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Colors of Costa Rica 9-day Photography Workshop - April 2016

The country of Costa Rica is a proverbial paradise of natural wonders. Its geography, culture, flora, and fauna are as beautiful and amazing to rival any place on earth. Nestled in the southern part of Central America, Costa Rica has vast and diverse ecosystems teeming with life, from the volcanic mountainous regions in the north, to the impenetrable rain forests in the south. It is a photographer's paradise known for its biodiversity. Our Colors of Costa Rica workshop spends nine days traversing through the lush forests with outstanding guides, in an effort to capture the beautiful creatures of Costa Rica in their incredible natural setting.

Day 1

First part of any trip is to get there, and every year we've done these workshops without any travel hiccups. I guess this year it was our turn for hiccups after all the smooth sailing of years past... myself, fellow guide and professional photographer Phil, and one of our students, failed to successfully make connecting flights to our destination in San Jose in time for our orientation. What normally takes all of nine hours (conservatively) to arrive in Costa Rica from California, it ended up taking Phil and I just over 25 hours to reach our starting point in San Jose. One of our students too, was forced to take a later flight due to delays in the airline system. But, after all the snafus with luggage and missed connections and delays, we all ended up safely (with our baggage) at the Hotel Bougainvillea in San Jose, our starting point.

Normally, this workshop starts with people arriving and exploring the grounds of the Bougainvillea with us on day one before we sit down for a group dinner. As Phil and I were eating peanuts in Managua, Nicaragua (waiting for our connecting flight), our guide Charlie met with most of the group at dinner and gave them the rundown on the week to come. As we checked into the hotel, they had thoughtfully arranged for supper for us in our room... and we promptly ate, eager to start the new day with our group...and then we passed out until the next morning.

Day 2

Phil and I woke early and excitedly grabbed our gear to head into the gardens and greet our students. We commiserated with those who woke early and were walking the grounds, and then had breakfast with the entire group, and everything was back into the groove--hiccups were gone.

We all got acquainted over a lovely buffet spread, then packed our things and headed north into the mountains for Bosque de Paz. Bosque is a private reserve of some 2500 acres in pristine cloud forest, which is to say that it's at a higher elevation than most places, and has unique wildlife.

After an awesome, hearty, home-cooked lunch, we took the afternoon and started photographing the hummingbirds around the area. We set up some natural feeders for the birds, made out of the flowering plants available on site. Our "feeders" are a way of getting the hummingbirds to congregate in a specific location, making it easier to photograph them in a natural setting. In this way, with a little patience and some luck, everyone was able to more easily predict where the birds would be flying and feeding, and cards began to fill up fast.

As the light began to fade, we put away our cameras and took some time off before dinner to rest and download our images. The food at Bosque de Paz is the closest thing you'll get to an actual home-cooked Costa Rican meal (although I still love adding hot sauce to everything to liven it up). After dinner, we all retreated to our rooms, and fell asleep to the sounds of the rain forest.

Day 3

Right after dawn, we awoke to find the hummingbirds active and zipping around the property. We had another excellent breakfast accompanied with some of the most amazing fresh fruit juices before embarking on a short drive to a nearby waterfall. Catarata del Toro, or waterfall of bull, is a huge 200 ft. plunge fall, in a canyon a short distance from our hotel. The grounds there are also privately owned, and the abundance of wildlife is enough to keep one busy for hours.

As we all grabbed some shots of the waterfall from its multiple vantage points along the rim, the fog ebbed and flowed through the mountains and around the canyon, providing an ever-changing scene. We then switched gears and grabbed some photos of the local hummingbirds, and some of our group got acquainted with our first sighting of the Montezuma Oropendola, a big feisty looking, colorful bird with an extremely distinctive call. As midday came, we headed back to Bosque for lunch before heading out to another waterfall.

Catarata de Fatima, or waterfall of the blessed virgin Mary, is a short jaunt through the forest from the resort. Not everyone decided to make the trek, as it was a little longer than memory served. On the way, Charlie tried to coax out the Resplendent Quetzal, a beautiful bird with colors as amazing as the length of its tail. As this particular bird makes its home in the cloud forest, this would be the only stop on our trip where we would have our best chance to see it. But to no avail, after all, it's a huge forest! That's okay, there would be plenty of other rare and extremely beautiful birds to see in our short time in Costa Rica.

Back to the waterfall. Catarata de Fatima is a tall, thin cascade surrounded by the greenery of the forest. It's quite striking in the flesh, as the forest seems to frame the waterfall perfectly for viewing. After everyone had their fill, we headed back down the trail for a much needed nap before dinner. I think those who went on the hike that afternoon slept extremely well that night.

Day 4

Sunrise, wake up, grabbed some photos of the wildlife when it's most active, and breakfast. After breakfast, we packed up our gear and said goodbye to Frederico and his amazing staff at Bosque de Paz.

Traversing through the volcanic range of the northwest, we stopped in La Fortuna, a small town near the Arenal volcano. As we disembarked the van, our group walked around the main square and enjoyed some shopping in the bodegas for some local flair and some touristy garb. Authentic Costa Rican coffee and handmade jewelry are my personal faves to splurge on in La Fortuna.

A short drive later, we arrived at the closest hotel to the Arenal volcano, the Arenal Observatory Lodge, where, right off the deck of the restaurant, you can enjoy arguably the best vista of the volcano around, or the hundreds of birds that make their home in the grounds below.

After an extremely enjoyable lunch (I had hot-dogs!), we checked in to our rooms (all with a balcony and view) and rested up before heading out into the gardens for some more photography. We saw some huge Guans and Currasows, more species of hummingbirds, a woodpecker nesting, and Costa Rica's weirdest mammal (every country has one), the Coatimundi. It's like a cross between a raccoon, a monkey, and an anteater. After enjoying a few drinks at the bar with our group, we had another awesome dinner before retiring to our rooms.

Day 5

The viewing platform in front of the restaurant at the lodge is full of action in the early morning hours around sunrise. The early bird photographers are always in for a treat, as the birds and beasts around the area are most active this time of day.

The lodge puts out a spread for the animals too, papaya and watermelon adorn a feeding contraption on a pole high above the ground. The birds fly all around competing for the generous fruits from their hosts, and we took advantage of their fervor, snapping photos of honeycreepers, oropendolas, tanagers, and farther off, even a group a howler monkeys. After breakfast, we headed down a trail to a another local waterfall.

We got there before the crowds of tourists, as this waterfall is a favorite swimming hole for tourists eager to cool off in the hot midday hours. We spent the morning photographing the waterfall and then took a tour of one of the many paved trails around the lodge, and found two very unique birds among the trees. A pair of broad-billed motmots took a fancy to Charlie's recorded calls, and came within 30 feet of our cameras to inspect us. Also a slaty-tailed trogon, a big blue-coated, red-vested bird, made an appearance to find out who was calling from a distance. That was the closest I have ever seen these birds in three years of coming to the place, so naturally I was juiced, and we got some great shots.

As we made our way back to our rooms, we were greeted with probably the grandest sight of all: the Arenal volcano in full glory, from tip to toe, no clouds covering it. It was a sight we had warned our group of in advance, as it almost never happens. But there it was, for hours, begging to be photographed. Before, during and after lunch, it sat, perched among the clear blue sky, a rare sight. We ate lunch in awe, and then drove to a nearby butterfly conservatory.

The Butterfly Conservatory is a Costa Rican rainforest regeneration project, which was created on the sloping hills in the nearby village of El Castillo. Once a cattle grazing ranch, this small 13 acre plot has now been faithfully restored (by hand) back into the natural habitat that once adorned the hillsides some 70 years ago. The four enclosed habitats provide a viewing area for many species of butterfly, and in moving from habitat to habitat, you get to see, up close, the most photogenic phase of a butterfly's life: flight! We spent a couple hours running around the habitats photographing the butterflies, as well as the frogs and other amphibians and reptiles they keep there. We got up close and personal with Costa Ricas national butterfly, the Blue Morpho, and one of the most colorful amphibians, the Red-eyed Tree Frog.

As we returned to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, it was apparent to Phil and I that a nice sunset was in the works, so before dinner we encouraged everyone to join us on the deck for sunset. And it didn't disappoint. After dinner we slept pretty good that night. It was a long, but extremely fruitful, day.

Day 6

As we rose early on our last morning in Arenal, a few of the group, Phil, Charlie, and I, decided to get one last crack at photographing the wildlife before we made our way to our next location. To our surprise and amazement, we were able to locate and photograph a pair of Red-Lored Parrots and a trio of Collared Aracari, which is a smaller cousin to the Toucan. Charlie did his best to call the birds in and have them get as close to us as possible with his bird songs, and Phil and I made sure to help our group get into the best positions for the good light, all before breakfast!

After some food, we checked out and hopped in the bus for a short ride back to La Fortuna for our chartered plane ride across the country to Tortuguero. The area around Tortuguero is truly remote and the best way I've ever been able to describe it has been to compare it to the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland (except it's all real).

Tortuguero would be the definition of saving the best for last, as the entire area is made up of series of rivers and canals, and the only way around is by boat. So, for the next two days, we were on a genuine jungle river safari!

As we landed on a small airstrip cut into the jungle, we had the Caribbean sea on one side and the Rio Tortuguero on the other. We took our luggage in small boats across the river and were greeted with ice cold fruit drinks and towels to cool us down from the warm weather. After checking into our rooms, exploring the grounds a little and some awesome lunch (the food at the Tortuga Lodge is my favorite), we all hopped in to our river boat and sped away with Leo, our boat driver and guide. We cruised around the canals in Tortuguero National Park, saw Jacanas, Herons, Kingfishers, Anhingas, and we watched the moon rise over the jungle canopy at sunset. It was a magical day!

After another world class dinner from the amazing crew at the Tortuga Lodge, we finally retired to our rooms in anticipation for the next day.

Day 7

Costa Rica is known for its temperate rain forests. Throughout our journey, we traversed through most of them, but up until this point we hadn't really felt any presence of rain. We had gotten really lucky to have mostly clear skies in Arenal, and very little moisture in Bosque de Paz. I was beginning to think we'd never see any rain on this trip, and all the tales we had shared of crazy downpours in years past, would sound like fairy tales. However, on this morning, our group got the full Costa Rica experience.

It started with a drizzle as we loaded into our boat, and quickly became a downpour as we made our way down the canal toward the National Park. We had time, thankfully, to don our thick rain ponchos, and while we sped south to the park entrance, we got a full-on monsoon. It was awesome! And just as quickly as it came, the rain subsided, and everything was back to normal.

That morning our good fortunes continued with sightings of Capuchin monkeys, a rare Kingfisher, and Heron, caiman and iguanas. After we got back, we did a nature walk into the jungle and found some Poison Dart frogs, and a toad, which we photographed on some broad palm leaves in the sunlight. On that afternoon's boat safari, we found a three-toed sloth climbing around a tree, we tried our hand at capturing some herons and egrets in flight, and watched as families of Spider and Capuchin monkeys jumped through the trees above us.

As we sped back to the hotel, we were greeted with an amazing sunset to cap off a most perfect day. That night the crew at the Tortuga Lodge prepared a special barbecue dinner for us, complete with candlelit path and tiki torches. It was amazing!

Day 8

Our last day in Tortuguero, we took our boat out for one last hurrah through the canals. We spotted some Royal terns, more Howler and Capuchin monkeys, and a river otter! We took some time before returning to the hotel to check out the local town and do some shopping and walking through the streets.

When we returned and started to pack up, a family of Howler monkeys decided to come into the grounds near the lodge and jump around the trees! A couple of us managed to quickly grab our cameras and get some amazing shots up close, before they returned back to their jungle. We had lunch one last time before boarding our boat and saying goodbye to our new friends at the Tortuga Lodge.

As we crossed the river to await our plane, I thought it would be a good idea to show our group the view of the Caribbean Sea that was so close to our accommodations that we could hear the surf anytime it was quiet. Our plane arrived, the crew loaded our luggage and we were off once again across the country back to San Jose, where we had started, at the Hotel Bougainvillea. It felt good to be back in cooler weather, but it was sad, too, because our trip was nearly at an end.

We sat down for one last dinner together at the hotel, recanting stories about all our adventures in such a short time together. Our small group felt more like family. As Phil, Charlie, Pedro and I said our goodbyes, it was tough to come to the realization that we would have to wait another year to see them and their lovely country again.

Day 9

Our travel home day. With everyone returning to their homes at different times and in different states, Phil and I had only ourselves to keep each other company on our return trip. We left the hotel in the early morning and made our way through the lines in Juan Santamaria International Airport, before boarding our first flight home. Fortunately this time, there were no missed connections, lost baggage, or delayed flights. In the evening hours, we arrived safely back home in San Jose, this time in California. The lack of humidity and heat was a bit of a shock to our systems, but they were a welcome change. And, as I picked up my bags and got into my car, just like every year, I began to reminisce about everything that had just happened on this whirlwind photo adventure. I think I can speak for Phil when I say that we both can't wait to see our group again on another adventure, in some other far-flung paradise around the globe... or even one close to home. Thanks for the great times everyone, we definitely had a blast!

Until next time,

Scott, Phil and the rest of the Aperture Academy team!

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