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Rejuvenation and Redemption in the Rainforest: Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula, January 2016


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I could easily come up with all kinds of excuses – some legitimate, some pseudo-legitimate, and others outright white lies – as to why it’s June and I’m only now getting around to my trip report from January.


Instead, let’s just say that, “Life intervened,” and then quickly move on to a much more interesting subject: the week we spent this past January at Bosque del Cabo Lodge at the tip of Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula.






I truly am indebted to Safaritalk, and, specifically, the generous trip reports posted in recent years by @@xelas, @Safari Chick and @@Atdahl. Without their revelations, I likely would never have heard of the Osa Peninsula, much less Bosque del Cabo Lodge.


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Can't wait to read details and see pictures. BDC is one of our favorites, too. And now you know why :)

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I had two goals for this particular vacation.


The first order of business was simplicity, relaxation and rejuvenation. With each passing year, I find that the Christmas holiday season takes a bit more of a toll on me, and after a visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia in January 2015, I quickly warmed to the idea of an annual post-Christmas trip paradigm to help me recover: one primary destination, one week, one lodge.*


*This is now starting to look like it will soon morph into “one primary destination, two weeks, two lodges.” As Mae West said, “Sometimes too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”


I also had, as they say, a monkey to get off my back – an idiomatic expression I employ here for a particularly apt reason. Those of you who tuned into my first Safaritalk trip report (“The Peruvian Amazon, Andean Cloud Forests and Machu Picchu: September/October 2014”) may recall my constant whining throughout our visit there (which perhaps masked how much I truly enjoyed the experience): the jungle was hot; the jungle was humid; animals in the jungle were elusive; and, from start to finish, photography in the jungle was damn near impossible due to the heavy vegetation and extremes of shadow and dappled light.


As that trip wore on, I became increasingly agitated at my growing arsenal of photographic garbage: frame after frame of featureless primate-looking shapes and tree branches silhouetted against a blown-out sky of nuclear proportions; blurry colors resembling birds with perfectly focused twigs and leaves dangling in front of them; mounds of dense green foliage surrounding a dark shadow containing some unidentifiable subject.


You see, I had committed what I believe is a very common beginner’s mistake: taking off for the rainforest with a new camera (who has the time to read those instruction manuals?) and no knowledge of photography (aim, point, shoot: how hard could it be?). Oh, my.


The only solace I had upon my return was that I wasn’t the first naïve traveler to whom the rainforest had shown no mercy. And that experience formed the basis of my second goal for this trip.


Having learned my lesson, I now wanted the rainforest to give me another chance.















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The Osa Peninsula juts out into the Pacific from Costa Rica’s extreme southwest coast, making it one of the most remote, and biologically diverse, parts of the country. Bosque del Cabo delivers all of this in the form of a 750+ acre private reserve with just 12 individual bungalows (all with ocean views), plus a handful of other lodging options, along with multiple trails (which you can hike on your own or as part of an organized activity with one of two full-time guides), a restaurant, a bar, and two swimming pools.


Our itinerary was as follows (beginning January 15, 2016):


Day 1 – Dallas to San José (direct, P.M.) (Courtyard by Marriott, San José Airport)

Day 2 – Sansa Air to Puerto Jiménez (A.M.); road transfer to Bosque del Cabo Lodge

Day 3 – Bosque del Cabo

Day 4 – Bosque del Cabo

Day 5 – Bosque del Cabo

Day 6 – Bosque del Cabo

Day 7 – Bosque del Cabo

Day 8 – Bosque del Cabo

Day 9 – Road transfer to Puerto Jiménez (P.M.); Sansa Air to San José (Courtyard by Marriott, San José Airport)

Day 10 – San José to Dallas (direct, A.M.)


Now, when I use adjectives like “restful” and “relaxing,” you have to put those words into context. I mean, we’re talking about me here. Sure, there were a few guests who spent the day by the pool reading trashy novels and drinking frozen concoctions with colorful little paper umbrellas sticking out of them. They were the ones who would smile at me and express the kind of benevolent interest that one shows an overly-enthusiastic child as I leaned my sweat-soaked torso over their faces following a three-hour long hike in order to tell them about how we successfully were able to track a woodpecker down.


A full week of hiking through the rainforest, exploring whatever we wanted, taking photographs of anything that interested us, all while encamped at a full-board lodge in a cabin on a cliff with a deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean. My idea of heaven.



Bosque del Cabo guide Carlos leads me on a birding tour at Matapalo Beach.





La Pura Vida





Sunrise from our deck on our first morning at Bosque del Cabo. A chance for new beginnings.....




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I’m not even sure this thread will qualify as a trip report. It’s shaping up to be more like a series of musings and reminiscences about my plodding through the rainforest trying to take pictures.


I spent the better part of last year trying to learn how to operate a camera. With an interest in wildlife and nature, my practice subjects were limited to the standard urban fare at home: birds and squirrels, with a few flowers and butterflies thrown in. In time, I came to realize that I really enjoy the challenge of trying to photograph birds. And so I was particularly enticed to learn that the Osa Peninsula contains a number of bird species that, while fairly common there, are also endemic to the small area encompassing southwestern Costa Rica and the northwest corner of Panama.


While the black-mandibled toucan is the more common and conspicuous of the two toucan species found on the Osa, the smaller fiery-billed aracari is a colorful and less common endemic. We saw these on only two occasions during our stay.







Early one morning we crossed a suspension bridge that goes through the canopy above a small creek near the lodge. Through the backlit mist, I could see movement near the top of a snag. It was a female golden-naped woodpecker, another endemic.







While I was photographing her, her less energetic mate poked his head out of the hole they called home and greeted another sultry day on the Osa. I had hoped that I would be able to get them both in the same frame, but they had other ideas.





We found this pair of Cherrie’s Tanagers in a tree along the road between Puerto Jimenez and the lodge eating the remnants of a banana. I don’t know if a monkey dropped the banana there, or if some critter dragged it up there, or if a human being intentionally stashed it there to lure in birds. The birds didn’t care one way or another, although I would have preferred to capture them without the banana in the frame.







Male Cherrie’s tanagers and Passerini’s tanagers are virtually indistinguishable from one another. It’s the females of the species that differ (although not by much). More helpful for identification purposes is geography: the Passerini’s is found only on the Caribbean slope, whereas the Cherrie’s, yet another endemic, is found only on the southern Pacific side. I managed a few shots of the male in a more wild setting, but couldn’t get nearly as close as at the “banana tree.”



Throughout Central and South America you will find mixed flocks of small, colorful songbirds that feed on fruit in the middle and upper levels of the canopy. Unlike a number of other lodges, Bosque del Cabo does not set out feeders to attract birds or any other kind of wildlife. Although I’m not opposed to feeders, I appreciated Bosque’s stance, and it really made me work hard to find birds in their truly natural state. It’s exceptionally difficult to get a decent shot of these active little birds, and I missed on a lot of them. This yellow-fronted euphonia, another endemic, was an exception.





While most people understandably are looking up in the canopy for birds with bling, there are some less-conspicuous skulkers on the ground, like antbirds and antshrikes, that deserve attention as well.


Noticing some movement in the brush adjacent to a trail, I patiently waited until this female black-cheeked antshrike, yet another southern Costa Rica-northern Panama endemic, finally emerged.





I found a male a few days later while hiking to the Matapalo Beach.




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It helped that, after Peru, I had an idea of what to expect from the rainforests of the Osa Peninsula. The heat and humidity would be formidable, so on hikes it would important to take things slowly and to drink lots of water (and I mean lots – I cannot overemphasize this enough). Also, taking multiple showers a day will help regulate your body temperature and keep you refreshed when you are around the lodge.


As to wildlife sightings, unlike in Africa, creatures in neotropical rainforests generally are elusive and diminutive. If you think you’re going to walk a trail and find a jaguar, you’re almost certain to be disappointed. At Bosque del Cabo, they kept a chalkboard up of “recent” rare mammal sightings. The entire week we were there, it remained unchanged: an ocelot on January 11; a puma on January 4; and a puma on December 20, all on the Titi Trail. That was it. While we were there, the resident biologist, Philip Davison, showed me a trail camera video of a tamandua (lesser anteater), as I had expressed an interest in seeing one of these, but that was the only report for the whole week.


On the other hand, if you revel in small discoveries, the rainforest offers a delightful new world of wonders: armies of ants in a single-file line carrying cut-up leaves ten times their size; giant iridescent blue butterflies; wildly colored birds; tiny frogs whose brilliantly abstract skins harbor deadly toxins. But none of the wildlife is abundant. That’s the thing about rainforests. While they contain a miraculous amount of biodiversity, the higher abundance of different species is offset by a smaller population count of each of these species.


In the week we spent at Bosque del Cabo, I came to revel in the small secrets of the rainforest.

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Amazing pictures!!! What camera, what lens?


Costa Rica is truly a birds' paradise, and BDC is even more so. I'm so ready to go back...keep the pictures coming!

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Ah, another BdC aficionado in the wings! Yes, I do now know why it's one of your favorites. Add me to the fan club.


My main camera set-up was a Nikon D7200 and the 200-500mm lens. Thanks for following along!

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@@Alexander33 lovely bird photos and the pink sunrise is extraordinary.


I like the toucan and other birds with bling, great description.

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Great start to your report, Peter. It´s obvious you have been practising a lot with your camera, really great shots in difficult surroundings. The fierey-billed Aracari is stunning. All the birds are just wonderful. With ever report on CR it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that I just have to go there sooner rather than later.

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A great start! Your writing is very engaging - and trip report structure is entirely down to the author :)

I recognise the frustrations and pleasures of photography in the rainforest - but I must say that the work you have put into your photography has really paid off. Your bird photos are excellent and I look forward to seeing more

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@@Alexander33, awesome report! Love the musings about the rainforest, so keep them coming. They bring back such great memories. Also, stunning bird shots. After 4 visits to BdC, I know getting those shots was not easy. I am also happy to see that the 200-500mm is performing well (in your hands at least). I just purchased one myself and was really happy with it in Yellowstone.


Looking forward to more... :)



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Ahhh, finally! And all the "unhappiness" built up by waiting for your TR day after day after day has melted away already on page 1!


Those are just fantastic photos, Peter, and also myself I am privy to the challenges of photographing under the dense canopy of a rain forest, thus I am almost envy for your results

You have answered the main question about your gear. Now move to specifics: settings, and average ISO applied. Por favor?!

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@@Alexander33, do you use a tripod?


I never do, and my pictures are never sharp. But I can't figure out how to do birds with a tripod...plus my camera (canon T3i) + lens (300 mm) are so behind yours, I will not even comment on that. But that's because I can't hand-hold a heavier camera+lens combo. So, any thoughts on the above would be welcome.


Maybe I just need to lift some weights and build up some muscles? Having my husband carrying the tripod would be an option, but he's not interested in birds :(

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@@Treepol, yes, birds with bling always garner my attention! Stay tuned for more.


@@michael-ibk, evidently I'm not the only one who's been trying to improve on his photography. It's all I can do to not abandon this report altogether and just soak up the amazing experiences you currently are reporting from South Africa. But, yes, you must visit Costa Rica at some point. But I long ago abandoned any hope of keeping up with your long-range plans. When are you finally open -- 2022? :)


@@TonyQ, thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, after your jaunt to Borneo, I know that you are all too aware of the challenges that the rainforest presents. It's all worth it, too.


@@Atdahl, thanks for your support, Alan. I am eagerly following your Yellowstone report. From the looks of things, the 200-500mm held its own for you there. How is it that I haven't been there yet?? (No excuses).



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@@xelas, far be it for me to leave you unhappy, given all the help you provided in planning this trip. Thank you.


My default setting was Aperture Priority, f/6.3 (which I would open up to f/5.6 if the images were turning out too dark); white balance: sun; and Auto ISO with the sensitivity settings at 200-3200. ISO was the area in which I really had to make some adjustments for this trip. Before, I had always set ISO manually, but with a combination of fast moving wildlife and the huge contrasts between areas of bright tropical sun and dark shadows in the forest, I just did not have the time to make any manual ISO adjustments.


I had told myself that ISO 1600 would be the highest that I would go, and that resolve lasted about 10 minutes. Doing some test shots on our first evening there, it was apparent that I was going to have to go even higher. With incremental tests, I found that I could go as high as ISO 3200 with the D7200 (ISO 6400 produced way too much noise). I didn't like going that high, but there were times when I had to choose between taking a chance on excessive noise or losing the shot altogether. To my surprise, I ended up with a number of shots that I was really happy with that were taken at ISO 3200, including perhaps my favorite image of the trip. (I'll try to remember to mention that when I get to it.)


Nevertheless, I'm still not crazy about Auto ISO, because it didn't always work for me, especially since, with small subjects, I spot meter. Sometimes, I'd get really dark shots taken at ISO 400, with a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec. On another occasion, in full sun, I ended up with a properly exposed image, but at ISO 3200 and a shutter speed of 1/6400 sec.! So I constantly had to monitor what the camera was taking, and to make adjustments when necessary. In the heat of the moment, with full-on action, it was really hard to have the discipline to remember to do that.

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Everything I had read said that a tripod and off-camera flash were essential to successful photos of rainforest wildlife, and so I dutifully brought my MeFOTO carbon fiber travel tripod and SB-910 speedlight hot-shoe flash with a Wimberley flash bracket and a Better Beamer flash extender. You know what? Most of that stuff never saw the light of day. I never even unzipped the tripod from its case.


Sometimes, I did use my flash, but on-camera, and more often than not, I left it behind. (In fact, I think I used flash on only one photo that will appear in this report). I quickly realized that the key to "survival" was light travel. If you take a look at the third and fourth photos in post #3, you can see all the roots that penetrate the trails as well as vines and spiny branches that overhang them. Lugging my camera around on a tripod through those conditions, in the high heat and humidity, would have been pure misery for me. After all, although I was working really hard to get some decent shots, I was still on vacation! (And, believe me, we got plenty of good workouts as it was.)


The benefit of light travel was maneuverability. For example, the woodpecker shots in post # 5 were taken from a narrow, metal suspension bridge that crossed a small gorge and swayed every time anyone moved. A tripod would have been a disaster on that thing. Even in relatively static situations, the birds and monkeys moved really fast. On our first morning, the couple in the cabin next to ours joined us on a bird walk. The husband had a huge, expensive lens and tripod, and he missed all kinds of shots that I was managing to get because he simply couldn't move fast enough with that tripod to get them. Within two days, he had ditched the tripod.


Our bird guide Carlos said that in December, a group on a photography tour stayed at Bosque del Cabo for several days. They all had huge lenses and tripods, set-ups costing tens of thousands of dollars. These people pay exorbitant sums to travel with a pro and do nothing but take photos for the entire trip. Carlos said that after the first morning's hike, those folks were done, and they spent the rest of their stay at Bosque just set up on the deck of the restaurant taking photos of stuff in the garden all day long. Not my idea of fun.


I don't mean to diss tripods. I've certainly used mine, and benefitted from it, but I have found that it's really only feasible for me to use it in more controlled situations, such as at a nesting site (at a respectable distance) or at places with feeding stations (which I don't prefer). Also, I think part of my problem with a tripod is that I'm not good enough or experienced enough to get the most out of it. So take everything I'm saying here with a grain of salt.


But, to address your dilemma (and keep in mind that I'm a rank amateur): The only thing I can think of is to see if there is a lens out there that you can comfortably manage handheld and that has better vibration reduction. The VR feature on my lens was a lifesaver. Alternatively, what about a monopod? I've never used one, but it might not hurt to try. In fact, one of the legs of my tripod can be unhinged and used as a monopod. (Although, I dunno. You might also push for the husband-carrying-the-tripod thing and tell him it's not a matter of whether he's interested in birds -- it's whether he's interested in you!)


Also, there are a lot of Safaritalkers who are much more advanced than I am, and who also shoot Canon, so you might also post the same question in the Photography forum. I've gotten some great advice by doing that.

Edited by Alexander33
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Your tripod philosophy only re-enforces mine, so I like your answer. Traveling with a tripod (even a light one) seems to be a hassle in vacation, I never take mine.


I never tried a teleconverter, but that's an idea. I need to figure out if I can add one to my 300mm. My best option would be a lens upgrade, but that would add about 1 lb to my rig, and I'm a weakling...


I'll see what the Canon ST crowd thinks, thanks !!

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Sadly, it seems that each time I begin a trip report, it is punctuated by some awful terroristic attack that always seems to hit just a little too close to home and heart, this time in Orlando. While I know this is due to the state of affairs in our world today, and not some kind of bad juju on my part, it nevertheless seems callous to just continue with no reference to what has happened.


Today, my thoughts primarily are with the victims and their families, as well as with my fellow loved ones and friends in the LGBT community that was the deliberate target of this cowardly and reprehensible act.


And now, as I did with my Tswalu/Phinda report in the wake of the attacks in Paris last November, I shall proceed undeterred.



A shot of the beach below Bosque del Cabo, a touch of beauty just to balance things out....



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Wow @@Alexander33, your efforts really paid, off! You got some fabulous shots! The level of detail is incredible.

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After I posted my suggestion of a teleconverter, I went back and edited it out, because although that would give you more reach, that wouldn't fix the issue you're having with sharpness. Hmmmm......


(See my edited post for added incentive in getting Husband to carry the tripod around). :)

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One exception to the rule of silent, skulking animals in the rainforest is the monkey family. The Osa Peninsula is one of the very few places where you are likely to find all four species of monkeys occurring in Costa Rica, and when they are present, they tend to make themselves conspicuous.


We most commonly encountered Geoffroy’s spider monkey, although, interestingly, it is listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN. They certainly appear to be thriving at Bosque del Cabo.











Geoffroy’s spider monkey is the largest of the four species found in Costa Rica, with arms significantly longer than its legs and a long prehensile tail that it can use as an extra limb and is capable of supporting its entire weight.


We found the spider monkeys to be the rowdiest of the crew. Territorial fights could erupt without notice, causing great shrieking and commotion in the trees above, with our being showered with leaves and debris as we strove to see what all the ruckus was about.




At the other end of the spectrum, size-wise, is the Central American squirrel monkey. They are listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, although they were classified as “Endangered” between 1982 and 2008. We came across them only once, a small troop while we were on our afternoon bird walk on our first full day there (and this was actually off the Bosque del Cabo property).









It was dusk, and the light was very low, so the photos aren’t what I'd wish them to be. In truth, I had spent so much of my time trying to brush up on birds that I largely had neglected learning about the monkey species we might encounter, and this I ended up regretting. In Peru, the species of squirrel monkey that we had in Tambopata National Park was actually quite common, so I didn’t make much of an effort to photograph these particular squirrel monkeys when we found them. It was only later that I found out how scarce the Central American squirrel monkey actually is. Its territory is limited to the central and southern Pacific coasts of Costa Rica and a portion of western Panama. If I had known that, I likely would have worked harder at getting some better shots.




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I tried a monopod once, I was not crazy about it. Not sure if it's something I want to try again...


He-he, I like your husband sherpa suggestion...but the truth is, I like my "me" time with a camera and whatever is around to take pictures of: birds, butterflies, abstracts, landscape...I want to keep it this way. Will probably need to work on building up the muscles.

And get a new lens :)

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The loudest of the group was, of course, the mantled howler monkey.













Look at the face on this one. Those must be some bitter leaves -- or else he's mightily annoyed by our invading his mealtime.






I think I mentioned in my Peru trip report that howler monkeys are the loudest terrestrial animals on earth. Alpha males utilize an enlarged hyoid bone in their throats to make sonorous vocalizations that can travel for up to 3 miles (4.8 km) (these facts delivered to you courtesy of Wikipedia, as I confess I am no authority on monkeys). Their calls would resonate throughout the forest, primarily early in the morning and at dusk.


Other than that, however, the howler is actually the most docile of the monkeys in Costa Rica. They calmly graze on vegetation (they are the only strictly herbivore species of monkey present; the rest are omnivorous) and will rest silently on larger-sized branches of shady trees during the heat of the day to conserve energy.

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The most photogenic of the monkeys (in my opinion) is the white-faced capuchin. It’s always easy to anthropomorphize animals, and I always felt that the capuchins, with almost a furrow in their brows, looked like they were scowling.







Some of the younger members of the troops we encountered were innocent enough to be curious by our presence. J. got these shots with the D7100 and 80-400mm combo while I was focusing on the mother and baby, and I think they are some of the best of the trip.









This fellow, however, wasn’t too happy about it.







The resident naturalist, Philip Davison, explained that typical human reactions of pleasure when encountering monkeys actually trigger defensive mechanisms in the monkeys. What do monkeys do when they show aggression? They bare their teeth. What do we do when we smile? We bare our teeth. What do monkeys do when they want to amp up their aggression? They make loud vocalizations. What do we do when we are happy? We laugh and talk excitedly (loud vocalizations….). In other words, the more we show delight in seeing monkeys, the more we enrage them!



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