In Search of Quetzals

A journey to Costa Rica – April 2023

Part 1: The planning for the trip.

Shortly after returning from my three-month trip to the Windward island of St Lucia to visit relatives in the West Indies I received a surprise email from a man I had been following for his excellent macro photography for years – Greg Basco of Deep Green Photography.  He had now formed a new company running tours to Latin America under the banner of FotoVerde Tours. It was short notice but did I want to join this tour: Art of Biodiversity Pacific, April 11 to 21, 2024 ( (Note this is the 2024 tour as mine has just finished).  This country has been on my bucket list for years and I was supposed to have been here in 2020 but COVID and a thieving Canadian Tour Guide cost me $7K USD when no-one could fly.

Being nervous I rang Greg expressing my concern of a repeat but he assured me that his company did not operate like that and if things could go wrong their would-be full refunds or rebooking – my choice.  I was happy with that but now had to put my skates on as I would need to leave in 5 weeks.

There were gear decisions to make as bio-diversity photography covered night-time macro with flash, landscapes, birds, monkeys, sloths and especially the quetzal.  I had done some reading and seen photos of this magnificent bird and could not wait to photograph one.  I should have also researched a little more as at the end of my trip the wheels off but more of that later.  We are just getting too the exciting bits.

My friend Neville had been to Costa Rica a few years before and said he loved it and the birds were fantastic and when I asked should I go he said absolutely.  To fly that far is a big commitment in costs as to transport a lot of camera gear I would need to travel business class so I would have a hefty luggage allowance plus the trip costs were in US dollars, which at the time is very strong against the Australian Peso. 

At the end of (sort of) CPVID flying restrictions all airlines, especially QANTAS, are gouging their passengers to recover their losses from the past two years.  To go to the West Indies they charged me twice as much as I had paid four years ago and I was not about to repeat that exercise.  Sanity may return to our airline now that their super expensive loud mouthed CEO has departed – I can only hope so.

In years past I discovered a company called AlphaFlightGuru (Alpha Flight Guru | Business Class Flights, Business Class Travel) who sold discounted first and business class flights around the globe.  My understanding of their business model is that they purchase/reclaim business traveller points from companies then turn them into discount tickets on your behalf.  Over the past twelve years I have used them a number of times with no issues.  Even easier these days they have an online booking system that makes it easier to choose flights – just make sure you check the seat class on each leg.  Sadly, it does not work for my brother in St Lucia WI as British Airways has exclusive rights for flights from the UK to his home so no competition to challenge the prices.

For my trip to Costa Rica I first tried QANTAS Business Class and was quoted $23,000 + for return tickets.  I then tried AlphaFlightGuru and with an extra stop in Houston managed a price of $12,800 (All these in Aussie Dollars).  Why business you ask – well apart from the comfort, extra leg room and service you get extremely generous luggage allowances.  For this trip my allowance is 2 suitcases (23kg each) plus my backpack and I would need every gram.  To do the photography I wanted to do I had packed nearly 35kg of camera gear in two bags (I will put the gear list just below) plus a backpack containing all the camera lithium batteries, battery packs & torches plus my 600mm lens, laptop & iPad.  So, I was fairly weighed down with gear.

After a couple of phone calls to Greg (Basco) I now had a better idea on what to pack.  In the end I used most of the gear.  There was no opportunity to use the 65mm macro so that could have stayed home as well as the twin macro flashes and the RRS macro rail.  That would have saved 2 kilograms.  Also only used once the monopod & RRS MH-01 head so could have been left saving another 2 kilograms.  Lessons learned that I need to pare down what I am carrying.

Now that I had my list it was time to prioritise tasks like paying for the trip.  Time to raid my super fund and transfer some money.  This only took 5 business days which wasn’t too bad.  With cash burning a hole in my pocket next was the bank to pay FotoVerde Tours the balance.  Over the past few years, the banking industry has changed dramatically as more and more bricks & mortars branches are closing down.  I miss those days when I could go and talk with the people I actually bank with.  I have been with the same ANZ branch since I moved to Wodonga over 30 years ago and have friends still working there.  However, the bank these days no longer offer foreign currencies nor do they do international transfers.

I should say that I did embrace online banking many years ago as that was convenient for me especially in my business role where I travelled for work so I could pay bills whilst overseas.  That is something none of us can escape as those little messages from our creditors follow us everywhere.

Once I had the tours banking details I logged on and contacted foreign transfers and filled out the form to transfer funds in US dollars until the whole process halted at the final button. What!!!!!!!!!!!!!  A message popped up saying please ring this number which I obliged.  The operator apologised but the bank wanted to do a final check before they transferred the funds and would that be Ok.  The fee was $7.  In future I will just ring and save my typing fingers as it took 15 minutes to fill out a complex form which eventually did not work.

Once the payment had been acknowledged and I was part of the tour now time to book the flights.  I have done a number of photographic holidays now and learning from experience I always add days to the front and back to cover any contingencies.  In this case I knew the 26 -hour flying time & wait times between flights from Wodonga to San Jose would knock me around physically so planned an overnight in Sydney then arrive 4 days before the tour start and 2 days at the end plus another overnight in Sydney before the last leg back to Wodonga.  Hopefully, this would see me relaxed once I returned home.  The extra 6 nights I had asked the tour guides to book in the same hotel that we started and ended with – they were happy to oblige.

I had already selected my routes and connections but then had a shock that the Aussie dollar had free fell nearly 7% in the four days since I checked whilst awaiting funds.  So, another $1000 AUD gone west thanks to that stupid Russian swine invading the Ukraine.  My understanding of global politics and economy would fill a thimble but simplistically seems to be driven by greed and stupid politicians and we all end up footing the bill.  Please don’t get me started on our local politicians who, to me, are oxygen thieves feeding at the public trough.

All now booked, time for the most important travel documents that related to my trip – a new ETSA pass to transit the US & travel insurance.  The ETSA was relatively simple and only cost $21 for a 2 year pass.  For travel insurance I did some research and Allianz was the company for my donation.  I chose the Ultimate Package as it was only $90 extra – (please note my choices as you will see later).

The date chosen to leave was the 11th April and the tour would start on the 15th April.  I had already accumulated a flight refund from a previous trip not taken with QANTAS so booked that to Sydney & paid a $50 premium for the extra suitcase.  Booked a one night stay at the Novotel near Sydney airport on the outward leg and the inward leg.  All bookings now complete.  My cousin Greg would be looking after my Prado and my neighbours would be looking after my house in my absence.  My thanks to them all for being so generous of their time and effort.

Time for visits to other family members to share details on my trip.  Three weeks to departure and time to start getting excited.  More research on where the tour was going to take me in this wonderful new country I had never visited before.

Costa Rica is a rugged, rainforested Central American country with coastlines on the Caribbean and Pacific. Though its capital, San Jose, is home to cultural institutions like the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, Costa Rica is known for its beaches, volcanoes, and biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of its area is made up of protected jungle, teeming with wildlife including spider monkeys and quetzal birds.  It is home to a population slightly over 5 million people and the main language is Spanish.  A very important fact that I found later is that the country is ranked 36th in the world by the World Health Organization, above the United States, Cuba, and New Zealand. Meanwhile, the United Nations places healthcare in Costa Rica within the top 20 in the world. Expats frequently cite it as a major factor in their decision to relocate.  This point will become extremely important later in this story.

Countdown has begun and it is time to get excited.  Went through the itinerary a number of times to find out what I should be looking out for.  It is a bit of a lottery to travel on these photography tours as wildlife can be very unpredictable and there is no guarantee of their cooperation.  I would see what was on offer and hopefully get some nice shots, my fellow photographers would be nice and the tour guides would be fantastic at their jobs.

One thing I need to learn when I get home is to set my blog page up correctly.  When I wrote the Turning Diesel Into Memories two years ago now I thought OK that is now done and I may not write another story.  So even though paying for the WordPress service it was sitting idle.  This story will be published as a PDF but on my return home I will fix my page to allow for future stories.

What!!! No pictures you say.  That comes next as I wanted to set the stage on the planning for this trip and why I wanted to come to Costa Rica.  Next part will be tomorrow.  Please feel free to critique and send me comments on Facebook or Messenger.  Until tomorrow.  Part 2 will be the first 5 days of the trip.

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