Costa Rica is a beautiful country filled with countless National Parks and beaches worth visiting so I must admit this is by no means an exhaustive guide. I was in the country for about a week and mainly stayed in the north west Guanacaste region because there is surf in the summer and therefore this guide will be limited to my experiences. Another side note, I spent part of this trip doing photography and as well as surfing and doing surf photography so there will be some advice irrelevant to the purely landscape photographer. That being said, on with the photography tips!
Flights are cheapest into the capital of San Jose though there are many airports throughout the whole country. Check prices in advance because logistically it might work out better to fly closer to the region you will be staying in. I planned to drive out to the Guanacaste region so the most budget friendly flight was fine by me. Renting a car in Costa Rica was amazingly cheap! My first reservation worked out to $7 a day however there was some issues with my paying with a debit card and I was forced to add on full insurance coverage which bumped up the price. Had I used a credit card with its included rental car insurance then the price would’ve been that low. I would suggest renting a 4×4 vehicle because the roads in Costa Rica are largely unpaved and bumpy. Lodging is also ridiculously inexpensive like anywhere in South America and there are hostels in abundance.
It was a four hour drive to Playa Samara. Although there wasn’t much to shoot in Samara I chose that location for my first couple nights because of its proximity to surf beaches and cheap lodging. Boards can be rented anywhere in the country for $10 a day though you might have to haggle for it. The first beach I drove out to was called Camaronal. The swell was decent especially from what I’m used to in Miami but nothing phenomenal and the beach was small. I shot a few time lapses later that day and looked for crocodiles by the river mouth. The area where rivers meet the ocean are notoriously populated by crocodiles so if wildlife shots are your thing be sure to check them out. I saw a large croc on my first visit. Another beach I visited was Guiones. Guiones was one of my favorites for its large size and because there are many houses and hotels nearby as well as police presence. I was warned many times about leaving camera gear in my vehicle due to risk of theft which made planning my drives frustrating because I couldn’t do a surf trip and photography trip in one go. Although Guiones is only an hour drive from Samara I didn’t want to make the drive twice to get my camera gear so I felt safe hiding it in the tool compartment of the vehicle. This is a popular beach so there are plenty of surfers to get shots of whether from land or in the water.
After a couple days of surfing and shooting in the sun I had failed to put on adequate sunscreen so in order to recover from my sunburn I headed to the cloud forests of Monteverde. From Samara it was an almost 3 hour drive most of which through pleasant small towns. Side note: Google maps often led me through some curious back roads during which I was glad my vehicle was 4×4 but at certain times of the year the river floods and these are impassable. During the last leg of the drive I began the uphill climb to Santa Elena the main town of Monteverde. It is said that the drive is difficult due to its unpaved uphill conditions and I must agree as I made the drive during the rain at night. Monteverde is a region famous amongst travelers seeking adventure tours like ziplining, canyoning, and tree climbing to name a few. There is a multitude of animal sanctuaries such as the iconic sloth and to be honest that is the best way to see these animals up close. I was opposed to taking such staged experiences of nature but in hindsight seeing these exotic animals in the wild is not as common to those untrained in how to look (me) so it might have been something worth doing. Nevertheless I stayed in a cheap hostel and headed into the Monteverde Reserve the next morning. I attempted a sunrise shoot but this was unfruitful as the cloudy and mountainous nature of the area prevented any such golden sunrise. The hike through the jungle can be done guided or solo for a cheap entry fee. While the nature and jungle was very beautiful I must admit the most exotic creatures I saw were giant millipedes but I heard plenty of howler monkeys making their unique coughlike howl sound. I got some b roll and hiked all the way to the waterfall at the end of the trail though it left a lot to be desired especially compared to what I’ve experienced in Iceland. There is some cool drone footage to be shot of the cloudy forest. I’m not exactly sure in what areas are drones permitted or not but I flew from outside the reserve. Because of the high altitude and wet environment there are few if any mosquitos in the region which gave me false assurance for what I was to experience later in the trip when I went to Arenal. After a day in the area I headed to my next surf destination Tamarindo.
Tamarindo is a funky beach town that lies 3 hours from Monteverde. It’s most popular for its surfing, proximity to surf beaches, diving, and buzzing nightlife. I was able to book a cheap hostel here and overall the town was inexpensive. As far as photography locations go I became obsessed with these tidepools at the southern end of the beach which made for great time lapses and shots of the reflecting sunrise and sunset. The town is very safe and I felt no danger being out early in the morning or late at night with my camera gear. Tamarindo is a surf beach itself but there were not significant swells when I was there so I headed to Playa Avellana which was a mere 30 minute drive south. This is a busy beach but has multiple breaks and a fairly skilled crowd which makes for great photo opportunities. The current can be strong so caution must be taken when in the water taking photos with a water housing. Parking is supervised somewhat so I wouldn’t be too worried about leaving gear in the vehicle although preferably out of sight. I spent a couple days at this spot because of its proximity and great conditions. Another nearby beach I visited was called Playa Negra. The break is a little further out here but it is certainly less crowded and the day I went the waves were spectacular. I was going to make an attempt to take photos after a surf session but the wind had picked up and all the surfers left.
The last leg of my trip was to the Arenal Volcano National Park four hours away. On the way up the mountain you will see windmills dotting the landscape which make great subjects for drone photography. The iconic feature of this area is of course the Arenal volcano which dominates the landscape. Arenal draws a similar crowd to Monteverde with its many adventure tours although it is much lower in elevation and not as cold. Arenal is an active volcano (but non erupting at the moment) and so the trails to hike up to it are closed. It was a fairly cloudy couple of days when I visited so I wasn’t able to get any clear shots of the volcano. I found a good clear vantage point by a small boat loading dock at Lago Arenal a bit before you take cross the bridge to La Fortuna, the biggest town in the area. Lodging is cheap with many hostels nearby. I did a hike of the national park but as soon as I set up a time lapse at the volcano vista clouds came and it began to rain. Mosquitoes are vicious in the dense jungle areas so be sure to pack strong bug spray. There are many exotic looking and sounding birds to be seen and the leafcutter ants were entertaining to watch. In the area you’ll find several other trails and such as the hot springs, La Fortuna Waterfall, and hanging bridges which I didn’t have time to visit.
This concludes my guide to Costa Rica. I was only able to check out a miniscule portion of the amazing surf beaches and exotic jungles but I am certain I will be making return trips if not only to finally see some of the exotic animals. For additional information and footage of the beautiful landscapes check out the links below to the BTPro Travel video, Costa Rica Vlog, and Travel Tips Video: