hummingbird photos do you really need?
Surprisingly there were very few other birds around the lodge grounds and, apart from an occasional sighting of an Agouti or Coati there weren’t any animals to be seen. Although that’s not strictly true, because we did have an extremely poor night-time view of four Paca (a small ground rodent), which was a species that I’ve not encountered before.
We left Bosque de Paz early the following morning to travel north into the Caribbean lowland rainforest and an area close to Boca Tapada where we would be staying for the next few days. The main attraction of visiting this particular location is the well-known photography platform at Laguna del Lagarto lodge. This raised timber deck is one of the most used vantage points for photographing toucans that you'll find anywhere in Costa Rica. In fact, many of the images you’ll see of species such as Collared Aracari, Keel-billed Toucan and Chestnut-mandibilled (Yellow-breasted) Toucan were probably taken here. There are also Montezuma Oropendola, Brown-hooded Parrot, Black-cheeked Woodpecker and some other larger species, plus numerous passerines including a few different tanagers and three species of honeycreeper - Green, Shining and Red-legged.
Collared Aracari [Pteroglossus torquatus]
The other unique experience that this lodge offers is the opportunity to use the specially designed and constructed, partially sunken, King Vulture hide that was erected some years ago by the renowned Hungarian wildlife photographer Bence Máté.
King Vulture [Sarcoramphus papa]
We had plenty of time enjoying using these facilities, but I have to say that Luguna del Lagarto isn’t the nicest place to stay. The rooms are okay-ish, but the food and dining arrangements weren’t great. This was why we only had two nights there before transferring just a few miles back the way we’d come to a far nicer, and not surprisingly more expensive lodge called Maquenque. You arrive through a gated entrance and drive down a track to the San Carlos River where you board a boat to take you to the other side. From there you have to walk up a very long driveway to the lodge reception and restaurant area. Your bags are transported on electric buggies. All very nice if it’s dry and you’re not carrying a camera bag - not so if it’s raining! Accommodation is in individual well-appointed chalets each with a private balcony overlooking a natural lagoon. The only problem is that the chalets are another long walk away, so if you’re in the main lodge and you want something from your room you have a hike to get there and back. This is just an observation, not a complaint. You just need to be aware and hope that it’s not raining. The accommodation and food at Maquenque was really good, but we were there for the wildlife and that’s what was disappointing. When Nick made his recce visit in 2016 the lagoon and adjoining wetlands were full of water and, as you would expect, had plenty of waterbirds feeding around the margins. Sadly that wasn't the case when we visited as it was very dry. In fact, I only photographed two birds there - Purple Gallinule and Green Heron. There were some perches outside the restaurant area that attracted a few birds, but after enjoying the excellent set-up at Laguna del Lagarto the construction and positioning was poor. The only species I photographed was Orange-chinned Parakeet.
There was a long narrow forest trail, which I walked a few times but, like most rainforest trails of this type you don’t see very much - a few insects, a frog or two if you’re lucky, the odd lizard (anole), occasional brief glimpses of a monkey making its way through the tree tops, but amazingly hardly ever a bird. We did, however, have a very rare sighting on one walk of a Kinkajou, which our local guide incredibly spotted way up in the canopy. Kinkajous are seldom seen, let alone photographed in daylight, as they’re supposed to be a strictly nocturnal species.
Kinkajou [Potos flavus]
With the general lack of bird life at Maquenque we supplemented our walks in the rainforest with some close-up photography of various frogs and snakes that could be found around the grounds. In most, but not all cases, they were caught, kept captive overnight, then staged, photographed and released the next day. Whilst I found and photographed a few frogs on the forest trail, it’s certainly easier to do so in a more controlled manner. More so with rainforest snakes than frogs, borne out by the fact that most half-decent images you see in books or on the internet would have been taken this way. You don’t just walk through the forest and find creatures like these posed and waiting to be photographed! You stand more chance with frogs, but even then your best opportunities will be on night walks.
We also went back across the river on our first afternoon at Maquenque to photograph hummingbirds and some more frogs and snakes at another location that’s effectively part of Laguna del Lagarto. On our second morning we had a boat trip down the river. For most of our small group the highlight was some partial views of a couple of Boat-billed Herons hidden away in bankside vegetation. Apart from a few other herons and egrets, a solitary American Crocodile, a couple of Green Iguana and an Emerald Basilisk it was surprisingly quiet.
We were at Maquenque for three nights, following which we headed east towards the Caribbean Sea and our much awaited return visit to Tortuguero. During the road leg of the transfer we stopped for some lunch where we found a Brown-throated (three toed) Sloth in a tree overhanging the carpark. Unfortunately we only had a relatively short time there as we had a boat to catch. It was a choice of lunch or trying to photograph the sloth. I concentrated on the latter because, although they aren’t considered rare, they are hard to find, so to see one that was awake and feeding, albeit heavily back-lit, was an opportunity too good to miss. It was our first sighting on the trip and there was certainly no guarantee that we’d see another.
Brown-throated (three-toed) Sloth [Bradypus variegatus]
We arrived at the large carpark and public dock at 'La Pavona’ to board our boat that would take us down the Río Suerte and into Tortuguero National Park. If you’ve been staying in relatively small, quiet places it’s quite a shock when you find yourself here surrounded by hordes of people all being bustled along to their allocated boats. It’s a slick operation though and everything happens pretty swiftly and efficiently. It doesn’t take long to get all the bags on board and to get away from the dock, but it’s certainly an experience that you want to get through as quickly as possible. There were a couple of people from our group who looked quite horrified when our minibus turned into the carpark, but once you’re on the water you forget it.
The boat ride along the narrow winding river was just as we remembered it from our previous trip, but when we got to the main channel where Tortuguero town and most of the lodges are located we started to have different feelings as it looked much busier. Someone else in our group who had been here before felt the same. We arrived at Pachira, which was going to be our home for the next three nights and, if I’m honest, we would happily have got straight back on the boat. It was a typical tourist lodge geared to a high turnover of guests who are including a brief visit to Tortuguero as part of their Costa Rica holiday adventure. As one of our group said, “wearing beige and wielding a long lens is certainly going to get us noticed around here”. He was right. None of us liked the place, but in fairness the grounds were beautifully maintained, the rooms were good, the food was above average given the number of people they were catering for and, without doubt, the whole operation was very well managed. But, of course, we were there primarily for the wildlife, not the accommodation.
We had our first boat excursion early the following morning. For some reason there was an urgency to leave at 5.45am latest. We didn’t understand why until the boat diverted towards a large jetty, which we presumed was part of another lodge, but turned out to be a ranger station where you now have to purchase tickets and confirm the channels that you’ll be visiting. The office opens at 6am and not a minute earlier. We arrived at 5.50am exactly so that our guide could be at the front of the queue. We were on our way by 6.05am, but by then there were at least another six boats waiting to dock. I guess this is a sign of the times and a necessity for having some control over the boats visiting the park. All very tedious as you have to go through this procedure for every visit - morning and afternoon. And, if we thought that was bad, Nick said that three weeks before, with his first group when it was Easter, there were around thirty boats waiting in the channel. We had a morning and afternoon trip during both days we were there. We saw a sloth, a tamandua, and a few primates all high up in the trees, a couple of turtles and iguanas, and a relatively small number of waterbirds which, over a total period of around ten hours, was pretty disappointing. The best wildlife photographic opportunities during our time in Tortuguero were actually around the lodge grounds as there was a resident troop of howlers and a few spider monkeys. There was a raised walkway that wound its way through the forest alongside the lodge, which I walked round a number of times, but I didn’t take a solitary photo.
Mantled Howler [Alouatta palliata]
After leaving Tortuguero and making our way back to ‘La Pavona’ to board our minibus we travelled south, circumnavigating San Jose to join the Pan-American Highway that would take us down to our next destination, which was San Gerardo de Dota in the Savegre Valley. This popular area is in the cloud forest and is reached via a long winding downhill narrow track off the main road. The valley sits on the Pacific side of the Cordillera de Talamanca at an altitude of around 2200m. We stayed at Trogon Lodge. The primary reason for visiting this area is to try and see, and hopefully photograph, the Resplendent Quetzal. Early May was a good time of the year to be there as the quetzals are feeding their young with fruit from wild avocado trees. The local guide from the lodge knew where there was a tree with fruit that was being regularly visited by the birds so it was just a case of getting there early and waiting. We did this on three mornings and saw some birds on each visit. The only problem is that you need to be there at first light as the quetzals go back into the forest as soon as the sun comes up over the mountain. By 7am to 7.30am latest the ‘action’ is over. The male Resplendent Quetzal is a magnificent bird for sure with its golden-green iridescence and contrasting deep red, black and white plumage, and uniquely long flowing uppertail coverts. It was really nice to see them feeding in the tree, but very difficult to photograph due to distance, where they were landing amongst the leaves, and the light that necessitated a low shutter speed and high ISO. During the rest of the time we were at Trogon Lodge we were able to photograph a few other mountain species including Golden-browed Chlorophonia, White-throated Mountain-gem and Volcano Hummingbird.
Resplendent Quetzal [Pharomachrus mocinno]
It was then off on the final leg of the trip, continuing down through the Pacific lowlands and onto the Osa Peninsula, taking the road all the way to Puerto Jiménez. That was as fas as our minibus could go, so we offloaded all the luggage and camera gear and transferred to three small 4x4’s for the last few miles along a bumpy unmade road that went all the way down to the remote area of Cabo Matapalo, which is situated right on the southernmost tip of the peninsula.
We stayed at Bosque del Cabo lodge in the rainforest with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Golfo Dulce on the other. It was a beautiful lodge with lovely individual chalets overlooking the ocean - a truly wonderful location and fantastic place to stay for the last four days of the trip. The timing of our arrival, just after the Easter holidays, was also good as the lodge was very quiet as it was now the start of the wet season. We had two particularly heavy and prolonged periods of rain while we were there, but only one that kept us from going out for most of one morning. The rest of the time was spent exploring the grounds and walking the extensive trails. My personal focus was on trying to capture some useable images of the various primates - Mantled Howler, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey, Central American Squirrel Monkey and White-faced Capuchin - which proved to be very frustrating. If you’ve ever tried to photograph monkeys in the rainforest you’ll know what I mean. Using exposure compensation of around +3EV to override the camera’s meter when shooting up into the canopy rarely produces a pleasing image! Other animal species encountered here were Brown-throated (three-toed) Sloth, White-nosed Coati and Central American Agouti. Strangely there weren’t as many birds as I thought there would be but, in fairness, I wasn’t going out of my way looking for them. For example, when a few others from our group were trying to photograph some Scarlet Macaws I was following a troop of Squirrel Monkeys. They were the scarcest of the four species and, if you found them feeding, you needed to take whatever opportunities were presented as they are extremely difficult to photograph. In fact, I only ended up with three decent images of them. Anyway, in respect of the birds, I only photographed Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Double-toothed Kite, Great Curassow, Lineated Woodpecker and Kiskadee.
Black-crowned Central American Squirrel Monkey [Saimiri oerstedii]
We could easily have stayed at Bosque del Cabo for a few more days, but we were now nearly three weeks into the trip and it was time to make the long journey back to San Jose. We left early in the morning in the 4x4’s and took the same bumpy track back to Puerto Jiménez where our minibus was waiting. We took the coast road from Puerto Cortes to Jaco where we stopped for a pre-arranged lunch at the El Anfiteatro (Amphitheater Restaurant) situated in the Villa Caletas Hotel overlooking Herrandura bay. From there we had a short drive to the Tárcoles River for a boat trip down to the estuary where we hoped to photograph some different species like Roseate Spoonbills and Brown Pelicans. This excursion had been added to the original itinerary to break up the long journey. It was a great idea except that we had to abort the trip half way through due to very heavy rain, which was a great disappointment. Fortunately it was the only planned excursion which was affected by rain during the whole trip. I think we all expected more rain than we actually had. We continued on our way, making reasonable progress until we reached the San Jose suburbs where it all became a bit slow and tedious.
By the time we arrived at Hotel Bougainvillea for our final overnight stopover we were all looking forward to a shower and meeting up for a drink. We had a few hours to kill the next morning before our flight back home, so we drove up to the Volcán Poás National Park to see the volcano. You’re only given a 20 minute slot at the viewing site so it’s very weather dependent. All we saw was thick cloud, but by the time we’d walked back down to the centre they’d had contact from the rim that the cloud was lifting so we were given another opportunity to go back up - I think it was about 800m or so either way - which is what we did. However, by the time we got there the clouds were already closing in again. I suppose it filled the time and gave us some exercise, but I’m not sure it was worth the drive from San Jose. It was close to a restaurant though where we stopped off for lunch and from there it was only a relatively short trip to the airport.
Although there were a couple of locations and aspects of this trip that were a bit disappointing it was well thought-out and very well managed by the local ground agents and with really good organisation and timing by our guide and driver. When we booked the trip I never thought that it would be one that we’d repeat, but given a few tweaks to the itinerary, which are already in hand, it is one that we are considering doing again in 2021.