Part 1: The Resplendent Quetzal
High in the cloud forests of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains, there is an array of wildlife completely unlike anywhere else in the country. In stark contrast to the low altitude jungles of its central pacific coastline, Costa Rica’s cloud forests exist between 6,500 feet and 10,000 feet in altitude, making them cool and damp all year round. And it was here, amongst Costa Rica’s famous cloud forests, that three lucky BCJ clients (Don, Edie, and Beverly, you know I’m talking about you) joined me on a three day extension to find and photograph the elusive resplendent quetzal.
From San Jose, we would be heading south to Los Quetzales National Park and the small mountain community of San Gerardo de Dota.
First, let’s talk about what makes this environment so unique, even amongst the incredible array of ecosystems that fall within Costa Rica’s borders. The primary factor is of course the altitude. The highest peak in Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripo, is part of the Talamanca range, topping out at over 12,500 feet. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Central America was recorded atop this peak, which was -11 celsius (12 degrees Fahrenheit). And though, San Gerardo de Dota does not reach that height, it’s elevation of over 7,500 feet means that it does get downright chilly.
The Talamanca Mountains extend from just southeast of the capital city of San Jose all the way down into Panama. It is home to a wide range of mammals, including puma, tapir, and jaguar, and is home to over 200 species of birds, with an impressive 47 of them endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. And it is because of this that the area is world famous amongst birders and nature enthusiasts. And, the town San Gerardo de Dota is a little slice of birders’ heaven. The town itself lies within the borders of Los Quetzales National Park. But, this national park is not like the ones in the U.S. Created in 2005, it is a huge swath of rugged highland wilderness (13,000 acres) and has only one small ranger station. Access is limited to one very rough dirt road that meanders amongst the peaks and valleys of the Talamanca range.
Lucky for us though, we would not be needing to brave this road to find the elusive quetzal. The town of San Gerardo consists of a few hotels and restaurants nestled into a narrow valley amongst the steep ridges of the national park, and it is within this valley that those seeking the quetzal have the best chances of seeing one.
Even to those unfamiliar with the symbolism and cultural significance of the quetzal, the bird is a stunner!
With an iridescent green sheen, deep red breast, and tail feathers that can extend up to two times longer than its entire body (males only), the bird has attracted much attention from pre-Columbian peoples, ornithologists, and modern birders. Famed ornithologist Alexander Skutch described the resplendent quetzal as, “a supremely lovely bird; the most beautiful, all things considered, that I have ever seen. He owes his beauty to the intensity and arresting contrast of his coloration, the resplendent sheen and glitter of his plumage, the elegance of his ornamentation, the symmetry of his form and the noble dignity of his carriage.” And so, it would be our mission to find this famous bird and attempt to capture its beauty in photographic form.
Day 01: The Search Begins
After a one night stay in the Alajuela Courtyard Marriott just outside the capital city of San Jose, we began our journey south into the Talamanca range the next morning. Our route began on the surface highways of the bustling metropolis. We were lucky enough to be traveling during a low phase of the San Jose traffic and within an hour began gaining altitude on the Interamericana Highway that snakes south from San Jose through the mountains, eventually making it all the way down into Panama. We would only be traveling about 80 km south of the city though. The little two lane highway meanders along ridge lines and valleys, but steadily gains altitude until reaching the entrance to Los Quetzales National Park. Just past the park entrance is the turn-off leading to the town of San Gerardo de Dota. After making a right turn, the small, partially paved road heads down into a narrow valley. After a few kilometers, we began to see a few hotels and small cafes clinging to the steep mountainsides, all adorned with signage and artwork commemorating the quetzal. We made our way to the bottom of the valley to the Savegre Hotel where we would be spending the next two nights. Savegre is a beautiful lodge located on a bubbling brook that is full of rainbow trout. In fact, the trout fishing here in the valley is also famous, and trout would be the one of the best local offerings during our meals here in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota.
We got checked into the hotel and prepared ourselves for our first outing in search of quetzals. For those wishing to find the resplendent quetzal, the best means of doing so is to at least consult with a local guide before going out. Aside from their detailed knowledge of the area, local guides have one crucial piece of information relating to the quetzal; they know which avocado trees are in fruit and at the correct phase for the quetzal. The quetzal eats young avocados almost exclusively. And for an avocado tree to be able to produce a quetzal sighting, its fruit needs to be at just the right size so that the bird can swallow them whole.
And even more interestingly, avocado trees in Costa Rica do not have a set time of the year for fruiting. Because of the year round climate of Costa Rica, devoid of seasons like the temperate climates further north, each avocado tree is on its own schedule. One tree may be in fruit, another in flower, and another with nothing on it but leaves, all at the exact same time of year. So, consulting with locals is enormously important to be able to discover which trees have the best shot for producing sightings of the quetzal.
For our first outing, we would be heading out with Marino, a local guide who has spent his entire life in the Costa Rican highlands. I knew Marino from my time scouting the area, and we had devised a plan of attack. He would be giving us a tour of the trees in fruit in the valley, and should we not encounter a quetzal on the first afternoon, we would continue on our own, Checking these areas during the following days. But, we would not have to wait that long before encountering our first quetzal. On our second stop, Marino moved into the trees adjacent to a stream and disappeared from view for a moment. When he reappeared, he was wearing a big smile and was pointing back behind him. He had found a pair of quetzals, a male and female, preparing a nest. We quietly moved in that direction, and about 25 yards away, we saw the iridescent green and flowing tail feathers of a male quetzal. And perched just above a hole in a tree was the female. We witnessed the female place a few twigs in the hole, and then they sat perched just outside the nest for several minutes. From here, we were able to capture our first quetzal photos of the trip. The light was challenging to work with, because in the afternoons in the cloud forests, like clockwork, thick clouds come rolling up the valley. But, we had just enough light to work with. After spending about 20 minutes photographing the pair of quetzals, we left them there, as we did not want to disturb them in their nesting process.
As the sun set in the valley, we wrapped for the day and headed back to Savegre to relax a bit and then enjoy a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant.
Day 2: The Quetzal Quest Continues
We began our second day in San Gerardo de Dota early in the morning before dawn to continue our search for quetzals. First we headed to what I dubbed the “hot corner.” This was a sharp bend in the narrow road that snakes through the valley where two avocado trees were in fruit. But, we were not to be alone here. Several other guided birding trips had also set up on the road hoping to spot the quetzal. Here we waited for about 30 minutes as the sun rose. Several black guan moved around the road, keeping shutter buttons clicking as we waited on the arrival of the star of the hour. But, no quetzal arrived. As I walked up the road a bit, I overheard a guide saying he’d seen a quetzal flying further down into the valley. I decided it was time to move on and try a new spot.
We loaded up and headed back down the steep road in the direction we had come. We had a choice in front of us. We could return to the spot where we had seen the birds yesterday, which I could see other groups were doing. Or, we could head to the bottom of the valley where we’d seen a large avocado tree covered in small fruit the day before. Seeing as how there were already people crowding the first spot, I made the call to head to the base of the valley. We arrived just as the first direct rays of sun were peaking overt the high valley walls. Not a single soul was around. This was both a relief to have the place to ourselves and also a bit concerning as no other guides were there. But, in a few short moments, all our anxieties were washed away when a beautiful male quetzal landed in the tree directly in front of us.
Not only was this bird only half the distance away as the ones the day before, it was also in much better lighting. Our shutters began buzzing. And a few seconds later, a female came in and landed in the avocado tree as well. After observing this pair of quetzals for about half an hour, they moved on and disappeared back into the cloud forest from where they’d come. This sighting would prove to be our longest and closest encounter with quetzals throughout our time in San Gerardo de Dota.
With the sun climbing higher into the sky, we headed back to the lodge for breakfast and a short rest. We would be spending the remainder of the morning doing some light hiking around the valley floor before heading up to Batsu Gardens.
Batsu Gardens is a property designed for birders and bird photographers. High up a hillside is a viewing platform. It is surrounded by fruit trees, flowering bushes, and avocado trees, all the things that birds love. The proprietor also uses feeders to attract an array of hummingbirds.
We would be spending the next several hours here photographing woodpeckers, several tanager species, including the flame-colored tanager, blue-gray tanager, silver-throated tanager, as well as orioles and a dozen different species of hummingbirds.
As the afternoon sun moved westward and the valley floor cooled, we wrapped up our affairs at Batsu. We should spend our last afternoon in San Gerardo back on the hunt for quetzals, and hopefully, a bird I’ve never been able to photograph, the emerald toucanet. Having spent the better part of two years on the Osa, the chestnut mandibled toucan has become a very common sighting for me. But, its cool-weather loving cousin, the emerald toucanet, has eluded me thus far. We’d been incredibly fortunate thus far with the avocado trees at the bottom of the valley, so we returned there to see who would be occupying its branches in the afternoon.
I parked the car about 50 yards down the road and we moved up to the tree on foot, attempting to move quietly. As we approached, Beverly said she saw something moving in the tree. I quickly pulled my camera up to my eye to examine the tree through my 600mm lens. And sure enough, there poking out amongst the avocado leaves was the unmistakable bill of the emerald toucanet. I had enough time to fire off one blurry image before the bird took to wing and left the tree. We waited around for 20-30 minutes hoping the bird would return. But, alas, it never did. Such is the nature of nature photography.
We decided to move on and search the trees in where we’d seen our first pair of quetzals. Again, I parked down the road and we made our way to the trees on foot. It didn’t take long for us to know there were quetzals in the area. A small crowd of fellow bird enthusiasts had gathered around a guide with a spotting scope and were taking turns looking through it.
We approached and our attention was directed to a mated pair above a small nesting hole in a tree, presumably the same pair we had encountered during our first afternoon with Marino. We stayed for a short time to photograph these birds before heading back to the lodge to rest up and get ready for dinner. The following morning we would be heading back into San Jose to meet the rest of group and head to the Osa Peninsula.
Part 2: The Osa Peninsula
Day 01: Arrival in Costa Rica
Day one of the main Backcountry Journey’s Wildlife of Costa Rica photography tour begins in the town of Alajuela, a suburb of San Jose, and home to one of the country’s two international airports, Juan Santamaria International Airport.
We use the Courtyard Marriott in Alajuela as a staging location for clients to meet with the guides and to conduct our orientation meeting. Our trip orientations are designed to give our clients a chance to get to know the guides and the guides (myself and Russel Graves for this trip) to get to know the clients as well. Here, we learned that this was going to be most everyone’s first time in Costa Rica, aside from Don and Edie, who’d traveled to the country once before.
After orientation and dinner in the Marriott restaurant, it was time for bed. The following morning, we would be heading back to the airport to board one of the small domestic flights to the country’s far southwest, to the Osa Peninsula.
Day 02: Traveling to the Osa
The second day began with an early breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and then we packed up and were shuttled back to the airport by 7:15 am, but this time to the smaller domestic terminal. We checked into our flights and moved through security to board our Cessna 208. We would be flying into the town of Puerto Jimenez, which is a small town of about 2,000 people on the eastern coast of the Osa Peninsula serves as a gateway town for travelers wishing to visit Corcovado National Park. The flight from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez only takes about 45 minutes, which is enormously better than the 6.5 hours it takes to drive there.
By 8:30, we were airborne and cruising over the mountains that ring the San Jose Valley. From the airport, we headed due west until reaching the ocean and then turned south, soaring along Costa Rica’s beautiful Central Pacific Coast.
Soon, we moved past Drake Bay and were flying over Golfo Dulce, the gulf that lies to the southeast of the Osa Peninsula. Its waters are clear and blue, and the town of Puerto Jimenez hugs its shore.
We touched down in Puerto Jimenez and everyone got their first dose of the Osa’s tropical heat. Puerto Jimenez is a bit of a hotbox due to its paved roads and separation from the open ocean. But, our time here would be brief. Our drivers were waiting for us at the airstrip and we loaded up to complete our journey. Our final destination was the town of Carate, a small community at the end of one of Costa Rica’s longest dirt roads. It is the jumping off point for hiking expeditions into Corcovado National Park, and is also home to the Lookout Inn Lodge where we would be based for the next four nights. Lookout is a unique lodge. It sits atop a hillside overlooking Carate Beach, a seemingly endless stretch of black sand and surf, and not a structure in sight. The lodge has three decks for viewing and photographing wildlife, and monkeys and coatis make excellent use of the wood railing and columns, jumping from tree to railing and back again.
We completed the drive from Puerto Jimenez to Carate in about an hour and a half, not counting a brief stop we made to photograph a black and white owl. Once we arrived at the lodge, everyone was checked into their treehouse style rooms and we sat down for our first meal at the lodge. But, halfway through the meal we were interrupted by a troop of squirrel monkeys.
They came en masse, moving through the trees and running along the lodge’s railings. Everyone’s lunch plates were temporarily abandoned as they leapt into action, snapping photos of Costa Rica’s smallest monkey species.
Soon, the monkeys’ interest waned and they moved back into the forest, and our lunch continued. This is a normal occurrence at Lookout. Meals and conversations are regularly interrupted by wildlife visiting in close proximity.
After lunch, we geared up for our first hike down Shady Lane. Shady Lane is a dirt road that travels back into the jungle from the main road. This section of forest is ideal for spotting mantled howler monkeys, spider monkeys, tayra, coati, and birds of prey. Before embarking, we went over everyone’s camera settings, getting everyone ready to capture some fast action as animals moved through the jungle and amongst the treetops. The hike is completely flat, and the entire loop is about three miles.
The walk down the main road produced some great shots of macaws feeding in the almond trees along the beach. The almond trees this time of year have plenty of ripe fruit, and the scarlet macaws take full advantage. It is also mating season for the macaws, so these noisy parrots are even noisier than usual. Their mating practices are far from gentle, but are raucous bitey affairs.
As we left the main road and moved along Shady Lane, we encountered spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and a toucan. We also had some great angles on a black hawk, and much to my chagrin, a beautiful white hawk flew in and landed in clear view. The lighting was not spectacular for the white hawk, but such a close proximity sighting is rare for this big white raptor.
As the sun set behind the jungle canopy, we turned around and began the march back to the lodge. We returned and got cleaned up and headed up for one of Lookout’s big family style dinners. The food here is always impeccable, with everything prepared from scratch. After dinner it was off to bed to rest in preparation for our expedition into Corcovado National Park the following morning.
Day 3: Corcovado
Every morning of our Costa Rica Wildlife tour begins the same way. We start with coffee and cameras in hand atop the observation decks of Lookout just as the first morning light begins to brighten the sky. This is an excellent time of day for photographing macaws and other birds as they move from tree to to tree around the lodge. Today, we would be having an early breakfast and then embarking into Corcovado National Park. By 8:00, our driver and local guide, Luis Daniel, had arrived to take us into Corcovado National Park. Corcovado is a truly enormous area of absolute wilderness. And though access to the park for guests is limited to only about 1% of the park’s total area, access to this 1% is highly controlled. And anyone wishing to see the park must employ a licensed local guide. And Luis was our man. He is an expert on all things related to wildlife on the Osa, and his guiding and interpretation would prove to be absolutely engaging.
There are no roads to Corcovado National Park, and visitors accessing the park from Carate must walk two miles to reach the park entrance. This walk begins at Rio Carate and then moves parallel to the beach through pristine primary rainforest. Though the hike is nearly completely flat, the day would prove to be a hot one, and the hike challenging. Along the first stretch of trail, we encountered toucans, basilisk lizards, whiptails, tent-making bats, and a poison dart frog just beyond the reach of our lenses.
We made it to the park entrance before 11 am and took a break there at La Leona Ranger Station. From here, our path would lead into the park another 2.5 miles past Rio Madrigal. And it was just past Rio Madrigal that the wildlife sightings suddenly exploded. We encountered a tayra (imagine a 30+ pound weasel with an appetite for howler monkeys), tamandua (a medium sized anteater), and several spider monkeys.
From here, we turned around and began the walk back to the trailhead at Rio Carate. We arrived back at Lookout Inn by 4:30 pm, had some cold drinks, and cooled our feet off in one of the lodge’s plunge pools. We spent the rest of the afternoon light shooting macaws from the lodge’s platforms and then headed upstairs for another gourmet dinner and then off to bed.
Day 4: The Lagoon
After a long and hot day on the trail the day before, we would spend this morning shooting from the comfort of the lodge’s viewing platforms. As per usual, we were up with cameras in hand by 5:30 enjoying some fresh Costa Rican coffee. From here we had opportunities for shooting the macaws flying around the lodge, the black vultures doing their “salute to the sun” pose, and several green iguanas clinging to the tallest of tree branches.
After breakfast, we headed out on a short hike along the dirt road in search of some sun-loving iguanas. The dry season in Costa Rica is the ideal time for photographing these big lizards as they enjoy sunbathing on tree trunks along the road. We initially encountered one large adult black spiny-tailed iguana, which was dubbed “Iggy,” and two smaller juveniles.
We continued along the road and encountered a troop of squirrel monkeys feeding on some low hanging branches. Squirrel monkeys are unique amongst the four Costa Rican primates in that they do not have prehensile tails (they cannot grab with their tail). But, their small size and incredible agility allows them to hang and move amongst the thinnest of branches. There were also at least two infant monkeys in this troop, both clinging to their mothers’ backs.
After our walk, we headed back to Lookout for lunch, which was another delicious spread laid out by chef Juan Carlos and his staff. We took a couple hours break to allow time for the sun to move across the sky improving the lighting and temperature.
During our break time, representatives from COPROT, the local, grassroots sea turtle conservation organization were kind enough to give us a presentation upon the work being done along Carate Beach to help conserve this keystone species.
By 3:00 that afternoon, we were loaded up and heading out for the Lagoon to photograph the array of marine birds that congregate there, as well as hopefully see a few crocodiles. But first, I wanted to explore a section of forest just off Shady Lane. Though we had seen several toucans, we had not yet had one in close proximity with good light. I knew this area was good for toucan, and as we neared a small clearing I heard the tell-tale call of a toucan. We proceeded quietly towards its call, and as we neared the tree line, it flushed. We followed and found it in a mango tree directly above the road. It was in great light and very close.
We got some great shots there before it flew across the road landing on a dead tree. It was exploring another bird’s nest, looking for easy pickings. Most people do not realize that toucans are omnivorous. They do eat fruit and nuts, but they also hunt for small birds, eggs, lizards, and just about anything else they can catch and swallow. We got some great shots of the toucan exploring the nest before it flew off.
Next, we headed to the lagoon. Carate Beach’s lagoon is a brackish body of water that only connects to the Pacific during the highest tides. During low tide, the lagoon is separated from the sea by a thin stretch of beach. The lagoon is a beautiful body of water, ringed by tall grasses and coconut palms and black sand. It is also home to a wide array of marine and tropical birds, including tiger herons, great white egrets, magnificent frigate birds, parrots, and macaws. Giant basilisk lizards live in the grasses at waterside, and crocodiles and spectacled caiman cruise the calm water in search of prey.
We approached from the west just as the light was getting really good. As we walked up, we could see a host of marine birds in one of the shallow branches of the lagoon. And, most interestingly, there were at least five bare-throated tiger herons, with the males in full on mating display trying to impress the females. This is an incredible show to behold as these big herons puff up their throats, strut, and make guttural mating calls to the females. Also present were several great white egrets, snowy egrets, white ibis, little blue herons, a green heron, and even a northern jacana. We had a great vantage point on the avian action, capturing some great shots before moving on and walking along the lagoon’s edge. As we walked around, we could see a couple caiman swimming silently amongst the birds. No big croc presented itself for a photo, but perhaps thats for the best!
As the sun began to dip into the Pacific, we turned our cameras to shoot an epic sunset. Carate Beach’s converging lines of surf and tree line made for a beautiful frame along the glistening sea, reflecting all the colors of orange, pink, and red in the sky above. Brown pelicans cruised along the crests of the waves like fighter jets as the sun made its plunge into the Pacific.
As the sky darkened, we put on our headlamps and headed back to the lodge for some gourmet culinary pleasures and rest for the following day.
Day 05: Wild Drive
For our fifth day of the tour, as well as our last full day on the Osa, we would be taking a driving safari with Luis Daniel, our local guide who took us into Corcovado. These drives can be great for spotting wildlife, as it allows us to cover a lot of ground. Also, all the local guides communicate with one another about what they’re seeing each day. So, if there’s sloth in the area, this is the best time to find it.
After an early start with coffee and camera on the Lookout decks and a big breakfast spread, we embarked from the lodge by 7:45. We would be driving along the same road, in fact the only road, that goes form Puerto Jimenez to Carate, but this time going slowly and deliberately on the lookout for anything moving in the trees.
Just a mile or so from the lodge, we quickly encountered a toucan. While the group was following it, a white nosed coati ran up behind myself and Beverly. We tracked it to its den, but were unable to get a good shot.
After loading back up, we headed down the road encountering a pair of great curasow running along the road before disappearing into the brush. As we were stopped observing them, a troop of spider monkeys appeared in the treetops overhead.
As the day went on, we headed back east towards Puerto Jimenez to end the drive in the community of Matapalo, named for the strangler figs that dominate the forest canopy. We encountered three species of monkey along the way, and we did find our sloth. Unfortunately though, he was so tucked into a bunch of branches in his tree, any photograph was all but impossible. But, we were able to observe him through the spotting scope and get a decent look at his face.
We ended the first portion of the driving safari on Matapalo Beach watching and photographing a group of local surfers as they carved through the iridescent waves. As lunch hour approached, we packed up and headed to a jungle lodge and restaurant called Encanta La Vida to eat. After eating, it was back to Lookout. But, on the way we encountered another troop of howler monkeys which presented the best photo opportunity of these primates for the trip so far.
Once we arrived back at the lodge, we had enough light to shoot some macaw photos before it was dark and time for dinner. Then, it was another gourmet spread and we were off to bed to prepare for our last morning on the Osa and the journey home.
Day 6: Homeward Bound
We began the last day on the Osa how we began all the others: coffee and camera. Though the primate activity at the lodge had been a bit slower than I was used to, we were getting ample opportunities to photograph the macaws in flight. We worked on different shutter speeds, experimenting with how much motion blur was good and how much was too much.
Because it was the high season for traveling to the Osa, we would be returning to Puerto Jimenez and flying back to San Jose in shifts. I would stay back with the last group, which would have us at Lookout until 2pm. This gave us plenty of time to walk around the lodge photographing macaws mating in the trees and the iguanas along the roadside. We enjoyed one last lunch spread before packing up for the drive back to Puerto Jimenez.
The last plane to San Jose took off at 5:30 pm, the perfect time to witness an epic sunset from the air. And thus came to a close BCJ’s February 2019 Costa Rica tour. We had some incredible photo opportunities of the local wildlife, even though the hot weather made us work just a bit harder for it. In the end, it is not the sweat or the dust that last, but the photos and the memories. And, I can say for one, I made plenty of both on this trip. Thanks to a great group of clients and especially to my fellow guide Russel Graves for his amazing attitude and extensive amount of experience he brought to this trip.
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 his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Image Review: Landscape Edition
with Matt Meisenheimer & Kenton Krueger
Tuesday, Feb 23rd, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)