Costa Rica Photo Tour

This is a Photo Tour. The goal of the tour is to get great photos of certain species. Sometimes a lot of time is spent trying to get a great shot of a single species, and quite a bit of time will be devoted to feeders and blinds. The size of the trip list is not a priority. If you are a birder as much as you are a photographer, another option is our Costa Rica: Birding with a Camera® Tour (BwC). If you are only a casual photographer, or are looking for a traditional Birding Tour, check out our very popular Costa Rica Introtour.

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.


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.

This itinerary is sometimes run in a different order based on lodge availability.

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: San José to Puerto Viejo via Cope Arte. We will visit the private Cope Arte reserve in the morning. Birds like the Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Long-billed Hermit, Crested Oropendola can all be regularly seen, along with Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and the possibility of many others too. Well then continue on to the humid Caribbean lowlands, and will spend time at feeders in the local area. 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 a lodge near Puerto Viejo.

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

Day 3: Frog’s Heaven and Nature Pavilion. We will stop at one of Costa Rica’s premier photography destinations: Nature Pavilion (recently renamed Dave and Dave’s Costa Rica Nature Park). 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 Pavilion boasts natural perches that are set up between 2-5 meters away (6½-16½ft), in a 360° area, making shooting easy for the entire group, 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 minute 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. We will also visit Frog’s Heaven, situated near Sarapiqui, where it is regularly possible to photograph amazing see-through glass frogs, the blue jeans form of Strawberry Poison Dart Frog and Green-and-black Poison Dart Frogs, and iconic Red-eyed Treefrog (“Pura Vida Frog”). Even the most ardent bird photographer will melt at the site of these amazing animals, with very good photos of some of these (if not all), virtually guaranteed.

Nature's Pavilion is the place to capture images of the spectacular Crimson-collared Tanager
Nature's Pavilion is the place to capture images of the spectacular Crimson-collared Tanager (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: Macaws and Cataratas del Toro. 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, as well as the incredible Scarlet Macaw too. 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 them. Later we will travel back into the mountains, stopping at Cataratas del Toro, where feeders regularly attract Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Hermit, and sometimes also White-bellied Mountain-Gem and Black-bellied Hummingbird. The grain and fruit feeders alongside regularly bring in Brown Jays and Melodious Blackbirds, while scarcer visitor include the regional endemic Sooty-faced Finch and Buff-fronted Quail-Dove. We have two nights at the lovely Bosque de Paz ecolodge.

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 5: Bosque de Paz. Nestled in a beautiful forested valley, Bosque de Paz has great birds active feeders. We stand a good chance of nailing shots of Black Guan, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Talamanca Hummingbird, Ruddy-caped Nightingale-Thrush, Silver-throated Tanager, Torrent Tyrannulet and others, and maybe even a few mammals such as White-nosed Coati.

Day 6: Bosque de Paz 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. 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. A mammal, the White-nosed Coati is also a regular thief at the bird feeders! Canoeing in the three private lagoons is also possible on request, for no extra fee. Two nights will be spent at this location.

Black-and-green Poison Frog
Black-and-green Poison Frog (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. This morning we have a very special treat and activity in store; we will visit a special blind for photographing the striking King Vulture, which is best photographed at around 8am in the morning, in terms of light and the reliability of the bird at this time. After two hours or so, we will leave as the heat in the blind will become troublesome, and we should have got plenty of shots by that time also. We will focus much of our time on the feeders right at the lodge, in particular for the amazing Keel-billed Toucan, which is best looked for in the morning. We can also visit some local hummingbird feeders (not on the lodge grounds but very nearby). Here, we will have a session using multi-flash photography techniques with some lowland hummingbirds like White-necked Jacobin, Crowned Woodnymph, Scaly-breasted and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

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

Day 8: Laguna del Lagarto to La Ensenada. After more time at Laguna del Lagarto, we’ll head west to somewhere very different, the dry, wooded lowlands of the North Pacific. The bird list and photography list will change markedly, with the rapid change in habitat we will have undergone by then. The Pacific lowlands in northern Costa Rica comprise of open woodland and scrub, with easier lighting conditions than further south (i.e. Carara), and an abundance of colorful and confiding birds to shoot. We will stay in a lodge near the ocean where birds are plentiful and often quite tame, such as White-throated Magpie Jay, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and White-fronted Parrot.

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

Day 9: Hacienda Solimar. We’ll take a day trip to 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. (PLEASE NOTE: While, typically, this ranch is famed for its amazing abundance of waterbirds in their multiple wet spots, in occasional recent years, there have been unpredictable and highly unusual drought periods that have dried some of these wet areas out completely and led to very low numbers of waterbirds. However, even if this rare situation were to occur again, Solimar is still well worth the visit for the woodland birds alone, as they provide plentiful photo action all on their own). The 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 sometimes be found too, well within photographic range.

Black-headed Trogons are usually easy to track down around Solimar
Black-headed Trogons are usually easy to track down around Solimar (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 10: La Ensenada to Carara NP. We’ll drive a couple of hours south along the Pacific coast, where we will enjoy a short stop around Carara National Park during the afternoon. A single night will be spent just outside Carara National Park.

Turquoise-browed Motmots are easy to photograph in the dry Pacific Northwest
Turquoise-browed Motmots are easy to photograph in the dry Pacific Northwest (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Tarcol River to the highlands. A morning boat ride will be taken along the Tarcol River in the South Pacific. 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 good for kingfishers (PLEASE NOTE: This is very tide dependent); Amazon, Green and American Pygmy-Kingfishers all occurring in the area, and relatively easy to find on some trips and difficult if the tide is high on others. Either way, there will be a number of birds to photograph during the cruise, but the specific species varies from trip to trip. 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 for them! Later in the morning, we will drive several hours up into the Talamanca mountain range in central Costa Rica. Three nights will be spent in the area, divided between two different lodges with feeders. In the afternoon, we will begin by shooting amazing hummingbirds, like Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Lesser (Green) Violetear, and Talamanca (Magnificent) Hummingbird. There will be the opportunity for one session of multi-flash photography with these hummingbirds at some point, although it will be decided on arrival at the lodge whether to do this on this afternoon, or the following morning instead (this decision is based on local weather conditions at that time).

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

Day 12-13: Paraiso Quetzal and Savegre. 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 at Savegre, to the procession of hummingbirds at the nectar feeders, which regularly host species birds like White-throated Mountain-Gem, and Volcano Hummingbird at Savegre, in addition to those mentioned before at Paraiso Quetzal, which attracts higher elevation species. 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. As previously mentioned, there will be a multi-flash session with the hummingbirds of Paraiso Quetzal, which may occur on this day, if we choose not to do this the afternoon before.

Resplendent Quetzal is clearly a major target for us on this tour
Resplendent Quetzal is clearly a major target for us on this tour (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 14: Return to San Jose. After some final time in the highlands, we’ll drive back to San José, where we spend the final night of the tour.

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

Day 15: Departure from San José. 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 wonderful hotel grounds.

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)

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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). Rain is possible anywhere, but especially in the Caribbean lowlands.

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: While we often schedule this tour from January to April (which averages drier), it can be run any time of the year. Even during the wetter months, rain typically comes in short, intense downpours, and bird activity can be superb when they finish.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: Most of the time will be spent on birds coming to feeders and in areas near the feeders, with some time also spent in blinds. 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 other Costa Rica 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 14; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 15 (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 14; 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 14 (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.