“We have a Houdini,” cried one of the workers. Immediately, visitors and workers alike started combing the bushes and trees for Zephyr, a baby three-toed sloth that had escaped from his cage and made a “run” for it. The smirking, cat-sized creature’s bid for freedom was short-lived as he was discovered six feet up in a coconut tree. Zephyr’s adventure added a little excitement to the day I spent at Aviarios del Caribe, a 120-acre wildlife sanctuary on Costa Rica’s un-crowded Caribbean coast.
It all started when my travel companion, Linda, and I met Judy Arroyo on the plane to San José, the capital of Costa Rica. She and her husband Luis own Aviarios del Caribe, which is a sloth rescue and rehabilitation facility, their home and guest lodge.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is historically different from the rest of the country. Its early settlers weren’t Spaniards, but rumrunners and pirates of mostly British descent. Europeans settled in the late 1800s when the Atlantic Railroad and Port of Limon were built to support the growing banana and coffee industries. The Caribbeans came as slaves of the English pirates and later as migrants. Their culture and dialect are a large part of the flavor of the Caribbean coast today.
The beaches and small towns on the Caribbean coast are spectacular and un-crowded, but they hardly get a blip on the radar screen of tourism. However, we found it a gem; think of the Caribbean islands without the resort prices.
The sloth sanctuary of Aviarios del Caribe is a mere three and a half hours by direct bus from San José and is truly a paradise, a lush garden with ten shades of green dotted with red hibiscus and purple bougainvillea. The house sits on the bank of the Estrella River estuary where over 300 types of birds have been observed. The scent of tropical flowers filled the air as we strolled around the grounds and into their small patch of tropical forest.
High in the guava trees were groups of howler monkeys that let out incredible whooping sounds whenever a truck rolled by. Then there was Buttercup, the first sloth to come into Judy and Luis’s care ten years ago. “Someone found her abandoned by the road and brought her to us”, Judy explained. “We knew next to nothing about sloths, but managed to nurse Buttercup back to health.” They are now two of the world’s leading sloth experts.
Costa Rica has both two-toed and three-toed sloths. Two-toed sloths are light brown and have charming, seal-like faces, while three-toed sloths have the characteristic raccoon-like stripe around their eyes and a whimsical grin. Both types of sloths move as if in a tai-chi class, deliberate and in slow motion.
One of the volunteers at the sanctuary introduced us to the 20 sloths currently in their care. There’s Juliet, the two-toed sloth, found electrocuted by a power line, and Zephyr, the escape artist, a three-toed sloth that was orphaned. With the expertise of Judy and Luis, they are all fed, nursed and loved. Eventually, for those sloths that are able, they
return to their lives in the trees.
The Arroyo’s have established the “Buttercup Foundation” to educate the public about environmental issues and to buy more land for wildlife protection. They are very proud of the world’s first successful mating and birth in captivity, outside of a zoo.
One of the highlights of Aviarios is the chance to hold a sloth. We were told to place Buttercup on our hip like a baby, and to hold out one finger so she could hold on with her three long nails. It’s impossible not to smile while holding a sloth.
As we were sipping Imperial beer on the porch, dusk fell, and we watched dozens of white snowy egrets and herons came to roost in the nearby trees. As the birds sang their evening song, we felt a galaxy away from our urban life. That evening, we were lulled to sleep by the night sounds of the jungle, broken by the occasional high-pitched squeal of a sloth.
After a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, we began a four-hour canoe trip on the Estrella River. The morning gently unfolded as Cali, our guide, paddled us along. The serenity was disturbed by a frantic flapping of wings as a bird took to the air. We saw many herons and egrets, scarlet tanagers and the beautiful iridescent blue morpho butterfly. Soon we could hear the pounding Atlantic surf as we stopped at Cali’s friend’s house for fresh young coconut juice. The tour ended back at the lodge with a delicious breakfast.
After an adios to the sloths, our next stop was Cahuita, a village ten kilometers south. We relaxed at the rustic Cabinas Jenny a few meters away from the Atlantic Ocean, content in our hammocks. The town is bracketed by two beaches, one a deserted black sand beach, and one jungle-lined leading to Cahuita National Park
One visit to Costa Rica is not enough as there are countless beaches and national parks to explore, not to mention the myriad of volunteer opportunities. To do something completely different, try hugging a sloth. You’ll never forget it.
If you go:
To Costa Rica - Major U.S. airlines have direct flights from Vancouver or Toronto to San Jose via several U.S. cities. Visitors need only a valid passport.
Aviarios del Caribe -The six rooms are nicely decorated and spacious with fans. Less expensive rooms can be found at Cahuita, 10 km south of the sanctuary.
What to do:
River trips at Aviarios del Caribe are offered twice a day. Passers-by can get a tour of the sloth sanctuary for a nominal fee. Continue farther south to the beautiful beaches around Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Punta Uva. The towns in this area offer snorkeling, wildlife viewing and river trips.
Recommended guidebooks-- The Lonely Planet Guide to Costa Rica, and The New Key to Costa Rica (Ulysses Press).
Aviarios del Caribe
Tel/fax (506) 382-1335
Costa Rica tourist information: www.visitcostarica.com/ict/paginas/home.asp?ididioma=2
Costa Rica National Tourist Bureau: 1-800-343-6332
Volunteer anyone? There are volunteer opportunities at Aviarios del Caribe. They request a minimum two-month stay and provide room only with cooking facilities in pleasant cabanas in the middle of paradise. See their web site above for more information.
Author: Janet Younger