Photographing Costa Rica: Playa Grande

“Oh, Sweetie, why don’t you just sleep in for once?”

“I can’t. We’re only here for a couple days before we move on, and I’ve got to photograph as much as I can – who knows if and when we’ll ever make it back here?”

“But you’re going to burn yourself out.”

“No, there’s too much to see and do to get burned out . . .”

A recent trip to Costa Rica had me facing one of the biggest challenges a photographer and filmmaker can run into: Just how do you capture it all? The short answer is, of course, that you can’t, unless you have a crew with you. But I’m a one-man operation, and this was supposedly a vacation with my wife Carol and best friend Dakota. So no crew. Yet this was a trip I’d been looking forward to for years, and I wasn’t about to let that slow me down.

Driving west toward the ocean from Liberia, the first thing we noticed about Costa Rica is that there wasn’t any jungle. Although we had expected the pastures and dry hills in this part of the country, it still felt surprising after spending so much time planning the trip bathed in images of the dripping rainforest, festooned with monkeys, snakes, and jaguars. But here it was dry. And hot.

26-second vignette of the tropical dry forest around Playa Grande

The Guanacaste province in northwestern Costa Rica isn’t covered in the stereotypical lush, green, tropical rainforest most people imagine when thinking of Central America. For six months of the year the mountains to the east strip moisture from the Caribbean trade winds, drying out the entire landscape. (One guidebook compared it to west Texas, but that’s a bit harsh.) In response, many of the trees in the “tropical dry forest” are deciduous and drop their leaves during the dry season to conserve water. And we were smack dab in the middle of the dry season.

Playa Grande Sunset

Dusk through tropical dry forest trees, Playa Grande, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Deciduous trees in the dry forest lose their leaves during the dry season to conserve water.

Reaching Playa Grande, we were welcomed with the (slightly) cooling breezes of the Pacific Ocean, the rustling of palms fronds as new exotic birds flitted overhead, and a column of red ants in our room that dared us to stake a claim in the kitchenette. “If you want coffee, you’re going to have to work around us.” I had read enough about tropical ants to not argue.

Playa Grande Beach

The beach at Playa Grande, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

We had landed in Costa Rica the previous night, and were all pretty spent from the long travel day and the drive from Liberia that morning. I nonetheless frantically started trying to get some photos and video, despite what I felt was the beginning of low-grade sunstroke. The fact that it was also the middle of the day and the light was terrible for photography didn’t seem to slow me down; my usually measured approach to try and create compelling imagery was overwhelmed by some deeply-ingrained compulsion to simply record new stuff.

And there was lots of new stuff to see. While the tropical dry forest is less diverse than a typical tropical rainforest, it’s also more open and sunny, and this actually made it much easier to see many of the specialized plants and animals that only live in this part of Costa Rica.

Photographing Playa Grande

Stalking a skittish sea shell on the beach at Playa Grande, Costa Rica. Photo by Dakota Lopez.

So in addition to taking photos, capturing video, and recording audio, I was also trying to identify all the new birds and plants we were seeing. I quickly gave up on the plants, congratulating myself on “simplifying,” and “not trying to do too much,” and “focusing on the experience at hand.” Right. Big pat on the back, amigo.

We spent a couple days in Playa Grande strolling along the beach, exploring the inland dry forests and the mangrove forests along the Tamarindo Estuary, and marveling at all the cool new critters we were seeing: outlandish birds, huge spiny-tailed iguanas scampering up trees like squirrels, and a local troupe of howler monkeys. We watched Brown Pelicans and Sandwich Terns wheeling and diving in the ocean, tracked elusive warblers through the mangroves, and rescued a (poisonous) sea snake who had become stranded on the beach.

Mantled Howler Monkey (Alouatta palliata), Costa Rica

Mantled Howler Monkey (Alouatta palliata), Playa Grande, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura similis), Costa Rica

Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura similis), Playa Grande, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Dakota and I were in a death struggle over our bird life lists (he had surged ahead in a previous visit to Costa Rica), and it was common for me to be with a bird book tucked under an arm, binoculars in one hand, and a camera in another.

I grabbed pictures where I could; I continued to drag myself out before dawn, stay out after sunset, and chase crabs around the beach, but my creative side had a hard time keeping up. I was hot, exhausted, and simply overwhelmed with all the new things we were seeing. That didn’t stop me or even slow me down much, but I knew I would be warmed up and rarin’ to go for the next stop on our trip: the famous cloud forests of Monteverde.

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  • Great photos. I hope you will be posting more! I’d like to hear more are about Costa Rica, too. We are thinking of heading that way. Did you do any snorkeling or diving?

    • Thanks! This is part one of four from our trip, so look for more posts coming soon! We didn’t do any snorkeling or diving, though — mainly hiking and birding.


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