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Published: January 18th 2015
Welcome to Costa Rica
This was my dream Caribbean get-away. We didn't do most of the typical Costa Rican adventures, but we saw sloths and I got to channel my inner sloth on the beach.
Costa Rica is a wonderfully beautiful country that deserves it’s progressive and environmentally-minded reputation. This was a short trip and we were only in the Puerto Viejo area, on the Caribbean coast south of Limón, but we saw and did so much, I have plenty to write about!
The three-toed sloths, the bottlenose and tucuxí dolphins, the beautiful beaches, the two-toed sloths, the frogs, the jungle humidity, the delicious Caribbean food, the friendly people and especially the sloths, made for a fascinating trip. I learned so much about sloths on this trip that I may be more obsessed than before. But before I get to the sloths, and even to the trip itself – in all its Caribbean splendor – I have to introduce a few people.
Amanda – A friend from Boise. We have known each other since 1989.
Trudy – Amanda’s mother
Keyler – A Costa Rican friend from France. We were both AFS exchange students for a year in the Rhone-Alpes region. We met in August 1999 and said au revoir in Paris June 2000.
Sara – A cousin I have never met. While battling lymphoma she posted many adorable videos of sloths
Living it up!
Tropical vacations just aren't complete without drinking from a coconut. I had been talking about drinking coconut water since we started planning the trip. I'm happy to say Amanda is now also a fan of the coconut.
on facebook and gave birth to my fascination with sloths.
The planning for this trip both took very little time – since we didn’t plan beyond the house and car rentals – but also took years – since I’ve been planning to travel with Amanda since I first went to France in 1999. Partly based on my Sara-inspired desire to visit the Sloth Sanctuary, we decided to do just the Caribbean coast; Amanda booked houses on VRBO and a car with Hertz. (The houses are a happy story. Hertz is not).
With the Sloth Sanctuary nearby, plenty of beaches and national parks, we figured we didn’t need to book activities ahead of time. There was so much to do it was easy to arrange things once we arrived. Puerto Viejo is very much a tourist town and there are lots of shops that will arrange boat trips and bus tickets and whatever you want.
Our first organized activity was what I had been waiting for: a visit to the Sloth Sanctuary (www.slothsanctuary.com
). We signed up for the two hour “Buttercup” tour, which gave us an hour in a little open boat, paddling quietly along a flat water
Amanda and I got our first coconuts hacked open with machetes by the owner of this home. We rented it off VRBO and were greeted by a very kind man -Jeff, from Idaho. Small world, eh?
stream/pond area of jungle that had lots of wildlife in the trees. We saw herons, caimans, howler monkeys and of course, sloths. It was beautiful! The second hour of the tour we were taken through the clinic where injured, sick and orphaned sloths are cared for. They all looked well enough, although I suspect the clinic also has ones who are not well enough to be on display for tourists.
Just because I can’t help myself, here are some of my favorite things I learned: All sloths have three toes, but one species has two fingers (Choloepus hoffmanni) and the other species has three (Bradypus variegatus). The two species are really different, but still have a lot in common. Sloths don’t maintain their own body heat and their temperature can fluctuate as much as 10°F in a day, depending on the environment. Sloths climb down to the ground once a week to defecate. They dig a hole like a cat and bury their poop. Their only natural predator is the harpy eagle, which has claws so big it can snatch an adult sloth off a branch. Sloths are extremely sensitive to chemicals and pollution. We were told not to
Our First Sloth!
Round like a big brown leaf, a three-fingered sloth is high in the branches of this tree near the second house we rented. All sloths have three toes on their hind legs, but Bradypus variegatus have three claws or "fingers" on their front legs/arms. Choloepus hoffmanni have two claws/fingers on their front legs/arms. They're not related to monkeys, so it's hard to say they have arms, but the way they move makes it look like they have arms and legs. I like to call the three-fingered ones as Brady and the others Chloe because I have a hard time with the scientific names and they don't really have three fingers. They're just claws.
touch them because the sunscreen, bug spray, lotion or whatever chemicals we have on our skin, can make them sick. They only sweat through their noses, have no body odor and their skin is very sensitive. They don't drink water and get all the hydration they need from eating fresh leaves. They grow algae on their fur and the green tint helps camouflage them from the harpy.
What I really loved was watching them move. They move with intention and a deliberate caution. They look like they are continually doing tai chi. They seemed to move at the speed of a branch swaying in the wind, which I suspect makes them look more like branches than food to passing predators. Their eyes are often half-closed and they seem to consider every move very carefully before making it.
Buttercup is the star of the show. We watched her for a while before we went on the boat tour and for perhaps another hour after the tour. She was continually on the move, unlike most of the wild sloths in the trees or even the ones in the clinic cages. She did tai chi acrobatics on a wicker basket-throne, suspended
At 23 she is the oldest known three-fingered Bradypus sloth in captivity. Most sloths only survive a few months with humans, partly because each has a specific preference for just three or four kinds of leaves. Two-fingered Chloe sloths are much less picky eaters and tolerate captivity better.
outside near the gift shop. She posed for pictures, stared at us, climbed around and ate hibiscus flowers, which are apparently the sloth version of chocolate.
Another day we went to the Jaguar Rescue Center (www.jaguarrescue.com
) and saw even more animals than at the sloth sanctuary. This place was crawling with volunteers. Each one had an assigned animal. Some volunteers were letting baby monkeys use them as jungle gyms, some were following baby raccoons around with toys on strings, some were on a picnic blanket watching baby anteaters sniff around in the grass. It was impressive. The place looked well run, but it was definitely crowded. The sloths were not as well protected as at the Sloth Sanctuary and while I didn’t see anybody touch them, it wouldn’t have been hard. One guy got on our nerves by repeatedly sticking his GoPro in a sloth’s face.
While I enjoyed the sanctuary and rescue center, I really loved seeing wildlife out in the wild. We saw lots of howler monkeys in the trees from the road and Amanda found our first wild sloth in a tree near our second house (Bradypus). We didn’t get out and do any jungle
Amanda and Trudy were a lot of fun and enjoyed the sloths just as much as I did.
treks, which is what I will focus on if I get back there alone.
We treated ourselves to nice restaurants and plenty of shopping, it being the holiday season and all. Before we left her home in LA for Costa Rica, Amanda showed me my holiday gift: a mug she stamped with “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” This brings me back to Keyler. After the sloth sanctuary I posted a pic of myself with Buttercup on facebook. Keyler commented on it “ça va toi? Tu n’es pas au Costa Rica?” I believe that was his polite way of saying “WHAT?!? You didn’t tell me you were coming to Costa Rica!” After due apologies, we discovered that we both happened to be in Puerto Viejo and decided to go out for dinner together the next night. It was amazing. I have always loved the unexpected and this was most certainly unexpected. There is no way to catch up on 15 years in a couple of hours, but we got a lot of good story-telling in and at least caught up on some of what we had been up to during the past 15 years.
I wanted so badly to touch the sloths, especially Buttercup, but I was always wearing sunscreen or bug repellent. The sloth sanctuary workers were quick to point out that with their sensitive skin, exposure to these chemicals makes sloths sick. I suppose this must also make them very sensitive to pollution.
Keyler recommended that for our last day in Costa Rica we head south to the town of Manzanillo. It had a beautiful and very clean stretch of beach, but we were there to see dolphins, not sit in the sand. We found a place with a hand-drawn sign offering boat tours and stopped to inquire. It looked like the downstairs of somebody’s house and the woman there was also selling homemade jewelry and beach cover-ups. Most places around Puerto Viejo catered to English-speakers, but this was one of the times we needed my Spanish. She arranged for a boat to take us out and sent two boys with us to the boat. One was eight and the other the ten-year old son of the boat captain. The older one spoke Spanish, but the other was either so shy he feigned not understanding me, or he spoke only Creole. The two boys spoke Creole to each other. I couldn't understand any of it, but it was fun to listen to them.
It was a fairly small boat and would have fit ten people comfortably, but I wouldn’t have put more on it. With the three of us, the captain
This two-fingered Chloe sloth was hanging just above the water, almost even with the little rowboat we were in. The sloth sanctuary boat tour took us out to see an area that has lots of sloths; some are ones from the center that have been rehabilitated enough to live in the wild again.
and the two boys we had plenty of space. It had an awning-style canvas roof to shade us from the sun. The breeze out on the water was delicious and I never felt too hot, even though I spent most of the time on the boat out on the bow in the sun with the kids, peering down at the dolphins.
We saw dozens of dolphins. They surrounded us for hours, playing around the boat, sometimes diving down and coming up the other side to get a good look at us. Once a dolphin came up close enough I could have reached out to touch it. They were amazing. The swells were much higher than the boat and sometimes we lost sight of the pod when we were down in a trough, coming up on the top of the next swell and seeing that they had moved off a bit. It was never hard to catch up with them, though. They were everywhere. We didn’t speak much with the captain and although he pointed out the two different species we were watching, bottlenose and tucuxí, he didn’t teach us much more than how to identify each species. Trudy asked
I just couldn't get enough of watching the sloths and was totally captivated by the smile of the Bradypus sloths. This one has been hit by a car and survived, but lost one of her arms. The sanctuary employee said that she was doing really well and may be rehabilitated enough to be released in the wild again.
him if they were hunting and he did tell us that they were just playing. When they hunt they dive down farther below the surface and the two species separate. Each group we saw that day was a mix of both bottlenose and tucuxí.
It wasn’t until I got back to the house and took the time to look up the dolphins that I learned how truly amazing they are and what a unique phenomenon we had just witnessed. These are perhaps the only bilingual cetaceans in the world. Each species had their own language of sounds and body language. They have also developed a common language that they use when groups mix for play. If you want to learn more about them check out http://www.costacetacea.com/guyanadolphinstucuxi.html
and the more scientific http://lajamjournal.org/index.php/lajam/article/viewFile/213/165
This trip was just what I needed. I got a break from the Seattle winter gray, I saw lots of sloths and I channeled my inner-sloth. I had a delightfully unexpected meeting with Keyler. All with a professional photographer! The photos in this blog are taken by Amanda. There are more below, so scroll down.
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