Photographing Costa Rica: Arenal

Part 3 of a 4-part travelogue from Costa Rica

“Five hanging bridges . . . 2.25 miles of gorgeous trails . . . cloudy and calm . . . 1:00pm . . . yeah, we were going to run out of time.” — from Carol’s journal.

A 34-second vignette of Arenal, Costa Rica

The map said the Sendero Las Cateratas (Trail of the Waterfalls) was 2.25 miles, and should take about 2 hours. Yeah, right. When Carol, Dakota, and I are in “explore” mode, we notoriously take a long time to hike a trail. Great light for photos and video? Double it. Throw in a dense tropical jungle dripping with lizards and birds and ferns and waterfalls, and it’s anyone’s guess when we might make it back.

In fact, we barely made it out before dark.

Birding in the Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Birding in the Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

We were at the Sky Adventures Sky Walk forest, looking forward to exploring the lowland rainforests around the still-smoldering Arenal Volcano. The nearby hamlet of El Castillo, a small ramshackle collection of homes, small hotels, and a few restaurants was perched on the edge of Lake Arenal, and a perfect antidote to the in-your-face tourism of Monteverde; we opted to stay here for a few days and avoid the area’s primary tourist basecamp of La Fortuna.

Arenal Volcano, near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano, near El Castillo, Costa Rica

In fact, we got a late start to our hike partly because of a long, languid morning on the front porch drinking coffee, binoculars and cameras close at hand, listening to the mix of Red-billed Pigeons, local roosters and goats, and the otherworldly call of the Montezuma Oropendula from the lakeshore; a distant troupe of howler monkeys accented the rainforest soundtrack.

Montezuma Oropendula call

The slower pace was refreshing compared to the last week, and our growing list of new bird species swelled. But we were still on high alert for toucans. After the Resplendent Quetzal, a toucan was a must-see for this trip, and the Arenal area was our first good opportunity to see one.

The wind was mercifully calm here, and the sky alternated between sunny and overcast; it truly looked like there was a chance for good photos over the next few days. But if wind and sun were my nemesis in Monteverde, time seemed to be in short supply here in Arenal, a point quickly driven home as we started on the trail and plunged into the rainforest.

It was a fantastic mix of lush, dense jungle, glorious waterfalls, and hanging bridges dangling above fern-choked canyons. And perfect light for photography: bright overcast skies acted as a giant diffuser, eliminating harsh shadows and saturating colors. No wind. No rain. I couldn’t have asked for anything more for photographing the rainforest.

Except time.

It literally took us hours to hike just over a mile to the first waterfall. We stopped to look at every hole in the ground, wondering what kind of monstrous tarantula was lurking below; marveled at the gigantic seed pods and delicate orchids; eagerly tracked down tiny flitting birds, and delighted in spying a small camouflaged lizard among the dead leaves on the forest floor. We searched the forest canopy at eye-level for monkeys and sloths while gently swaying on suspension bridges over 100’ in the air. I took my time trying to somehow figure out how to make sense of the tangle of green in the camera’s viewfinder; when I simply couldn’t, I ended up shooting video footage.

Hanging bridge cutting through the Sky Adventures rainforest in the Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Hanging bridge cutting through the rainforest in the Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Did I mention we barely made it out by dark?

Unfortunately, the only way we did was by rushing through the last half of the trail. By the time we reached the halfway point of Enchanted Waterfall, we realized we had not properly budgeted our time. And by the time Carol and Dakota had finished cooling off in the waterfall’s spray, Dakota was starting to make his “I’m going to freak out if we’re here after dark” noises, muttering about giant insects and poisonous snakes and thousands of silent watchful eyes, and the jungle slowly closing in. It was all very entertaining, but we could see his point, and pushed on.

Waterfall in the Arenal area, near El Castillo, Costa Rica

“Secret Waterfall” in the Arenal area, near El Castillo, Costa Rica

I was able to grab a couple nice images of the forest and waterfalls on the way out, and we got a brilliant sighting of a Rufous Mot-Mot. But ultimately I had to try and appreciate the surroundings with just my own senses, unaided by Nikon. And I couldn’t help once again falling into my trap of judging the success of the hike by the number of photos I made, desperately wishing I had more time, and cursing my bad luck as we marched out of the jungle in the gathering dusk.

Evening sunbeams break through the clouds near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Evening sunbeams break through the clouds near El Castillo, Costa Rica

There wasn’t much time for photos the following day, as it was largely consumed by tourist activities. While I swore we wouldn’t be sucked in to the adrenaline sport culture of Costa Rica tourism, we eventually broke down. Rather than choosing the default ziplining, though, we opted for the more unique “canyoning” – an easy hike through a rainforest canyon made exciting by rappelling down a series waterfalls.

We queried our guides about toucans as we walked. “Toucans? Sure, we saw one back there. Didn’t you see it? Well, maybe at the next waterfall. . . .”

Oh my god.

The rappelling was, in fact, a lot of fun, but I was limited to playing with my tiny GoPro video camera, strapped to my forehead. (Turns out you need to hold the rope with both hands, and you get really wet going through the waterfall – neither of which are conducive to shooting with a DSLR.) And while I longed for a good camera as Dakota and Carol careened down the cliff faces, drenched with water and squealing with delight, I actually felt content simply soaking it all in (so-to-speak).

Near the end of the day we spent some more time searching the roadsides for toucans (still nothing). But I hadn’t had time to scout the area much for photo locations, so when we were caught out on the highway at sunset, I was left scrambling for a few shots amid power lines and cars, and ended up without any “keepers.”

If the lesson of Monteverde – learned long after returning home – was “enjoy the experience, whatever it is,” then the lesson of Arenal seemed to be “don’t spend so much time lying around drinking coffee in the morning, and instead spend every waking minute you have trying to make photos.”

Okay, not really.

We’d been on-the-go pretty nonstop since arriving in Costa Rica over a week earlier. Relaxing, taking a breather, has its place, too; it wouldn’t have served anyone well to rush hither and yon to try to fit more in. Yet time did seem in short supply relative to everything we wanted to do and see. I was nagged by the feeling that I wasn’t getting the full experience I’d imagined during those long hours at home poring over guide books, maps, and field guides.

Tropical rainforest in the Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Tropical rainforest in the Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Really, I think all travelers eventually learn (ahem, some later than others) that you simple can’t do it all. At least you can’t do it all well, so you’re left deciding what kind of journey you want to have: Running down a checklist, or having more meaningful, but fewer, experiences, whatever they are.

Hmmm. Maybe Monteverde and Arenal weren’t so different after all.

But it would be nice to learn these lessons in real-time, on-the-trail, as it were. Then it would be relatively easy to make adjustments and fix attitudes right then and there, and get back to the business of enjoying the adventure, instead of weeks or months later, looking back on things from the safety of an office chair.

Figuring out how to do that, how to overcome these personal challenges, turns out to be far more difficult than learning the ins and outs of f-stops and shutter speeds.

Our last morning in Arenal was nearly perfect for photography – I got out early and was able to take advantage of overcast skies, and spent a lot of time along the Danta River dodging mean-looking red ants and even a couple of small rain showers (the first rain we’d seen, even though we’ve been in the tropics well over a week). And while I couldn’t capture it all in the camera, I still somehow left with a deeply satisfied feeling of simply spending the morning in the rainforest.

Danta River, Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

Danta River, Arenal area near El Castillo, Costa Rica

When I returned to the house to help pack up before heading to our final stop near the Nicaraguan border, neither Carol nor Dakota would look me in the eye. They asked how the morning went, had I seen anything interesting, and generally tried too hard to make small talk.

After some interrogation, I dragged it out of them that as I was  dodging red ants and huddling under large leaves trying to stay dry, Carol and Dakota were lounging peacefully on the veranda drinking coffee, enjoying a perfect sighting of a Keel-billed Toucan which had landed in the tree across the street, preening and strutting and calling, just to make sure Dakota could photograph all the best angles.


Me? I decided to make some time.

I let my travelling companions do the packing while I parked myself on the porch with a cup of coffee and put down the camera. And after a while, on his own time, the Toucan returned. And I just sat and enjoyed it through the binoculars.

Part 1: Photographing Costa Rica: Playa Grande
Part 2: Photographing Costa Rica: Monteverde

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  • I am really enjoying these blogs Martin!! They are bringing back some very happy memories.

    I just wanted to add to your narrative that while I was enjoying the armchair view of the Toucan that morning, Carol was fretting the WHOLE TIME about you missing it. She spent more time looking at the road hoping to see you return in time than at the Toucan which was practically modeling for us. I can’t say I felt the same way since I knew one of your stealth objectives of the trip was to surpass my life list. Heck, I probably even had a devilish grin on my face the whole time thinking I could lord this over you for the rest of the trip. Do I feel bad about that?? Well…no, but I guess I was genuinely happy for you when the Toucan returned.

  • It sounds like there could be some tension between professional and personal needs. Maybe you didn’t get as many shots and, therefore, it makes it harder to justify the trip? I think your spirit might beg to differ, no?

    Leave time for the happy accidents. I can become a bit too obsessive about scheduling. Sometimes it’s necessary (if one is taking a tour or needing to rely on infrequent rail or bus) but it took some time for me to realize a lot of my scheduling compulsion was out of fear I wouldn’t get to see it ALL. On our trip to the Scottish highlands last summer, Katie was very helpful in making it okay to be unscheduled and to get late starts. The one activity we did schedule — a bus tour to Orkney so I could see Skara Brae — was notable for the scenery (what part of the Highlands isn’t?) but the weather at the Neolithic site was not optimal, to say the least. Hurricane-force winds and driving rain made spending any time there an exercise in sheer will and stubbornness. Accordingly, I recall very little else about that day’s journey. Overall, the highlights that remain most vivid are the discoveries that happened purely by accident and by being as much in the moment as possible.

    • I don’t think I had a hard time justifying the trip because I couldn’t get the photos I wanted, I think I felt (at the time) that the trip wasn’t as good as I wanted/hoped/expected because of the photography challanges. Which is, of course, an irony considering photography should have made the trip more enjoyable (since I wasn’t there on a professional assignment).

      I think for me the personal struggle is simply finding the balance between enjoying the trip for the experience vs. the drive to make interesting photographs. I often get so caught up in the photos, that I simply miss the bigger picture (so-to-speak).

      “Leave time for the happy accidents” is a phrase to live by — the trick is remembering it during the rainstorm.

      • Martin,
        I loved your pictures and the blog. I clicked on the video and a very sleepy boxer woke up immediately to all the interesting sounds and watched the entire video with me! It was cute, wish you could have seen it. I was even able to point out Aunt Carol! I think what I loved most about the entire blog was the phrase “leave time for the happy accidents”. I will try to remember this next time we travel!

    • Donovan,

      I will deeply thank you now; Martin will robustly curse you later. I think he will forever hear LEAVE TIME FOR THE HAPPY ACCIDENTS ringing loudly in his ears.

      Fabulous phrase!! He’ll never again get to whine about “not enough time.” “Leave time for the happy accidents, dear,” I’ll sweetly remind him. “Donovan says so!”

      You are wise and perceptive, as always.

      Where’s that book of yours?!


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