Pura Vida is the watchword of the people of Costa Rica. “Pure life.” It springs, I feel from the boundless beauty of the place, and sense of renewal the sun and the rain bring, the two gorgeous sweeps of coastline, east and west, framing one of the truly serene and magical places on earth–the Cloud Forest. Couple all this resplendent nature with the warm hearted people of Costa Rica, and it is a place that compels visitation, especially visitation with a camera.
What better place for a workshop, a new one for us, called: The Coast to the Clouds. A memorable adventure with friend and fellow Nikon Ambassador, Tamara Lackey. And we did go from the coast to the clouds! Thanks to Tamara, we also made it a must-see to find sloths in the wild – and we did with our expert guides at Jacamar. We started in San Jose at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, which was a great jumping off point. Super nice folks, and within easy distance of the blue of the Pacific. A gorgeous opening dinner at Restaurante Grano de Oro was a perfect kickoff.
A note of thanks to our photographers. For Tamara, Annie and I, they were awesome! They took the sun, and the rain, in stride, always working hard and being open to new experiences, techniques, trying different gear, and hiking in the very humid rain forests. Looking for lizards, frogs (colorful, poisonous frogs!) and also helping one another often to make great pictures. Lucky to travel and explore with such a congenial group. They were fearless in terms of trying new things, showing the group their successes and mistakes, and supporting each other.
Rain is a fact of Costa Rican life. Bad weather makes for good pictures, someone once said, but then again, constant deluge dampens lenses and spirits. But photographer’s luck was with us. We dodged some serious predictions of nonstop rain in the month of October! We scouted last year in late September, and listened intently to our incredibly knowledgeable local guides and thought the pros of going last month outweighed the cons. Lush forests and greenery. Active animal life. More local life and fewer tourists. Annie was talking regularly to someone up in the clouds, as we had great weather.
We settled on the plan of “Coast to the Clouds” because there’s so much to see. How can you go there and not see the beaches? How can you go there and not visit the rain forests and the Cloud Forest? All are imperatives, especially photographically. We journeyed to Alma del Pacifico Beach Hotel & Spa located on the Pacific Ocean first. And, it’s really on the ocean. Beachfront, not beach view or near the beach, and we had it all to ourselves. No other guests. Spilled out of the room (or the bar) right onto the beach. Can’t say enough positive things about this place. The color is off-the-charts. And the staff at Alma were champs, knowing they had a hotel filled with photographers who were seeking the light. They made breakfasts early, and we got into the field with the sun.
Bonus of taking over the place is we set up an equipment depot in the lobby. Huge thanks to our friends at Profoto for the lighting kits! Our photographers were universally stunned at the simplicity and quality of the light we could bring to bear. Fantastic to be able to outfit groups to then charge onto the beach, set up at the pool or beach bar, and use any of the wild interiors as tropical backgrounds. And a thank you shout out to the intrepid Steve Lackey, who shot a lot of the BTS snaps you see here on the blog, and in general was super helpful to all, pulling and hauling gear!
Another big reason to set up camp at Alma was the close distance to the National Parks. We had a great morning on the Tarcoles River for a private wildlife/bird photo excursion worked out by Jacamar Tours and Nature Group Costa Rica, then hiked in Carara National Park.
Thence to the mists and beauty of the Cloud Forest! El Silencio Lodge & Spa is one of the most beautiful, luxury properties I’ve ever visited. It isn’t just a place to stay. It connects to the soul of the traveler. It is serene. Quiet. You can hear the call of the birds as you walk from your room in the morning to literally one of the best breakfast menus ever. You eat with the soul-healing sound and a view of a rushing mountain stream. We had the place all to ourselves. No other guests. And the bar looks to be a place Hemingway might have penned a novel.
Our bird photographers were loving the Hummingbird Garden and got phenomenal pics. Staff again could not have been more helpful and friendly at El Silencio. Our model shoot day was a crazy, fun morning spread out all over the property (basically like a big playground) and they supported all of it!
We liaised with Nature Group Costa Rica (operated by Randall Ortega Chaves) which has an excellent team of experienced guides who specifically customize tours for photography and not the basic side-of- the-road, here’s the pretty vista tourist outing. Huge difference. Randall is incredibly knowledgeable about the wildlife and the Tarcoles River, and is a passionate, wonderful photog in his own right. Great day on the River and Rain Forest with him and his team, and the terrific guides at Jacamar.
I mentioned above the wonderful people of Costa Rica and how welcoming the place is. Very true. We made lifelong friends there. Photographer and videographer Jairo Rojas joined us for a few days and was invaluable. What a hardworking, talented photog! He constantly circulated with our group, holding lights, explaining menus and just generally being part of the glue that kept us all shooting and laughing. Jairo was especially helpful on our lighting days. Which of course brings me to our models! At Alma on the Pacific, and at El Silencio in the clouds, our separate, unique crews of models ran, leaped, posed and partnered with us in magnificent fashion. A dozen models, hair and makeup, on different days of lighting instruction, again, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Speaking of gorgeous, the Jardín Else Kientzler is a lush botanical garden in Sarchi that hosted us and colorful dance troupes who performed dances and afterwards posed for natural light portraits. A perfect break on our travel day north – got to experience local culture and make pics.
And finally, a BIG shout out of thanks to Jacamar Naturalist Tours. We hit the jackpot with Jacamar. Top notch all the way from the vehicles, fearless drivers, expert guides, coordination – fantastic folks – and with us nearly the entire trip. Our lead nature guide – Ronald Caravaca – and MELANY OCÓN were not only endlessly knowledgeable (in addition to being photographers themselves) about wildlife , birds, culture, tradition, they were fun to hang out with. The incomparable Lory Chacon Campos at Jacamar made it all possible. Lory managed and coordinated all the details like a skilled puppeteer. She not only ensured that all things went smoothly, working with Annie for months ahead, but really put her heart and soul into everything for the experience. She and Annie have now bonded for life!
Our Costa Rican hosts and guides were as passionate to show us the best of their country, as all our photographers were to put their camera to their eye. It was a terrific marriage of access, education, natural beauty, talent, laughs, unbelievable food and ultimately, a huge array of excellent photos from our participants. A trip to be repeated. Another blog to come on the adventure with more photos and tech info. An experience rich and diverse, and the rewards were great, not only in pictures but in ongoing friendships. Kudos to all.