Crowell Photography & writing | Costa Rica - A Photographer's First Visit

Costa Rica - A Photographer's First Visit

February 28, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Last year a dear friend of mine returned from his first trip to Costa Rica raving about the beauty of the place and insisting I needed to go take photos. I dismissed it as a pipe dream, but this year he made sure it happened by giving me his Alaska Airlines companion ticket and scheduling an itinerary in which he acted as guide and driver and part-time camera Sherpa. I have just returned from that trip and I have a few things to share with photographers and would-be photographers who are planning a visit.

GEAR UP OR DOWN

First, camera gear. Do your research and carefully assess what you might need to capture the photos you think you are going to get. I did a lot of research before I went. I read a lot of blogs, watched some YouTube videos and even befriended some Costa Rican photographers on Instagram so I could ask advice. In the end, I bought a ThinkTank International travel bag to carry my gear. Here's what I took: two camera bodies, Nikon D500 & D750. Four lenses: Nikkor 200-500mm zoom, Nikkor 24-70 zoom, Nikkor 105mm macro and Nikkor 50mm f/4. I also took a 1.4 extender, which I did not use. I had multiple backup batteries and two battery chargers so I could recharge spent batteries at night. I also took multiple backup memory cards, a Surface Pro laptop and two external hard drives.

Usually when I travel I transfer my files each night to an external hard drive and clean my cards. In this case I ran into a road block. I had purchased a La Cie Rugged 2 TB external hard drive just before I left, but discovered on my first night there that it is not compatible with the Surface Pro. My travel companion works in IT and even he could not get it to work with the Surface Pro, so I changed course and simply watched how full my cards were getting. I didn't download anything till I got home.

Other essentials I took included two water-proof sleeves for the cameras, plenty of lens cleaning cloths, my rocket blower and brush, and a set of tools. I did not take a tripod. I knew we would be hiking through the jungle in the heat and I knew I was going to be suffering as it was. A tripod would have added to my misery and slowed me down. I also chatted with a local photographer who suggested a tripod wouldn't be necessary. 

THE MISTAKES I MADE

I think I did a pretty good job of selecting gear. Although the 200-500mm lens is heavier than my 80-400, I survived. It enabled me to get better pics of the monkeys we saw, and some of the birds, than a shorter lens would. I took this lens virtually everywhere with me. Mounted on the D500, which is a DX format, it gave me good reach for almost all birds and critters and in some instances was too much. 

I did not need the 1.4 extender. I only used the macro lens a couple of times, but since we went in the dry season not much was blooming. If I had gotten to see the poison dart frogs I might have used it more. I used the 50mm the first night we were there for some 'street' photography. I wish I had done that more. I was usually so dialed in to trying to capture good bird images that I let that slide. I love the 50mm and it's a great walking around lens. If you have one, I recommend you take it and use it. 

I have an 80-400mm lens and that would have worked great for most photos, but if I added the 1.4 extender for more length it would have put me at a maximum of f/8, which is way too slow and dark for the harsh light and shadows of the jungle. 

Some of the information I read highly recommended purchasing a Better Beamer light diffuser for flash. It seems a lot of bird photographers use this. I looked into it, but in the end decided against it. I don't normally use flash, so I would have had to purchase a flash as well as the Better Beamer and then practice with it. Instead I took a headlamp and flashlights. When we did night tours the guides had strong enough flashlights that it was relatively easy to take photos anyway. I would skip the extra gear in this case, unless it's something you're accustomed to using.

I also took a small day backpack. Each day I would decide what I needed and only took that gear. 

We traveled by boat to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I had planned carefully for protecting my gear from rain, but failed to consider the potential damage of salt water spray! Although I took a large garbage bag with me, I forgot to take it on the open boat. I sat in the middle and kept my gear in a backpack, but was definitely worried when the water sprayed over the bow numerous times. Next time I will take some sort of water-proof backpack or remember that garbage bag! 

After we returned from that trip I wiped down all my gear with a damp cloth and let it stay in the air conditioning for a while to dry out. It seems no worse for the wear. 

 

THE BEST ADVICE I FOUND

I watched so many documentaries and videos about Costa Rica, trying to imagine what the conditions would be like and how I would have to adapt. In the end the very best advice I gleaned was a single, casual tip. Many posts suggested investing in silicone bags to keep gear dry. The tip that made the most sense to me was this: if you're staying in an air conditioned place, keep your camera gear in the bathroom. Why? The bathrooms usually aren't air conditioned, so your gear won't be exposed to dramatic temperature fluctuations. When you take it out in the morning, it won't fog up in the heat and humidity. It works. My companion didn't do this and it took a good 15 minutes for his camera to adjust on the first day. I would have missed shots if I had been waiting for my gear to acclimate!

OUR ROUTE

We decided on February because it is the middle of the dry season. It's easier to get around during dry season, plus it's easier to see animals and birds because the foliage isn't as dense. Also, traveling to the remote Osa Penninsula is particularly challenging during wet season. I used a OneNote notebook to track our itinerary and keep detailed photography notes, but we used TripIt to keep us organized. 

Our route was determined by my traveling companion's prior experience and the location of some friends I have who moved to Costa Rica a decade ago. I had never gotten to visit them, so we planned time to visit their remote location. It happens to be on the Osa Penninsula, near Corcavado National Park, so we knew it was a place we wanted to visit anyway. 

I knew I wanted to see hummingbirds, the resplendent quetzel, and macaws. Everything beyond that would be a bonus. 

REMAINING FLEXIBLE

We planned our route based on things we wanted to see and do, and allowing for travel time and "course corrections." We really didn't know what the roads would be like, so we built in a little extra time to change course if we needed to and we used Booking.com to reserve rooms that could be canceled without forfeiting a deposit. Some of our plans worked out, some didn't.

I won't go through an exhaustive day-by-day description here, but I will highlight some things to think about if you're planning your first trip to Costa Rica.

LIBERIA & PLAYAS DEL COCO

What worked:  We flew into Liberia, rather than San Jose, because it's a smaller airport and we thought it would be easy to get to the coast for an overnight before starting our journey to Monteverde. If you're planning to go to the Osa Penninsula first, San Jose is a better choice. Our decision to rent a car and drive directly to the coast for our first night worked out well for us. We stayed at Hotel M&M Beach House in Playas Del Coco. Inexpensive, clean, private, guarded parking - it was all we needed. We arrived in time to get a light dinner, a good night's rest, and wake up early enough to enjoy the beach before hitting the road for a long drive to Monteverde. Beacause we had scheduled plenty of time, we actually booked a boat tour in the Paolo Verde park for our first day. Although we had booked a 10 a.m. tour, we arrived early and Palo Verde Boat Tours accommodated us - we got out on the water around 9:00 a.m. After a wonderful, personalized tour (the only other visitors were a biologist who spoke excellent English and served as an unexpectedly great guide, and his family), we had a fabulous lunch. Highly recommend this tour company if you're in the area. We saw at least 17 different birds, plus bats, crocodiles and iguanas. And when the boat driver saw my long lens, he urged me to sit in the bow of the boat - which proved perfect for photos.

What didn't work: We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Apparently this is a really popular arrival time and we were stuck in the customs line for over an hour. Pick another day to fly in and you might not have to wait as long. Beach board walkBeach walkThe beach board walk in Costas. Costas shopsCostasColorful small shops at the beach. Reduce, reuse, recycle on a palm tree. Reduce, reuse, recycleCosta Ricans are becoming more and more environmentally savvy - as expressed by this sign at the beach. Photo of sailboats anchored offshore at the beach with some islands in the distance. Day 1View of the beach on our first day in Costa Rica. People walking down a dimly lit dirt road toward a lighted cabana. First nightIt was nice to walk in the tropical temperatures when we went out for dinner on our first night. Brightly lit tables and chairs outside a local "Soda" restaurant. Soda TeresiaCosta Rica is dotted with these small shops called "Sodas," where you can get a bite to eat and something to drink. Woman selling food from a cart on the street. Street vendorsWe saw plenty of street vendors throughout our trip, but never stopped at one. Two children playing at a skate park, one on a bicycle, one on a scooter.Local sceneKids played at the beachside skateboard park well after dark. Photo of the front porch of Hotel M & M. Hotel M & MThis is Hotel M & M, where we stayed our first night. It faces the beach and was a nice place to just hang out and get our bearings.

MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST

What worked: Wow. The roads in Costa Rica are REALLY BAD. I have never seen such bad roads. Still, since we rented a four-wheel drive SUV, we were able to drive all the way to Monteverde, albeit s l o w l y in some cases. We picked a hotel "Tobi's Place", closest to the Cloud Forest. Having the car was a good idea, as although people suggested we could walk to the entrance of the Cloud Forest Reserve, we would have been exhausted before we even got there if we had walked carrying our gear! We got up early, drove up and parked just outside the entrance. Although we hadn't hired a guide beforehand, there were plenty of guides available for hire when we purchased our entry tickets.

I can't emphasize this enough: HIRE A GUIDE! You will miss all sorts of things if you don't hire a guide the first time you walk through the Cloud Forest. We took the tour with a guide, then took a break at the nearby hummingbird garden, then went back and walked on our own. The guide will give you history and help you see things you would no doubt miss if you were just wandering through on your own.

We picked up a local hitchhiker on our way down from the Cloud Forest. He turned out to be not only a certified guide, but also a bird nerd and bird photographer. He also knew a lot about amphibians and reptiles. We ended up hiring him for a private night tour. I'm not sure I would have picked up a hitchhiker if I had been on my own, but I was sure glad to make this connection! We had a blast with Jean and now we're 'virtual' friends on Facebook and Instagram. If I ever get to return, I will hire him as a bird guide. 

Hummingbird nestHummingbird nestThis is a perfect example of why one should hire a guide when touring the parks. We would never have spotted this hummingbird nest without a guide.

What didn't work: I really wanted a great photo of the resplendent quetzel. Although I saw it in the Cloud Forest, I learned later that they are actually more visible in one of the local private reserves. Do a little research if there's something special you want to photograph and give yourself the best chance to capture that image.

I also wanted great hummingbird pictures. As it turned out, the best place to see the hummingbirds was at the hummingbird garden right next to the park entrance. They have tons of feeders and the hummingbird action is phenomenal. Although I got a few photos, I didn't allow enough time to get what I wanted. I could spend a whole day there watching and shooting pictures. Personally, I would allow more time for that if I went back. I also would consider taking a shorter lens. My 200-500mm was too long for this location. My macro wasn't quite right. I think my 80-400 would have worked better. 

DRAKE BAY

What worked: We had no idea if we could actually drive to Drake Bay. Fortunately, the rental car company suggested we use the WAZE app. This worked beautifully everywhere we were. We also opted for the personal Wi-Fi hotspot when we rented the car. This portable Wi-Fi helped us out more than once during the trip. You can drive to Sierpe and take a boat to Drake Bay. We both decided that next time we would either do that or fly to Drake Bay. Although the drive was exciting (we had to drive through SIX rivers to get there!), it took more time than we would have liked due to the condition of the roads. 

When our first hotel turned out to be undoable, we got on Wi-Fi and searched for another. We found a cheap, clean, convenient place called Casa Toucan. It had parking next to the room (perfect if you have lots of photo gear, as I did), air conditioning (an unexpected bonus) and a small refrigerator in the room. Plus, after a little negotiation for four nights, it was only $50 a night. Would I stay there again? Probably not. The shower barely worked. The family that lived there was really noisy at night when we wanted to sleep. There was no breakfast or even coffee. There was no view. BUT, all that said, the family was very nice. We didn't spend that much time in our room, and because we were budget traveling, it worked for us. 

When our scheduled tour to Corcavado National Park fell through we scrambled to reschedule. We found a friend in Eric at Pacheco Tours who put up with our bugging him almost hourly and scheduled us for a tour. We would probably stay at their cottages next time, as they were reasonably priced and had an ocean view. 

One of the tours my friends had insisted I book in advance was The Night Bug Tour with Tracie the Bug Lady. Oh boy was it worth it! Smart, funny, informed - Tracie and her partner Gian do a fantastic job of showing you the jungle you don't know is there. Highly recommend! Five stars!

And here's something that surprised me - although we were well prepared to fend off mosquitoes, there were none! That's right. NO MOSQUITOES. I asked my friend who lives there about this and she told me there are a few during rainy season, but generally, it's not bad. A whip-tailed scorpion in the palm of a hand. Whip Tailed ScorpionTracie, of the The Night Tour, gives an entertaining, educational and hands-on tour of all the things in the jungle you don't see at first glance. In this picture she's holding a whip-tailed scorpion for all the tour attendees to see up close. Tropical rainforest up to the edge of the water with two boats in the foreground. Drake BayBeautiful Drake Bay was lush and green.

 

What didn't work: Ah, so many things went wrong in Drake Bay. We had booked a hotel (Lookout Drake Bay) through Booking.com. The room we booked looked lovely and had ceiling fans, which we thought would be good enough. When we arrived, the driveway to the hotel was nearly impossible to use. We barely made it up with our four-wheel drive! Then, there was a very long, steep walk up the hill. When the proprietor showed us the room it was nothing like the room we had viewed and booked on Booking.com. Instead, it was a small, fan-less room with a bunk bed. We said no thank you and went down to the town to get on Wi-Fi and find a new place. We were very worried (at least I was - my travel companion is pretty calm through things like this), that everything would be booked. (See the resolution above in "What Worked). 

I had also made a point of booking our tours for Drake Bay based on recommendations from my friends who live there. They highly recommended I book the guide Roy through Drake Divers to go to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I did that in September. Everything was confirmed. When I sent an email the day before our arrival to reconfirm I received a casual response telling me Roy wasn't available due to family illness. They said they would book another tour for me if I wanted. Of course I said yes, then got no response. Frankly, they dropped the ball.

We spent our first day in Drake Bay walking from tour company to tour company trying to book a tour to Sirena Station because the National Park only allows a handful of people into the park every day. When we went to Drake Divers we were received with indifference. I showed the emails and the woman working there kind of shrugged her shoulders and said Roy lived in San Jose and they couldn't reach him. It was at this point I really lost it. This was on Wednesday and we had scheduled our trip for Friday, but told them we were flexible enough to go the next day. I even texted my friend who lives there, who called and talked to them. Long story short, long after we had found and booked another tour, they sent an email saying we could go with Roy the next day. It was after six in the evening and we were headed to a night tour. Needless to say, I would never try to book a tour with these people again. They get great reviews on Trip Advisor, but they dropped the ball for us. 

Gear: If I were planning for the night bug tour, I wouldn't take my camera. I would take my phone only. I had hoped to see poison dart frogs, but they're actually in Sierpe, not Osa (see note above about doing your research!). I had hoped to get some good pics with my macro lens, but it turned out to be too difficult to get close enough and Tracie and Gian are very conscious of not casting light on the creatures they show you for too long. A phone with a decent camera is plenty good enough for the night tour. 

For the trip to Sirena Station I took my Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens. It was a good combo for most things I shot, but was admittedly a heavy load for me to carry in the heat. If I had a nice slush fund, I would probably have gotten the Nikkor 300mm f/4 and used my 1.4 extender. This would have given me the same distance with less weight, although less flexibility than the zoom. 

THE LAST NIGHT

We decided the drive from Drake Bay back to Liberia was likely to be one we didn't want to do in one day, so we scheduled our last night to stay at Cerro Lodge in Tarcoles. Imagine my delight when I saw that they have bird feeders that attract scarlet macaws as well as dozens of other colorful birds! My only regret was that we didn't spend at least two nights here. If you want a lazy-man's way to see gorgeous birds (even a ferruginous pygmy owl!), this is a great location off the beaten path. The rooms are nice, the food is great, there is a pool, and the bird watching is top notch. 

WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY

I felt pretty good about my planning. Although I didn't use the D750 and my wider lenses as often as I would have liked, I was happy to have gotten some decent photos for my first trip out. Now that I have an idea what to expect, I would spend a little more time in Monteverde and visit a couple of the nearby nature Reserves in addition to the Park. 

I would consider getting a little lens for my iPhone and use it for some more 'touristy' casual photos. 

Clothes wise I did great. In fact, my clothes bag was much smaller than my camera bag. I took one pair of Keens and one pair of Teva sandals. I wore the Keens the entire time, except for the trip to Sirena station. For that I wore the Tevas simply to get in and out of the boat (which is a beach landing). Otherwise it was all tee shirts and shorts. For travel from the cold Pacific Northwest I wore a Nuu-Muu dress which I was able to layer with tights over shorts (I took off the tights when we landed), and a long-sleeved overshirt (which I removed upon landing). I also took and wore a fantastic lightweight vest by ScotteVest. 

This being my first trip to Costa Rica, I naturally had visions of getting photos of every single thing - from monkeys to birds to poison dart frogs. I also knew that probably wouldn't happen. Next time I would schedule time to visit Sierpe Frogs and get photos of the famous and beautiful poisonous amphibians. 

QUICK TIPS

  • Don't be afraid to go on your own, without a tour
  • Pack lightly on clothes
  • Pick the right camera gear for the images you want
  • Use TripIt to plan your itinerary
  • Learn some Spanish - it helps 
  • Research where you're going and when to understand what birds/animals you stand a chance of seeing - there are many different areas to visit to see everything from hatching sea turtles to massive bird migrations to butterflies and sloths
  • It's Nature - know that you won't necessarily see everything you want to
  • Book tour guides in advance; if heading to Corcavado make sure you book with a guide who takes payment in advance in order to secure your spot
  • Sirena station is considered the best location in Corcavado to see the most animals/birds
  • Plan flexibility into your schedule - you may need a day or two to rework logistics
  • If you're going to shoot birds, download the Merlin Costa Rica guide, or other Costa Rica birds guide
  • Do the night tours - you can sleep when you get home
  • Notify your credit card companies in advance that you'll be out of the country and where you will be
  • If you're headed to the Osa Penninsula, take cash. There are no ATMs and few people take credit cards
  • Most places take US dollars, but it's always good to exchange some money when you arrive in the country
  • The food and water were excellent most places we went. Unlike Mexico, I did not get sick. I took anti-diarrheal medication just in case.

SOME PICS - HOVER TO READ CAPTIONS

A turkey vulture in flight. Turkey vultureCosta Rica has many varieties of vultures, and we saw plenty of them. This turkey vulture was checking us out on our first day. A close-up of long-nosed bats on the bark of a tree. Long nosed batsI shot these photos from the boat during our tour in Palo Verde. I could not see what I was shooting, but the guide kept pointing and telling me there were bats. I did not see them until later, when I looked at my photos and was able to zoom in. Masters of disguise! A blue-capped night heron peeking out from his perch inside foliage.  Blue-capped night heronWe saw lots of herons. It was really difficult to get full pictures as they often turned away or backed into shadow when the boat approached. A boat-billed heron sitting on a branch in a tree looking directly at the camera. Boat-billed heronThis boat-billed heron was eyeing me carefully. It took a number of tries before I got a picture of him without much foliage in front of him. Photo of a sugar cane field with a single tree. Dry seaonI was smitten with the color palate of Costa Rica on our first day. The pale green of sugar cane against the blue skies was just the thing I needed after a long, dark winter in the Pacific Northwest.

 

  A brightly colored hummingbird perches on a feeder. Hummingbird at feederOf course it's much easier to see the many varieties of hummingbirds up close at the nearby hummingbird garden. It's just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve entrance and has feeders that attract dozens of hummers. A hummingbird with a blue throat in flight, approaching a feeder. Hummingbird with blue throatThere are a seemingly endless variety of hummers in Costa Rica. A coatimundi on pavement. CoatimundiWildlife is one of the great attractions for Costa Rica. We saw our first coatamundi at the Cloud Forest Reserve. Although he was happily looking for handouts, visitors were really conscious of not feeding him. They are in the raccoon family and cause many of the same issues raccoons do in the US - like getting into the garbage.

 

Photo of a resplendent quetzal in a tree, showing his turquoise colored back side and long mating tail feathers. Resplendent quetzelThe resplendent quetzal is THE bird I had hoped to see and photograph in Costa Rica. Although I did see three of them, I never got a great shot. Still a thrill though.

Hummingbird with a purple chest sitting on a tree branch. Purple hummingbirdThis purple chested hummingbird terrorized all the other hummers at the feeders. A purple chested hummingbird in flight approaching a feeder.Purple hummingbird in flightI think the white tail of this hummingbird served as a huge warning to others, as they all scattered (except that little honeycreeper on the feeder) when it came in to feed. Anteater in a tree looking directly at camera. Anteater in treeI have to say, my favorite critter encounter was completely unplanned. This adorable anteater crossed the road in front of our car as we were leaving Monteverde Cloud Forest. We pulled over and I ran to take pics. It ambled up a tree, turned and posed for me, climbed back down and ambled off. Adorable! Scorpion glowing blue in the dark.ScorpionThis is a bad photo of a really cool critter. On our first night tour we were shown this scorpion that illuminates under blue light. I had no tripod, so this was the best I could do hand-held. A two-toed sloth hanging from a tree branch. Two-toed slothNo trip to Costa Rica is complete without a view of a sloth, even if a brief one. This two-toed sloth was high in a tree and moving ever-so-slowly the night we took our first night jungle tour. Again, no tripod meant fuzzy pics.

 

White faced monkey eating a banana.White faced monkeyWe saw lots of monkeys during our entire visit, but the white-faced monkeys are the clever ones. I am sure they annoy the people who live there, as they are always getting into something, but they were fun to watch. Two scarlet macaws on a branch in a tree. Scarlet macawsIf I couldn't get good pics of the Resplendent Quetzel, at least I could get pics of the scarlet macaw. These two were at Cerro Lodge, where we stayed our last night. I got better pictures of them in Drake Bay, but never got the great flying shot that shows their amazing feathers.

Scarlet macaw on a branch, looking down at camera. Scarlet macawI heard scarlet macaws on the first day in Drake Bay, but they flew by so fast I didn't get a shot. Every morning after that I got up before sunrise and walked to a nearby park overlooking the beach. I sat and waited for my opportunity. Finally, on the last day, six macaws flew to a nearby tree and stayed long enough for me to get some shots. I even got a couple of them in flight.


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