This trip was planned and geared specifically toward wildlife photography. I chose one location, Corcovado National Park, which I felt I had not adequately explored during my 2005 trip to Costa Rica. During my brief time in Corcovado then, I barely scraped the surface of what the park had to offer in terms of wildlife sightings and felt that I should "do it right" by focusing my entire two week trip on this area. I also knew that unforseen circumstances can always cause problems (see Ecuador 2006) and that a longer period of time would lessen the chances of poor weather (for example) washing away all of my photo opportunities.
This proved to be smart planning, as I encounted several problems including the weather. But in the end, the trip was a success due to luck, pockets of decent weather and repeated attempts that eventually paid off in some nice sightings.
Getting There - I flew from Seattle to San Jose, Costa Rica via Houston on Continental Airlines, the major carrier that seems to have the most frequent access to Costa Rica from the States. There were problems right off the bat when a luggage cart ran into my plane before we had even taken off, putting a hole in it. Thankfully, I was rescheduled onto the next flight to Houston, but the airline couldn't manage to move my one checked back 50 yards between planes... and I didn't see the bag for nearly two weeks!
I had the bag delivered to La Leona Lodge, outside Corcovado, but I didn't get back there until the last couple days of the trip, so it was a lost cause. However, in speaking to someone who was also staying inside the park, Continental is able to deliver bags to Sirena Station via Drake Bay. Something to consider if you run into a similar problem and Sirena is your destination.
From San Jose, I took a short 50 minute flight to the Osa Peninsula on Sansa Air. Normally these flights are routed into Puerto Jimenez, but due to construction, my flight went into Golfito, from which I had to take a taxi and a boat to get to Puerto Jimenez. Note that there are severe weight restrictions (listed at 25 pounds) for luggage going on these small planes to the Osa. In my case, I was definitely over the weight limited, but due to flights that weren't quite full I was able to board without paying the $1/pound penalty.
From Puerto Jimenez, it's a two hour taxi ride to Carate, the small town on the edge of Corcovado. Flights directly into Carate and even into Sirena Station (the latter being quite expensive) are also available, depending on the weather. Another option is to get to Drake Bay on the northwest side of Corcovado and take a boat to get to Sirena. I may explore this option next time in order to avoid the 5-6 hour hike in.
When I Went - I scheduled the trip for the last week of November and first week of December. This, according to my research, was near the start of the dry season. I was hoping for a different environment from my 2005 trip, which was in late February and in some cases too dry for finding frogs and snakes. I hoped slightly damper conditions would prove fruitful for such nocturnal wildlife, but I wasn't counting on the absolute drenching I got. I ran into unseasonably wet weather, thanks in part to hurricane conditions that were hammering the other side of the country and causing some lingering rain storms on the Pacific side. This made things very difficult during much of my stay in Sirena. I spent several mornings camped out on the porch waiting for the rain to stop. Another issue with the timing was that it wasn't the best time for ripe fruit, which is a prime food source for much of the wildlife in Corcovado.
If you're looking for the ideal time to go, aim for mid-January through February, when it's drier and fruit is coming into season.
Costa Rica Expeditions - I booked my entire trip through Costa Rica Expeditions for the sake of convenience. Unlike the last trip, I didn't want to deal with renting a car and making my own arrangements. CRE was able to book my flights, hotels, transfers and most importantly, my stay and food arrangements at Sirena. They met me at the airport, and the entire staff that I came in contact with was a pleasure to work with.
Over the years, I have learned the importance of having a quality guide when I search for wildlife in these far-flung locales. I struck gold again when I was assigned Felipe Arias. Felipe actually grew up in the heart of what is now Corcovado before it became a national park. Suffice to say, he knows the area quite well, is an adept tracker and excellent at identifying wildlife. During my next visit to Corcovado, my first requirement will be to ensure that Felipe is available to guide me.
Special thanks also go to Andrés Vega, a Corcovado researcher and founder of AMBICOR for his advice and help during this trip.
Lodging was arranged by Costa Rica Expeditions. My primary home was at Sirena Station, but I also had to make hotel stops at the beginning and end of the trip.
Hotel Don Carlos, San Jose - Located in downtown San Jose, near the Jade Museum. Friendly staff, accomodations ranging from smaller single rooms to larger suites. Also has Internet terminals and a neighboring cafe.
Luna Lodge, Carate - This was my first stop on the Osa, for one night. Located up in the hills amidst secondary and primary rainforest, the Luna Lodge is an ideal vacation getaway for sure. Lana Wedmore's excellent facilities include a pool, yoga deck and hiking trails. It's a great place for longer stays or as a jumping off point for further exploration into Corcovado. Guided day tours into the park are available.
La Leona Lodge, Carate - My original intent was to use the Corcovado Tent Camp lodge (where I stayed in 2005) as my base getting in and out of Corcovado. Unexpectedly, it closed down only a couple weeks prior to my trip, so I was moved to La Leona. Having enjoyed my stay at the Tent Camp, I was disappointed about the move, but after finally getting to La Leona at the end of this trip, I have to say it's actually better than the Tent Camp was. Excellent service and tented bungalows with private bath and shower. It was a great place to unwind at the end of a long trip. La Leona is located right at the edge of Corcovado, and also has its own trail system running up into the hills above the lodge, a great place to find poison dart frogs.
Sirena Ranger Station, Corcovado - My home for 9 days. This is rustic lodging. Your options are to reserve a bunk or sleep in your own tent (a large covered platform is set aside for tent campers). You can also make reservations to have your meals cooked for you. However, please note that all reservations should be made well in advance (at least a month), and in some cases you have to plan precisely and make sure to book in the appropriate window (they may not take reservations too far in advance). Note that a maximimum four night stay is allowed at Sirena Station.
It's a long, hot hike to and from Sirena Station
If you are making arrangements on your own, you will be required to pick up your permits at the park office in Puerto Jimenez. I highly recommend making things a bit easier by having an outfit such as Costa Rica Expeditions make the arrangements for you (especially to ensure you can reserve food, if you don't plan to cook on your own).
The hike into Sirena is a long one, no matter which side you come in from. From the La Leona (Carate) side, it can take 5-6 hours or longer. Be prepared for heat and humidity. Though much of the hike in is made on forest trails, there are long stretches of open beach, which can get scorching hot at midday. Drink plenty of water. Coming in from Drake Bay or Los Patos can be an even longer hike. From Los Patos, it's 30+ kilometers (note that the Los Patos ranger station is a good 13-15km from where you leave your car, meaning it's another 18km or so to Sirena). Perhaps the easiest option to get to Sirena is to take a boat from Drake Bay. You can also fly into Sirena, but it's pretty expensive.
Come Prepared! Sirena's facilities are very basic. Make sure you pack in adequate supplies, including toilet paper, ziploc bags, food supplies, flash light, first aid, iodine tablets or water filters, mosquito netting, sun screen and bug repellant. Don't forget soap and shampoo. You also take everything out that you bring in (which is why ziplocs are a good idea). Sirena can't handle your garbage.
Since I was hiking in from Carate, it was important to consolidate my gear as much as possible. In addition to my photo gear, I tried to stuff the rest of my belongings in a single backpack. Clothes were stuffed in a travel compressor bag to save space. I had to check a bag since I couldn't carry on larger liquid containers for sun screen and insect repellant (not to mention my utility tool), so I stuffed those in my tripod bag... which of course was subsequently lost.
Rubber or waterproof boots could be useful
If you have extra space or are taking a boat to Sirena, rubber boots are recommended. I didn't have room for those, so I stuck with my gore-tex-treated high ankle Merrell boots. These held up quite well under the damp conditions, even when fording shallow streams and wading through thick mud. They could not protect me against the ocean though, and once a wave swamped my feet I was living with wet boots that wouldn't dry out until the sun finally appeared at the end of the trip. In addition to boots, make sure to bring teva-style sandals of some sort, for fording rivers (which has to be done on some trails, including a waist deep excursion through the Rio Claro on the way to Sirena from Carate) and for wandering around the station.
A breathable waterproof jacket is recommended, though good jackets are hard to find. I decided to try the Integral Designs eVent rain jacket (since discontinued). The protection was great, but the breathability was undetermined, as I didn't feel I put the thing through long enough stretches of sustained activity. A wide brim "floppy" hat is an excellent idea for protection from rain and sunlight.
Finally, remember to bring mosquito netting of some sort for when you sleep. Something that can hang above your bed or bedding is a good idea. If you are tenting it, then this may not be necessary.
I stuffed all of my gear into the ThinkTank Skin belt and pouch system comprised of:
Pixel Racing Harness
Skin Double Wide (300mm 2.8 and 70-200mm 2.8IS, teleconverter)
Skin Chimp Cage (40D, 20D, 10-22mm, batteries, extension tubes)
Skin 50 (24-70mm 2.8)
Skin Strobe (flash + accessories)
Two RU Thirsty pouches (Nalgene bottles).
Yes, it was crowded. With the exception of the Chimp Cage, the rain covers provided decent protection. The Chimp Cage's rain cover did not fit tightly when the CC was extended, which led to temporary moisture damage in my bodies. My tripod and some other miscellaneous small items were stuffed into the ThinkTank Bazooka tripod bag. My choice of the belt and pouch system was intended to complement my backpack, which had my clothes and everything else. Had I been on a slightly shorter trip, I could've taken a smaller pack and used a setup akin to Steven Frischling's Surge/Skin combo (which I actually tried). Unfortunately, a medium-sized pack was necessary, and hung a bit low, pushing the belt components down a bit.
One final note about the Skin Belt in particular. Make sure that when you order this belt, to order big. Your pant waist size doesn't translate to the belt... if you go that route, you'll end up with something much tighter than expected. ThinkTank recommends adding 5 inches or so to your estimate, I believe.
Canon 40D, 20D
Canon 300mm 2.8IS (the ideal lens, which can be used hand-held, but a tripod is highly recommended)
Canon 70-200mm 2.8IS (the second best lens you could have)
Canon 24-70mm 2.8
Canon 1.4x teleconverter
Kenko Extension Tubes
Canon 580EX Flash
Better Beamer Flash Extender
ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket (Note: NOT waterproof)
Gitzo G1228 Carbon Fiber Tripod
Acratech Ultimate Ballhead + plates
Extra Batteries, Memory Cards, Film
Lens Wipes/Brush, Rain Gear, Polarizer
Epson P-5000 Storage Device
Rain covers for camera & lenses
Powerstrip & battery chargers