Photographing Costa Rica: Boca Tapada

Part 4 of a 4-part travelogue from Costa Rica

The problem wasn’t so much that Dakota had capsized his kayak in a river filled with 10’ crocodiles, or even that he was now soaking wet with hours yet to paddle; it was that he had lost his binoculars.

A 30-second vignette of Boca Tapada, Costa Rica (with some footage from Carol and Dakota)

Kayaking down the San Carlos River near Boca Tapada in northern Costa Rica, Carol, Dakota, and I were keeping a sharp eye out for the endangered and rare Great Green Macaw. (The Green Macaw was the third part of our holy trinity of birds for this trip, along with the Resplendent Quetzal and any species of Toucan.)

Dakota, drifting backwards while watching a flock of gorgeous Scarlet Macaws devour fruits in the trees above, didn’t see the log lurking just below the surface behind him, and over he went (much to the enjoyment of me and Carol).

And while there were no crocodile attacks, Dakota’s binoculars were lost to the murky water. Without them, he was left to simply drift downstream the rest of the day, listen to birds, and feel sun on his face. He seemed at peace with it.

Dakota's view of the kayak trip

Dakota’s view of the kayak trip

And because I had absent-mindedly left my Nikon’s waterproof case at home, I was limited to the tiny GoPro video camera strapped to my head and a pair of binoculars. Before we left for the kayak put-in that morning, I had made a couple of images from the river bank below the ecolodge we were staying in; for the rest of the day I would be forced to simply enjoy myself without the usual collection of big DSLRs and lenses — whether I liked it or not.

We were spending the day on the river partly because our rented SUV was having yet another flat tire fixed (the second of the trip). The tortuous dirt road that wound its way through pineapple fields and cattle ranches to this remote corner of Costa Rica had taken its toll (along with Dakota’s driving), but was also keeping tourism to a manageable level. We were staying at Pedacito de Cielo, but there were none of the usual billboards and trinket shops we had grown accustomed to — just a quiet grouping of cabins among meticulously landscaped gardens along the San Carlos River. Photographically, it was both a blessing and a curse.

While I didn’t have to worry about ziplines or tour groups messing up a shot, the dense surrounding rainforest wasn’t very accessible for exploring. A small private forest reserve sat several kilometers up the road, but I was otherwise limited to the lodge gardens and river bank. The manicured garden was something you might expect at a four-star hotel; it wasn’t the untamed rainforest I was trying to discover and photograph on this trip.

Floating down the San Carlos, though, I was getting schooled in how to enjoy myself without a camera glued to my face. Sunbitterns flashed their amazing wings among the shadows of the riverbank, monkeys scampered through the treetops, and occasionally a very large crocodile slipped quietly into the river ahead of us. We even saw a flock of Great Green Macaws, so large and green and majestic flying overhead that none of us even needed binoculars.

Rio San Carlos, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Rio San Carlos, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

But despite the blissful day on the river without a “real” camera, I remained hard-headed and determined to squeeze more rainforest photos out of this last stop on our trip.

We spent the following day wandering the narrow trails of the forest reserve, but bright sun and dark shadows thwarted much photography. We delighted in finding a couple of brilliant red Strawberry Poison Dart frogs, and cautiously made our way past the warning signs for the fearsome bullet ant (whose sting is considered one of the most painful in the world — similar to being shot, hence the name). I was able to take a few pictures when occasional clouds balanced out the light, but great images remained elusive.

Stawberry Poison-dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio), Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Stawberry Poison-dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio), Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Small vine growing up a tree trunk, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Small vine growing up a tree trunk, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Despite my sense of limitations in Boca Tapada, I continued to get up before sunrise, wandering the road or the river bank below the lodge, searching for things to photograph. I found and photographed some great moments when a local’s canoe serendipitously crossed the river in the fog, and spent some time with a dew-covered insect I discovered warming itself in the morning sun.

Crossing the Rio San Carlos in a canoe, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Crossing the Rio San Carlos in a canoe, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Insect on flower, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Insect on flower, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Yet I still felt unsatisfied with the images I was producing, searching for something that screamed rainforest – something that wasn’t just a good photo, but expressed some of what I felt about the area and gave a sense of place.

On our last evening I simply couldn’t think of anywhere else to go for photos – I felt I had exhausted all the spots within walking distance, and just didn’t feel inspired enough to trudge down to the muddy river bank again. I spent some time at the bird feeders, and grabbed a couple of snapshots of a Red-legged Honeycreeper, but it was getting too dark to capture fast-moving birds.


Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus), Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus), Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

We wandered out to the dining deck to watch the oropendulas and parrots feast on the bananas hanging there for them, no longer concerned with photos. And as we leaned against the railing, out of the corner of my eye I saw the sun breaking through clouds across the river.

Most outdoor photographers will tell you they don’t usually stumble across beautiful photos — they figure out where to go and make sure they’re in the right place at the right time. But it’s equally true that we often don’t plan for a specific photo; we have slew of images and ideas in our mind’s eye — some clear and some vague — and we’re simply extra sensitive when we see the elements start falling into place.

And that’s what was happening here. Visually, the carefully manicured gardens of the ecolodge merged seamlessly with the river and untamed rainforest beyond. I saw an image iconic of Costa Rica, blending elements of verdant beauty and tangled jungle that embodied how I had come to see the country.

In a few panicked seconds I switched to a wide angle lens with graduated filter. I darted between a couple of Germans, eased myself into position along the railing, lining up flowers, river, and trees, and waited for the sun to just touch the top of the forest across the river.

And amid the squawking parrots and clanking dishes from the kitchen, I made one of my favorite photographs of the trip. Perhaps not the best photograph of the trip, but one that resonated with me personally; one that I felt gave just a little insight into the journey and my experience. Really, that’s what I’d been trying to do all along.

Sunset over the Rio San Carlos, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

Sunset over the Rio San Carlos, Boca Tapada, Costa Rica

I had been plagued in Costa Rica by a disease I gave myself: I created high expectations for what I would experience before ever leaving the couch at home.

I had essentially decided what adventures we would have, what amazing animals we would see, and what photographs I would create. I hobbled myself by subconsciously searching for all the photos I planned on taking, rather than simply being present, being open to what I found.

Perhaps that’s the trick with photographing our travels: Learning to travel as a human being rather than camera operator; being receptive and open to what’s around us, and creating images of what we discover rather than chugging through shot lists of preconceived ideas. Simply letting go of the adventure we imagined, and embracing the one we’re having.

Of course, that can be hard to remember deep in the humid jungle, battling mosquitoes and chasing outlandish birds with a nearly-empty memory card in the camera — photographers often fall into the trap of measuring success by the number of photos taken. Perhaps it’s better instead to think of that camera card not as the first repository of our all our memories, but as a way to simply capture the overflow in a few meaningful photographs.

I’ll see if I can remember that next time.

Part 1: Photographing Costa Rica: Playa Grande
Part 2: Photographing Costa Rica: Monteverde
Part 3: Photographing Costa Rica: Arenal

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One Comment

  • Very enjoyable Martin! Thank you. As I’ve said before, Boca Tapada was the highlight of the trip for me. It felt like the quintessential Costa Rica in its lushness and wildlife! Plus: Few tourists. Great accommodations. Good food. Great host. Bird feeders teeming with toucans and parrots! Etc. Plus, an all time top 5 day of kayaking (or floating) down the San Carlos river…just the three of us. That was a blissful day and I would consume the souls of 10 baby pandas to do it again. I think we would’ve benefited from a guided tour since they know exactly where all the critters are (they must nail them down to keep it from moving). I sure would’ve liked to have seen that Hormiga Bala!


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