Pura Vida means “pure life.”
Such a lovely statement, it rolls off the tongue easily and has become the unofficial, official slogan of Costa Rica.
It’s actually a way of life here.
Extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, a diverse landscape of soaring mountains, dormant and active craters, black and white sand beaches, rushing rivers and powerful waterfalls grace Costa Rica’s 19,653 square miles, which is an area smaller than West Virginia. There are four main geographical areas here: the Tropical Lowlands (Caribbean and Pacific coasts), the Northern Central Plains, the Central Valley, and the Northwest Peninsula.
Our Backcountry Journeys Wildlife of Costa Rica tour visits the Osa Peninsula, a tiny area of nearly untouched land on the southern Pacific coast. You simply never know what you might see next in the Osa, or what might be around the next corner, and this certainly holds true for our recent group of Backcountry Journeys photographers as we paid a visit in late April.
As is typically the case, day one of a Backcountry Journeys tour is a travel day, ending with a dinner and orientation meeting. For our Costa Rica trip, this means meeting at the Marriott Courtyard in Alajuela, right near the airport. Lead guide, Ben Blankenship and I knew from the start that we had not only a skilled group, but a kind, friendly, and a good-natured bunch who would have a lot of fun together over the next several days.
Day two began with an early morning wake up in order to catch the regional flight that would take us from the city of San Jose to the Osa Peninsula, which lies to the south on the Pacific coast side of the country.
The small plane flight between San Jose and the village of Puerto Jimenez is such a neat experience. For anyone with experience flying in a small plane, one where the pilots and passengers are in the same “room,” this flight is for you! As we lift off the views of San Jose are only surpassed by the views of the tall, misty mountain ranges that spill river systems into the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean. Our aircraft begins its descent directly over Golfo Dulce, which is a gorgeous body of water. The landing strip in Puerto Jimenez is seemingly just off the water, so landing there is thrilling, to say the least, as we just clear the water and trees!
Taxis were waiting for us upon our arrival and we set off for our roughly 1.5-hour drive through the jungle down a dusty, rocky and rough road towards Carate Beach and the Lookout Inn. We had a couple of encounters with monkeys that just may have produced some of our best images of Spider and Howler monkeys of the entire trip.
The lesson here is when in Costa Rica, always be ready to encounter the jungle, because it, and all its occupants, are always surrounding you.
Upon arriving at the beautiful Lookout Inn, we settled into our rooms and had a yummy and fresh lunch. Following lunch, we set out for a late afternoon walk down Shady Lane. The weather had different thoughts as an incoming storm sent us back to the Lookout. The storm looked as if it would last for a while, as storms here generally do. This trip was scheduled right at the end of the dry season, however, the rains started a bit early this year which was unfortunate for our walk on this evening, but great news for the critters, especially the frogs!
We were in luck during our pre-dinner frog hunt! We found a couple of red-eyed tree frogs who were not only delightful but also accommodating as we figured out our flashes and compositions while they sat and waiting for us. We also encountered a handful of Gladiator Tree frogs, among a few other critters.
A glorious and freshly prepared dinner, served family style on the top open-air deck, awaited the end of our frog hunt, which we really enjoyed. After discussing our plans for the next day, we said goodnight, retiring to our treehouse style cottages for the evening. These cottages are one of the many things that make the Lookout Inn such a special place to spend time. The sound of the waves crashing on the black sand beach below helped us all drift off into restful sleep, with dreams of ISOs and F/Stops dancing through our heads.
Each of our days at the Lookout begins with what we have now dubbed, “Coffee & Cameras.” This activity is much as it sounds (it’s not that clever of a name). Essentially, it means that we all meet on the second level deck of the Lookout, cameras in hand, and a seemingly endless supply of freshly dripped Costa Rican coffee at our fingertips. Can’t thank the amazing staff of the Lookout Inn enough for accommodating a bunch of photographers who wake up entirely too early every day. We get up with the sun, which was around 5:30 a.m. Waking up this early allows for encounters with the Scarlet Macaw, Black vulture, and iguanas, among others, all visible from the decks of the Lookout and in the soft light of the morning. Is there a better way to wake up each morning?
This day was perhaps our most adventurous, and definitely our most physically challenging, as we hiked into Corcovado National Park. The Lookout Inn is wonderfully positioned for hiking into Corcovado, as the Inn is just a short distance from the end of that gravel road where the trail to the park begins. There are roughly two miles of hiking on a splendid jungle trail that runs right along the coast before you are technically inside the park’s actual boundary at La Leona Ranger Station.
Costa Rica does a fantastic job with conservation, and part of that effort is evident in that they regulate folks entering the Park. If you’d like to hike into Corcovado, you must do so with a licensed local guide. We have always hiked in with the assistance of naturalist, Luis Daniel, from Osa Wild; a wonderful local guiding company out of Puerto Jimenez. Not only does Daniel have engaging information on everything we come across during this hike, such as strangler fig, tent-making bats, or leaf cutter ants, his obvious love of the natural world and of taking folks into the jungle is contagious. Daniel is an integral part of this trip, he’s definitely the kind of guy you want to have beers with at the end of the day. With Daniel’s help, we were able to locate and photograph an assortment of jungle critters while on this hike. In addition to the previously mentioned bats and ants, we also were able to see a troop spider monkeys, hermit crabs, basilisk lizards, a few extremely skiddish poison dart frogs and even a Woolly opossum, which is a rare find.
Our group made it to Rio Madrigal, which is a few miles beyond La Leona Ranger Station. En route, we were able to spot not only a large troop of white-nosed coati but also a Tamandua (anteater)! While on the return hike Daniel stopped us so that we could listen closely to a noise coming from the jungle canopy off in the distance. Violent screams echoing down from the trees were indicative of spider monkeys in serious distress. Daniel rushed us into the forest as his first thought was wildcat! We searched and searched hoping for a rare chance at a cat sighting, but it was not to be this time. What we did find, however, was a local gentleman who was happy to share with us a freshly cut Guanabana fruit. This was such a nice treat, and so cool to experience this real Costa Rican generosity. Pura Vida, right?! The fruit, eaten by hand, and sort of slurped up like a melting ice cream cone, was delicious and refreshing!
With all that excitement, this day was already felt complete. But, the jungle wasn’t done with us yet. As we walked along a beautiful trail, lined with red hibiscus flowers, we encountered a small group of White-Faced Capuchin monkeys. These little guys were nearly eye-level for us so we all got to shooting away. Then, one monkey caught a lizard. The monkey then grabbed his catch and ripped it apart, taking a huge bite of it right in front of our lenses! Capuchin monkeys are omnivorous, meaning they feed off fruits, nuts, insects, small mammals, and lizards, too. They are also thought to be one of the most intelligent monkeys in the world.
Wildlife sightings slowed a bit as we made our way back to the trailhead where we enjoyed freshly cut coconut water, an amazing treat after a long, hot day of hiking through the jungle! After drinks and conversation on the decks of the Lookout, and another expertly prepared dinner, we went straight to bed, proverbial ‘gooses’ sufficiently cooked.
After “Coffee & Cameras,” and a more leisurely breakfast on the deck, we set out for another jungle walk, this time down Shady Lane, a long gravel road located just off the main road. Down this road is located a small schoolhouse made entirely from bamboo, a nice looking construction.
Walking this area provides great opportunities at an assortment of the wild critters on everyone’s “must-see” list. The road here is lined with almond trees, which is a favorite of the Scarlet Macaw. Prior to arriving at the turn-off for Shady Lane, we heard rustling from the trees just off the road. Monkeys!
We stepped off the road and were soon surrounded by a large troop of Spider monkeys swinging from branches and sweeping in providing wonderful photographic fodder. Spider monkeys are the most active and acrobatic of the four Costa Rican monkey species, so they are fun to watch and a challenge to photograph.
Not to be outdone, a troop of Capuchins showed up en masse as if to say, “hey, look at us!! We’re here, too!” At first, the Capuchins were a feisty bunch, showing their teeth to us in a territorial sort of way, yet it didn’t take long for them to see we were no threat, and then commenced a hilarious show.
Moving on from the monkeys, we traveled by foot deeper into the forest in hope of more.
As we made our way deep into the jungle, Danny, our eagle-eyed Bostonian (Go Bruins), hollers out “Hey!! Owls!”
Sure enough, way up high in a tree sat two beautiful owls, their big eyes staring down on us as if saying, “yeah, we’ve seen you this whole time, man.”
Are you all familiar with the saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a noise?” Well, we should have had a like saying on this trip, “If an animal is in the jungle and Danny doesn’t see it, was it actually there?” All in good humor, but seriously it became the joke of the trip that Danny had some sort of super-human vision. He was able to spot absolutely EVERYTHING!
In fact, it wasn’t long before Danny’s made his next super-human sighting when along Shady Lane he was able to locate a small bundle of hair a hundred or so feet up in the canopy. Just a ball of dark fur that would be missed by 99/100 people who might walk past.
It was a SLOTH! A three-toed sloth, to be exact.
And in what is typically a rare moment, the sloth actually moved its head and looked out into the jungle with that classic, seemingly smiling face. A rare moment, indeed for an animal famous for its lack of movement. The sloth is the world’s slowest mammal and is so sedentary that algae grow on its furry coat. The plant gives it a greenish tint that is useful camouflage which makes it difficult to find unless you have Danny with you (Go Sox).
We did have a chance encounter with a Tayra, which is a big dark mammal in the weasel family. Tayras are hard to photograph, and this one – being chased away by a tiny dog – also managed to escape our cameras as it ran by the small bamboo schoolhouse and into the jungle. I’d imagine it could have successfully taken on the small dog had it wanted to.
A quick stop at a small roadside store, near the hostel Hotel Iseami, allowed for a nice break from walking, and some refreshment of ice cream and sodas before finishing our morning hike back towards the Lookout where lunch was waiting.
A slower, more relaxed afternoon gave time for the humidity and warm temperatures to cool before we headed out to the Carate Beach Lagoon, which sits not far from the Lookout, right along the beach. The lagoon is home for quite a bit of marine and tropical birds, and even a crocodile or two. No crocodiles made themselves visible on this night, but we were able to capture images of birds like the Magnificent Frigate bird, tiger heron, green heron, and great white egret, among others.
The sunset from the beach was one to remember. We took some time to do a little landscape work of the sun setting over the mountains descending into the Pacific Ocean. A spectacular scene, one we won’t soon forget.
Our last full day on the Osa was punctuated by a safari-style jungle driving tour, led by Luis Daniel. Much like our hike into Corcovado this day is spent in search of any jungle critters we can find, only this time from the comforts of air conditioning and the horsepower of a vehicle – hiking shoes need not apply.
We knew that Daniel would find an assortment of wonderful critters to photograph, it was just a matter of time. And it didn’t take long. Moments after starting down the road we encountered the final monkey species, which to that point in the trip had successfully avoided us. Squirrel monkeys are the smallest of the four Costa Rican monkeys and are also the cutest. Their orange back and distinctive white and black facial mask give them the look of little elves.
Next up along the roadside were a couple of Spectacled Caimans. Daniel spotted these two in a small swamp along the road, which is precisely where caiman enjoy living. These carnivores are related to the alligator and get their name from the bony ridge between its eyes that resembles the nosepiece of a pair of eyeglasses.
Next, some in the group, those with better eyesight than others (guess who spotted this one?), were able to capture a look but not a good photograph of a King Vulture off in the distance. A gorgeous Roadside hawk kept the attention of the others who couldn’t quite make out the vulture.
Just following a quick stop at Soda Bijuagal, which is a really unique and interesting place (perhaps a story for another day), Daniel spotted a Mussarana snake in a roadside tree – a really cool sighting as these snakes blend in with their environment very well. Locals here respect and welcome the Mussarana because they are immune to the much scarier-to-humans Fer de Lance snake, and can, in turn, kill that snake.
The Fer de Lance is the reason that we wear either tall rubber snake boots or snake gaiters while hiking in the Costa Rican jungle. They blend in well with leaf litter and are extremely toxic.
The wildlife sighting just wouldn’t stop on this safari. Next up would be a Tamandua, resting in a tree above the road. Close enough for a nice shot, and active enough to provide a nice look at the medium-sized anteater. A GREAT find, indeed!
Another amazing find happened near the coastal village of Matapalo. Up high in the trees sat another ball of fur, or to the more trained eye, a two-toed sloth! This is the other sloth here in Costa Rica, so we were able to see both kinds on this trip. This particular sloth did us few favors in the way of moving. The two-toed sloth is nocturnal, so while it does tend to move more than the three-toed, it does so typically at night. This guy didn’t move but sure did cause a few traffic jams down on the road.
After arriving in Puerto Jimenez it was off to Osa Interactive Gardens, a brand new addition to our trip itinerary! We had a wonderful catered lunch in a garden gazebo of delicious sandwiches, made from scratch salsa, and freshly cut pineapple in a prior to starting our tour. If you’ve not had fresh, tropical pineapple it might just be the reason enough to visit Costa Rica, it is that good!
Osa Interactive Gardens was founded in 2012 on a property that was previously logged and then turned into a chocolate farm. Once a sick, dark, closed canopy monoculture cacao plantation, the folks at Osa Interactive Gardens have now re-established the land as a diverse and dynamic jungle supporting hundreds of species. The people here could not have been more interesting, accommodating to our photographic desires, and knowledgeable about the critters we were there to photograph.
First up was a giant boa constrictor. These boas are not venomous, but they can grow large and are powerful. This one posed nicely for us, in a small tree in really nice light.
We then moved on to an introduction to an array of frog species. The list of frogs introduced included: Red-eyed tree frog, Gladiator frog, Masked tree frog (who are really loud at night), Hourglass Tree Frog, and the small headed Tree frog. Some of these, like the Gladiator, were very photogenic and patient with us as we took turns photographing. Others, not so much.
At the end of our tour, we were introduced to an extra special guest, the Marmosa Mexicana, or Mexican mouse opossum. This little guy is a marsupial and a rare find.
Our visit to Osa Interactive Gardens was a great success. We learned a great deal, got really nice photographs, and left feeling more knowledgeable and satisfied as we traveled back towards the Lookout for our final evening on the decks. Before we made it too far, though, one more critter that had been proving difficult to find finally made an appearance. The Yellow-throated Toucan (previously known as the Chestnut-Mandibled toucan) flew overhead providing at least one of us a perfect in-flight shot!
We made a stop to see if our sloth had moved. One guess as to whether it moved, or not. Ha!
Back at the Lookout, we settled in for a nice evening of drinks and conversation prior to another glorious dinner. After dinner, we had to get in one final frog hunt. We had great success as a handful of frogs as well as a particularly interesting looking spider made appearances, capping our final night at the Lookout.
Our final day on the Osa began as the previous three, at 5:30 a.m. sharp with “Coffee and Cameras” on the decks of the Lookout Inn.
Capturing Macaws in-flight, Iguanas sunning themselves, or hummingbirds was the order of the morning. After breakfast the group took one last pass down Shady Lane, returning to pack up and move on back to Puerto Jimenez where we had lunch and got ready for our mid-afternoon flight back to San Jose.
Upon arriving in San Jose we settled into rooms at the Marriott, reconvening for one final dinner. Our dinner conversation steered towards memories of an amazing time in Costa Rica as well as the images we were able to make of some really neat critters we were blessed to see along the way.
What an amazing place the Osa Peninsula remains to be, and what a really special group of Backcountry Journeys photographers that gathered for this particular trip.
Kenton Krueger grew up and spent the first 33 years of his life in the corn country of Omaha, Nebraska. After studying aviation at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Aviation Institute, he “conned” his way into the newsroom at the award-winning Omaha World-Herald where for 3+ years he wrote and photographed news articles on a variety of topics such as community events, travel and even mixed martial arts for the sports department. Yet something was missing. While on backpacking trips to Grand Teton and Grand Canyon National Parks in the mid-2000’s he was quick to realize that the wild lands of the western United States stoked a fire in his heart as nothing else could. This realization led to a relocation to Flagstaff, Arizona, and he hasn’t looked back. He has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, a former pilot, newspaper photographer, and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)