Costa Rica has become a popular destination for its tropical climate, lush vegetation and shore-pounding surf. While all of these are good reasons to visit the Central American country, my reason for going was a bit fuzzier – literally. I wanted to see monkeys.
I've seen the zoo-kept variety. They didn't live up to the notion I had conjured of monkey behavior through my knowledge gleaned from The Complete Adventures of Curious George books. While George is mischievous, the monkeys at the zoo tended to be, well, crude. The ones kept in my local park swig beer, smoke cigarettes and unabashedly masturbate to the delight of crowds. My logic reasoned that wild monkeys must be tamer than their caged-up counterparts.
My first two days in Costa Rica were spent in Guanacaste, which has a low population of monkeys. Staying on the neatly manicured hills and lawns of The Four Seasons warranted not even one sighting.
It wasn't until my friend and I set out towards the volcano of Arenal that we spotted our first fuzzy tree swinger. Our driver stopped the SUV to point to him high up on a telephone line – very high up. Like, "I-need-binoculars-to-see-that!" high up. It was less than a spectacular sighting, but it left me hopeful.
We stayed three nights in Arenal – not one monkey. I blame this on its location – smack in the middle of the rain forest. True to its name, it rained all but one day. I chalked it up to the fact that monkeys don't like to frolic in the rain (I was sure they would on a sunny day). My patience was running thin.
From Arenal, we drove to Tamarindo with an Australian couple we met hiking the lava trails. While I kept my eyes peeled, not one monkey showed itself. Then, on our right, we passed a sign for a monkey rescue park. "Great," I thought with dismay. The only monkeys left in Costa Rica are the same zoo-type variety we have in America.
I imagined that the increase of tourists over the past decade had wiped out the monkey population. New construction, like the Four Seasons that I was guilty of staying at, had pushed the monkeys out of their natural habitat and left only profit-mongering monkey parks as their sole respite for tourists.
My comrades tried to bolster my spirits, reassuring me that I was bound to see some. They, too, had read about their presence in those Fodor Guidebooks. Could it be part of some elaborate marketing ploy – the executives at the travel guides scheming with the local businessmen, putting out stories of sighting chimps to get chumps like me to spend tourist dollars. I was getting delirious.
In Tamarindo, my travel companion and I rented a car. Figuring we would be sticking close to the undeclared surf capital of Costa Rica, we ordered the shop's basic rental – a Hyundai Accent. Little did we realize the potholes of Costa Rica can swallow a Hyundai as easily as an appetizer.
It was the second day in Tamarindo when I finally had my first bona fide monkey sighting. Walking to breakfast, I heard rustling in the overhead branches. When I looked up, two, three, four monkeys were swinging from tree to tree chasing each other. Frolicking, one can say.
I clapped with glee at our luck. This place was teeming with monkeys. We proceeded to breakfast and then stopped by the pool for a morning dip. My hunch was confirmed. More monkeys were running along the roof of the building. They were graceful, swinging from roof to limb, playing catch with one another. They didn't come close. Unlike the zoo-monkeys, these apes weren't here to entertain us with crude gimmicks and gestures. They were free, wild, beautiful. We watched them for a bit, until we had to leave for a day of sightseeing.
Dressed and ready, we went to our car, when we saw a crude sight. The monkeys had defecated all over our automobile. Monkey poo is not like bird poo – not at all – bigger, bear-brown and blasts more per square area than seagulls fat on potato chips could ever cover.
My friend quickly grabbed a nearby hose and started shooting the shit off the car. It ran down in big clumps. The gross factor was high, but deep down, I still thought there was something quaint about spraying monkey feces off your car. I even thought, "I can get used to this. It's a small price to pay for something that brings such joy."
The next day I told our guide, who was driving us to a prime snorkeling spot, about our sightings at our hotel, on our walk and at the beach. He smiled and said that most of the monkeys in Costa Rica were howler monkeys. There were also spider monkeys, less common were the white-faced monkeys.
"The farmers shot all of the white-faced monkeys in this area," our guide said. Horrified, I asked if the monkeys deserved their fate by going into the field to feed on farmers' crops.
"No," he replied. "They would play."
A fatal, mischievous mistake that makes mayhem of the fields, he further explained.
Back after a day of snorkeling, we again had to wash down our car before heading out for dinner.
We kept seeing monkeys on days four, five and six. By then, though, the daily rinsing ritual of our car had started to get tedious. We had seen enough of monkeys and their entrails to last the rest of our vacation.
As we headed back to explore the capital of San Juan, I knew we would be entering a monkey-free zone. Would I miss them? Sure, but if I needed a fix, well, I'd just pick up a Curious George book.