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

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