Monday, November 4, 2013

Costa Rica - Land of Pura Vida

I hadn't expected to fall in love with Costa Rica.  I had been anticipating this trip with a mix of excitement and a little trepidation.  This would be my first trip to Latin America, and I was concerned about everything from my limited capacity with Spanish to theft.  Since this was a multi-generational trip, with 9 family members ranging in age from 14 to 79, all crammed into a van traveling hundreds of miles, I was also concerned about having adequate opportunities to take pictures.  But it was also a fantastic opportunity.  My wife's parents had been to Costa Rica numerous times and knew it well.  They are also naturalists, and especially birders.  A large portion of the proposed itinerary included various nature preserves, eco lodges, cabins in jungles, and spectacular locations.  Also in our company were my wife's sister, her husband and their three teenage and college-age children, all of whom share an interest in various aspects of the natural world.

San Vito, with the Talamancas in the distance, the day after Christmas, 2012
 As the time of the trip approached (we were going for two weeks over Christmas and New Years) I initially decided to bring a modest subset of my camera gear for maximum flexibility and security.  But I shared my thoughts with a friend who has spent a great deal of time in Latin America and who is also an avid photographer.  He was aghast at the thought that I might leave my "wildlife lens" at home, and encouraged me to make the most of this opportunity, as the Costa Rican jungles are well-known for their diversity of birds and other animals.  At his urging I reconsidered how I might operate photographically.  I wanted to be highly mobile, able to change lenses without having to put down my pack and rummage in it.  My "wildlife lens" is a Canon 400mm f5.6L, which, when fit on my Canon 60D, yields an effective length of 640mm.  Coupled with my 1.4x Canon converter, I can reach a focal length of 896mm.  Unfortunately, with the relatively small native aperture, the 400mm becomes an f8 and can only be focused manually.  Still, between the 400mm, my 70-200mm f4L, and the converter, I have a lot of wildlife options.  All my gear, plus traveling odds and ends for the plane trips needed to fit in a Lowepro 302AW slingshot backpack that would be my carry-on.  In the end I needed to leave something behind.  Left at home, and largely unmissed for the duration of the trip, were my flash and my 10-22mm wide-angle.  The wide-angle would have been nice, but with my normal "walk-around" range of 17-85 (27-136 effective range) coupled with the knowledge that this was largely a family vacation with an emphasis on wildlife, I felt like this was a reasonable compromise.  My bag would be light enough to carry comfortably, with the 400mm in the bottom and the tripod on the side, affording me excellent flexibility without ever having to put the bag down.  Plus my iPad laid nicely across the top of everything.

Iguana at the InBio park in San Jose
Located between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America, with coasts on both the Pacific and Caribbean, Costa Rica has a dizzying variety of tropical environments with a huge range of flora and fauna.  It is also one of the most well developed and safest Latin American countries.  It was a different world than one I had ever experienced, full of sounds of the jungle, exotic plants and animals, and a palpable sense, for North Americans who had never been to Latin America, of being in another place.  Our trip would take us from the large population center of San Jose, located along the slopes of the tremendous Talamanca Mountains, down to the Pacific coast, then inland to the small town of San Vito where we would stay for a week.  Then we would travel back through the mountains, over an 11,000 pass, returning to San Jose for a few days before flying home.  We would experience lowland jungle, small towns, the inland foothills, and the mighty Talamancas with their cloud forests.

Jungle near San Vito
Our plane dropped swiftly down into San Jose, volcanic mountains rising all around us.  We collected our bags that had, miraculously arrived following a 24-hour delay and unexpected overnight in Newark, and soon the small but immaculate terminal was behind us, and the adventure was about to begin!  The next few postings will cover some highlights from this trip.

Dusk near Hacienda Baru on the Pacific coast

Capuchin monkey at Pino Colina

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Edge of the Wild
Travels in Western Newfoundland, Part 9
A taste of the southwest coast and Rose Blanche

Hello!  If you're new here you may want to visit the Travelogues page in order to read this series about Newfoundland in chronological order.  And now, the last episode in this series...

A pleasant, winding road leads east from Port aux Basques for about 30 miles, along the southern coast of Newfoundland, past several small, picturesque towns, culminating at the town of Rose Blanche.  Although this area has the reputation for stormy seas and numerous tales of terrible shipwrecks on the rocky coast (as well as an epic story related to a dramatic rescue of shipwreck victims by a heroic dog), on the particular day of our visit, the skies were cloudless and the ocean a calm, deep dark blue.  As with other areas of the province, each town along this route has a hiking trail of some sort that visitors are encouraged to follow to learn more about the area.  Photographers would do well to seek out these trails, as they often showcase the best that the villages have to offer in the way of already dramatic scenery.  Try not to miss this area.  It's not far from Port aux Basques and the ferry, and between the green, rocky, treeless hills, the wandering streams, ponds and bogs, the ocean vistas, and the village trails, this is an action-packed place for a photographer.

At the end of the road, lie the two adjacent towns of Rose Blanche and Harbor LeCou.   

Harbour LeCou
We came this way in part because I had memories from an earlier jaunt to Rose Blanch in 1991.  At that time the Newfoundland fishery was still in operation and Rose Blanche was an active fishing village.  The fishery closed in 1992, and the town has seen a steady population decline of year-round residents.  As with elsewhere in the province, compared to 20 years prior, there are many fewer boats in use, and many more abandoned ones.  In my own humble opinion though, Rose Blanche and the surrounding area is still one of the prettiest areas in the western part of the island, with trim, well-kept houses, positioned along crevices and gorges through the rocky hills leading to natural harbors along the sea.  The first time I saw it two decades past, near twilight, with the lights twinkling in the houses perched along the cliffs and channels, some of them literally cabled to the rocks to keep them from blowing over in storms, it seemed surreal.   During our recent visit, in the broad light of day, it was more solid, but still intriguing.   

An area of Rose Blanche
Rose Blanche's official trail and tourist attraction is its spectacular stone lighthouse and museum, which is open for self-guided tours for a small fee.  The lighthouse dates from 1871 and was severely damaged in 1939 during a storm.  It was a ruin when I visited in 1991, but it has since been meticulously reconstructed with much loving care and accuracy.

Rose Blanche Lighthouse
A wonderful panoramic view of Rose Blanche can be had from just behind the lighthouse, looking down the channel that leads to the town.  Other fine views can be had by exploring around a bit in the town itself, but in the tight quarters of the narrow streets it's easy to find yourself in someone's driveway or yard with no easy way to turn around.

Rose Blanche
In addition to the remarkable lighthouse and picturesque town, another sight in the area is the presence of an outport.  Outports are small villages that are located beyond the reach of Newfoundland's road system and can only be accessed by boat or on foot.  Almost all of them are abandoned now, as is the village of Petites, the outport near Rose Blanche, though at one time it was home to over 300 people.  It is only accessible by boat (though backpackers can bushwhack to it through 20+ miles of mountains and barrens (here's an interesting account of hiking in, along with some photos of Petites:  It is clearly visible in a longer lens or binoculars and there is a sign pointing it out near the start of the lighthouse trail.

From Rose Blanche, those with more time can take a ferry that visits other isolated outports along the southern coast of the province, that are still inhabited.

The outport of Petites
At this point in the trip I had switched from my usual Canon DSLR gear to my small, micro four-thirds Panasonic G3 due to a malfunction in my "walk-around" Canon lens.  My guess is that the wave that crashed over me during the boat trip up Western Brook Pond had done damage that took a few days to have an effect.  Everything on this page is taken with the G3 except the outport shot, above which was taken with a 400mm (640mm equiv.)

The following day as we clanked across the entrance to the ferry, and parked next to an 18-wheeler, also bound for Nova Scotia, far to the southwest, I found myself already planning the next Newfoundland adventure.  My most critical advice for travelers heading to The Rock, as the Newfoundlanders call their home: take absolutely as much time as you can.  This is a huge place, and unless you plan to stay only in the capital city region, you will be driving hundreds of miles no matter what you do (and the roads are, in general, quite good, even in the rural areas.)  We had 11 days to go up the peninsula and back, and we almost always found ourselves trying to cram as much into each day as possible, from early morning until late evening.  We also weren't able to fit in even a single "down" day, and found ourselves sometimes eating dinner or doing laundry at 11:00 at night.  And we really only scratched the surface of this marvelous, beautiful place.  Have I mentioned that we only saw the western part of the province?  The larger, more populated eastern side, as well as Labrador, will need to wait for another time.  Photographers, be ready for rain, wind, salt and glare!

This post brings to an end the "Edge of the Wild, Travels in Newfoundland" series.  Next time will be a visit to a vastly different place: Upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains in Autumn.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Edge of the Wild
Travels in Western Newfoundland, Part 8
Iceberg Spotting

Hello!  If you're new here you may want to visit the Travelogues page in order to read this series about Newfoundland in chronological order.

And now... onward.

The sky was bright and blue but the cold wind howled nonstop each day and huge waves, driven by the high wind, crashed along barren, rocky shores.  Small hardy evergreens dotted the landscape in sheltered spots, but much of this ruggedly beautiful area has little more than low bushes or grass, and broad expanses of bare rock and gravel.  As temperatures dipped into the 30's at night, with an almost continuous 30-40mph wind, we were glad we had splurged on a tiny but modern and stalwart cabin in the village of Burnt Cape for this section of the trip.

Almost 2,000 miles northeast of upstate New York and home, we at last found ourselves at the northernmost extent of our journey.  In the communities here we found that the Newfoundland accent, which was a delightful facet of the provincial culture all along, actually sometimes became difficult to understand, particularly when trying to follow a conversation between Newfoundlanders.  Not only were words spoken differently, but conversations were liberally sprinkled with words unfamiliar to us.  In this area too, the all-purpose stores that are found in most towns reached dramatic new levels of utility, with patrons able to purchase just about any staples from baking soda to nails to DVDs to coffins.  But fresh meat was not in evidence, and there were few fresh vegetables.

Icebergs are fairly common in the late spring and early summer along the northern coasts of Newfoundland, an area known as "Iceberg Alley", and we set out iceberg hunting.

 Some years are more dramatic than others.  In one of my earlier trips to the province in early July of 1991 I saw huge numbers of icebergs, large and small, creeping through the Strait of Belle Isle, starting just north of Gros Morne, and at the northernmost tip of the island the bays were completely filled with ice. This year was quite different, with only a handful along the entire coastline, mostly near the major population center of the northern part of the Peninsula, St. Anthony.  A suggestion for anyone headed up this way during Spring or early Summer - check out the Iceberg Finder website at: to learn where the bergs are that year.  Also consider a boat trip out to see icebergs (and whales) close up.  But bring some method of keeping your photo gear dry!

Talking to various people along the way we had heard regular rumors of a huge iceberg off the shore near St. Anthony, and we had high hopes of seeing it.  Many small communities in Newfoundland seem to encourage visitors and there are lots of thoughtfully placed paths and benches, with a great deal of signage directing visitors to vistas or other interesting features.  It was from a windswept bench high on a rocky hilltop near the village of Griquet that we enjoyed some of the best iceberg watching.

We spent the day roaming the hills to the north of the town along the ocean and sighted several bergs, including an extremely large one several miles off shore.

Toward evening we headed for St. Anthony, dinner, and groceries, a modest-sized town, but quite cosmopolitan in comparison to every community we had seen since Corner Brook.  Following dinner, it being only 6:00 or so, and with a good 4 hours of light left, we set off for what appeared to be a promontory at the mouth of St. Anthony's ample harbor, by a small lighthouse.   As it turned out, this was a highly popular park and a favorite location for both iceberg and whale watching!

Photography, particularly landscape, wildlife and travel photography, is very often about being in the right place at the right time, with the right lighting conditions.  When we reached the lighthouse we were greeted with an amazing sight.  Across the harbor stood a mammoth iceberg, just a few hundred yards off shore, and in the middle of the harbor's mouth, several whales spouted!  Unfortunately from a photographic standpoint, we were in the right place at the right time, but with less than ideal lighting - an overcast evening, but the results are certainly memorable if not fine art:

One of the biggest photographic challenges of this area for me was the very bright sky (and even brighter icebergs) and the deep blue, almost black sea.  A graduated neutral density filter, which can be used to darken only sky while leaving the sea untouched was a critical piece of my equipment.  Shooting in Raw mode also allows a great deal more tonal range than shooting JPEGs.  I've found that, with Raw images, I can frequently pull extensive cloud detail from overexposed white and featureless skies.

Just to provide a comparison with the astonishing amount of ice that was present in this same area at the same time of year in 1991, I close with this scan of a 35mm slide from that earlier trip:

Next time: one last segment of the trip, to the picturesque village of Rose Blanche.