Photographing Costa Rica’s Rain,Cloud Forest
-The Rain Forest of Tirimbina and the Cloud Forest of Monteverde-
Photographing Costa Rica’s Rain, Cloud Forest-
After a one week trip in the Mexican Yucatan (see previous blog), we traveled to the Costa Rican cloud forest for ten days. We decided that since we had been on the beach in Mexico, that instead of spreading ourselves too thin, we would concentrate on the cloud and rain Forest in Costa Rica.
We flew into San Jose and rented a car for our visit. Though Costa Rica is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, the roads are curvy and mountainous, thus, the travel is slow going. We wanted the flexibility of a car. We also took the full car insurance as suggested by the Fodor’s guide. Expensive, but worth the piece of mind.
Heading out from San Jose to the town of La Virgen, we made a stop by the Poas Volcano. As it seems happens most days, Poas was in the clouds, so we continued on to Tirimbina Rainforest Center in La Virgen. This was a leisurely three hour drive, winding upwards through small, farm villages.
Tirimbina Rainforest Center-
We chose Tirimbina as it was a less well known and therefore a less visited rain forest in Costa Rica. Even though were there in early December, we wanted to avoid the rush and feel of tourism. Tirimbina fit that bill. The center has probably 20 rooms, with 10 each side of the office center. The rooms were simple with a double bed, twin bunk beds and bath. Breakfast came with the booking and was served at an outside pavilion across from the check in area.
Because it is a a lower elevation than the cloud forest, there is a much higher level of humidity here. At 80 degrees and 80% humidity, this can be hard to handle. Tirimbina does not have a pool, but does offer access to the local hotel pool next door for $3.00 US. The pool, though small, served its purpose and cooled us down. It was a life saver. The Tirimbina host said that many folks choose not to stay with them because they lack a pool. Don’t let this deter you. Just use the pool next door.
Morning Birding Tour-
I booked a 6:00 A.M. birding tour with the local guide, who was excellent. Though Tirimbina has trails past the hanging bridge that crosses the Sarapiqui River, the three hour morning bird tour took place right around the main complex. Very little walking, just a lot of neck straining looking up.
The most valuable and best piece of advice we gained that morning was from a mother/daughter team. They suggested that we walk 500 metres toward town and visit the Nature Pavilion.
The Nature Pavilion-
The Nature Pavilion was designated a National Geographic Destination site in 2013, and the reputation is well deserved. The Nature Pavilion started out as a father/son run operation, but is not run by the son, David Lando Jr. . David is a duel USA-Costa Rican citizen, thus, he speaks fluent English and Spanish. As an English speaker this was very helpful for us as we were able to have in-depth conversations with him about his site and the birds visiting the site. He is a low-key wealth of information.
The beauty of David’s site is that he has set up a multitude of feeding stations, which are surrounded by nearby woods. He says he feeds the incoming birds 30lbs of bananas and papayas daily. This constant supply of food and branches and landing sites brings in a large and varied array of birds. These are all viewed from his comfortable, canopied observation deck.
What this means for the viewer is that you are looking straight out at the birds, from, perhaps, fifteen feet away. No neck craning. Clear open views. Numerous species. Stools to sit on. As a photographer, David was also willing to set up perches for more aesthetic compositions. In this humid environment, it didn’t hurt that there was also a pleasant breeze blowing through the platform.
Besides the bird perches, around the back side of his house, on the deck, he has set up numerous hummingbird feeders, attracting, at least, seven or eight different species in the time we were there. Unfortunately, photographically, the set-ups were not ideal, as they looked into the morning light, and the surround shrubs had been chopped. This made it hard to get pleasing photos, even of perching hummingbirds. However, as a person from the east coast of the USA, with only one species of hummingbird, it was a delight to see so many varied species.
Over a two day period, I probably spent 7 hours at David’s place, paying $20.00 US per visit, It was money well spent, and much cheaper and better viewing than the photography tours at Tirimbina Rainforest Center.
Here is just a sampling of the birds seen:
We decided that we would access the Cano Negro wildlife refuge by taking an all day trip out of the town of La Fortuna,where the biggest attraction is the semi-dormant volcano, Arenal. We, however, came for the wildlife. La Fortuna is the ultimate tourist town.The vendors have storefronts all along the main street, around the village square. Here you can book bungee jumping, river rafting, water rappelling, Arenal volcano hikes, hanging bridges walks and just about any adrenaline fueled adventure you might like.
We, however, just used it as a base for heading further north, up to Cano Negro, which is located near the Nicaraguan border. The tour will pick you up at your hotel. The drive up takes 2 hours, with a tourist stop along the way. This also means you have a 2 hour return trip, as well.
Reaching the river you get into a canopied, flat bottom boat and head up river for about 2 hours. The river is muddy, wide and not visually scenic. The day we were there, we did see the requisite wildlife- Howler monkeys, “Jesus Christ Lizards”, caimans, Little Blue Herons, Wood Storks, Anhingas…. The most fun for us, however, was seeing a group of white faced monkeys, which we had yet to see. They put on quite a display for us, which was fun.
Overall however, I thought the time spent in the van (4 hours up/back), the $75.00 US fee and the standard wildlife sightings, made the trip one I would not repeat and could not highly recommend. I believe your time and money would be better spent elsewhere.
Saint Elena and the Monteverde Inn-
After visiting Cano Negro, we proceeded northwest to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. From La Fortuna, it took us about four leisurely hours of driving to reach the small town of Saint Elena. All the guidebooks, tell you how rough the road is to Monteverde and that 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicles are recommended. What we found is that the dirt road leading up to the town of Saint Elena was very good- wide, grated, with little traffic. We were confused, until, when on the next morning, we, actually, headed up to reserve, some eight or nine kilometers above town. This, we thought, must be the rough road they were talking about. It was, indeed, quite rough and stony, but I think if driven carefully, a regular car would navigate this part of the road just fine. Throughout our other travels in Costa Rica, a regular size car would be perfectly fine. We, however, had rented a 4-wheel vehicle just for this section of our trip!
The small town of Saint Elena, while having a quaint tourist aspect, was quieter and more endearing than La Fortuna. I liked Saint Elena. We stayed just outside of town at a small place called Monteverde Inn. To say that it was an Inn seems like a misnomer, rather it was an open area of small apartments, surrounded by an open dining area and check-in office. I loved this out-of the-way, end-of-the road, quaint location. The rooms were simple, but nice. Ours had a small kitchenette, with a small refrigerator, which was convenient. We were located right next to the main office area and had great WiFi. A very nice buffet breakfast came with our booking. We paid $120.00 per night (4 adults) for our two bedroom, kitchenette, with two baths. The Inn, also, has some very nice walking trails and at the end of the parking lot area, there is a butterfly museum. I highly recommend this Inn- for the views, the location, the WiFi, the very nice staff, the buffet breakfast, and the price.
Heading up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve-
As I said, the road up to the reserve from town is rough, but manageable. We paid $48.00 US each to enter the reserve and then paid another $20.00 total for our guide, Sergio. We lucked out as Sergio, though a local, spoke excellent English. This enabled us to ask him many detailed questions. He was an excellent birder and a wealth of information about the reserve. If you are new to the cloud forest, I would highly recommend a knowledgeable guide.
The trails are vast at the reserve, but we only covered a fraction of them, as very close to the center, Sergio got a sighting of the endangered Resplendent Quetzal. Needless to say, we spent our next two hours of the tour following this magnificent bird. The Resplendent Quetzal only resides in mountainous, dense, cloud forest at elevations between 4000 and 10,000 feet.
Some scientist believe that the northern Resplendent Quetzal that resides in Guatemala will become extinct very soon due to deforestation of its habitat. However, since Costa Rica dismantled its military in the 1970’s, the country has become a beacon for eco-tourism and the protection of endangered species, including the jaguar.
So we felt very privileged to get some excellent sightings. Sergio was amazing at spotting the plumage among the forest green, and within moments, he would have his spotting scope trained on the bird as it feed on its favorite fruit, the avocado (these avocados were in-eatable to humans). He had a great trick for taking photos through the spotting scope with your camera or Iphone. The Iphone, actuallly, proved the best, as there was no lens zooming in and out.
Though Costa Rica is a small country- the size of Vermont and New Hampshire- it is mountainous and the roads windy. The driving distances are deceptive and not to be underestimated. To that end, I would plan your trip to Costa Rica as we did- just pick a couple of select locations and focus your attention there. It is too beautiful a country to find yourself rushing through, especially if your time is limited.