Costa Rica is an amazingly beautiful and diverse country. Located in Central America, it’s bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the southeast. An ecologically forward thinking country, that has no army or military of any kind. Beyond the basic facts about Costa Rica, the rich flora and fauna provide outstanding photographic opportunities. From vibrant birds, to colorful flowers, butterflies, and even spectacular amphibian specimens. It’s easy to see why we conduct a photography workshop in this beautiful country.
On the first day Ellie and Scott made there way to Costa Rica, along with their 10 excited students. One the first night the group would stay at the Hotel Bougainvillea. The grounds are outstanding, with opportunity for birding and lots of different flora to photograph.Students were arriving from all over the US, so the instructors met up with those who had arrived before 6:30pm. All got aquatinted and Ellie talked about what to expect over the course of the workshop.Places they would be visiting, and what types of things they could expect to see. Ellie introduced their guide from Costa Rica Expeditions. Charlie has been guiding for CRE for over 30 years. He’s a biologist by trade, with an extreme talent for bird watching. Charlie has a huge sound library of bird calls, and he utilizes them on his iPod, along with a speaker, to bring the birds closer. It’s truly amazing. He is a wonderful addition and huge asset to the workshop.
For the few students that had to fly in later in the evening, Ellie and Scott would get them all introduced and caught up on the details over a lovely breakfast. Everyone got well acquainted. After breakfast all headed out into the beautiful gardens at the Bougainvillea. The gardens are full of lush, local flora. Charlie and Nino, the guides and bird aficionados assisted with locating and identifying many different birds, almost from the get go. Once they identify a bird, they will quickly dial up the call on their iPods. As the bird call is piped through a small speaker, it’s fun to see the bird calling back and photographically exciting to see them come closer, in to prime shooting range.Time flies when you’re having fun and this first morning definitely flew by. After Nino loaded up the van, all piled in, and they made there way to the first of three exciting locations, Bosque De Paz.
The Biological Reserve, Bosque De Paz is located in the saddle of two National Parks, Paos Volcano National Park, and Juan Castro Balnco National Park. The reserve is over 2500 acres of pristine cloud forest. Basque De Paz translates to Peaceful Forest, or Forest of Peace. The lodge is owned by a lovely couple, Frederico and Vansessa. They have lived on the property for more than 20 years.
After everyone was checked in and assigned their room, the group quickly got their gear out to begin photographing the many hummingbirds. There’s a large resident population of hummingbirds at Bosque De Paz. The species that are typically spotted are, Green Crowned Brilliant, Purple Throated Mountain Gem, Black Bellied, Sintilent, and Violet Sabrewing. Ellie and Scott set all the students up with the proper settings to capture these speedy beauties. Memory cards were already filling, and as the light started to fade, they took a quick break to prepare for dinner.
Frederico and Vanessa are amazingly gracious hosts as they join us before every meal for a quick blessing. They really make one feel as though they are a guest in their home. An exciting and action packed day one had come to a close. There was so much more to see and do in the days to come.
Day 3 - Bosque de Paz
Our first morning in Bosque de Paz greeted us with all the familiar chirpings of the beautiful birds in the area. The hummingbirds as usual were up early, buzzing about their feeders, and the eager members of our party were up early as well to get more cracks at getting some images of them. After a brilliant breakfast, we brought the workshop down the road to Catarata del Toro, a massive 300 foot waterfall on a private reserve deep in the Costa Rican mountain rainforest. The surrounding preserve has miles of trails and hundreds of species of wildlife to photograph. After some time spent walking the trails, and shooting the falls from different angles, Charlie and Niño used their birding skills to help us locate some newer species of birds previously unseen by us. After all the excitement we headed back to Bosque de Paz for lunch and an optional hike deeper into the mountains. Catarata de Fatima is a strenuous 2 mile hike into the forest to a beautiful 100 foot narrow cascade. The more mountainous regions in Costa Rica are home to the Resplendent Quetzal, and there was never a better chance for us to see one than in Bosque de Paz. So while Ellie led some of our group with Charlie and Niño, Scott stayed behind and helped others collect some more shots of hummingbirds. As luck would have it, a gorgeous male Quetzal made an appearance along the hike near the waterfall, what a sight! With the light failing, and people tiring from a long day of shooting, dinner and an early bedtime seemed prudent.
Day 4 - Bosque de Paz to Arenal
Our last morning in Bosque gave us time enough for another fabulous breakfast from Frederico and his staff, one more minor hike, and then it was time pack up everything and head west to Arenal. Along the way we were greeted by a massive White Hawk, perched in a tree, to which everyone grabbed a plethora of photos. And we made a stop in a little touristy town east of the volcano, called Fortuna. It was a perfect time for eveyone to jump out, stretch their legs and do some shopping! Ellie and Scott had to show the group where to get some awesome locally grown coffee, and also the odd trinket for the family and friends back home. A short drive later and we at our next destination; The Arenal Observatory Lodge. Everyone assuredly loved the perfect view of the volcano from their own balcony. During lunch the whole volcano from root to tip was fully exposed, are VERY rare sight, so Ellie and Scott kept reminding the group to: "Take pictures of it now, cause it wont last!" On the observation deck of the restaurant the views were immaculate, as new more colorful flora and fauna came into view. We spent the rest of the day in search of Trogons, Toucans, Oropendola, Honeycreepers, Coatimundi and we even saw a Rufous Motmot! Before dinner some of the group corralled on the observation deck to take in the sunset over Lake Arenal, and before everyone knew it, the volcano disappeared into the night.
This was a full day for the group in Arenal. Scott and Ellie had a lot of fun photography planned for the day. Most met up a little before breakfast, to do some early morning photography. Birds tend to be active in the very early hours of the morning, as well as later in the day. The hotel puts out some fruits, upon a high perch. Birds fly in for a feast and then perch in nearby trees, which make for excellent photo ops.
After the early morning bird photography, a delicious breakfast was in order.The Arenal Observatory Hotel has a boundless amount of delicious breakfast items, as well as the ever important, hot coffee. Everyone fueled up for the day.
The Butterfly Conservatory was just down the road and the morning destination. The Butterfly Conservatory and Nature Regeneration Project contains the largest exhibition of butterflies in Costa Rica. Before entering the butterfly habitats a representative talked about the butterfly life-cycle. The talk was both interesting and informative.
There are 5 butterfly habitats, and each is environmentally unique and therefore contain different species. Some of the most popular are the dazzling blue morpho, with their wings closed, they are brown and a bit boring. However, when the blue morpho opens up it’s wings, the vibrant blue color is breathtaking. Another favorite was the gossamer or gas winged butterfly, with their transparent and delicate wings. After the butterfly habitats there was an opportunity to photograph the country’s mascot, the Red-eyed tree frog. It was definitely a treat.
The morning flew by, pun intended and the group made their way back to the Observatory Lodge for lunch.
There had been quite a bit of rain that moved in to the Arenal area that afternoon. Conditions were a little to wet for a hike, so the group decided to gather inside the lodge for some post processing fun. The timing happened to be perfect, for at the ed of the computer session the lodge had happy hour. The day ended with a nice tropical cocktail and another delicious dinner.
Not only was today another early rise for a little B&B… birding and breakfast, but it was also the morning to pack up and head to destination number 3 or 3, Tortugero. After breakfast everyone loaded up in the van to head to the town of Fortuna, where a couple of planes awaited our arrival. Split between 2 planes the group began the 30 minute flight up to Tortugero and the Tortuga Lodge.
Tortugero is only accessible by boat or plane, as there are no roads. This National Park is surrounded by lush canals. These canals are abundant with wildlife.
Upon arrival there is a short boat ride across the canal from the airstrip. The staff at the Torutga Lodge waits on the dock, waving as we approach. Edward greats us and takes us into the open lobby area for a little informative talk. After a nice cold washcloth and cold fruit drink, all were ready to listen to details of the property and what we could expect during our stay. There was a little bit of time before lunch, which of course would be spent on the gorgeous grounds. Charlie and Ellie led the students around and they found some fantastic stuff, including a Tiger Heron and a group of Howler Monkeys. The monkeys were very close, and all got some great photographs as they jumped from tree to tree. It was quite exciting to see the moms with little babies on their backs, as they left through the air.
After lunch the gang had the first of 4 boat excursions. Scott and Ellie each had a boat with 5 students. Scott’s boat driver was Leo and Ellie’s was Willis. Both drivers where from the area and very knowledgable on the wildlife, waters, and weather. After only about 10 minutes on the water and Willis mentioned that there would be a little rain. The drivers passed out ponchos for the passing shower. The rain wads heavy, but lasted only about 5 minutes. Weather moves in and out of the area fast, and before you knew it all were drying out. Willis had a knack for knowing exactly what would happen with the weather, so the boat referred to it as the Accu-Willis forecast.
Willis also had a knack for spotting the wildlife. The group wanted to see a sloth, and shortly after the request, there it was. Now no one wants to get greedy, but can we see a sloth that’s actually moving? About 10 to 20 minutes later, there it is, a 3-toes sloth on the move. What an amazing experience watching the jolly looking fellow slowly climb across the tree branches.
The group not only photographed an amazing sloth, but also may wetland birds, including some Anhingas and Northern Jacanas. An outstanding first day in Tortugero was coming to a close, as the sun was setting in a gorgeous pink sky. An amazing dinner and all got tucked in for the first night at the Tortuga Lodge.
Day 7 - Tortuguero
On a roll now, with everyone's spirits high from seeing the sloth the day before, we had yet another awesome breakfast, this time complete with a new and improved salsa picante, thanks to Raymond, Dennis and Scott! With a whole day of boating ahead, everyone filled up to brim with food before boarding our first morning ride into the canals. The morning trip didnt disappoint as we saw a Keel-Billed Toucan, Spider Monkey, a beautiful blue eyed Anhinga, male Green Basilisk, Howler Monkey with a lot of character, and numerous other birds and reptiles. Lunch at the Tortuga Lodge was a fan favorite, thick steaks pierced by sugar cane stalks and then barbecued to perfection. Mmmmmmmm! On the afternoon trip out, we were greeted immediately by the only sighting we had of Scarlet Macaws! Shooting into the trees is tough work, too often, the wildlife in question is extremely back-lit causing havoc for proper exposures, which is why its nice that we have two boats with Ellie and Scott yelling out settings like "Overexpose by 3 stops!" We spent the better part of the afternoon looking for monkeys deep in the narrow canals, but to no avail. We did have a great time shooting a rather large Caiman, a Black River Turtle with plant growing on his shell, and as the clouds gave way, the afternoon light on the canals looked spectacular, so both boats took a break and came together and everyone marveled at the beauty of the golden light down the Rio Tortuguero. What a long day! And to celebrate our time at the Tortuga Lodge, they had a special BBQ dinner for us consisting of all the meats and treats a hungry person could ask for. Shrimp, steak, chicken, special salsa picante, and cheers all around for another amazing day!
Day 8 - Tortuguero to San Jose
Morning came early on our last day in Tortuguero, and we had a mission for our final boat trip: find Capuchin Monkeys! We started off on the grounds and Charlie found a Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, which he bravely coaxed onto on Bamboo Palm for all to photograph. The skin of the frog secrets a form of Pumiliotoxin, which, when ingested causes convulsions, paralysis, and death, luckily its harmless to handle when contacting your skin, providing you wash your hands thoroughly! After everyone got some spectacular shots of our little red friend, it was time to set out once again on our last boat trip. We spotted a Mangrove Black Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, stopped to shoot some Royal Terns, before finally spotting the elusive Capuchin Monkey! Charlie has some of the best eyes in the business, how he was able to spot a small dark blot whilst our boat was travelling 30 mph was simply amazing. We created a trend too, as many other boats showed up after we spotted the monkeys angrily looking onward at the people peering into their trees. After about 40 minutes of solid shooting time, with many a ear-to-ear grin on all around us, the monkeys departed into the foliage and we, content with our accomplished mission went further into the canals and spotted a pair of Slaty Tailed Trogons. After the mornings very successful boat ride, we headed back to the lodge to check-out, eat lunch, and relax by the pool until our flight to San Jose.
After the short flight, we arrived with heads held high to see Niño awaiting us and our stories for the drive back to the Hotel Bougainvillea and our farewell dinner. The weather in San Jose was a nice change to the hotter and wetter conditions in Tortuguero. I think everyone was ready for a nice cool shower and some much needed rest after a long workshop. At our farewell dinner, stories exchanged hands, acquaintances became friends and all was right with the world, except that we had to go home.
Day 9 - Farewell
Most of us coming from the west coast booked flights early in the morning, to return home in the early afternoon. Which meant once again, waking up early and boarding a short shuttle to the San Jose airport. Return flights are always the hardest. We had such a great time in country, saw some amazing wildlife, made a lot of new friends, and reconnected with old ones. The experiences we had in Costa Rica can only be matched by the images we bring back to share with friends and family, as their are some instances for memories alone. Charlie and Niño outdid themselves again on another beyond-words adventure into their homeland. We are truly thankful that we had the time to experience it.
¡Gracias y Pura Vida!
Until next time, Eliie, Scott, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team
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