Photographing Costa Rica: Monteverde

Part 2 of a 4-part travelogue from Costa Rica

The first thing we noticed was the wind.

A cold, howling, grab-a-fencepost-so-you-don’t-fall-over kind of wind.

My first photography hero, Galen Rowell, wrote in his book Mountain Light: “A flower photographer’s hell is a place of tremendous beauty . . . in continuously perfect light where a gentle breeze blows eternally, making sharp photographs impossible.” For flower (and forest) photography, “perfect light” is soft and diffuse, and comes from overcast skies.

Here, in the lush cloud forests of Monteverde, where plants climb all over each other, glittering birds dart from bush to bush, and everywhere you turn has the potential for something amazing to photograph, I had gale force winds and bright sunshine. So it wasn’t quite hell, but felt a little like purgatory.

A 30 second vignette of the Monteverde Cloud Forests

The rainforest is iconic for Costa Rica, and this is what we had come to see: the fantastical adaptations of plants and animals, the lushness of the forest, the sense of adventure and discovery that comes from exploring a place so different from your own. And even among rainforests, the cloud forests are unique. And aptly named.

The northeast trade winds in Costa Rica shove clouds into the mountains, which in turn envelope the forests and release their moisture; the precipitation – upwards of 12 feet/year – saturates everything, usually in the form of wind-blown mist. (Remember the tropical dry forests of Guanacaste? This is why the Guanacaste is dry – no water left.) The cool temperatures and constant dripping result in a profusion of life, much of which is only found in the cloud forests.

Golfo de Nicoya

View towards the dry Guanacaste on the Peninsula de Nicoya from Monteverde at dusk, Costa Rica

As a bonus, all this dripping and misting and cloud cover is perfect light for rainforest photography. In contrast, sun streaming through the canopy can be a photographer’s nemesis because the dappled spots of bright sun and dark shadows result in a confusing mix of light. While our eyes can make sense of these lighting differences, a camera can’t, resulting in a hot mess of a photo. You can get around that somewhat by shooting close-ups in little patches of shade. Unless, of course, it’s windy.

And now we were graced not only with bright sunshine, but howling wind as well.

And throngs of tourists. You wouldn’t believe it as you’re crawling up the rutted mountain road, bones slowly disintegrating from the constant bumping and jarring, mouth parched by far more dust and dirt than it was designed for, but Monteverde is one of the more popular destinations in Costa Rica. Whether the profusion of so-called adrenaline sports (especially zip lining) is a cause or consequence of the tour busses, it’s clearly a highlight for many visitors. “Extremo! Maximo! Super!” seemed to be on every building and glossy handout we saw, and there was no shortage of theme park activities to do.

This was actually alright, because it kept most people from exploring the forest much.

Okay, so while I’m a big proponent of having people learn about and appreciate their natural surroundings and the wonders of the outdoors, I also want it all to myself. Selfish, I know, but there it is. Maybe it’s a way for me to simulate more of a wilderness experience, or commune with the rainforest animals, or just because I hate spending 30 minutes tracking down a rare bird only to have it flushed away by a group of 20 rounding a bend in the trail yakking loudly about the lack of hot water in their hotel or how exciting their zip lining was yesterday. Call me a curmudgeon.

Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola)

Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), Monteverde, Costa Rica

So despite the cold, wind, and sun, we were able to venture deep into the mountain jungle relatively undisturbed. We hiked the forest trails of Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, traversed a network of hanging bridges at Sky Walk (which literally gave us a bird’s eye view of the forest canopy), and explored the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Epiphytes (plants that grow on top of other plants) covered every available surface, vines turned the forest into a tangle, and generally everything seemed to be fighting for space and little patches of sunlight.

Rainforest epiphytes

Epiphytes growing on a tree trunk in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

The wind made birding a challenge as well (it’s not easy to distinguish little moving birds from little moving leaves), yet we were still able to track down scores of new species, including, after several days, the elusive Resplendent Quetzal – the holy grail of most birders visiting Costa Rica.

Birding in the rainforest

Birding on the Cano Negro Trail, Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

I grabbed photos and video clips of the rainforest whenever a lone cloud covered the sun and the wind dropped to a lull, and tried not to grumble (much). I enjoyed spotting an Azure-hooded Jay in the underbrush, or noting the graceful curves of Heliconia flowers; yet I couldn’t help feeling I was falling short as a photographer, that my worth was being diminished somehow because I wasn’t shooting hundreds of photos an hour in this trove of limitless subjects.

Rainforest waterfall, Monteverde

La Cascada waterfall in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Nonsense, of course, looking back on it now – not much you can do about the wind and sun. But my hopes and expectations were getting the better of me, and the feeling was hard to shake; I often found myself trudging along the trail in my own private purgatory, cursing the wind gods and my bad luck, as the lush forest passed by unappreciated.

For photographers, trying to photograph everything is a natural instinct, and yet it can get in the way of what’s perhaps the ultimate reason for travelling in the first place: having an adventure and an experience. The enjoyment of retelling that story with photos to family and friends (and editors) is what motivates many of us to take the extra time and effort to try and make great pictures. The irony is that the more we focus on the photography, the less we’re able to appreciate the journey itself.

Yet I still wanted it all, and had reason to be optimistic. From Monteverde we were descending into the lowland rainforests flanking the still active Arenal Volcano. The wind would be better there, and there was a chance to see Toucans (another grail bird of our trip). While photographing Monteverde hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, there was still plenty of time and opportunity ahead.

Part 1: Photographing Playa Grande

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