Costa Rica Photo Safari on the Osa Peninsula

December 6-14, 2023

by Lynn Salmon <>{

Day 1 (December 7) - Let's Get Started

Yesterday was spent in transit with an uber to the airport and direct flight from JFK to San Jose, Costa Rica. The flight actually departed early, which was nice. I was met at the airport and taken to a nice nearby hotel for the night. Easy peasy.

My trip begins in earnest today with an early breakfast at the Hotel la Sabana. The hotel has a very good buffet spread on the 18th floor and my room on the 22nd floor had nice views for the few hours that I was there to enjoy it. I met Virginia and Bruce at breakfast. Familiar faces who had been on my Southern Ocean Expedition 9 years ago. That is where we all met our guide, Ron Niebrugge, who will be leading our intrepid group of 8 on a photo safari in the Osa Peninsula.

This trip ultimately netted:

It's my first "photo safari." The style is a bit different from my usual birding adventures. The pace is a bit more relaxed. Food is excellent, and the water is drinkable.

We take a small puddle jumper airplane to Puerto Jimenez. A short, quick flight, which lands on a runway next to a small cemetery. The Hotel Botanika is only a few minutes away, and proves to be a lovely base of operations for this trip.

Before lunch we have time for a walking tour of the Botanika grounds which include 3 miles of jungle nature trails. I see 24 species of birds (6 of them are new for me), a couple of crocodiles, a sloth, and my favorite: a Common Basalisk aka the Jesus Christ lizard for its ability to "run" on water. After lunch, the group takes a short "shake-down" safari drive which nets us looks at all four species of monkeys they have on the peninsula.

Back at Botanika, I had some fantastic grilled octopus for dinner with a passion fruit mousse for dessert. I took 572 pictures today, saw 6 life birds, and all 4 monkey species. I'd call that a great start!

Day 2 (December 8) - On the way to Carate

My first morning at the breakfast buffet at the Botanika. It has a nice spread, comfortable outdoor seating in view of some bird (and monkey) feeders, and gets started very early, 5 or 5:30am, which is always great. I hate when hotels make you wait until 7 or later for a breakfast to start.

I added 12 new life birds to The Salmon Life List including one with a cool name - Bananaquit, spotted on my way to breakfast. There were also plentiful Gray-cowled Wood-Rails on the Botanika grounds. Breakfast birds included Golden-hooded Tanagers and Scarlet-rumped Tanagers and the National Bird of Costa Rica - the Clay-colored Thrush. White-faced Capuchin monkeys joined us for breakfast and shared some bananas.

Other birds for the day included a Laughing Falcon that flew away before I could get a photo (fortunately another one posed for me on Day 4), a Gray-lined Hawk, and a Common Black Hawk. It was up, not down :-).

Our target destination today was the beach at Carate, only 35km away, but requiring an all day journey over bumpy dirt roads with many stops for photos of monkeys, and other wildlife. I think we successfully spotted all four species of monkeys again today as well as a Tamandua ant eater and a two-toed sloth.

There are two kinds of sloth found in Costa Rica, the two-toed and the three-toed. All sloths have three toes on each of their back feet, so it is the front feet that determine what you are looking at. I'm sure there are other details, but for me looking at what is typically a bundle of gray fur high up in a tree, counting the toes if they are visible is the key. The first sloth I ever spotted was one outside my room at the Canopy Tower in Panama. It was a three-toed sloth, the same type we will later see in Costa Rica. But, the two-toed is a new mammal species for me.

One highlight for me today was the Common Potoo. It's not a new bird for me, but I'm really fond of birds that look like lumps on a log. Like the Tawny Frogmouths we saw way back in 1995 in Australia. There were also a group of baby Jacanas. Little fuzz balls, oh so cute.

We stopped for lunch at the Lapa Rios Eco Lodge. We had packed lunches with us from Botanika, but ate them at outdoor tables near this lodge. After lunch we took a short walk following a Great Curassow that had wandered by us. There were ultimately 11 Great Curassow. Ebird complained it was a high number, but i counted, and took a lot of photos of the birds, too. The males are black, and the females brown. Our guide, Eduardo, pointed out a group of tent bats clustered under palm leaves at this same location. They were really cute.

We ended our drive turning at N8 26.431 w83 25.824. Our guide got a report of a King Vulture supposedly at a spot along the road near a dead horse. We searched for it, but didn't find the Vulture, nor the dead horse. But, with luck I got to see a King Vulture the next day and even got a photo!

More photos from the first two days in Costa Rica

Day 3 (December 9) - La Tarde Wildlife Area

We visited a remote family-run farm in the La Tarde Wildlife Area (N8 34.653 W83 29.145) on the Osa Peninsula. The owner captured a wide variety of snakes, frogs, and toads for us to photograph. All were later released back where they were found.

Although reptiles are not really my thing, I found some of the frogs to be very cute. My favorite was the Red-eyed Tree Frog which looks like a little green alien. There was also a cool and cooperative Helmeted Basilisk lizard. Looking at it didn't turn me to stone.

Reptiles in the order we observed them:

There were numerous birds frequenting the property, and I enjoyed pausing reptile photography to enjoy them. I got a few bird photos, i including one King Vulture that flew over. I didn't manage to get a photo of the brilliantly colored Turquoise Cotinga choosing to view it first in the binos. Virginia may have gotten a photo. I also saw a Gray-headed Chachalaca land on a branch as we headed to lunch. Of course, I had put the camera away on the way in to eat!

We stopped at the Osa Chocolate Factory on the way back to the hotel. Fortunately, they only had large blocks for sale, so I didn't bring any home. We weren't there for an official tour, but just making a quick visit of the grounds in search of wildlife.

There was an attractive Red Iguana perched in one of the trees near the entrance. It turns out to be a sub-species of the Green Iguana found in Costa Rica. I think we saw some of the green colored ones on our way to kayaking on a later day.

Back at Botanika, did a little more birding on the property and found a Shining Honeycreeper on one set of feeders. There were also some Hummers, a Linneated Woodpecker, and the Bare-throated Tiger Heron occupying its usual stomping ground in the nearby lagoon.

More photos from Day 3 in Costa Rica

Day 4 (December 10) - Drive to Matapalo along the Golfo Dulce

I was up again super early and enjoyed breakfast at what has become our regular table next to the bird feeders. Fresh papaya and bananas were put out which attracted some Capuchin monkeys. I have squirrel baffles on my home bird feeders. I don't suppose monkey baffles would be a viable option. I took a ridiculous amount of pictures of one of these guys stuffing his face with papaya. Can you have too many photos of a cute monkey?

There was time for about an hour and a half of morning birding on the grounds of Botanika. My friend the tiger heron was in his usual spot along with some White Ibis at the lagoon.

It was another 4 monkey day as we did a lot of driving hither and yon. My ebird log kept a track for me so I see we were mostly heading south ultimately to Matapalo Beach near the southern tip of the Osa Peninsula on the Golfo Dulce side. And yes, it is possible to take too many monkey photos!

We stopped for lunch on the beach. There were some swings hanging from trees and I spent some time enjoying them. You know me, always a swinger!

More photos from Day 4 in Costa Rica

Day 5 (December 11) - Kayaking

Today was advertised as a "Free Day" but most of the group have signed up to do a kayaking trip in the afternoon. That leaves the morning free for a leisurely breakfast and more time for birding the grounds of the hotel. The Tennessee Warbler was once again a regular at the breakfast feeders, joined today by another familiar bird from home, the Baltimore Oriole. I do get orioles at my home feeders when I put oranges out for them in May, but I've never seen migrating Tennessees at home come to a feeder. I guess I need to try putting out fresh papaya.

The Tiger Heron was again at the lagoon this morning along with a Green Kingfisher. I ventured out to the pier and photographed some of the shore birds at low tide. Sightings included a Little Blue Heron, some Plovers, Willet, and Whimbrel. Was able to pick up a new lifer, the Fiery-billed Aracari, perched outside my building thanks to a timely whats app message for the group.

Now that the trip is more than half over, I've finally figured out how to work the espresso machine in the room! It uses coffee pods, which seemed to vanish without a trace. However, I have discovered the secret compartment they drop into that the maids have probably been emptying each day. Fun with travel -- mastering what is supposed to be simple technology. Of course, I still haven't figured out what the blinking sun and moon panel next to the bed does, other than blink annoyingly through the night. But, the room has about 12 pillows, so it's easy to cover it up. Meanwhile, the microwave has an elegant solution to block out the light of its clock called the "microwave blackout".

After lunch of salmon sashimi - one of the best meals yet, I met Ron, Ken, Kathleen, Bruce, and Virginia for a 1 - 4 pm kayaking trip through the mangroves. We met at a place near the pier and headed east toward a passage through the mangrove forest. There was a spot we had to limbo under some low branches, and we ultimately stopped for fresh pineapple on a beach before returning.

It was a cool place to kayak. Imagine the strumming of banjos playing the theme from Deliverance in the background as you glide through the shady channels.

More photos from Day 5 in Costa Rica

Day 6 (December 12) - Sloth Garden

Fantastic morning at La Perica Sloth Garden. A local naturalist has optimized his family's farm for sloth habitat by planting ideal trees. The sloths are free/wild roaming sloths, although they don't roam very fast, so the owner generally knows where they are hanging out which made it very easy to find and photograph them.

The habitat also proved very productive for birds including some new ones for me including the Slaty-tailed Trogon, Long-billed Hermit, Bright-rumped Attila, Cocoa Woodcreeper, White-browed Gnatcatcher, and Buff-throated Saltator.

We were fed delicious fresh home made empenadas for lunch before returning to the Hotel Botanika where I had salmon sashimi for lunch followed by tuna and mahi mahi for dinner. The food on this trip is too good -- I'm gaining weight!

More photos from Day 6 in Costa Rica

Day 7 (December 13) - Sierpe River

This is it, the last full day of vacation, and probably my favorite day of the trip. Up early, breakfast at 5:30am for a 6:30am departure and a 1.5 hour drive to the boat launch on the Sierpe River. I love that the hotel has a breakfast buffet beginning at 5am everyday so it's easy to get up and enjoy breakfast before an outing at anytime of the morning.

We spotted a few things on the morning drive including some dark weasel-like mammals called Tayras that darted across the road in front of us. A Collared-forest falcon, my last "new" bird of the trip also flew past the van on our drive. And we paused briefly to look at 10 White-tailed kites in a tree.

Sierpe is interesting as an area where numerous mysterious stone spheres, some more than six feet in diameter, have been discovered by archaeologists. The exact origin or purpose of these objects is unknown. It is believed that they were made anywhere from thousands to a few hundred years ago by the Diquis culture. I had read about these before the trip, and was therefore excited upon seeing some of these decorating the boat ramp area at the start and end of our river cruise. You can take a look at a couple spheres, unless you're in too big a hurry to get to the man pottys.

We split into two groups on two pontoon boats for a leisurely cruise up the Sierpe River. I sat in the front with great views straight ahead, though it trip was smooth and it was easy for everyone to stand and move freely around the boat for photo ops. We had a great guide on the boat named Carlos who was very helpful at pointing out birds and other wildlife. The boat's pilot was also named Carlos.

Ultimately I ebirded 29 bird species today, and even got a few decent photos. We also spotted howler monkey, squirrel monkeys, raccoons, caimans, and some long-nosed bats under a low hanging bridge.

More photos from Sierpe River

Final ebird trip summary