Wow, 2019 was quite a year!
After almost 20 trips spent chasing sunrises and sunsets in some of the most iconic landscapes in the U.S., cruising the Kenai Fjords with orcas and humpbacks, and a handful of trips hanging in spitting distance of Alaska’s coastal brown bears, this past December I was back in my favorite of photo destinations; Costa Rica.
For my return to Costa Rica, I had the pleasure of guiding a great group of clients, all of whom were as enthusiastic as I am about the mind-boggling array of fauna that Costa Rica is home to. And though it was a return back to my part-time home, running a trip I’ve done several times before, this was also a trip of firsts for us at Backcountry Journeys.
The Costa Rica trip consists of a newly expanded and improved itinerary, and for our December 2019 group, we would be exploring some amazing new opportunities. From the cloud forests of the Talamanca Mountains down to the lowland Pacific rainforests of the Osa Peninsula, we chased our photographic quarry in some of the most biologically diverse and picturesque ecosystems in the world. And with our newly improved itinerary, we were able to maximize shooting opportunities and walk away with a staggering number of images of different species in a wide array of settings.
Whenever I am running trips elsewhere, one of my clients’ favorite questions to ask is, “What’s your favorite photo location?” It’s an easy answer for me, and without having to consider it, I always answer Costa Rica. And though I love America’s national parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone, and even more so spending time with enormous bears in Alaska, Costa Rica holds a special place in my heart and my camera’s lens.
And the why to that answer is simple for me: biodiversity. Costa Rica, geographically, is roughly the size of West Virginia, which means it makes up about .03% of the world’s landmass. If you’re a math whizz, then you know that this means it makes up just 3 / 10,000ths of all of our planet’s dry land. But, get this; Costa Rica is home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity! Let’s stop and think about that for a minute. Let’s take into account the staggering number of species that live in the Amazon, the South Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, and the rest of the entire world. And Costa Rica, even though just a drop in the bucket in terms of landmass, accounts for 1/20th of all the world’s biodiversity. Crazy right?
It’s hard to visualize how so much biodiversity can be crammed into such a small space, that is until you’ve been there and seen it for yourself. And, for the wildlife photographer, this translates into an endless array of opportunities to find and photograph a wide array of species. Throughout the country’s many microclimates, scientists have recorded and logged over 240 species of mammal, 840 birds, 200 amphibians, and almost 300 reptiles. And that number is still growing. In fact, just a few years ago, a local ecologist friend of mine, Jim Cordoba, discovered a new mammal species living in Corcovado. It is a large tree-dwelling rodent that is still in the process of being classified.
But, it will be with the birds where our story begins in earnest. For the second year, we ran our Resplendent Quetzal Extension. This optional extension adds a level of diversity to the itinerary in terms of ecosystems, as it takes us high into the cloud forests of the Talamanca mountain range. For many visiting Costa Rica for the first time, a visit to one of the country’s several cloud forests is a must. Costa Rica is just 12 degrees north of the equator, which gives it a balmy tropical climate year-round. But, the cloud forests exist at elevations over 7,000 feet, creating a cool and misty climate, ideal for dozens of other birds species not seen at lower elevations, including the beautiful and elusive resplendent quetzal.
The quetzal is on that very short list of some of the world’s most beautiful birds. With a crimson breast, green iridescent wings and head crest, and tail plumage that can extend over three times the length of the bird’s body, the quetzal inspired pre-Colombian myths by the Aztec, Maya, and Quetzalcoatl peoples. The bird was considered a divine presence and has maintained its reverence for centuries. In fact, the Guatemalan national currency is named for the bird. If you want to buy something in Guatemala and need to know the cost, the question is “Cuanto Quetzales?”
It is also one of the birds that transcend the interests of “birders” and “non-birders” alike. This is a good thing because for this year’s quetzal extension we didn’t have a single true bird fanatic in the group! But, for wildlife photographers and enthusiasts, the opportunities for incredible bird photography in the cloud forests of Costa Rica are unrivaled. And no one can deny the stunning beauty of the quetzal and other species that reside in those misty mountains.
The quetzal extension takes us to the community of San Gerardo de Dota. On the first morning of our journey, we packed up and headed out from the Alajuela Marriott hotel via private shuttle, heading south, away from San Jose via the Careterra Pan-Americana (The Pan-American Highway). The curvy two-lane highway took us from Alajuela, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, high into the Talamancas before reaching its pinnacle at just around 10,000 feet. From there we turned off the main highway and onto a narrow one-lane road that took us down into the valley of San Gerardo De Dota. The landscape here is beautiful. Thick with towering trees, the steep mountainsides slide down into a narrow valley running with a crystal clear stream. And every afternoon, thick clouds come rolling through the valley, shrouding the slopes in a thick misty fog. And unlike the heat of the lowlands, the air is cool and crisp throughout the day. Even our driver, who had been here before, was struck by it again. He leaned to me and said “Es Como un sueño,” which means It’s like a dream.
One of the unique facets of the Quetzal extension is that we use local guides to get us on quetzals. The utilization of local knowledge in pursuit of the quetzal is elemental for one primary reason. The quetzal eats almost exclusively young avocados, specifically when the fruit is about the size of a walnut. Because of Costa Rica’s proximity to the equator, it does not have seasons as we do in the U.S. The length of day from solstice to solstice only varies by about 40 minutes, and the year-round temperature is fairly constant. And though some trees do flower and fruit in concert (i.e. mangos), avocado trees are different. Each tree is on its own flower and fruiting schedule, meaning that throughout the year, one tree may be covered in ripe fruit, while a different tree just next to it is just beginning to flower. So, it is imperative to know which trees are at the proper phase of fruit to attract the quetzals. This is where the local guides come into play. They spend the entire year searching for the quetzal and know exactly where they are expected to arrive each morning.
We would spend two mornings with local guide Carlos on the hunt for the quetzal. Both mornings began well before dawn when we would drive up to known fruiting avocado trees where we would wait for the birds’ arrival. And each morning, while the sun was low and light dim, a male and female quetzal pair would appear and feed in the early morning hour. Our first morning, we did see birds, but the light was very dim and the birds not very close. Furthermore, they seemed preoccupied with chasing other birds and didn’t stay around for long.
But the second morning, we were rewarded with some excellent light and vantage points after the sun had made its way over the high eastward peaks. After observing the same mated pair of birds from the first morning, we made our way over to a private farm where several avocado trees were in the perfect phase for attracting quetzal. It was a bit of a steep climb, but we were rewarded with a young male quetzal perched on a branch just a few yards in front of us. The bird was calm as it moved from branch to branch in the tree, making for some beautiful setups of the bird in different poses and backgrounds. This male was not fully mature, which was only apparent from his size and the length of his tail feathers. His tail extended only twice the length of his body. A mature male has a tail that is almost twice that length. But, this did not detract from the bird’s majesty at all.
Though the extension is named for the Quetzal, and they are our primary target for the three days spent in San Gerardo de Dota, it was another species that I was most excited about photographing. Of all the birds in Costa Rica, the toucans are some of my favorites. And only in the cloud forests can one of the toucan species be found, the emerald toucanet. And though I had visited the cloud forests several times before, I had yet to earn a photograph of this beautiful little toucan. It is the smallest of the six toucans living in Costa Rica and by far the most brilliantly colored. We spent our afternoons with Carlos in search of toucanets, but to no avail.
But, lucky for us, our fortune would soon change. Because the quetzals are primarily active only in the mornings, our afternoons were spent photographing dozens of hummingbird species and other small birds that are active throughout the day.
To help facilitate this, we spent one afternoon at Batsu Gardens. Batsu is a developed bird blind, surrounded by an immense garden of flowering and fruiting plants that attract a large number of bird species. From a covered platform, photographers can sit and photograph in comfort as birds come in to feed on fruits set out on perches by the owners.
We had just arrived, and I had not even taken my camera out when it appeared. A beautiful toucanet landed on the perch just feet in front of us and began gobbling up papaya flesh.
My jaw nearly hit the floor as I scrambled to get my camera out as quietly as possible. Fortunately, the bird was undisturbed and continued to feed at the perch for some time. A couple of hundred shutter clicks later, the bird took off. I and the group laughed at our good fortune as we scanned through our images. Then, the toucanet was back, and the cameras began clicking again. One of our clients Kristin said, “Now, wouldn’t it be cool if a second one showed up.” I leaned over about to make a joke about how one is never enough for her. But before I could, her prophecy came true as a second toucanet landed on the perch and began feeding. For the rest of the trip, Kristin was dubbed the bird summoner, and should we ever be looking for some species to photograph, we would encourage Kristin to summon it as she had that second toucanet.
After three days in San Gerardo de Dota, we were loaded down with images of toucanets, quetzals, hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles, and woodpeckers, and we headed back to Alajuela to begin the main portion of the trip which takes place entirely on the Osa Peninsula.
After a night in Alajuela at the Marriott, we headed to the airport for what is always a highlight of the trip, the 45-minute flight in a small twelve-seater prop plane down to Puerto Jimenez. The flight is beautiful and ends with a drop into the Puerto Jimenez airstrip over the treetops. This is where the trip was going to take a new turn for BCJ. Instead of spending the entirety of our time in the jungle community of Carate on the south side of the peninsula, we would be spending two days in Drake Bay on the north side of the Osa at the beautiful eco-lodge Aguila de Osa before then moving over to Carate.
The addition of Drake Bay to the Costa Rica itinerary yields two opportunities that are not available on the south side of the Osa. The first of which is a boat tour up Rio Sierpe of the mangrove forests that line the river and its many channels. And the other is access to Corcovado National Park by boat, as opposed to the 2.5-mile walk that is required to enter the park from Carate.
After landing in Puerto Jimenez, we took the 1.5 hour drive through thick jungle before arriving in the community of Drake Bay. Drake is incredibly picturesque, with thick jungled hills dipping down into a calm blue bay that is ringed by a black sand beach. Access to Aguila de Osa, our eco-lodge for the next two nights, is only possible by boat or by foot. So, after being dropped off at Playa Colorado by our trusty driver Luis, the friendly staff from Aguila arrived in and ferried us to the hotel’s docks by boat.
After a quick orientation and some lunch, we got checked into the hotel, got our camera gear ready, and then headed back down to the docks to begin our afternoon boat tour of the mangroves of Rio Sierpe.
The mangroves of Rio Sierpe form a maze of small canals and channels that would be easy to get lost in had you not grown up there. But, our boat captain had grown up navigating these waterways, and he expertly guided us through the labyrinthine mangroves in search of a wide array of wildlife. We first encountered our only sloth of the trip, a handsome three-toed fellow hanging in a mangrove tree that extended out over the water. This seemed precarious, as Rio Sierpe is home to a large population of crocodiles. But, the sloth seemed content to nap in the late afternoon sun, occasionally peaking his head up to check out the boat of photographers floating below.
The Sierpe tour was a real favorite amongst the guests, as we encountered a very diverse cast of animal characters out there on the water. We saw our first monkeys of the trip, a troupe of howler monkeys nibbling on leaves in a tree at the water’s edge. We also found macaws, toucans, herons, and egrets, as well as pootoo, a bird that is one of the best camouflaged on the planet. We also found a mangrove boa as well as ibis and cormorants. And, the scenery was incredible as the sunset and the warm glow from the dwindling light illuminated the waxy leaves of the mangroves.
As the light faded, our captain kicked the boat back into high gear as we slid through the narrow channels before finding our way back to the open waters of Drake Bay. We arrived back at the lodge in the dark of night and went up to enjoy the amazing food of Aguila de Osa.
The following morning would be an early start to head into Corcovado National Park. Corcovado is an ecologist’s dream. It is world-renowned for its biodiversity and is the only national park in Costa Rica large enough to support stable populations of megafauna like tapir and jaguar. And with our Drake Bay base of operations, we were able to take a leisurely (albeit choppy) boat ride to one of the park’s entrances at Sirena Station. There are no roads into the park, and visitors are limited to entering either by boat or on foot. In the past, our BCJ groups went in by foot, but with the expansion of boat operations out of Drake, the option to cut out several miles of walking just to get to the entrance of the park was a no-brainer.
The ability to enter by boat also puts as at the central west side of the park, close to Sirena Ranger Station. Our local guide and friend Daniel expertly guided us through the park. His knowledge of the complex relationships between the plants and animals in the park is unrivaled, not to mention his well-practiced eye at spotting some of the most hidden animals.
Photography in the park is challenging to say the least because of the thickness of the jungle canopy. But, if you’re willing to push that ISO, the opportunities are incredible. The highlights for me on our day tour in Corcovado were certainly the pack of collared peccary (wild pigs, also known as javelina) we encountered just after beginning our walk. There were even several piglets amongst the group, probably only a few days old. We came across all four species of primates that live in Costa Rica, which are the white-faced capuchin, howler monkey, spider monkey, and the adorable squirrel monkey. We came across a mated pair of black-throated trogans working on a nest, as well as my favorite of the small birds, the red-capped manikin, also known as the Michael Jackson bird for its moonwalking mating displays. Chestnut mandibled toucans and crested guan were also spotted, as well as crocodiles, coati (coatimundi), kingfishers, and several species of waterbird.
After a full day on foot in the park, we returned to the hotel to rest and in anticipation of a night walk on the hunt for frogs and snakes. But, the weather decided to deliver our only disruption of the trip, a torrential downpour that rained out our walk. But, that would be ok, because we had frogs and snakes on the itinerary for the following morning.
The next day we would be moving our operating base from Drake Bay to the community of Carate one the other side of the Osa Peninsula. So, after breakfast, we were boated back to the beach and picked up by our trusty driver Luis to head back towards Puerto Jimenez where we would be stopping for a photo session at Osa Interactive Gardens (OIG).
Colleen and Rayner, the owner/operators of OIG, are good friends of mine and run an incredible property that they have personally overseen reforesting. Years ago, the land they now occupy was owned by cacao farmers who cleared the land for cultivation. Now though, the cacao industry is all but disappeared from the Osa, and through a labor of love, Rayner and Colleen have restored the property to its natural state.
Now, they run educational programs there, training the naturalists and guides of the next generation, as well as running photography sessions for groups such as ours. During the night before sessions, Rayner and his assistant Emmanuel search for frogs and snakes, which they capture and keep in natural environments. These animals can then be photographed in the light of day the following morning. Admittedly, this does sound disruptive to the animals, but the truth is that it is far less disruptive than using flash photography at night. Frogs and small snakes are already vulnerable to predation, and blinding them at night with strobes can leave them helpless to lurking predators. By photographing them in the daylight, we can use the natural light, as well as low powered strobes, which does not leave them in danger. This is also the method that professionals use to photograph these vulnerable animals for organizations like Nat Geo and BBC. Once an animal is photographed, they are returned to the safety of their ponds where they are safe from predators.
For our session with OIG, they had found a beautiful red eye tree frog, which is the unofficial mascot of Costa Rica, as well as a juvenile gladiator tree frog, a basilisk lizard (Jesus Christ lizard), a green iguana, and my favorite, a green parrot snake which was more than happy to go into full threat display with jaws agape for the camera.
After a wonderful session at Osa Interactive Gardens, we loaded into our 4×4 SUVs to head to the jungle and beach community of Carate for the final three days of the trip. Carate holds a special place in my heart, as it is where I spent my first six months living in Costa Rica while I worked for an NGO that does conservation research on the Osa. I know pretty much everyone in the small community, as well as all of the trails and hotspots for wildlife. As a result, this is my favorite phase of the trip, as it is like a homecoming.
The drive from Puerto Jimenez to Carate is about 1.5 hours and moves through some of the most productive secondary forests anywhere on the peninsula. On the way out, we stopped to photograph a pair of tropical screech owls, a night jar, as well as northern tamandua (aka lesser anteater) as it crossed the road and then traversed a log over a stream.
Our lodge while in Carate was the beautiful Laguna Vista, which sits high atop a hill that is surrounded on three sides by Carate’s lagoon, Peje Perrito. With westward-facing terraces the lodge provides epic views of the lagoon and the Pacific Ocean just a few yards beyond it. From the dining area, we could see crocodiles swimming in the lagoon and macaws feeding in almond trees.
Our time in Carate consisted of morning and afternoon walks down the narrow jungle road that provides the only access to the community. On every walk, we encountered large troupes of all four species of monkey. Toucans were visible from time to time, and the macaws were everywhere.
Carate is the place to be if scarlet macaws are your photographic targets. With one of the densest populations anywhere on Earth, Carate’s beautiful beaches are covered in wild almond trees, which are the primary forage for macaws. And they hang there throughout the day, squawking and arguing with each other amongst the almond branches.
For our final evening on the Osa, we headed down to the shores of the lagoon in search of marine birds and crocodiles. The birds on the lagoon are slightly skittish, as can be understood as they often end up in the bellies of the crocs. So, we approached carefully, observing a great white egret, several ibis, as well as two yellow-crowned night herons. What was surprising to me was the number of large crocodiles moving amongst the birds in daylight. Usually far more active at night, these crocs seemed to be interested in the birds, but never went for a strike. But, to be able to observe these living dinosaurs in daylight at close proximity is a treat and always a highlight for me.
As the light faded, we turned our gaze westward to watch the sun dip into the vast Pacific ocean. Locals fished with hand lines just down the beach from us as the light softened and illuminated a seemingly endless stretch of black sand beach in an orange glow with hardly a soul there to see it but us.
Carate Beach is my favorite place in the world to watch a sunset. From here you can see the hills covered in thick jungle canopy extending right up the beach. Crashing waves kick up a rolling mist, creating a soft white blanket over the miles of black sand beach extending away from you. I cannot count how many sunsets I’ve spent there, but each one has been heart-achingly beautiful and personally special in ways words fail to describe.
The following morning was to be our last on the Osa, or the last for the group anyways. We took one more walk early in the morning, heading away from Carate. And we were rewarded with a troupe of dozens of monkeys practically surrounding us. They moved through the excellent morning light, creating the best conditions for monkey photography that we’d seen so far.
Capuchins, spider monkeys, and squirrel monkeys all moved together and mixed evenly in the trees. We also had one last toucan and a majestic bare throated tiger heron posing above a stream. It was a fast actioned and epic ending to what had been an incredible trip through Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.
Though predicting what animals one will encounter on a trip is gambit not worth making in most cases, the Osa stands apart. It is one of the few places in our vast world where you are all but guaranteed to encounter dozens of different species on any given day, from the parrots and macaws to the monkeys and anteaters, to the crocodiles and marine birds, photographic opportunities are endless. This is why since arriving over three years ago for the first time, I just can’t stop coming back.
And in conclusion, a big thanks to a great group of clients who were fun and easy to work with throughout the trip. You know who you are! I hope to see you all out in the field again soon!
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com