Even though Costa Rica is a relatively small Country it boasts some of the richest biodiversity in the world! Costa Rica has 830 species of birds and around 600 of those species live in the Country year round. The beautiful and vibrantly colorful birds are just some of what we photograph on our Colors of Costa Rica Photography workshop.
Scott Donschikowski and I made our way to Costa Rica on April 25th, to meet up with 9 excited and eager workshop participants, from all over the US and abroad. Once everyone arrived at our beautiful hotel, the Bougainvillea, Located in the outskirts of San Jose, CR we got started with our orientation. Scott, myself, and our guide extraordinaire Charlie, met with everyone to introduce ourselves. More importantly we wanted to get acquainted with all of our eager students to find out more about them. There were many familiar faces and some new ones as well. After our meet and greet we had our first of many delicious Costa Rican meals.
We all met up again in the morning over breakfast. Afterwards we made our way outside to get our cameras and brains warmed up. The morning rain stopped just as we stepped out to start shooting. Timing could not have been better. This theme of good timing would follow us throughout the workshop. The grounds at the Bougainvillea hotel are magnificent. There are many types of plants and flowers, and all in full blooming glory. The perfect opportunity to get that macro lens out and practice, practice, practice. Charlie located a very cool fruit bat, right out of the gates. He was hanging upside down under some palm tree leaves. I had the students take turns to capture the best angle and had them raise their ISO’s in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the species of American Fruit Bat. The hour and a half flew by and it was time to hit the road to our first destination, Bosque De Paz.
Our guide, Charlie and Nino our driver run a tight efficient ship. They ensured we were all packed up and ready to hit the road in a timely fashion. Nino drove us approximately 2 hours up to Bosque De Paz. The privately owned biological preserve sits in between Paos Volcano National Park and Juan Castro Blanco National Park. Bosque De Paz translates to Forest of Peace, and it truly is peaceful and beautiful. We arrived in time for lunch. They fed us well in Costa Rica and we never missed a meal. We all joked about how the meals seemed so frequent. Think it was because when you’re photographing and enjoying yourself, time flies by!
After lunch we had the students get out those long lenses. The hummingbirds were really active and Scott and I wanted to get everyone practicing with those telephoto lens. Hummingbirds can be pretty tricky to photograph. A hummingbird’s wings beat about 70 times per second… can you say fast shutter speed! And if 70 beats per second weren’t fast enough, when diving their wings can beat up to 200 times per second. Scott and I had the students use tripods to help with not only weight of the telephoto lens, but also to get them in the perfect position to capture the hummer has he/she fed from a flower. Charlie and Nino set up a few flowers to draw the hummers to an area where our students could easily photograph them. It also allowed the students to keep shooting, even when a light rain ensued. It seemed like the hummers also wanted to seek refuge under the overhang of the building. They started perching on us… yes they literally perched on our person. They sat on some of the student’s cameras, on their shoulder, and even on my shoe. It was great fun playing with the hummingbirds that afternoon. They were basically unafraid and would even try to feed on those who had bright clothing. What an exciting first day, which came to a close after dinner. Meals are really special at Bosque De Paz, not only do they taste delicious, but Federico, the owner comes around and says a very nice and personal blessing before the meal begins.
The birds are up with the sun, which is pretty darn early. As photographers we are used to early mornings, is it for wildlife or landscape sunrise shooting. Coffee is ready and so are our guides. They have already been up scouting the wildlife and reporting their findings. After some early morning hummingbird shooting we had a delicious breakfast. Most of the group opted to take a challenging hike to the waterfall at Bosque De Paz. The hike was around 1.5 miles with a 1,000-foot elevation gain. After all the delicious food we had been eating the hike was some welcome exercise. On the journey to the waterfall we got to see the beautiful Quetzal bird. The Quetzal is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world. During mating season, the males tail feathers grow up to 3 feet in length. It was a real treat to see this stunning male during our hike. Everyone agreed it was worth the hike to see the fantastic waterfall. We had them work several different angles and vantage points to capture the plunging waterfall. Just as we were finishing up and starting to make our way back down, it started to rain. The ground was a little slick so we took it easy on the way down. Even though I was being careful, I had inadvertently stepped on a slick, flat rock. Next think you know I was on the ground. Luckily the only damage was to my elbow, and even that was minimal. My camera was fine, which of course was my biggest concern. Everyone else made it down unscathed. We all had worked up a nice appetite and indulged in yet another fantastic Costa Rican meal. After lunch we played around with the hummingbirds for a while, then gathered for some post processing and image review. The collection of images had really started to grow, so the opportunities for post processing were plentiful. It was time for our last dinner with Federico and his lovely meal blessing. Something we would all think about in the days to follow. Day 4
After a delicious breakfast Nino loaded up the van with our bags and we travelled down the road, about 15 minutes to a location know as Catarata Del Toro, which translates to Waterfall of the Bull. One of the largest waterfalls in Costa Rica, the water plunges over volcanic rock to the gorge below. Truly a hidden paradise. We were the only people there, for most of the visit. Only 2 people had shown up over the course of 2 ½ hours. The area also boasts different hummingbird species, as well as a nice selection of flora. After spending the morning, photographing everything from waterfalls, to flowers, and of course many species hummingbirds. A morning filled with a treasure trove of amazing photography. We enjoyed a nice lunch at Catarata Del Toro, before heading down the road to our next destination, The Arenal Observatory Lodge. Our rooms had a stunning view of the volcano. When we arrived it was a little rainy, so the students had to take my word for it… the volcano is behind those big clouds, I swear. We took a short respite after getting all checked into our rooms, checked out the beautiful grounds at the Observatory and then met up for dinner. During dinner, Nino calls me outside. He shows me this really cool Oro or Gold beetle. It was hanging out under a leaf, and even at night you could tell his color was magnificent. Nino keep him safe with some leaves overnight, so we could get a chance to grab some macro shot in the morning light. Day5
The next morning Charlie and Nino were up with the sun, looking at what types of birds were out and about. We were able to get in some nice shooting in the morning before breakfast. Nino brought out the Golden Beetle and everyone captured some really nice macro shots. The gold color was so dazzling in the soft morning light.
We also followed and photographed a male and female curassow. They are large and beautiful birds. The female was in the perfect position for all to capture some beautiful images. Our guides used their trusty iPods with birdcalls, to bring her closer. Mimicking the call of the male curassow. After breakfast the group shot from the balcony adjacent to the dining room. The lodge places large pieces of fruit to attract the birds and it works like a charm. We wait in the gorgeous balcony and the magnificent tropical birds come to us. Later that morning we all took a nice little hike, to a splendid little waterfall. It only takes about 20 minutes to get there, and it’s well worth the journey. This beautiful falls has some spectacular vantage point in the stream below the base of the falls. The stream creates some really nice leading lines and rocks add the perfect foreground interest and compositional anchor. It felt good to get a little hike in, to work off some of that delicious food we had been indulging in. Upon our return to our rooms, a splendid treat was waiting. The treat of getting to see the spectacular Arenal Volcano. The clouds had broken up enough to provide a stunning view of the semi-active volcano. I say semi active that afternoon I had originally planned a trip to the hanging bridges. However, given the impending afternoon rain, I went with a plan b and took the group to a nearby butterfly conservatory. It turned out to be the perfect choice, not only because of the weather, but the butterflies were truly amazing. The owner of the butterfly conservatory, Glen, is a very energetic and passionate individual.
Over 10 years ago he took a trip to Costa Rica, after an early retirement. He decided at that time that he wanted to make Costa Rica his home. Glen moved to the country and started to regenerate the old property that had been previously clear-cut for cattle grazing. He planted and continues to plant trees. One would never know that the land was once barren grazing pasture. Glen also started to regenerate the butterfly population. He has 5 different mesh enclosures with most of the Costa Rican natives, including the stunning Blue Morpho. The butterflies are used to people walking through so they will oftentimes land on you for a closer inspection. Especially if you’re donning vibrant colors. Scott and I assisted with the macro shooting of these beauties. Making sure the depth of field was not too shallow and the ISO was high enough to provide a fast enough shutter speed for hand held shooting. The afternoon trip was definitely a lovely photographical treat. After returning back to the Arenal Observatory lodge, we had just enough time to download some images and get ready for a nice relaxing dinner.
Day 6 - Tortuguero
After a pretty interesting chain of thunderstorms the previous night, we awoke to the sight of the Arenal volcano and the skies above being relatively clear. Everyone met us on the sun deck of the restaurant for some pre-breakfast shooting of the the local wildlife, and the occasional shot of the volcano without any clouds! Charlie and Niño once again provided their expertise in spotting and naming the vastly different amount of wildlife that is preset in the national park. After breakfast, and a quick group shot, we packed up the bus with our stuff for the short flight from La Fortuna to Tortuguero. The airport in La Fortuna is a small gravel strip, which handles the little planes that would be flying us halfway across the country to the Tortuga Lodge, which is situated on a barrier island in a small channel on the Caribbean coast. These pilots were in a word, awesome! I felt as if we were in an episode of Flying Wild on the Discovery channel, only in Costa Rica. As we landed in Tortuguero, our luggage plane arrived right behind us, and it was only a 2 minute ride across the channel to our digs at the amazingly fantastic Tortuga Lodge. It was breathtaking seeing the views and accommodations everyone in our group had, especially being that close to nature, with all the modern conveniences. After lunch we set out on our first boat ride, which consisted of seeing and being able to photograph; bats, herons, iguanas, toucans, caiman, howler monkeys and various other waterfoul. Our boat captains expertly guided the waters always giving us the best possible angles at a moments notice. We were greeted with a pretty glorious sunset and thunderclouds upon our return, and after another fabulous dinner, our super long but eventful day was over.
Day 7 - Tortuguero
Morning supershowers had pushed back our second boat ride to after breakfast, as the group got a chance to see more howler monkeys, poisonous frogs, and rare birds, after the rain. We pushed back the boat ride to 10:30am and as luck would have it, we were only slightly rained on in beginning of our cruise. Today we took a different route through the jungle channels and arrived in the Black Canal, named for its nearly black water. The water gets its color from the breakdown of organic material being dissolved in the slowly moving currents. Today in the Black Canal, we saw a group of spider monkey females traveling from one side of the canal to the other, which some of them do by simply jumping across! Others with young, had to be a little more creative and make a sort of skybridge across the narrow channel by bending down the tall branches of some palm trees so the others could cross safely. We spent nearly half an hour photographing and videoing these majestic little creatures, it was an amazing sight to behold. Pair that sighting with the numerous other waterfowl, cormorants, more toucans and even a crocodile, and todays adventure was just like the last! After we got back and had lunch, we did a little post processing, talked about the nights adventure, which would be a night hike through the on sight rainforest. After dinner however, we were greeted with a rain storm to end all others, and unfortunately had to cancel the hike due the sheer amount of water which would likely have made walking in the forest a major hazard, especially at night. Off an on the rain came and went all night, which was a nice treat for us Californians, especially me, while I was gently eased to sleep by the sound of the downpours.
Day 8 - Cerro de la Muerta
Morning greeted us quite early today, as we had another full day of travel ahead of us. After breakfast, and a group shot, we packed up our stuff and headed across the channel, where we had a little break and took in the sights of the Caribbean sea, which was not more than a stones throw from the airfield. After we loaded everything up in the planes and took off, I have to admit I was a little sad at leaving Tortuguero, by far my favorite place in all of Costa Rica. The amount of life available for you to experience just outside your room is totally astounding and will stay with me always. Landing in San Jose, Niño was there with our bus and after we helped him load everything up top, it was off to Cerro de la Muerta at over 9000ft, which translates to Mountain of Death, referring to the 3 or 4 day journey it used to take people on horseback or on foot, and many travelers died trying to make the crossing. The Pan-American highway has changed all that though, and our journey today was in search of the ever elusive but beautiful, Resplendent Quetzal. After arriving at the Paraiso Quetzal Lodge, which is at an altitude of nearly 9100ft, we grabbed our gear and headed slowly upwards onto some local farmland to sit in wait for Quetzal to return to a known nest. During our nearly 3 hour wait, we spotted a female twice, and the male twice as well, with his long green tail, and bright red vest. a truly amazing spectacle! After the long wait, i think everyone in our group developed a new respect for birding photography, as everyone was able to witness something most dont in years of trying to catch up with these incredible birds. After lunch, we headed out on the deck for some more hummingbird photography, this time we were able to get a little closer thanks to the feeders being places right next to the balcony and in perfect position with the natural environment, as to allow these little fast moving birds to perch less than 1 foot, in most cases, from our lenses. After the long journey back to the Hotel Bougainvillea, everyone was still giddy for photography as there was still some daylight left to explore the local gardens. At dinner, cheers abound for our two fabulous guides Charlie and Niño, to whom we owe everything we saw. These guys are the real deal! Okay so there was a little fanfare for myself and Ellie as well, but our local guides, who are naturalists as well, deserve a lot of the credit.
After not getting that much sleep, I found myself awake and groggy and upset that we actually had to leave. I was dreading this day, as the experiences that Ellie and myself had with this group far outweighed my expectations. Our group was marvelous, in every respect. Everyone was passionate about finding and seeing new flora and fauna, excited about learning new post-processing techniques, adventurous about trying new cuisines and language, and most importantly, kind, considerate and charitable to the beautiful local people of such a well deserving country. I can honestly say that for these 9 days, we lived a "Pura Vida!" Thank you to Charlie and Niño, and to our wonderful cast of photographic students!
Pura Vida from Scott, Ellie and the entire Aperture Academy Team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.