Welcome to my photography trip planning guide for capturing the breathtaking beauty of Costa Rica, where I will navigate you through some incredible locations, suggest gear to bring with you, and offer travel tips to ensure you know what to expect to make the most of your trip to this tropical paradise.
Known for its rich biodiversity and natural beauty, this tiny central American nation is a fantastic destination for photography. From lush rainforests and towering volcanoes to picturesque beaches and waterfalls, Costa Rica offers an incredible range of landscapes and wildlife to capture with your camera.
After spending four weeks from December 2021 to January 2022 exploring the northern Pacific and central regions, I returned home feeling that I had only brushed the surface of what this amazing country has to offer.
Join me as I share my firsthand experiences and images to provide inspiration and guide you when planning your dream photography trip to Costa Rica.
Dry Or Rainy Season?
You may want to consider visiting during the dry season (December to April) for clearer skies and easier access if you wish to explore a variety of locations when photographing in Costa Rica.
Although it is still relatively green in December, the northwest Guanacaste region is considered a tropical dry forest, and sees consistent heat with very little rain from November to April. Our trip coincided with the beginning of dry season and true to form, we only saw rain twice during the entire month-long visit.
You can expect hot temperatures of 30°C or more (90°F) everyday in coastal regions, while it is cooler in the central highlands, averaging in the low 20°C range (70°F). We found t-shirts and shorts were fine in the mountains during the day, while we were more comfortable in light pants and a thin jacket in the cool evenings. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen, and also some insect repellant in case need it.
It is important to consider the weather and seasons when planning your tour, as the rainy season (May to November) can bring lush greenery, vibrant colors, and dramatic cloud formations that add an extra dimension to your photographs. But during this season, remember the wet weather can limit access to certain areas when the backroads become too muddy or slippery for travel.
Sudden downpours can occur at any time so be prepared with waterproof footwear, proper raingear for your body, and a rain cover to keep your camera dry.
Getting Around the Country
With beaches, waterfalls, volcanos, and the rainforest on our itinerary, renting a vehicle from Jumbo Car in San Jose allowed us the freedom to explore on our own schedule. We also rented an Airbnb property close to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast as our base, and spent our days travelling in different directions.
Although most of the major routes between towns are paved, you will have to get off the beaten path to reach many locations on dirt roads. Be aware that Costa Rican roads can be extremely rough and pot-hole filled in places.
It is slow-going even when dry, and many of the steep mountain roads we drove on would surely have been impassable in wet weather. We did not end up using the four wheel drive on our rental, but the little bit of extra ground clearance was definitely a big advantage.
Even though Costa Rica is a relatively small and compact country, expect much longer travel times than you may be used to, even for relatively short distances. The fastest speed limit anywhere is 80 kilometres per hour, even on their most modern double lane divided highway.
At home in Canada for example, it is easy to cover 250 kilometres in a little over two hours on the open road. In Costa Rica, covering the same distance takes closer to five hours. Make sure you account for this in your plans and allow lots of time to reach your destinations.
If you are planning a shorter visit where your photographic interests lie in a smaller area, you will probably be fine staying in one location and perhaps booking tours or a guide to transport you, instead of renting a vehicle.
With both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, Costa Rica offers an array of beautiful beaches and coastal landscapes. From sandy shores to rocky cliffs and palm-fringed bays, there is no shortage of scenic locations for capturing golden sunsets, crashing waves, and serene stretches of coastline.
We visited Tamarindo beach on a couple of occasions because it was close by, but found it to be very crowded. Surprisingly, we did not have to venture far to the north or south to find other beaches that were very quiet, and far more beautiful.
From north to south we visited Playa Flamingo, Ventanas, Grande, Tamarindo, and Avellana. Each had their own charm and being on the west coast, they are all perfect for sunset shots of the ocean.
Curiously, if you are after postcard shots of palm tree-lined beaches, you will not find as many in the northern Guanacaste region. The beaches themselves are beautiful, but I found the coastal vegetation there to be mostly dense forest, shrubs, and bushes.
If you prefer palm trees, you are better off to stay further south and explore places like Manuel Antonio, Uvita, and Esterillos beaches in the southern Puntarenas coastal region, or Punta Uva, Cocles, and Chiquita beaches on the eastern Caribbean side of the country, to name a few.
It is easier to commute around the Pacific side of the country, which is far more developed than the Caribbean side. As always, research is your best ally to be sure you will find what you are looking for, as there is a wealth of free information and pictures on the web to help you decide before you go.
Costa Rica is renowned for its cloud forests, characterized by mist, fog, and a surreal atmosphere. We visited both the Monteverde and Santa Elena cloud forest reserves, which are close in proximity to each other and very popular destinations for photographers seeking to capture the ethereal beauty of the lush forest canopy.
Both reserves contain networks of variable length trails to explore, depending on how much time you wish to spend. Although the lone hanging bridge at Monteverde was closed for repairs, the trails were beautiful and well maintained. Santa Elena also has many hanging bridges which are an exciting way to traverse these amazing parks.
If you have ever photographed forests, you know how challenging it can be to find compositions among the chaos of trees. Time is your friend here, where opportunities are endless when you slow down to appreciate and absorb your surroundings. The lush green foliage, towering trees, and vibrant wildlife make for captivating photographic subjects.
Costa Rica has long been committed to conservation and eco-tourism, with many protected areas and national parks. This dedication to preserving the environment provides photographers with access to well-maintained trails, viewpoints, and sustainable photo opportunities.
It is worth noting that entrance fees are required almost everywhere when visiting natural areas in Costa Rica, but they serve several purposes and are implemented for various reasons.
The entrance fees help fund the conservation and preservation efforts of these areas, including the maintenance of trails, protection of wildlife, and habitat restoration projects. These fees contribute to the sustainability of the parks and protected areas, ensuring they can be enjoyed by future generations.
Respect for nature and the environment is crucial, so be mindful of the impact of your presence and follow any regulations or guidelines set by authorities and conservation organizations.
Both of the cloud forest reserves we visited reserve the right to check your bags at the entrances, for items like plastic water bottles and cigarettes which are prohibited inside the reserves. It is recommended to pack your own reusable water bottle and use it exclusively during your stay.
Costa Rica is home to several volcanoes, including Arenal and Poás. These majestic peaks offer magnificent landscapes, especially during sunrise and sunset. The rolling hills and mountain ranges of the interior also provide stunning vistas and opportunities for capturing beautiful images.
On the last week of our trip we headed into the central highlands where photographic opportunities are seemingly everywhere. I was very lucky to capture a spectacular sunrise at the incredible Arenal volcano (above) straight from the balcony of our hotel room.
Further to the east, Poás volcano is highly accessible where you can drive your car all the way to the summit. Due to the volcano's activity, safety reasons, and tourist volume, the only way to visit the crater is to book tickets ahead of time.
Visitors are given hard hats and shown a brief safety video in a screening room, after which a ten minute walk up a paved path takes you to the viewing area over the crater. You are allowed 20 minutes to photograph before heading back down.
Poás Volcano (above) reaches an elevation of 2,708 meters (8,885 feet) above sea level, making it one of the highest active volcanoes in Costa Rica. The volcano is characterized by two main craters, known as the Main Crater and the steaming green Laguna Caliente (Hot Lagoon). The Main Crater measures approximately 1.5 kilometers in diameter and is the largest active crater in the world.
Waterfalls and Rivers
Costa Rica features numerous breathtaking waterfalls, cascading down from the rainforests. La Paz Waterfall Gardens, La Fortuna Waterfall, Rio Celeste Waterfall, and Llanos de Cortez Waterfall are just a few examples of picturesque locations. Rivers and streams meander through the dense forests, providing unique compositions and long exposure opportunities.
One of our favourite locations was La Paz Waterfall Gardens, located in the mountains north of San Jose. The park boasts a large number of stunning waterfalls, nature trails, and a sprawling wildlife sanctuary where visitors can see a range of animals, including hummingbirds, butterflies, reptiles, monkeys, and big cats like jaguars and pumas.
These three waterfalls (above) are all located along the meandering river that runs through La Paz Gardens.
It is possible to visit the park with a day pass, or extend your stay in one of the 18 suites in their lodge for a more immersive experience. Although it was pricey, we stayed two nights in their Peace Lodge, so I was able to rise early in the morning before the park opened to the public and photograph completely alone at my own pace.
Experiment with different shutter speeds to capture the smooth flow of water or focus on the surrounding lush vegetation for a more immersive composition. The more frames you shoot, the more options you have when processing your images later on.
The famous La Fortuna waterfall (above) is located just east of Arenal volcano, about six kilometres southwest of the town of La Fortuna. After paying the entrance fee, you will descend over 500 steps down to the bottom of the canyon where you can spend as much time as you please photographing the falls from a variety of available viewpoints.
I planned ahead and packed my swimsuit and water shoes, carefully wading downstream into the Fortuna River almost waist deep among the giant boulders to capture this unique vertical perspective.
Llanos de Cortez Waterfall (above) is a true spectacle of nature, featuring a wide cascade that drops around 12 meters (40 feet) into a tranquil pool below. It is conveniently located near the Pan-American highway approximately 25 kilometres southeast of Liberia, the capital city of Guanacaste province.
Swimming is allowed below the falls, so expect a number of other tourists enjoying the water during the day. I waited until late afternoon when the crowds began to disperse, then waded waist-deep into the pool with my camera on a tripod to capture this image.
Guides and Wildlife Photography
In addition to landscapes, Costa Rica's abundant flora and wildlife provides excellent opportunities for capturing unique images. From colorful birds like toucans and macaws to monkeys, sloths, reptiles, and big cats, the country's biodiversity is a delight for nature enthusiasts and photographers alike.
If you want to enhance your photography skills or explore hidden gems, consider joining guided tours or workshops led by experienced photographers. They can provide local knowledge, access to off-the-beaten-path locations, and valuable tips for capturing the best shots.
Guides are experts at spotting wildlife that you would never notice on your own, as we discovered during a short walking tour in a forest near La Fortuna. Almost every bird or mammal I photographed that day was a result of our guide pointing them out hiding in the thick forest canopy. Without our guide, I would surely have missed many opportunities.
Because wildlife is everywhere in Costa Rica, it is likely that you will have the chance to photograph animals and birds that appear around you by happenstance. A family of howler monkeys lived in the trees around our Airbnb rental, so every morning I would walk outside with a telephoto lens and capture them frolicking in the trees above me.
The best advice is to carry your camera with you at all times, and be ready to shoot at a moments notice. I brought three lenses ranging from 14mm to 200mm and used them all, with the reach of my telephoto being essential for wildlife. Remember to respect the environment and follow ethical guidelines while photographing to ensure minimal impact on the delicate ecosystems.
A Worthy Destination
Photography in Costa Rica offers a chance for personal growth and exploration. The country's incredible natural beauty serves as a constant source of inspiration, pushing photographers to expand their creative boundaries and develop their skills.
Costa Rica's commitment to conservation and sustainability further enhances its appeal as a travel destination. With a quarter of its land protected as national parks and reserves, the country boasts a remarkable array of protected areas teeming with rare and exotic flora and fauna, while the people are very friendly and eager to share their culture with you.
Embarking on a photographic journey through this enchanting country promises not only stunning images, but also an immersive and transformative experience for memories that will last a lifetime.