I can’t explain why primates fascinate me any better than explain why I love chocolate. My earliest childhood memory is empathizing with “King Kong” at the movies; I looked into his eyes and felt his pain. At the zoo I hung with the primates and studied their reactions to their human gawkers and asked my silent questions; “Do you hate it in there?” “Do you miss the rain forest? My fantasy was to hide in the bathroom until after closing and set them all free.
Now, you probably all know this but primates are humans, monkeys and apes. All primates have an opposing thumb, have a large well-developed brain and can walk upright. What 99% of the planet doesn’t know is the difference between monkeys and apes. Monkeys have tails; apes don’t. What you’ll find in Costa Rica are monkeys.
When Manuel Antonio National Park boundaries were established in 1972 – no one told the monkeys. This puts us in the unique position of living in a reverse zoo of sorts. Most vacation rental homes and hotels here maximize their views with huge windows. We’ve woken up many mornings with monkeys peeking through our window. My husband and I bought our two properties within their foraging route; locally referred to as the Monkey Corridor. With the help of local botanists we planted hundreds of fruit trees to help preserve and enhance the biodiversity. If there’s a monkey heaven – this is it.
Manuel Antonio has three species; the Mantled Howler, White-faced Capuchin and Red-backed Squirrel monkey. The loudest monkey in the world is the Howler. Locals call them “Congos.” The male Howler has an enlarged hollow bone near his vocal chords that amplifies his calls. Howlers often sleep in trees next to our bedroom at the Monkey House and begin to howl at about 4:30 A.M. To some this might be a nuisance but we just smile because it reminds us how happy we are to be here instead of north bound on the 405 in L.A. Howlers are the largest and most aloof of the non-human primates in Manuel Antonio. They choose the tallest trees and spend most of their time in the upper branches. They live on a leafy diet, which doesn’t provide an abundance of energy, so they rest and sleep a lot. Their black fur, the distance factor, and back lighting from the sun in the trees make them a challenge to photograph, so bring a zoom lens for your camera.
The Capuchin’s local name is “Cara Blanca,” (white face). They live on a diet of fruit, insects, leaves and stems. They’re the most dexterous of all primates. They manipulate objects so well there’s a nonprofit organization called Helping Hands based in Boston that trains Capuchins to help paraplegics and quadriplegics. They can brush your teeth, scratch an itch, feed you with a straw, and even pop a video into the DVD player. They do such an excellent job of cleaning our rain gutters in search of insects at our Discovery Beach House, we joke about putting them on the payroll. The Capuchin is the least shy of the three species and the easiest to photograph around Manuel Antonio.
The endangered Red-backed Squirrel monkey, locally known as “Mono Titi,” is the smallest of Costa Rica’s primates. This particular subspecies only exists in and around Manuel Antonio National Park and their estimated population is a mere 1300-1800. What makes them unique is their peaceful nature. Neither males nor females appear to be dominant over each other, whereas the other subspecies of Squirrel monkeys squabble on a regular basis. Their beautiful coloration and markings make them a favorite with tourists.
So, where else are you likely to find monkeys when you visit? They can often be found by the beach around dusk as they head for their favorite trees to nest for the night. You can also call ahead and ask your vacation rental home agent or hotel if monkeys come through their properties on a regular basis. Once you’re here, you can use techniques I learned from orangutan trackers in Borneo. Be still, watch and listen. Watch for the movement of branches in the trees. Next, listen for food falling to the forest floor, then listen for each monkey’s distinctive vocalization. Squirrel monkeys can sound like chirping birds; capuchins can sound like mewing kittens. As for Howlers, well, there’s no mistaking them. Their thunderous vocalizations will rock your world – literally. Happy monkey viewing!