Costa Rica Photo Journey

Costa Rica has long been a favorite among nature lover’s and wildlife photographers; a system of excellent lodges and a long-established network of well-protected areas, combined with easy access from North America, have made this a natural destination for them. Costa Rica is frequently noted as one of the greenest countries on Earth, with a long history of protecting wildlife areas, meaning that many animals and species normally difficult to approach, are amazingly photogenic, and even tame there, making this a top notch choice for the nature and bird photographer.

This tour is timed for the dry season, when the light is best for photography, and where rain is least likely to affect photo shoots. Although it is a small country (the size of the US state of West Virginia), it is varied, with mountains dividing the north (Caribbean), and southern (Pacific) slopes from each other. We will visit the Caribbean side and the Pacific side, as well as the mountains that divide them, in order to give us a varied list of bird and animals to photograph from one end of the tour to the other. Among the major targets on this tour will be an array of Technicolor tropical birds like hummingbirds, tanagers, toucans, parrots, and woodpeckers.

And of course, no photo tour to Costa Rica would be complete without a visit to the highlands, and the realm of the resplendent Resplendent Quetzal, one of the most spectacular birds on Earth. Those with a wider interest than only birds, will also have the opportunity to shoot brightly adorned frogs too, within dedicated photo shoots for these, where such species as Strawberry and Black-and-green Poison Frogs and Red-eyed Treefrogs are likely to feature.

Day 1: Arrival in San José. The tour begins this evening. After arrival in Costa Rica’s capital San José, you will be transferred to an excellent hotel. The hotel used is subject to availability, but many options have good chances to find birds right on the grounds.

Day 2: The Central Valley to Selva Verde. Depending on which hotel we are in, we may spend some time shooting birds like Blue-crowned Motmot, Rufous-naped Wren, and Hoffman’s Woodpecker before moving out of the Central Valley and onto the Caribbean slope. We’ll have our first taste of shooting at feeders at Cope Arte, a private home/preserve where the recently split Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Long-billed Hermit, Crowned Woodnymph, Crested Oropendola can be regularly seen along with Passerini’s Tanagers and White-necked Jacobins.

After several hours we will continue north into the Caribbean lowlands, and Selva Verde Lodge. The accommodation is idyllic, flanking a private jungle, which is bursting with wildlife. The lodge comes equipped with a fruit feeder, with a twisted rainforest liana for birds to use as a beautiful natural perch, while dropping in for the bananas laid out for them. While the exact species make up at the feeders varies from week-to-week, or even day-to-day, some of the species that are regular there include Yellow-throated Toucan, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, and the black-and-red Passerini’s Tanager. Two nights will be spent at Selva Verde Lodge.

Stunning tropical birds like Yellow-throated Toucan typify this tour
Stunning tropical birds like Yellow-throated Toucan typify this tour (George Lin)

Day 3: Macaws and Nature’s Pavilion. In the morning, we will take a short drive out for a very special photo shoot of one of Costa Rica’s most dramatic birds, the Great Green Macaw. A local farmer has habituated a number of these huge parrots, and great shots are possible due to his intimate connection with these birds, as he has a series of natural perches on which to take shots. In the afternoon, we will stop at one of Costa Rica’s premier photography destination: Nature’s Pavilion. The property has a series of both fruit feeders for songbirds and others, and also hummingbird feeders too, making for plentiful species to shoot. Nature’s Pavilion boasts natural perches that are set up between 2-5 meters away (6½-16½ft), in a 360° area, making shooting all day long possible, as there are always some of them bathed in the best possible light. The area for the photographers is spacious, and covered, so no matter rain or shine, we will be shooting there! The perches, complete with great backgrounds, can attract up to 20 bird species, with some of the most popular among bird photographers being Crimson-collared, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and the black-and-yellow Black-cowled Oriole. Other possible birds there include, Buff-throated and Grayish Saltators, Olive-backed Euphonia, Baltimore Oriole, Great Kiskadee, and Black-cheeked Woodpecker.

At the hummingbird feeders, only a few minutes walk away from the fruit feeders, regular species include Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobin, and Green-breasted Mango. There is plenty of space and opportunity on this day to spend ample time with both the hummingbirds and the fruit-loving birds, and get shots of a good number of species (well over 10 species of birds would be expected to feature on this day, and on some days more than 20 are possible!). Once the light begins to fade, in the late afternoon, we will return to Selva Verde Lodge for a second, and final, night.

Two sites will be visited with getting shots like this of Great Green Macaws in mind
Two sites will be visited with getting shots like this of Great Green Macaws in mind (George Lin)

Day 4: Selva Verde to Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. In the morning, we will make our way west to another quality lodge and photo destination; Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. While we will remain within the lowlands of the Caribbean, the change in locality offers some new and exciting species to shoot from those experienced earlier on the tour, as the lodge fruit feeders are quite different from anywhere else in the country. Species like the dramatic Keel-billed Toucan, spectacular Montezuma Oropendola, dashing Collared Aracari, and smart Brown-hooded Parrot are most reliably photographed here. Other exciting bird possibilities include Red-legged Honeycreeper, Great Curassow (a large and impressive gamebird), Masked Tityra, and Bananaquit. Depending on nestin activity, there may be an optional hike to photograph Great Green Macaws. Canoeing in the three private lagoons is also possible. A “Caiman Show” is available for the guests on this first night. Please remember to bring your flashlight / torch. Two nights will be spent at this new location.

Dedicated photo shoots at Selva Verde Lodge often yield good portraits of Black-and-green Poison Frogs
Dedicated photo shoots at Selva Verde Lodge often yield good portraits of Black-and-green Poison Frogs (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. This morning will be spent at the very active feeders at the lodge. Feel free to wake up as early as you want and start shooting. By mid-morning, the vultures will be arriving at the vulture blind. We will spend the later morning at a dedicated vulture photo blind, where along with the regular Turkey Vultures, we will hope that one or more King Vultures also drop in, for a rare chance to photograph this colorful raptor. The day would not be complete without hummingbirds too, in this tropical country, and a nearby hummingbird garden will offer further chances to photograph a series of iridescent Caribbean species. We will also spend about an hour or so in the afternoon for a dedicated frog photo shoot and possibly other reptiles and amphibians. The skilled guides at the lodge have an intimate knowledge of the habits of some of the most colorful frog species in the area; so that getting excellent shots of species like Strawberry and Black-and-green Poison Frogs, and Red-eyed Treefrog is a real possibility. Before the start of the session, the local guide will locate these key species and set up where light dictates at the time, with natural perches of moss-covered branches, rainforest bromeliads, or flower-laden shrubs provided on which to photograph these stunning species. Thus our time this day will be split between the busy fruit feeders, the hummingbird garden, shooting frogs, and a dedicated vulture photo blind. As this lies within a rich protected area, there is a chance to photograph a multitude of species also on the fly, away from feeders, with birds like Agami Heron, Scarlet Macaw, and Orange-chinned Parakeet also possible, along with an array of other wildlife, from colorful poison arrow frogs to spider-monkeys and sloths all occurring in the area. Thus, with up-to-the-minute information through the local based guides on what is on offer at the time, outside of the usual, we will target the latest photo stakeouts, whether it be a dozing sloth or roosting owl.

Stunning tropical birds like Yellow-throated Toucan typify this tour
Stunning tropical birds like Yellow-throated Toucan typify this tour (George Lin)

Day 6: Laguna del Lagarto to Hacienda Solimar. After some final time around Lagua del Lagarto, we’ll head south to somewhere very different, Hacienda Solimar, in the dry, wooded lowlands of the North Pacific. The bird list and photography list will change markedly, with the rapid change in habitat. Until this point our shooting will have been within the dense jungles of the Caribbean lowlands; which, away from the feeders can be some of the more challenging photography of the tour. However, the Pacific lowlands in northern Costa Rica comprise of open woodland and scrub, with easier lighting conditions, and an abundance of colorful and confiding birds to shoot.

Brown-hooded Parrots often visit the feeders at Laguna del Lagarto
Brown-hooded Parrots often visit the feeders at Laguna del Lagarto (George Lin)

We will be staying on a ranch dedicated to birders and nature photographers, where local guides will help us shoot what we desire, whether it be White-throated Magpie-Jays, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Streak-backed Orioles, and Black-headed Trogons in the wooded areas, or storks, herons, ibises, ducks, and spoonbills in the large wetland areas that dot the property, which borders the vast reserve of Palo Verde National Park. We will divide our time from targeting woodland species, and covering the wetland areas, where there can be large concentrations of waterbirds and American Crocodiles to shoot, and where the largest bird in Costa Rica can be found, the gigantic Jabiru, the World’s largest stork. Raised tracks crisscross the property and allow shooting both from the vehicle and on foot, and the animals and birds are often approachable. Two nights will be spent at Hacienda Solimar.

Turquoise-browed Motmots are easy around Hacienda Solimar
Turquoise-browed Motmots are easy around Hacienda Solimar (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Hacienda Solimar. A full day will be spent shooting in and around this vast property, where open woodlands provide good opportunities to shoot colorful songbirds, and the wetlands, which pepper the property provide ample chances to photograph a wide range of waterbirds. The expert local guides are also likely to offer stakeouts for other birds, like day roosting Pacific Screech-Owls or Spectacled Owls. More cryptic species like Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Lesser Nighthawk can often be found too, well within photographic range. A second, last, night will be spent on the ranch at Solimar.

Day 8: Hacienda Solimar to Carara. After some further time at Hacienda Solimar during the morning, we will head south from the strikingly dry Pacific Northwest, and enter the more humid Southern Pacific where we will enjoy a short stop around Carara National Park. A single night will be spent just outside Carara National Park, at Cerro Lodge, which has feeders on the grounds, which can produce birds like Hoffman’s Woodpecker and others.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is relatively common at Hacienda Solimar
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is relatively common at Hacienda Solimar (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 9: Tarcol River Cruise to the highlands. A morning boat ride will be taken along the Tarcol River. The boat cruise starts out on the wider part of the main river, where subjects like Southern Lapwing, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and American Crocodile often allow close approach. This boat trip can be excellent for kingfishers; Amazon, Green and American Pygmy-Kingfishers all being possible. We shall also take a short trip down a tributary through the mangroves, where different species may take center stage; at this time of year good numbers of dazzling lemon-yellow Prothonotary Warblers can be found in the mangroves, and Common Black-Hawks often stand sentry on perches overhead. One of the most photogenic of all birds on this cruise are the abundant Mangrove Swallows that often dart around the boat, and even land right on the boat, meaning that big lenses are not usually required! After our morning boat ride, and freshening up back at the lodge, we shall drive up into the highlands after lunch, where we spend the night at one of the lodges in the area; the exact lodge we use varies from trip to trip dempsing on availability.

Collared Redstarts are super tame at Savegre
Collared Redstarts are super tame at Savegre (Sam Woods)

Day 10: Savegre and Paraiso Quetzal. These two areas are some of the most reliable places in the world to see, and photograph, the Resplendent Quetzal. The “best” place varies unpredictably from year to year; sometimes it is in the Savegre Valley, sometimes it is right on the grounds of Paraiso Quetzal, and sometimes it is somewhere totally unexpected; we can visit whichever sites are best at the time. Feeders at both sites provide plentiful photographic opportunities, from the Flame-colored Tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches which visit the fruit feeders, to the procession of hummingbirds at the nectar feeders, which regularly host Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violet-ear, White-throated Mountain-Gem, and Volcano Hummingbird. Lights at night also attract insects, which subsequently attract birds too during the following mornings, making for spectacular chances to photograph birds like the stunning Collared Redstart and tame Silver-throated Tanager.

We will be visiting the best place in the World for Resplendent Quetzal
We will be visiting the best place in the World for Resplendent Quetzal (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

At Paraiso Quetzal, the most common hummingbird at their feeders is the incredible looking Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and with dozens of individuals to choose from, here, like everywhere else on this classic photo journey, there will be an abundance of photo opportunities.

A Green Violet-ear coming in to land at Savegre
A Green Violet-ear coming in to land at Savegre (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Return to San Jose. We will have much of the day to continue our search for the majestic Resplendent Quetzal, if needed, and to spend further time photographing the often confiding mountain birds, before we head back to San Jose during the afternoon, where we spend the final night.

We will visit arguably the best site in the World for the Resplendent Quetzal
We will visit arguably the best site in the World for the Resplendent Quetzal (Sam Woods)

Day 12: Departure from San Jose. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the airport; there are no photo shoots planned for this day, but you are welcome to do so on your own around the hotel.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed. There may be some early mornings in order to capitalize on good light and activity, but most days will have several hours of downtime to relax or download photos – this is often in the late afternoon when the light may be poor and when it is more likely to rain or in the middle of the day at the lower elevations when it can be hot and slow. Drives of 3-4 hours are necessary on four days.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. A lot of the time is spent near feeders which are accessed by only short walks. Our feeder time can sometimes be broken up with optional walks, such as at Nature’s Pavilion and Laguna del Lagarto. To visit the salt flats around Hacienda Solimar, we will need to walk about half a mile (about 1 km) on a flat trail. Also at Hacienda Solimar, there will be an opportunity to walk about half a mile on a flat trail to seek out any roosting owls in the forest. There may be an optional, somewhat difficult 3-mile roundtrip hike to photograph nesting macaws at Laguna del Lagarto. At Savegre, we might need to walk about half a mile on an easy / moderate trail to get to a Quetzal nesting site. Much of the trip is at low elevations. We’ll spend a day or so at around 9000 ft. (2700 m.); the accommodation there is about 7000 ft. (2100 m) or lower.

CLIMATE: In the lowlands, it is quite humid and temperatures usually vary from about 68°-95°F (20°-35°C). At the higher elevations it is much cooler, with temperatures ranging from about 46°-75°F (8°-24°C). Even though the tour is timed for the dry season in Costa Rica, passing showers are possible in the Caribbean lowlands and fog / rain can occur in the cloud forest at Savegre.

ACCOMMODATION: Mostly good to excellent, though Hacienda Solimar is somewhat rustic. All have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. Wi-fi is also available in all lodges except Hacienda Solimar, though often it only works in the public areas and not inside the rooms.

WHEN TO GO: We usually schedule this tour in February. For custom tours, any time during the December to April dry season can be excellent (though some rain can still be expected).

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: Most of the time will be spent on birds coming to feeders and in areas near the feeders. The rest of the time will be spent targeting birds along roads or short tracks/trails. This tour is all about getting nice photos of birds, and not about seeing large numbers of species. If you are a casual photographer and don’t want to miss seeing the harder forest species, you may enjoy one of our Costa Rica birding tours more.

GEAR: A 500mm or 600mm is the best option for smaller birds, but a 300mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters also usually does a great job. A 500 or 600 may be overkill for some larger species, so a shorter prime lens or high-quality zoom is also very useful. Macro photography with frogs and other wildlife is possible at Laguna del Lagarto where a good macro lens and flash (a ring flash or off-camera flash is best) would be helpful. A smaller lens can be nice for scenery shots in the mountains. A flash (where permitted) is also useful since light can be quite low early in the morning and inside forest.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all EU countries. Visas are currently only required of nationalities mainly in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 11; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 12 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water during meals (if eating at a restaurant that includes no drinks, reasonable non-alcoholic beverages will be provided for that meal); Tropical Birding tour leader from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 11; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight; if the San José hotel has a free airport shuttle, you will be expected to use it and private transfers will not be provided). Ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 11 (for smaller groups the guide will drive and, for larger groups there will be a driver); one mangrove boat tour on the Tarcol River for the group; entrance fees to all sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; flights; airport departure tax; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.