Reptiles abound in the jungle. Most species, like these iguanas, are harmless. And while there are some varieties of poisonous reptiles, they’re rare, and you’re unlikely to see them even if searching for one.
According to Webster’s, a jungle is "an impenetrable thicket or tangled mass of tropical vegetation." Many of the rain forests of Central America fit this definition, and unless you possess superhuman strength, you won’t be able to hack through such vegetation with a machete like they did in those old "B" movies. (It looked good, though, didn’t it?)
Luckily for photographers, we don’t even have to consider exercising our machete muscles. In places like Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, private and public parks and preserves offer excellent paths through superb locations, including covered paths in many areas so you still can be outdoors when it rains (a rain forest isn’t named for the sunshine).
When I first explored the rain forest, I was in awe. At first, it just didn’t seem normal—these plants and animals couldn’t be wild! But they are, and they’re wonderful. There are bromeliads (or air plants) growing on trees, huge trees with buttress roots reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals, wild begonias, colorful frogs that never seem real until you actually see one, unlikely basilisk lizards, iguanas that seem to think they’re squirrels, toucans that aren’t advertising cereal, birds with colors that can’t be real (yet they are), spider monkeys who taunt the photographer by staying just out of reach, and so much more.
The visual possibilities are overwhelming at first. For one thing, there’s just so much green. But after awhile, you begin to find amazing photographs. The green starts to differentiate into colors and tones that come to life. Big trees anchor the green and give definition to the photograph. The exotic flowers and animals become colorful parts of the viewfinder as you search for focus and composition. Flowing rivers break up the jungle and give form to new landscape photographs.
It Can Be Thrilling!
But what about the snakes? We’ve all heard about the poisonous snakes in the jungle. In fact, they’re rather shy and you’re unlikely to see one, let alone be threatened by one.
Ants turned out to be the worst of the threats to me, and they really were more of a nuisance. The tropics have an incredible number of ant species. Most of them are harmless, some fascinating (such as the leaf cutters), though if you disturb any ants’ nests, they will bite.
One time I was photographing flowers next to water and had knelt down for a better view. Suddenly, I felt something like mosquito bites all around my ankle. My foot had scraped back over an anthill and my boot was covered with ants. I had to take off my boot and socks to really get rid of them. I can‚’t blame them—I was, after all, destroying their home.
One thing you won’t find in many places is unbroken jungle. Driving through the low areas of much of Central America reminds me of driving through rural Illinois or Ohio. Those states, like many others, have large stretches of farmland and pasture with forests interspersed because the overall forests were cut down long ago.
Central America is largely the same; deforestation has removed most of the big stretches of jungle. The dense rain forests are there, just like there are woods in Illinois and Ohio, but they’re in isolated private and public landholdings. In recent years, some countries, such as Costa Rica, have done better than others in halting deforestation and preserving rain forests. A big issue for all countries now is about creating corridors of plants between jungle properties so wildlife (and plant species) can move between them.
Rare, beautiful and deadly to predators and their prey, poisonous frogs are often very small and require a keen eye to spot and photograph.
What To Bring
Photographically, rain forests are like the dense forests of the East and West Coasts of the United States. They have extreme contrast and rarely allow big, expansive views. For that reason, you’ll find that wide-angle lenses are practically a necessity. Often, you can’t really back up to see the jungle without one.
Light levels can be very low, so a tripod is a must. Image stabilization lenses are definitely helpful. The combination of low light levels and high contrast on sunny days makes a flash a welcome addition to the camera bag.
The rain forests are filled with flowers and other close-up details, so macro gear is important. Some of the insects here are incredible, making macro equipment an essential addition to your bag. Many species come out at night, so flash is required for photography then. You’ll also want to have a strong LED flashlight (many photographers like head lamps for this) to help you find insects and other nightlife.
Cloudy days can be a real benefit because contrast is lower. But this is also a great time to bring out the flash to help control and define the light.
In addition, expect to find extraordinary wildlife. Most lodges feed birds, and the feeders attract other animals, such as kinkajous. All the bold flowers that brighten a jungle attract hummingbirds (and their relatives)—Central America hosts a large variety of hummingbird species—and lizards and frogs are always present. Telephoto lenses are necessary for capturing wildlife, but be sure they can focus close enough for small birds and frogs. You may need an extension tube to allow this.
Be sure you have a waterproof cover for your gear. In the rain forest, it rains! While not all the time, there’s enough precipitation that you’ll likely get wet at times. It’s a warm rain, though, and not uncomfortable—except for the electronics of modern cameras. You need to protect your gear.
I highly recommend bringing two special pieces of "photo" gear—a small, folding umbrella and a hair dryer. The umbrella allows you to photograph even when it’s raining by holding it over your camera on a tripod (you can also check out the Popabrella from OmegaSatter, specifically designed for this). It allowed me to return with some remarkable images that were impossible to capture in any other way.
The hair dryer is for drying out gear and bags back at your room. This was a great benefit on really wet days, when it helped keep all of my gear happy (well, at least I had no problems with it). I could also dry off the camera bag, and especially straps (it’s annoying to put on a wet strap on a dry day).
Finally, buy a good guidebook to the area you plan to visit. Learn about the people, towns, wildlife and plant life before you arrive—rain forests are such a unique ecosystem. A great book about the rain forest and its life is Monkeys Are Made Of Chocolate: Exotic And Unseen Costa Rica by Jack Ewing (Pixyjack Press, 2005).
The reds of vermilions stand out in sharp contrast to the omnipresent green leaves
of Central America’s jungles and rain forests.
What To Wear
Rain gear to a rain forest? No-brainer, right? Well, not exactly. You’ll find that few people who live in the rain forest areas wear such gear. It's warm there, and raincoats and pants can get clammy and wet inside from your perspiration. Gore-Tex® clothing is less useful there, too, as the temperature climbs because the Gore-Tex® membrane needs your body to be warmer than the surroundings to force the moisture out.
Most people in the lowland rain forests of Central America either use an umbrella or they accept getting wet when it rains. Lightweight cotton fabrics are comfortable, especially when the temperature climbs (and the humidity with it). You’ll find that quick-drying clothing is a great benefit. When it does rain, a hat keeps the rain out of your face.
Waterproof boots can be useful, though hiking sandals may be just as valuable. These sandals provide some protection to your toes and support your foot better than casual sandals.
In most Central American countries today, customs isn’t too much of a problem for the traveling photographer. The countries recognize how important tourism is to them and want to encourage photography. It varies from country to country, though. Check with the U.S. State Department (www.travel.state.gov) to see if there are any problems in the areas you plan to visit that may affect photography.
You may find that you’ll be stopped if you’re carrying an excessive amount of gear with a big tripod, however. This flags you as a "professional" and could cost you both time and money. Keep your gear simple, carrying only what you need, and with a solid yet compact travel tripod.
Let the customs officials know that you’re a photography enthusiast and are there to have fun photographing their great country. Ask if they have any ideas of places you should visit. Bring your business card to show them you’re not a professional photographer.
Macro lovers will find plenty of wild-looking insects to photograph at just about every turn in the rain forest.
Professional photographers should keep a low-key approach. Never argue with customs officials. And pros should have contacts in the countries they’re visiting who can help them with the latest information on customs and any problems that occur.
Close And Exotic
Central American rain forests are terrific places for U.S. photographers to visit because they’re so close, yet so exotic. You won’t find any location that will offer more natural diversity to capture with your camera. Plus, most of the Central American countries love Americans. Costa Rica, for example, has a long history of being a peaceful country, without even an army, and it welcomes visitors from the U.S.
In addition, visits by photographers reinforce the value of these incredible locations. That keeps locals and their country interested in keeping rain forests as rain forests, not new pastures. Tourism can be a valuable part of their economy.
That’s not to say that too many people might harm locations. I’m sure that’s a problem in places, but there are so many great locations that you can find spots that aren’t being threatened. In fact, many private landholdings are set aside as preserves for limited numbers of people.
Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Panama and nearby countries all have rain forests waiting to be discovered by American photographers. These can be places for photographic trips of a lifetime.
Rob Sheppard will lead a digital workshop and tour to Costa Rica in December. For more information, visit the Holbrook Travel website, www.holbrooktravel.com (click on the Nature Travel link).