You’ve seen this exotic and gorgeous landscape many times on celluloid. Costa Rica’s incredible beaches, and abundant jungles have played a more than able setting for some of Hollywood’s best. Much of the movie, Congo, with its deep, deep jungles, its wondrous creatures was filmed in this lush backdrop. Costa Rica literally means ‘the rich coast’ in Spanish and is popular for a whole lot more than the films it’s hosted. It is said to grow and serve some of the world’s best coffee, it ranks high as a surfing destination for the adventurer’s itinerary, but more than anything, it should be on your bucket list for the astonishing diversity of wildlife and scenic beauty. In a tiny area of 51,100 sqkm (almost 1 ½ times of Goa), it is home to over 875 avian species, 9,000 species of flowering plants, over 600 species of butterflies, more than 200 different mammals as well as prehistoric reptiles and boldly coloured amphibians. It’s a long way off to Costa Rica, though. Located on the Isthmus of Panama, it is bordered by the Caribbean Sea in the east and the Pacific Ocean in the west. After a tiring journey of 17,000 km and a good 35 hours from Pune, India, we reached the capital city of San Jose and checked into a beautiful hotel with a stunning botanical garden. San Jose is the capital, a fact made fairly obvious by the fact that most of the Costa Rican population lives here. Originally an agricultural city, today’s San Jose, known as Chepe by the locals (Ticos), is a modern, bustling place with malls, offices and a fairly vibrant nightlife. Most travellers use just a night to acclimatise before heading to see the Costa Rica of the travel brochures.
After an early breakfast, and a short photography excursion,we headed to the beautiful low-lying rainforests of the Sarapiqui valley, just two hours from San Jose. On the way, we came across an interesting mammal called the Coati, known as the Brazilian aardvark. This carnivore is part of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) and this particular group of around 12 individuals was bold and waited around, giving me enough time to photograph them. The rich rainforest of the Sarapiqui region consists of some spectacular plant life: Almendro trees (Dipteryx panamensis), bromelaids, epiphytes and vines. The Almendro trees (see box on page 63) are considered guardians of the tropical rainforest and a representative species for the region. They are also a critical part of the endangered Great Green Macaw’s habitat. But what completely gobsmacked us was the sheer number of birds we were able to see. It was terribly exciting to shoot the Blue-grey Tanager, Summer Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Keelbilled Toucan, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Green Honeycreeper, Montezuma Oropendula, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Kiskadees, Flycatchers and Orioles.
I was so engrossed in the photography of these stunningly beautiful avian wonders that the hours literally flew past and it was only the low light that made me realise that it was 5 pm and that I had seen a healthy list of 30 species in one day. During the three days that I stayed there, I heard repeatedly, a loud and fearsome noise made by the Mantled howler monkeys, especially in the night but was unable to see them clearly. On the last day, the guide came running to me at breakfast and took me to see a female monkey out on the open perch. My 600mm lens captured this endangered monkey, which also has proven to be an important link in this ecosystem.
Next up, a hectic walk-around session that awarded me with a photograph of Agouti, a rodent species on my wish list. Agoutis forage for fruits and nuts on the forest floor and are known to hoard food when it is scarce. They do not always remember where they’ve done so, and over time, the forgotten stash grows into trees. Thus, these animals play a vital role in a rainforest. The night brought on a macro photography session and I managed to get photos of the the Red-eyed tree frog. As the name suggests, this beautiful frog has bright red eyes and a green body. Startling colours marked many photography outings in the Costa Rican jungles.
After three days at Sarapiqui, we left for Rancho Naturalista, a beautiful lodge on the Caribbean slope in the Cordillera de Talamanca near Turrialba (at an altitude of 2970 ft). We were in for a treat. On the way, we came across the Three-toed sloth, which was leisurely crossing the road at less than a snail’s pace. Sid’s eccentricities in the movie, Ice Age, have made this animal a household name, and we were lucky to have seen it this way, and we helped it cross by stopping the traffic.
Rancho Naturalista Lodge is situated in 50 hectares (125 acres) of protected Primary Premontane Rainforest of the Caribbean slope. Other habitats within the grounds include semi-wooded pastures and seasonal mountain streams. The Casitas(small bungalows) are situated in beautifully landscaped gardens, which attract an abundance of birds and butterflies.
My target here was to do multi-flash setup photography of hummingbirds, especially the Snowcap, a very rare species. This method truly tested my patience and skill. I had to be really accurate, sharp and ultrafast for this session. But it paid off and I was able to photograph six to seven different species, including a rare Violet Sabrewing and Green-breasted Mango, male Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird in two days of tremendous hard work.
Our third and the most important destination was the Savegre Mountain Lodge near San Gerado de Dota, an ideal spot to explore the high elevation habitats in Costa Rica. This mountain lodge is owned and run by Chacon Zuniga family, the people who discovered this valley in 1954 and have settled here since 1955. Efrain Chacon and his family developed an interest in nature early, allowing them to preserve 70 per cent of their 400-hectare property. An extensive trail system reveals this ancient Tropical Montane Cloud Forest. The grounds of the resort are quite entertaining; hummingbird feeders, beautiful gardens, and the charming Savegre river attract a great number of bird species around the facilities. The lodge is privileged to be set in the Talamanca Mountain Range ensconced in a pristine high-elevation oak forest as well as in the proximities of Sub-Alpine Rain Paramo (over 10,000 ft) making this area a very unique birding spot to observe many species found only in the highlands of Costa Rica. I was only too happy about this advantageous location because I was in search of the one and only Resplendent Quetzal. This bird is considered one of the most beautiful, vibrantly coloured bird in the world and is found exclusively in Central America. I hiked up a 80 m hill with around 12 kg of camera gear but it was worth it. I sighted my very first Resplendent Quetzal – now threatened because of capture and forest degradation – on a wild avocado fruiting tree. I was ecstatic, so much so that I felt like I’d achieved everything in my life. All the hard work and the money I spent for this Costa Rican adventure paid off as I saw and photographed this beautiful bird, both the male and the female, for three consecutive days. I also found another star attraction of this valley near the Savegre river, the Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher with a berry in its mouth. This rich habitat is home to the Collared Redstart, Acorn Woodpecker, Volcano Hummingbird, Flame-coloured Tanager, Green VioletEar Hummingbird, Scintillant Hummingbird to name a few. These birds made wonderful pictures that told some amazing stories. I hope to return for many more adventures.
Costa Rican National Parks
Santa Rosa National Park: This park commemorates the historical setting of the Battle of Santa Rosa. It hosts endangered wildlife like coyotes, peccaries, coatimundis, tapirs, jaguarundy and margay. The beaches are homes to nesting marine turtles.
Guanacaste National Park: The park spans over an area of approximately 340 sq km, and includes 140 species of mammals, over 300 birds, 100 amphibians and reptiles, and over 10,000 species of insects.
Manuel Antonio National Park: This park is said to be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, with everything from white sand beaches, to lush foliage and forests. It was listed by Forbes among the world’s 12 most beautiful national parks.
Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge: The second largest rainforest preserve in the country, with no dry season, this is great place to sight West Indian Manatee, caymans, crocodiles, jaguars, cougars and a massive variety of birds.
Corcovado National Park: It has often been referred to as one of the most intense biological places in the world. This park conserves the largest primary forest of the American Pacific coastline and is the Costa Rican crown jewel.
If you go
Getting there: You will need a valid visa. Airline fares are usually more expensive during the high season (from December to April, with December and January the most expensive).
When to go: The best time to visit is the dry season from December through April, which is summer. Dry season means less rain, not no rain.
Money matters: The Costa Rican currency is the colon. Throughout Costa Rica, you can pay for tours, park fees, hotel rooms, midrange to expensive meals and largeticket items with US dollars. However, local meals, bus fares and small items should generally be paid with colones.
Biodiverse Costa Rica
Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 wild species, which represents nearly 4 per cent of the total species estimated worldwide.
The geographical location of Costa Rica and its neo-tropical climate make it a haven for varying biodiversity from tropical rainforests to deciduous forests, mangroves, mixing it up with some stunning coasts. History plays a fairly important role too; the landbridge that formed years ago connecting the continents of North and South America allowed all the flora and fauna to mingle and converge, giving Costa Rica literally the best of both worlds, some of it – frogs, snakes, lizards, finches, hummingbirds, gophers, mice, cichlids, and gobies – endemic to this region.
A dense, tall tree with a trunk that forks repeatedly resulting in a graceful, rounded crown, the Dipteryx panamensis (Family: abaceae) is popularly referred to as the ‘Almendro’ (meaning almond tree in Spanish). Endemic to southern Nicargua, Costa Rica, Panama and Columbia, this tree grows to up to 45 m and is one of the most impressive in the lowland forests of the Atlantic plains.The Almendro is a vital link in the forest ecosystem and provides habitat, shelter and nutrition to an incredible number of creatures. According to scientists, 60 animal species are dependent on its fruits, and the endangered Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguous), uses it for nesting, nutrition and even water. Naturalists have conclusively linked the fall in this bird’s population to the disappearance of the Almendro in its habitat, due to heavy logging till a prohibitive law was passed in 2008.
A singer for the National Bird
The Clay-coloured Thrush is the National Bird of Costa Rica. Despite the presence of several stunning, colourful birds in the region, this fairly unglamorous bird was picked for more than its looks. It is believed that its powerful and melodious song brings the rainy season, which is imperative for crops. The bird lives in open spaces and forages on the ground for worms and other invertebrates but tends to eat more of fruits. Clay-coloured Thrushes are found mainly on backyard fruiting trees such as oranges and guayabas and nest at the end of the dry season so that their young can benefit from the abundance of food available at the start of the wet season.
Originally printed in SAEVUS Magazine's 'Travel Away' section.