Costa Rica is renowned for its abundant natural wealth, drawing visitors from around the globe who come to explore the wildlife in this compact Central American nation. Among the captivating wildlife opportunities available to travelers, photographing wild birds, amphibians, and reptiles stands out as top choices. However, it’s important to recognize that the existence of these remarkable creatures wouldn’t be possible without its native ecosystems.
Costa Rica boasts a diverse range of 12 distinct life zones, such as the Lowland Rainforest, Mid Elevation Wet Forest, Cloud Forest, and Dry Forest, among others. The coastal regions on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides offer unique and plentiful opportunities to capture stunning landscapes. Below, you’ll find a map highlighting areas with exceptional potential for landscape photography, along with the corresponding images you can capture in these locations. Additionally, I’ve included links to lodging options for your convenience. To make the most of your time, it’s advisable to rent a car and explore these destinations while staying at local hotels or “Cabinas” along the way. Returning to your home base can be impractical in some areas due to the distances involved.
Costa Rica experiences considerable weather variability, especially in its central mountainous regions. Clouds and rain can unpredictably emerge within a short span. Consequently, even meticulous planning for optimal lighting during a shoot may be disrupted by unexpected cloud cover. When photographing within the rainforest, I tend to favor overcast conditions, as they provide even lighting and help mitigate the glare from vegetation, which can lead to hotspots in your images.
I will recommend you rent a vehicle, it does not need to be 4×4, unless you plan on heading towards spot (8) where some of the roads may be just dirt. It’s highly recommended you pay for full insurance in Costa Rica. Be aware that anything you book through Expedia in terms of insurance for a vehicle rental, may not be accepted in Costa Rica. Is better to get the insurance with the car rental in CR.
Regarding money…you don’t need to exchange US dollars to “colones”, but it will help sometimes to get the proper change at small food shaks or street vendors.
Below, you’ll find a map featuring some of my preferred locations, along with some links to lodging details for your reference.
1. Poas Volcano
This is one of the most iconic volcanoes in Costa RIca as you can walk all the way to the rim. For the last two years getting in requires reservations and the use of protective equipment which is provided by the park. Weather here can be challenging and early in the morning is usually better. As you can see you will be above the clouds.
2. La Paz Waterfall (Cloud Forest)
This is a very popular watefall as is located next to the road. It’s a three tier fall, but you can only see perhaps two of the sections. The nearby La Paz Waterfall and Garden resort have access to the first two waterfalls.
3. San Fernando Waterfall
This is a very impressive waterfall that can be observed from a distance. You can stop at the Mirador de Cinchona for early lunch (dont want to be there in the afternoonthe clouds will engulf the waterfall) and shoot from their deck or you can opt to go down to the waterfall on one of the tours offered in the area. You can stay in nearby town of Chilamate, see lodging for location 5.
4. Cataratas del Toro
Visiting this location feels like stepping into Jurassic Park. The waterfall is nestled within the confines of an ancient volcano, and the vibrant hues created by mineral deposits on the walls make it an awe-inspiring destination. To capture a wide-angle shot, you’ll need to descend a trail comprising 260 steps, a journey that’s unquestionably worthwhile! The owners of this property have done a great job with the gardens around the property. Wil the owner is a really nice guy and very accommodating. If you like the adventure, you can rappel down the waterfall too. See lodging for location 5.
5. Sarapiqui Lowlands
This is a depiction of a Caribbean lowland rainforest, characterized by undulating hills adorned with ceibo, mahogany, and almond trees. The Sarapiqui River originates from the ancient crater of the Poas Volcano as it embarks on its journey towards the Caribbean. This region offers captivating opportunities for capturing diverse and captivating landscape shots. Moreover, for those looking to incorporate lifestyle elements into their photography, there are numerous pineapple plantations, banana groves, and cattle ranches that can be seamlessly integrated into the frame. If you want to shoot from within a rainforest you can head over to Braulio Carillo National Park or La Selva Biological Station not far from the town of Sarapiqui.
La Quinta de Sarapiqui This is a very affordable lodge with a nice river next to it and lots of wildlife on the grounds.
6. Fortuna & The Arenal Volcano
The town of Arenal acts as a major draw for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a wealth of activities such as white-water rafting, horseback riding, and ziplining. The Arenal Volcano and the surrounding shores of Arenal Lake offer excellent prospects for capturing captivating photographs. However, it’s important to note that weather conditions play a crucial role in these locations. There are also hanging bridges and the Fortuna waterfall not too far from the town.
Arenal Oasis is a charming lodge owned and run by a warm and welcoming family. Their well-maintained gardens add to the beauty of the place, and they can easily connect you with various tour operators in the vicinity.
Arenal Observatory Lodge is high end lodge with all kinds of amenities and great views of the volcano. They also have a trail system and beautiful gardens.
7. Palo Verde National Park
A little off the beaten path, this mostly dry forest land leads to one of the largest wetland areas in Costa Rica. A very important wintering grounds for migratory birds. Not a lot of places to stay nearby. I went there once, becasue I needed to see it. It’s a an amazing and important wetland area for sure.
8. Ostional National Wildlife Refuge
This whole area of the Nicoya Peninsula is a photographer’s paradise if you are into beach sunsets. There hundreds of beaches and coves along the Pacific coastline. From Tambor to Tamarindo you can spend weeks shooting beachscapes. There a lots of small hotels and cabinas in the area. These beaches are a surfer’s paradise, plenty of inexpensive lodging and places to eat along the coastline. May require a 4×4 vehicle in some areas during the rainy season.
9. Tarcoles River & Carara National Park
The Tarcoles River presents captivating landscapes that harmoniously blend water with lush lowland tropical rainforest. Booking a boat tour here opens up excellent prospects for capturing wide-angle shots. If you desire a more intimate exploration of the rainforest, Carara National Park invites you with its characteristic understory, complete with meandering creeks and gentle elevation changes.
10. Manuel Antonio National Park & Playa Espadilla
This is the most visited national park in Costa Rica for its beaches and abundant wildlife. Just outside the park in Playa Espadilla you can capture some amazing beach scenes and sunsets.
11. Dominical to Uvita
The coastline south of Manuel Antonio is gorgeous providing many opportunities for the landscape photographer.
12. Rio Savegre (Cloud Forest)
Arguably one of Costa Rica’s most stunning rivers, this location takes you close to its source at an elevation of 7,000 feet. The scenery in this region is absolutely breathtaking, with majestic mountains enveloping you. The abundance of birdlife in this area is truly remarkable. People come here to see the Resplendent Quetzal.
13. Irazu Volcano
This is the second most visited volcano due to its closeness to the capital city. A trail around the rim offers great views of the lagoon in the crater. Weather here is highly variable and you must be prepared for freezing rain.
14. Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge
This beach preserve on the Caribbean side is great for landscapes and one that shows the effect of sea level rise. There are sections of the beach littered with dead trees that died with rising tides. While far from the capital city of San Jose, there are many landscape photography opportunities on the way there.