First Trip to Costa Rica

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Tim Valentine

May 24, 2015
This was supposed to be windsurfing trip to Costa Rica when it was first conceived in 1991. It turned into more of a wildlife and National Parks tour when it eventually took place in 2017. Not a lot of backcountry in this trip but plenty of Wild Country.

When my wife, Jean, and I first considered a trip to Costa Rica it was 1991. We were windsurfing a lot at remote destinations and a new sailboard center had just opened at a place called Lake Arenal in the Costa Rica jungle. We had already sailed at great outdoor venues like Jackson Lake in the Tetons, Yellowstone Lake, Hebgen Lake and the Columbia River Gorge. So an opportunity to sail in front of an active volcano was just another good excuse to plan a trip to an exotic country. However, we were starting a family about that time and with the kids’ school schedules limiting travel to the summer months, a trip to Costa Rica in the preferred dry season kind of got shelved indefinitely.

Similarly, my photography hobby of many years, also got displaced by the opportunity to make home videos with audio and sound tracks on them. I had grown up with home movies which had no sound. So with the advancement of video technology in the 1990’s, I eagerly captured our activities and vacations on VHS tape rather then Kodak still films. After a few years of this, somewhere in the late 1990s still digital images of 2.1 megapixels started to creep into our vacation movies also. The impact of the still image is different than a moving video, and it still has a big place for the archiving of our best memories. It was only a matter of time before I went back to photography as the media migrated to digital also. I held out a long time waiting until professional photographers had fully embraced the digital format. Once I saw that 35 mm cameras were now also able to shoot HD video as well as great still photography, I jumped back into the photo game.

Since outdoor activities and wildlife has been a big part of my photography interest I eventually stumbled upon a Yellowstone photographers forum and started to learn a lot more about photography from experienced folks who also shared my passion for the park. So, fast forward to current times and I found myself planning a trip to a country that has so much to offer in activities as well as wildlife. I knew I could not cover it all in one trip. This trip we just finished started at San Jose airport, then kind of travels counter-clockwise to Carara National park, then down to 6 o’clock at Manuel Antonio National park then back up to 3o’clock at Quetzal National park and finally back to San Jose where we spent one night at an animal rehabbing facility before catching our plane home to California. We already know we want to return to hit the Arenal area in the north for wildlife and maybe a little sailing. Also the Osa Penninsula down in the south is certainly calling us back. That is why this post is called the first trip. I am glad we did not try to do too much. Our longest drive was only 4 hours. We stayed at each spot long enough to sink in and become recognized by the locals in their day to day activities.

I have posted all of our pictures on a flickr page. In the description box for each picture I have a lot more trip details on where we stayed and what we did when not in the parks.

From the San Jose airport it did not take long to get over to the Pacific side of the country and the coastline where Carara National Park is located. I must mention our arrival at the airport evidently coincided with some religious dignitaries arrival and the airport had over 200 well dressed church people singing beautiful harmonious music to greet him. We had to walk right thru the choir and it was really special. I have some video on the flickr page that captures the singing. What a great, unexpected way to start off our trip. ( a huge contrast to the protests we were greeted with at LAX on our return due to the travel ban that happened while we were away!)

Our first stay was at Cerro Lodge near the Carara park. I found a papaya tree with a ripe fruit on it and over the next few days a number of larger birds would visit it.

White Throated Magpie Jay


There were lots of good photo opportunities in and around the hotel area especially in the morning.

Summer Tanager

The hotel was very bird friendly with lots of feeders and landscaped plants that attracted birds.

Black Pheobe


The Tiercoles River is nearby and it has a tremendous population of big Crocodiles. This is the typical view from a bridge on the main roadway.


It is not safe to tour the river without a boat and a guide so we signed up for a morning tour for the next day before the heat set in.

But first we returned to the Lodge and saw some monkeys from the outdoor common eating area.


We also experienced our first of many Scarlet Macaw visits. They are big parrots with even a bigger voice. They frequented the special feeder left out for them. Then they foraged on nearby forest trees almost every morning and evening.


Walking around the area continued to reveal good wildlife surprises. Black Ctenasaur

The river cruise was like a highlight reel of wildlife viewings. With animals on both sides of the river, the guides often had to choose from two different encounters. They did a good job of trying to get us close to the critters and in good light. There were only 7 people on our boat, leaving plenty of room for movement and the boatman were able to honor any requests for better viewing positions.

Little Green Heron sequence


Crocodiles were in charge


Ctenasaurs were also prevalent, even over the water.

We saw our first Basilisk lizards also.

The big stars were the exotic birds. I could not believe my eyes when we went up the mangrove area of the tour and saw a Roseate Spoonbill in person.


Right nearby was a group of crazy looking Boat Billed Herons hiding under the canopy


A new kingfisher for me was spotted in the trees above us. Ringed Kingfisher

Overhead there were some Magnificent Frigate birds circling around the half moon.

There was so much wildlife all around us. We left a lot behind when we headed back to the dock.

Another Basilisk (Jesus Christ Lizard)

When the tour was over I felt like I could have gotten back on the boat and done another lap and probably have seen a lot more new creatures. On our way out we stopped at Carara and spent the remainder of the day hiking at this small wildlife jungle haven.

White Faced Capuchin

Black Mandibled Toucan

Scarlet Macaw on active nest hole in a tree.

Baby Howler Monkey

Back at the Lodge we kept seeing more wildlife.

Turquoise Browed Motmot

Sometimes right outside our door.
Lineated Woodpecker

Between Tiercoles, Carara and the wildlife at the Lodge we were absorbed with great encounters from animals, plants and the perfect weather. It was not humid, not too warm and had not rained on us at all. There were not even any biting insects to complain about.

The birds lured in by the feeders were so close you could see new detail in their plumage. Hoffman's Woodpecker

I’m Frond of Ctenasaurs

As we packed up to drive to Manuel Antonio park the only complaint I could conjure up was the lack of avocado on the menus and the fact that driving at night there were long stretches were you could not see the faded line that was supposed to be in the middle of the highway. Every meal and drink we had was good. Everyone we encountered could tell we were tourists and were very helpful and made attempts to help us enjoy their country.

Brown Jay

The Macaws were so noisy. I suggested to Jean that on boarding our next flight, in an effort to keep the third seat in our row vacant, I could put on my headphones and start practicing my Scarlet Macaw calls outloud while the plane was still loading. RAAAK, AAAWK. :)

Scarlet Macaws


On the way to our next stop we did a canopy zipline tour in the hills above the surf town of Jako. We also toured a small animal rescue site way off the main road. Both activities were things we felt we had to experience at least once. At the great local market in Jako I tried a number of new fruits hoping to find something I could try to grow back home.

Manuel Antonio is a very popular beach town located right up against the jungle National Park of the same name. The park gets very busy and the main trails get crowded with guides and tour groups during the busiest times of the day. Despite all the people commotion there is still plenty of wildlife to be seen even in the crowded spots. We parked the car at our newest hotel located on the border fence line with the park. We spent the next day kayaking and parasailing off the beach and then took a tour of the park the next day.

Before we ever entered the park a huge troop of 20 Squirrel monkeys descended from the forest. They used vines and phone wires to cross directly over the busy walkway we were on. There was a pedestrian monkey jam for while until the troop cleared further out.

Cherries Tanager from our room balcony

Once inside the park the numerous guides helped to find the hidden gems.

Tree Frog in Bromeliad cup

White Crowned Parrot

Once our crowded little formal tour ended we immediately headed up a trail to find a more quiet place for lunch. We chose the waterfall trail but at the end of the trail there was little water falling since it was dry season. We did not see more than two other hiking groups out there. On our way back , we were rewarded with a long session of sloth watching. A two toed was climbing up a tree searching for food. All of the previous sloths we had seen in the morning were sleeping high in the canopy so this was great entertainment in comparison.

Smiling sloth

Interesting back pattern

Squirrel Monkey at eye level

Our time in Manuel Antonio was short but packed with activities. We enjoyed our stay. During our beach activity day the park was closed. Everything was a lot less hectic. Once the park opened back up the area was lively and had kind of Disneyland feel to it with people from all over the world as well as lots of street vendors selling souvenirs. Our next stop was more remote,four hours away in the cloud forest of Quetzal National Park.

My search for some guacamole was satisfied in Manuel Antonio at our last dinner there. The waiter told me that the fruit can be hard to find locally because it is so valuable to the farmers. It fetches a high market price and kind of prices the locals out of using it very much. You have to understand my fetish with the fruit…..we live in a former avocado grove area in Southern California. The street names of our neighborhood are Calavo, Avocado, Fuerte. Our girls school was named Fuerte, a smoothskin avocado cultivar. When I started collecting fruit trees in our yard the first thing I planted was a Hass avocado. In an attempt to have avocados year round we now have four varieties of avocado trees in our yard. I raised our girls on an avocado sandwich that they still refer to as a “daddy special.” Visiting Costa Rica for me was supposed to be a little bit of traveling closer to the mecca of Avocadoism. So as we were headed to Resplendent Quetzal territory I already felt a kinship to this avocado loving bird that I had never seen. Their species live primarily on the fruit of a Central American avocado tree. It is their main source of sustenance. I knew that if I was going to get to see any of them, I would need to first find the Aguacatillo tree that their lives revolved around.

Final MA sunset

Our next accommodations were at the end of a steep descending dirt road down a lush jungle valley at 7,200 ft elevation in the cloud forest. The four wheel drive on the weak Daihatsu rental SUV came in handy. For Jean, the location was love at first site. The remoteness and the lush landscaping around every set of rooms was perfect. As we got out of the car the aroma of a lot of nectar producing flowers was intoxicating.


We settled in and Jean signed us up for a spa treatment later in the stay, something we had never done before. I signed up for an early morning bird tour. There were some big buses that made it down the road dropping off big groups from all over the world, but it never seemed crowded to us. They must have dispersed away into their rooms. and other bird viewing areas. There are not too many eating options in the valley so we elected to have all of our meals at the hotel. The food was very good, with a lot of variety and everything fresh. In our three day stay we never had any desire to find any other eating options.

The hotel bird feeder attracted a number of birds that were new to me. So I shot first and looked them up later.

Flame Colored Tanager

Yellow Thighed Finch

Red Headed Barbet


The first Savegre morning I met my bird guide before sunrise and to my surprise I was the only one signed up so I had my own private tour leader. Raul was great, he told me that I was in luck because Quetzals had been starting to frequent a nearby roadside area. We agreed the Resplendants would be our primary objective . He gave me a great data dump on the birds as we drove the 15 minutes up the road. Raul had a lot of local bird information and a strategy for viewing them, all planned out. The first stop only had a partial chance of seeing the birds, but with much better viewing options. The 2nd stop had a better chance of seeing the birds but with poor lighting and lots of cover. We stopped at the first location and I was the first one to set up a tripod. Soon it got crowded with bus loads of folks. I think each bus had its own pre assigned local guide so we all shared information. A couple of quetzals showed up to the delight of the crowd, but flew past the feeding tree up into the forest. The two could still be seen, but not very well. After we watched for a few minutes Raul was the first to take action. He motioned to me that we should leave and go to the other spot. He said it was not going to happen here. With the tour groups still watching the birds in the dark forest we drove up the road and again I was the first to set up my kit. Shortly thereafter, Raul spotted some birds coming up from the valley and they landed in range just as he had predicted. By the time the other groups arrived, we had already seen them move from two different perching areas. I got some decent documentation photos and felt relieved that at least I got to see the signature bird in action. Raul was a good guide. He told me I now knew enough to drive myself up in the coming mornings.

The next morning I did the same routine. This time I stopped at the first location and waited a long time for the birds. The bus loads came also and there was a lot of chatter amongst the guides about the birds being seen down below in the dark valley, but where were they headed? Since I had seen them the day before I decided to stay and wait at the good spot for a chance to get better pictures. After quite a wait, myself and the only other guy with a camera on a tripod, were still at the at the good tree when we hit the jackpot. Five quetzals flew up from the valley and were chasing each other around! They stopped at the Aguacatillo tree for a snack and then perched in the nearby trees just as Raul had described. I got better pictures. The crowd of people eventually got word and showed up. We all had a great viewing session with them. It was a mating group of birds, three male and two females.

2nd morning male



Bonus bird after the quetzals left. Long Tailed Silky Flycatcher

Raul also told me I should check out his buddies photographers garden which was across the street from the hotel. Philippe works at the hotel but has put in a bird viewing terrace on his apple orchard on some steep hillside property nearby. Martin tends the land and puts out fruit for the birds in a series of feeders. I had a great session of bird viewing there every time I went.

Yellow Faced Grassquit I didn’t make this bird up, its for real.

Hummingbird at rest

Acorn Woodpecker lecturing at the bird podium

Scintillant Hummingbird I finally caught a hummingbird in a good pose and he poops in the picture.

This creeper had one of the best nest locations I have ever found:
Spot Crowned Woodcreeper

Taking food to the nest inside the crack.

Silver Throated Tanager

I was speechless when I saw this next bird in the viewfinder. Then, for (at least) the third time that day, I said to myself “that is the most beautiful bird I have ever seen”.
Golden Browed Chlorophenia

I was wondering if I had a camera lens or a bird kaleidoscope connected to my camera.

All of this bird watching had been occurring early or late in the day. In the middle of the day, Jean and I were hiking higher up into the forest on a good series of trails in the valley. We heard some good cloud forest sounds but it was hard to spot much since most of the action was way up high in the canopy.

Green Dark trails


Giant Oak tree at the end of the Robles Trail
ScreenHunter_28 Feb. 11 16.28.jpg

For all the kilometers we put in on the trail we were finally rewarded with some wildlife. A covey of Spotted Wood Quail were foraging in the darkest parts of the forest floor.

Out in the open Jean spotted a Green Spiny lizard

Back at Phillipes photographers garden I kept seeing new birds that liked the apples.
White Naped Brush Finch

Sulpher Winged Parakeet

Martin and I were becoming buddies trying to speak each others language. He kept telling me that all week long the Quetzals had come, 5:30, every morning to Phillipes garden. “Quetzal, quetzal ,quetzal , you should come here at 5:30 !”. I told him I had one more morning in the park and had not decided what to do. Then I asked him if they had seen the birds this morning and he sheepishly told me ….“no, no quetzals today”. I considered my plans for the next morning keeping in mind I had already seen a lot of quetzals. I weighed in to my decision the solitude of being away from the road , the chase and the crowds. Being the only one on Phillipes land with a lot more apple eating birds for me yet to discover, at sunrise, was rather appealing. Also, since Martin had not seen quetzals for a day, maybe they were overdue. I then surprised Martin and told him, sure,I would spend my morning here with him at 5:30am. He was excited. I told him it was not important if the quetzals did not show up since I had seen plenty.

So my final morning was spent in front of Phillipes photographers garden high above the valley floor. There was a loaded Aguacatillo tree nearby, surrounded by acres of apple trees . The orchards only purpose appeared to be to attract birds since it was evident that all of the ripening fruit was available to them for snacking on.

Blue Grey Tanager almost too close

Hummingbird nest in Apple tree.

I drove myself up the steep four wheel drive road to the bird terrace lookout at 5:30am. Martin climbed up the hill a little later to stock the bird feeding stations. I got set up and it did not take long for the Quetzals to show up! Martin was so excited to have them be viewed in his tree. He really felt vindicated for convincing me to spend my morning there. The male perched in the best location of the whole week. I had some good views.

Resplendent Quetzal

Martin and I high fived as the male just perched and changed positions in perfect view of us. I even had time to switch to video for a bit while the bird was chirping. It is on my flickr page. Martin can be heard in the back of the camera watching thru the live view.


I could not believe my luck with these birds over the three days. I was beginning to think that maybe the birds thought I had a “daddy special” avocado sandwich in my back pocket. :)

After that great session we were still not done. Martin left to go to his other job landscaping the hotel spa grounds. I noticed a big bird climb out from the inside of the Aguacatillo tree up to the top. It was an Emerald Toucanet. The lighting was not the best ,since the sun was still not fully up. I snapped a documentation shot at high ISO, since this was another new bird for me.
Emerald Toucanet

The toucanet remained perched there for another 5 minutes as it got lighter, so I changed the ISO and shot again. Then another 5 minutes went by and he was still there. I could see the first rays of the sun moving down the slope toward us. I thought, I wonder if he is still going to be there when the sun hits the tree? I really wanted a good photo of the ripe Aguacatillos but a photo with a good bird sitting above them would be great.

He spent the time gazing outward, rotating his head in a slow scanning motion from side to side similar to what I had seen of the perched quetzals. He was probably digesting, since I did see him spit some seeds. To my surprise, the sun came down and he was still there! I took a couple of pictures at a much lower ISO and then he disappeared into the tree for more ripe snacks. It was 20 minutes between the two photos.


That ended my last great session at the photographers garden. I went back to the hotel for breakfast and learned that none of the bus groups had seen quetzals that morning. Martin was telling them they should have been where we were. I told Raul about the Toucanet and he took his clients up the hill in search of something to appease them.

Jean and I packed up and crossed the Savegre river for the last time headed for San Jose. We had such a great time at this location. Jean was already texting her friends back home about it.

We spent the night at the Toucan Rescue Ranch outside of San Jose. It is a great place with a great collection of animals on the mend. They started out with just Toucans, then added Macaws , then owls….They are so good with animals that they have just about everything in their care now. They are a very well respected outfit and are on the cutting edge of research for animal reintroductions in Costa Rica. They gave us a great educational tour and then showed us all of the different species and special enclosures they had. They don’t want all of the animals to be viewable in an effort to keep them wild. If you spend the night in their nice guest house, Leslie, one of the founders, will make sure you get to see all of their best animals on her special tour.

The orphaned sloths teenager rocking chair area with intern Mitch, the surrogate sloth dad.

Surrogate sloth mom with youngest orphan

Orphaned Collared anteater

I have all of the Toucan Rescue Ranch photos in a separate album on my flickr page with a lot more information about them in the photo description box.

That was a great way to end our trip and make for a shorter commute to the airport in the morning.

We can’t wait to put Costa Rica back on our travel itinerary.

Thanks for viewing

Tim and Jean


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I like to go outside.
May 31, 2015
I love seeing all those different birds. What a cool chance to see so much wildlife!


Feb 9, 2017
Wow, great pictures. I was in Miguel Antonio years ago. Beautiful place and people.


Dec 11, 2015
You just pushed Costa Rica way up on my list. Thanks for sharing and great photos. What awesome birding!


Mountain Carver
Feb 19, 2012
well, definitely the best wildlife photo montage i have ever seen on this or any other forum!! :)

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