Costa Rica: Photo Tour
*PLEASE NOTE: This itinerary is changing slightly for 2023. We will update the text to the new itinerary soon.
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.
Other Tour Details:
18 February - 5 March ($7290; single supplement: $640)
Ready to Book?
Length: 16 Days
Starting City: San José
Ending City: San José
Physical Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Focus: Bird and Wildlife Photography
Max group size: 6 + 1 leader
Day 1: Arrival in San José
The tour begins this evening with dinner. 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 Laguna de Lagarto
Today involves a bit of driving, but don’t worry, there is plenty of photography to do before we get to our final destination. We will leave relatively early and spend the morning photographing at a little “hole in the wall” kind of place, but if you let the looks deter you, you would miss out on spectacular birds like Northern Emerald-Toucanet, Red-headed Barbet, and a host of tanagers possibly including Crimson-colored Tanager. Hummingbirds are also on order here so we will be on the look out for Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, and possibly even the gorgeous Black-bellied Hummingbird. This general vicinity is also home to another spectacular bird, the Bat Falcon. We will have lunch here and then move on to our principle location, Laguna del Lagarto Lodge, where we will spend three nights.
Day 3: Laguna del Lagarto
Laguna del Lagarto is a photographer’s paradise. The highlight is their beautiful balcony from which you can shoot amazing birds like Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans, Collared Aracari, Red-legged and Shinning Honeycreepers, a host of tanagers and woodcreepers, and the comical Brown-hooded Parrot. This area also hosts a stunning array of opportunistic photo opportunities like manakins, owls, waterbirds and the magnificent Great Curassow. We may spend part of the afternoon checking out the snakes that the lodge has out for photography, and the evening may be spent on the local bats.
Day 4: Laguna del Lagarto
Today we will spend the morning in the King Vulture hide. Nothing can quite describe the feeling of watching vultures devour scraps of meat just feet from your face. You have to try this. Part of the he afternoon will be spent photographing the perches around the lodge – it can be difficult to pull yourself away from these excellent setups! There will also be time free time to explore, have a rest, do more snake photography, or anything else you would like. Nights around the lodge can yield owls so we will take advantage of those opportunities as they come.
Day 5: Laguna del Lagarto to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui
We will spend the morning photographing around the lodge and then drive south to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, keeping an eye out for any places to stop for an opportunistic photograph (have a camera ready). We will grab lunch on the road and arrive at our next lodge in the early afternoon. After a quick rest, we will then explore some hotspots for opportunistic photography around town, such as at La Selva and Selva Verde. We’ll spend two nights at one of several excellent lodges in the area.
Day 6: Sarapiqui area
For our first day, we will spend the entire day with a Cope, a man who is revered as one of the region’s premier bird guides. He is also just an all-around great guy with an incredible yard setup just for photography. The highlight here (though it is never guaranteed) is White-tipped Sicklebill. Other birds include Orange-chinned Parakeeet, Montezuma Oropendola, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and, with luck, American Pygmy Kingfisher. We will take a break for lunch and then return later to check out his hotspots for Spectacled Owl, Crested Owl and Honduran White Bat. Along the way we may run into other spectacular birds like Black-throated Trogon, Great Potoo, Pale-billed Woodpecker, etc.
Day 7: Sarapiqui to La Fortuna
This morning we will visit a fun place called “Frog Heaven”. Here we will photograph some of Costa Rica’s most iconic frogs like Red-eyed Tree Frog, Strawberry Poison Frog and many more. After we finish here we will drive west to La Fortuna, check into our hotel and rest for a bit before heading out to our afternoon location for some more opportunistic trail photography. This is arguably one of our best chances for Broad-billed and Keel-billed Motmot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Golden-winged Warbler, White-throated Crake, and possibly a Black-and-White Owl. We also have a great chance for Green Basilisk and Hoffman’s Three-toed Sloth. We spend the night in a nice lodge near Fortuna.
Day 8: La Fortuna to Cañas
We’ll devote the morning to another one of Costa Rica’s iconic birds, the Three-wattled Bellbird. With luck we’ll come away with some nice shots of this strange creature, and should have some opportunistic chances at other species. We’ll then grab some lunch and continue our journey into the drier parts of western Costa Rica. We’ll spend two nights in a lodge outside of Cañas that serves as a good base of operations for our outings, and offers some decent photography on the grounds for birds like Turquoise-browed Motmot, Streak-backed Oriole, Black-headed Trogon, Rose-throated Becard, and White-fronted Parrot.
Day 9: Palo Verde NP
The morning will be spent around Palo Verde National Park. Here we will endeavor to find and photograph the iconic Jabiru, various shorebirds and waterfowl, as well as some specialties of dry pacific forest. Birds like the gorgeous White-throated Magpie-Jay, Spot-breasted Oriole, White-fronted Parrot and a variety of other sensational birds. This is a great location, not one to miss while visiting Costa Rica.
Day 10: Cañas to La Ensenada
The morning will be spent around hotspots in the Cañas area. Some of our targets will be Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and the massive Jabiru. Lunch will be taken on the road or when we arrive at La Ensenada Lodge. La Ensenada is right by the sea; it is absolutely beautiful and will offer us a fun host of new birds like Pacific Screech-Owl, Southern Lapwing, Wood Stork, Common Black Hawk, Sandwich Tern, Cinnamon Hummingbird, and perhaps the main target of the area, the impressive White-throated Magpie Jay.
Day 11: La Ensenada to Tárcoles
We will spend the morning walking around La Ensenada before heading over to our next location, the Tarcoles area. We will have lunch on the road or when we check into our hotel, then head out to Carara NP for a bit of afternoon photography. This is all opportunistic photography and can be tough but it is an amazingly productive park for birds. And these are not birds that most people think of as “iconic”. Birds like Dot-winged Antwren, Blue-crowned Manakin, White-whiskered Puffbird, Riverside Wren, and if we are really lucky, we might get a view of a Northern Tamandua (a good-looking anteater). We’ll spend two nights in a lodge in the Tarcoles area.
Day 12: Tarcol River and Orotina
This is going to be our biggest, longest and hopefully most fruitful river cruise of the tour. We will be out for as early as possible (tide dependent) and going for about 4 hours. There are two areas in particular we need to visit, the mangroves and the main river. The early morning will be spent on the open river and then we will retreat into the mangroves as the morning goes on. The river will hold targets like Yellow-headed Caracara, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Amazon, Ringed, Green, and American Pygmy Kingfishers, Crested Caracara, a host of shorebirds, Scarlet Macaw and a few raptors like Plumbeous Kite and Common Black Hawk. We will take a short break for lunch and then meet up with a local guide in Orotina, who knows spots for Long-tailed Manakin, the gorgeous little Pearl Kite, and others.
Day 13: Tárcoles to the Talamanca Highlands
We will visit a few more Tarcoles (or Orotina) hotspots in the morning before heading out. The long drive will be broken up with a nice lunch and a visit to a site for some wonderful mid-elevation birds. White-crested Coquette and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird are the big targets here. There are several fruit feeders around that attract barbets, tanagers and toucanets, and we may be treated to Swallow-tailed Kites cruising along the valley, catching thermals. In the afternoon we will drive up to higher elevations and spend two nights at one of several excellent lodges in the area.
Day 14: Talamanca Highlands
This scenic part of Costa Rica is wonderful, unique, and packed full of spectacular species. The first morning will be spent looking for our main target, the Resplendent Quetzal. During this time of year, the quetzals are typically nesting so we should have some great opportunities here, and should we not have any luck, we’ll have another chance tomorrow. We will spend the afternoon photographing the hummingbirds species at a multi-flash setup, and also visit a lovely location down in the valley with more feeders that bring in subjects like Spotted Wood-Quail, Acorn Woodpecker, several brushfinches and thrushes, White-throated Mountain Gem, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Scintillant Hummingbird, and a host of tanagers.
Day 15: Highlands to San José
We have a number of options for our last morning, and we’ll make a plan based on whatever we are most eager to get better photos of. We may spend some time around our lodge photographing birds like Mountain Thrush, Fiery-throated and Talamanca Hummingbird, Mountain Elaenia, Tufted Flycatcher, Black-capped Flycatcher, and Long-tailed and Black-and-Yellow Silky-flycatchers. We could try again for the quetzal if we weren’t lucky the day before, or we could revisit one of the feeding setups. It truly is a magical area. In the afternoon we drive back to San José for a final night.
Day 16: 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.
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. These are done in the middle of the day whenever possible to maximize the use of the more productive morning and afternoon hours.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. A lot of the time is spent near feeders which are accessed by only short walks. There will be longer walks for opportunistic photography, though many of these may be considered optional if you would prefer to stay near the feeders. Targeting some birds such as Resplendent Quetzal may involve a longer walk depending on the location of any active nests. Most of the trip is at relatively low elevation. We may reach 9000 ft (2700 m) for a short period on one day, but most of our time in the highlands will be at no more than 7000 ft (2100 m).
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. While we do not intend to shoot in heavy rain, it is a good idea to bring rain protection for both you and your gear in case we get caught out in an unexpected downpour.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. All have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. Wi-fi is also available in all lodges, 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 as a custom tour 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 and closeups, but a 300mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters also usually does a great job on this tour. A 500 or 600 may be overkill for some larger species, so a shorter prime lens or high-quality zoom is also very useful. A tripod is necessary if you wish to engage in multiflash hummingbird photography, and is also very helpful while waiting around for birds to come in to feeders.
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 15; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 16 (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 15; 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.
*Participated on this Tour? Leave a Review! We would also love to see your favorite photo, upload it!