Sunday, March 01, 2009

Feb 21-27, 2009 - Costa Rica Southern Skies – part 2

Below please find the final instalment of my days at La Ensenada Lodge on the Costa Rica Southern Skies tour.

Feb 24, 2009 - La Ensenada Lodge

I almost talked myself out of going on the boat trip to the mangrove swamp, however I showed up at 2pm down at the dock. I take my Canon 50D and the 17-85 zoom lens, however after we spot our first birds (Pelicans), I wish I had brought the 70-200 zoom instead. The birds we saw were pretty close, but the extra reach of the longer zoom lens would give me better image scale. We follow a similar route as last year, seeing lots of birds catching fish, spoonbills in the trees, and a Pelican colony at close range. It is cooler than I remember the boat trip from last year, and the water isn't as rough on the return trip. After returning, I have a swim in the pool before going for dinner – very refreshing!

This evening I look at M42 Orion Nebula through a 15" Obsession Dobsonian telescope one of our group has brought with them on the trip. Gary thinks this telescope holds the record as the largest aperture telescope brought on the tour so far. All I can say is the views through it are superb. The view of M42 is breathtaking – the beautiful blue colour of the reflection nebula is visible for the first time in any scope I've used on this showpiece object. We also have a look at the Sombrero Galaxy, where the dust lane is evident, and Comet Lulin's spectacular dust tail. Later in the evening, I do some astrophotography using my Astrotrac tracking mount on a tripod. It works very well, but my choice of targets: the emission in Vela turns out to be underwhelming. Later I change targets to a widefield of M42 Orion Nebula, including the Flame Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula, and am rewarded with a breathtaking resultant image.

Feb 25, 2009 - La Ensenada Lodge

After midnight, I turn my camera to Comet Lulin and have yet more success. I take relatively few frames to capture the comet's tail, and show just how fast this comet is moving through the cosmos. I go to bed tired but happy after a busy night of observing and photographing the night sky. I get up for the 8am breakfast this morning, and then return to my cabin to process my photography from the night before. My notebook computer really doesn't like operating in this tropical heat, but I organize all the images in preparation for later processing.

The Tractor Ride is an event I am looking forward to this afternoon. Not only do we see La Ensenada's property from a new perspective, once we arrive atop the lookout hill, we are served Mama's fresh antipasto snacks and cold beer and soft drinks. The antipasto is superb – the best I've had in many years - I remember it from last year's trip. Before we get to lookout hill, we see the Salinas where they make salt from seawater, the swamp from the other side, and lots of birds and cattle along the way. The view from the lookout is superb, so I take a few more photos despite having lots of coverage from last year.

After dinner I go to bed early and sleep the night through to the following morning. I guess last night's activities tired me out more than I realized. I will have to ensure I make good use of our upcoming last night at La Ensenada Lodge.

Feb 26, 2009 - La Ensenada Lodge

Swiss Travel, the company Jorge works for, originally planned to take us to a beach near Puntarenas today, however only a couple of people signed up and several of us suggested to both Jorge and Gary that we would much prefer a walk through Careras National Park. To their credit, Swiss Travel cancelled the beach trip and substituted Careras, providing each person pays the US$10 entrance fee to the park. Most of our group sign up for this trip, and we leave this morning on the bus. First stop is the bridge over the Taracoles River to see the crocodiles. They are huge – about three metres long. The bus meets us on the other side and we drive the short distance to the Careras National Park entrance, pay our entrance fee and walk along a relatively flat trail through the rain forest, which transitions from "dry" to "wet". We are treated to two opportunities to see Scarlett Macaws (both nesting in trees). We also see Jesus Christ Lizards. Jorge flushes them out and they scoot across the stream - that's how they get their name (walking on water). There are sandwiches and cold drinks waiting for us as we drive back to La Ensenada in the bus. After the hot temperatures in the rain forest, the air conditioning offers some welcome relief.

Afternoons at Le Ensenada are hot, so most of our group disappear to their cabins for siestas or adjourn to the pool for a refreshing swim. After having dinner at 5pm, we observe Venus and the thin Crescent Moon as they both set in the west at sunset – a beautiful sight. I'm tired after the hike in the midday heat, so after dinner I go to bed. I wake up at midnight fully refreshed and ready for our last observing opportunity at La Ensenada.

Feb 27, 2009 - La Ensenada Lodge

At 12:30am I go down to the ridge line where my Astrotrac is setup. My mission this morning is to photograph a widefield of the Southern Cross to Eta Carina region. Once I polar align the Astrotrac, I setup my Hutech-modified Canon XTi dSLR and set my 70-200mm zoom lens to 70mm. It is just wide enough to frame the Crux and Carina constellations. There are some clouds drifting by midway through my photo run, but I end up with enough two minute exposures to do credit to the field rich with many wonderful celestial objects, including (from left to right): the with the Southern Cross and Coalsack dark nebula, IC2944/8 nebula, Stock 13 cluster, the Eta Carina nebula, and the Southern Pleiades cluster (IC2602). I'm so excited by what I see in my images, I stay up until after 4am processing them, which results is a wonderful resultant image – just what I was aiming for on this trip!

Tired but happy, I have a couple of hour's sleep before waking around 6:30am. It is time to pack all my stuff that has spread itself out all over the cabin. Getting it all packed into my main suitcase take some doing, but it all fits and I'm ready to go to my last breakfast at La Ensenada by 8am. All the meals are served buffet style, and have been very good. We say thank you to our staff, have a group photo taken, and then we are on our way by bus to San Jose. We travel the same route we took to get out here until we reach the Central Valley, and then divert to the town of Sarchi. This is a crafts area, and is also our lunch stop. The buffet at Las Carretas Restaurant is very good, and includes complimentary beer or wine, so I have a local Bavarian Gold beer with my lunch (recommended by Jorge). I actually purchase a few souvenirs this time; we have another group photo taken, since Jorge was missing from the one taken at the Lodge, and then we drive into San Jose and the Courtyard Marriott Hotel.

Our farewell dinner is held in the Marriott this year – an improvement over last year when we were in a noisy restaurant. This year we could converse, listen to Gary's and Jorge's speeches, and enjoy ourselves and the lovely buffet dinner. It was a very nice ending to a trip which I think everyone enjoyed. Goodbyes were said, tips were given to Jorge, and the evening ended. Most of the group are leaving tomorrow for their respective homes, but some of us Canadians are staying in Costa Rica for another week. Five of us are traveling to the Tamarindo area in the northwest corner of Costa Rica tomorrow to get some beach time and just kick back. A couple from New York are going to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica for a deluxe tenting experience for a couple of days.

Please read more about my experiences in Tamarindo in a blog to follow.

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