Costa Rica: Photo Tour
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.
14 - 29 February ($7290; single supplement: $640)
24 Feb - 12 March* (TBA)
*The itinerary in 2025 will be different from the one in 2024
Ready to Book?
Other Tour Details:
Length: 16 Days
Starting City: San José
Ending City: San José
Physical Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Focus: Bird and Wildlife Photography
Group size: 6 + 1 leader
Please note: This itinerary is sometimes run in a different order than shown here, and we may substitute different lodges based on availability. Day-to-day activities may be modified at the tour leader's discretion based on various factors such as weather, recent sightings, etc.
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. Your guide may offer a walk around the grounds depending on time and availability.
Day 2: San José to Selva Verde Lodge
Today involves a bit of driving but before all of that, you will have a quick guided walk around some nearby hotspots with a a local guide. After this relaxing morning, we will 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, Green-crowned Brilliant, and possibly even the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald. This general vicinity is also home to another spectacular bird, the Bat Falcon. We will have lunch here and then move on to our hotel for the evening.
Day 3: Morning with Cope to Laguna del Lagarto
We spend a great morning with local guide, Cope. This legend potentially has some great birds for us. His local spots often yield Crested and Spectacled Owl while his tremendous backyard pond and feeders offer a variety of birds like Red-legged Honeycreeper, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Chestnut-headed Oropendola and a host of colorful tanager species. After some food, we'll travel north towards Laguna del Lagarto where we'll spend the next three nights. Along the way, we may have time to visit "Frogs Heaven" where can photograph Red-eyed Tree Frog and a variety of Poison Dart Frogs.
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 some 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
More time at Laguna del Lagarto is never a bad thing. We'll enjoy the feeders, and grounds for more incredible photo opportunities of the local tanagers, woodpeckers, hummingbirds and anything else we can get our lenses on.
Day 6: Arenal Area
Today we will drive to the Arenal area and hit several hotspots for photography. This will be mostly trail photography in the morning and then we will visit a site that is really quite excellent for set-up frog photography. The morning will involve some easy walking but will hopefully give us chances as Broad-billed, Keel-billed and Rufous Motmots, White-throated Crake, a handful of common tanagers and a host of other typical forest birds like Hoffmann's Woodpecker, Gray-headed Chachalaca, and Barred Antshrike. We'll spend two nights near the Arenal Volcano.
Day 7: Three-wattled Bellbird and San Ramon Area
Today we will spend a morning with one of the more iconic Costa Rican birds...the Three-wattled Bellbird. We will link up with our local guide who will take us around and hopefully (it is of course never a guarantee) get our lenses on a great bird in a cool setting. Other birds typically available include the cute White-eared Ground Sparrow, Golden-olive Woodpecker and Yellow-faced Grassquit. After this lovely morning we will do a series of feeders to add to our photo collection. Birds like; Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled and Emerald Tanagers are all possibilities.
Day 8: El Tapir Nature Valley and Volcan Tenorio
Today we head to Volcan Tenorio. This cooler climate is a great change of pace from the hot and humid climate of the surrounding lowlands. We will focus on two difficult hummingbirds, the Black-crested Coquette and the Snowcap. Other fun birds around include Yellow-throated Toucan, Tody Motmot and if we're lucky, we may set our eyes on a Tapir or White-nosed Coati. We have one night in a lodge in this remote area.
Days 9-10: La Ensenada
We'll start day 9 with a morning of catch up in the Volcan Tenorio region, then we head to the dry Pacific at La Ensenada. Here birds like Black-headed Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Boat-billed Flycatcher and Pacific Screech Owl await. We will spend this afternoon and the next full day here. Sometimes (depending on water levels), there is a lagoon out behind the lodge that can host a variety of great birds like Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Bare-throated Tiger Herons and Northern Jacanas, but this is very year dependent. We'll spend two nights in La Ensenada Lodge.
Day 11: La Ensenada to the Tarcoles Area
For this morning we will link up with another local guide, Alvaro. He'll take us to some of his hotspots and this varies year to year so we'll just have to see what he has to offer! We'll then head south to Tarcoles for the night.
Day 12: Tarcol River to Talari Mountain Lodge
Today we have an early start. We take the 6am boat ride on the Tarcoles for about 3 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 then meet up with a local guide in Orotina, who knows spots for Long-tailed Manakin, the gorgeous little Pearl Kite, and others. Year to year the spots and birds vary so we will just have to see what he has in store for us! The afternoon will likely be spent driving up into the mountains, where we spend one night in Talari Mountain Lodge.
Day 13: Talari to the Talamanca Highlands
Talari is home to 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 not strictly necessary, but if you have heavy camera gear, it can be nice to have so you don't have to carry your camera all the time.
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 15 (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!