Super Bowl Monkey

I just realized I drafted this, but never posted it. Man, this month has been a mess.

I’m a bad American. I don’t own any guns, I speak more than one language, and I don’t care one bit about American football. The very fact that I have to specify the modifier “American” should clue you in to where I stand on the sport. So the fact that the last day of my trip fell upon Super Bowl Sunday came to me as a surprise, until I was reminded of it by the friend whose house I was staying at in Manuel Antonio.

Now, she’s a proper fan. A real red-blooded gridiron goon. So I was honored by her invitation to join the party. Better yet, another friend there was British, and I knew that watching her watch the American watch football would be the real entertainment. So I agreed to participate in the festivities the best way I know how: by grilling dinner.

I don’t want this to become a food blog, but god damn do I love doing this.

I had a perfect setup on a little ledge overlooking a quiet side street. The view was lovely, surrounded by the trees and vines of the ever-encroaching jungle. This being mid Dry Season, many flowers were in bloom and the air smelled great, only embellished by my signature barbecue chicken, veggies, and pineapple over open coals.

And wouldn’t you know it, the monkeys thought so too. Because not even half an hour in, a full troop of squirrel monkeys showed up.

Yep, should’ve seen that coming.

I don’t think I’ve talked about these guys much. When I refer to “monkeys” with a dark tone and shiver of revulsion, I’m usually thinking of capuchins. Or howlers, the fecal bombardiers with voices like unmuffled motorcycles. Or spider monkeys, the rare and enigmatic canopy dwellers. But here’s a quick rundown of Costa Rica’s fourth species: Saimiri oerstedii.

These.

Central American (or Red-Backed) Squirrel Monkeys are the smallest monkey in Costa Rica. They are known locally as “mono titi,” which can be confusing since an unrelated South American monkey is known in English as the Titi Monkey. However, this species is found along the South Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and into Panama, and is still considered Endangered along its range.

Highly social and omnivorous, squirrel monkeys travel in large troops of up to a hundred (usually about half that), foraging for insects, fruit, and small animals much in the same way as capuchins. However, unlike the capuchins of my woeful field days, their group structure is much less hierarchal and more egalitarian, with multiple mating pairs and no dominant alphas. As a result (or consequence; gotta love evolution), they are much less aggressive.

If these had been capuchins, it would’ve ended with one of us in the hospital.

But they are still opportunistic little bandits. Not to mention clever and persistent thieves, especially around human areas where they have learned to steal and beg for food. And while local conservation efforts in the MA area have led to a recovery of the local endemic subspecies, this has meant that they are far more abundant and bold around humans. As I rediscovered.

The group moved in from all sides, quickly surrounding me and the grill from rooftops, fences, and electrical wires. I shouted and waved kitchen implements at them, threatening to add them to the fire if they should dare to touch my food. They ignored me. Instead, they coordinated small advances, darting in and out just out of range, testing my defenses. I ended up practically straddling the grill, standing over the food to shield it with my own body, turning chicken with one hand while snapping tongs at marauding monkeys with the other.

I would never eat a monkey, but I would sure as hell cook one.

Ultimately, I held them off. Not one single dirty little primate laid his filthy hands upon a morsel of my food. The group eventually moved on in search of easier swag. But the victory was not without cost. In my rush to finish the meat before the monkeys got to it, some wings weren’t fully cooked all the way through and had to be finished in the microwave. Not my finest moment. At least the monkeys were sent away, disappointed and hungry. I consider that a win any day.

Oh, and there was a football game too at some point. I guess.

A Day in the Life of a Real Naturalist

Years back, an ecolodge I worked for commissioned me to write a guest post for their blog. It was supposed to be a “Day in the Life of a Naturalist” post, and someone had heard that I had my own personal blog going at the time. However, the boss clearly had no idea of the tone of said personal blog and its, shall we say, irreverence. The piece I wrote was true to form and, while accurate, didn’t really fit with the professional, family-friendly official page. It was rather off-brand. So the Director himself decided it was in need of much re-writing, a task he did on his own.

And I didn’t even mention ants.

The resulting post wasn’t so much re-written as ghost-written. Gone was the spite and sarcasm. Gone were the gory details. Gone was the actual day in the actual life of an actual naturalist. In its place was a squeaky-clean bit of G-rated ecotour propaganda. I allowed it to be posted only with my name removed, and decided to post my original work on my own blog.

But then I remembered that I was under contract, and that technically what I had written belonged to the organization. Plus, I was under a kind of NDA and some details pertained to work. Plus, I was trying to be professional, and didn’t want my employer to think I was a dick.

Well I just learned that that place is no longer in business so they can’t do squat! Below is my original post, along with their edits in bold.

My day begins at 5am dawn when the monkeys wake me up by dropping guavas on my roof. My first coherent thought is deciding whether or not to go outside and yell at them to imagine all the animals I’m going to see today. Then I shake the spiders out of put on my boots and head to the dining hall where I fill myself with as much rice, beans, and strong coffee as is medically possible eat breakfast and drink a cup of coffee. This is the jungle and I can’t waste daylight.

Monkeys are awful little tree gremlins interesting creatures.

The first tour of the day is usually birdwatching. After passing out binoculars, and helping the one or two chuckleheads who try to use them backwards, we head out to see what’s around. Depending on the year, we can get all sorts of migrants and visitors from the Northern Hemisphere flying in and making a lot of noise. Sometimes we see migratory birds too. The campus is great place for birding, with plenty of open areas, forested habitat, flowers, fruit, and tall trees. Sometimes we visit a ledge overlooking the river with a great view of the valley, which also happens to be my favorite spot to pee a very relaxing place.

If nothing is scheduled, I like to head over to the campus farm to lend a hand. Agriculture in the Tropics is a never-ending rewarding job, as the growing season is year-round. The food goes right from the dirt to the kitchen. Lunch is typical Costa Rican food, generally organic rice, local beans, homegrown veggies, and a meat dish with fresh fruit. Along with, of course, more coffee.

Ok, he was trying to plug the farm here. I get that.

Afternoons are for more activities. If we’re in luck, we’re hosting a researcher, and they always need someone to play Tonto an experienced guide. Or Sherpa a helpful assistant. Throughout my time here, I’ve assisted with forestry techs, bat catchers scientists, herpers biologists who study reptiles and amphibians, butterfly geeks lepidopterists, and camera trap nerds specialists. Onsite, we have our own research on seed dispersal, reforestation, mycology, and a poor resident moth intern who stays up all night counting bugs an ongoing moth survey.

Throughout the day, I like to make myself available to guests to tell stories, point out animals, and answer their questions. I hear all sorts of things. “What was that animal we saw that looked like a large guinea pig?” Probably an agouti. “We heard a strange call last night.” This is where I start making animal sounds until they hear the right one help them find out what it was. “Is it true that there’s a bug that lays its eggs in your brain?” Um, not sure about that one. No, but the Director once got bit by a botfly.

What he hell, man? That isn’t even MY anecdote.

Dinner is similar to lunch, and afterward is my favorite activity: night hike. A few hours after sunset, I pass out flashlights, slap on some bugspray, and hit the trails with a group of wary excited guests in tow. Nighttime is when the jungle really comes alive. We can count on seeing all sorts of critters nocturnal wildlife, from massive insects, ghostly owls, and absolute hordes of frogs. If we’re lucky, we might even see a kinkajou which is a Costa Rican mammal that looks like a large squirrel. We often rarely see snakes.

Exhausted, delighted, and very sweaty, everyone heads back to the cabins to dream of weird animals they’ve never seen before. It’s been another day in the life of a naturalist.

So You Don’t Want to Be a Naturalist Anymore

So you’ve decided to change careers. The life of a naturalist just isn’t for you. Maybe you’re tired of being constantly bug-bitten and mammal-mauled. Maybe the apocalyptic scale of climate change has you despairing for environmental work. Maybe you’d like to for once in your life make some actual money.

I’m not giving up my dream just yet. But as a naturalist who has, at times, had to support my career with jobs outside my field, I thought I’d offer this self-help guide to readjusting back into normal, civilized, adult life. Here goes.

I know it sounds crazy, but there exists a job without ants.

Rewrite Your Resume

If you have a science background, you’ve been taught to prepare your resume/CV a certain way. To just pack that baby with every study, research project, lab activity, and field gig you were remotely a part of, and describe each one with as technical of wording as possible. Extra points for being as taxonomically specific as possible. Double points for including Latin words that barely qualify as English.

Well now you’re applying for a normal job and guess what? Not only does no-one give a crap about that, they will barely understand it. Some poor recruiting manager doesn’t want to have to scan through a list of “research experiences” involving animals they’ve never heard of. Especially if the work was unpaid and, let’s be honest, it was unpaid wasn’t it?

For example, I recently applied to an ordinary job for the season. I edited down my Research section greatly, and changed things like “conducted a species assemblage of amphibians across a geographic gradient” to “Studied frogs in the jungle.” Much more palatable. “Comparison of interspecific sexual and territorial behavior of damselfies” became “Made horny bugs fight each other. For science.” And anything involving the collection of feces…yeah, I removed that entirely. That sure made the document shorter.

Man, not even spellcheck knows what a damselfly is

Change Your Appearance

Did you know there are other colors for clothing besides green, brown, grey, and other drab earth tones? Did you know that some people buy clothing with appearance in mind, not function? That there are other factors to take into account other than a fabric’s ability to resist mold, scratches, and animal blood?

Strange as it seems, you may find yourself in a job where your appearance matters. You may be expected to meet something called “professional standards” of dress, grooming, and general hygiene. You will not be allowed to wear clothes that are stained or torn, even if they function just fine. You will be expected to shave and cut your hair, despite your protests that it will all grow back anyway.

It’s rough, but think of it as an adaptation. Civil camouflage. Clothes shopping is just gathering materials. Now go out and get yourself a makeover. Get dressed. Wear perfume. Put on makeup. Cut your hair. Do your nails. Take a bath, you dirty hippy.

Stop Telling Stories, Seriously Just Shut Up Because No One Believes You

Another personal anecdote: a while back on a construction gig, a coworker noticed the scars on my hand. He asked where they came from. I told him, “monkeys.” That guy never spoke to me again.

Yes, a monkey. And I still see his face in my dreams…

It’s a naturalist thing. Fieldwork talk. Research station stories. We all do it, all trying to share and impress and one-up. We talk about the places we’ve been. The adventures we’ve had. The animals we’ve seen, studied, or fought. The tales border on the ludicrous and push the limits of believability because that’s the point.

But back here in the real world? That junk is straight out of animal planet. Fantasy that belongs on television. Best case: people will think you’re full of shit. Worse case: they will think you’re insane. Most likely: a bit of both. So learn from my mistakes, mistakes I keep making over and over wherever I go, and curb that kind of behavior.

Bottom line: what happens in the jungle stays in the jungle. Or at least let it out carefully, gradually, bit by bit over time.

Also, maybe don’t talk about snakes so much. Can’t hurt.

Costa Rica in My Mind

I’ve got Costa Rica on the brain.

I leave in July. Flights are booked, reservations made. Precautions taken. Prayers sent. There’s not much else for me to do now but double check itinerary, brush up on my Spanish, and continue to take all necessary COVID precautions while hoping the rest of the world can do the same. After all, if things don’t improve, pandemic/vaccine-wise, then I’m pulling the plug cancelling the trip. No sense taking undue risk.

A-hem.

But this is an important trip for me. Not just because I’m so jungle-starved that I’m starting to have sloth flashbacks, but because this is, in fact, a business trip. A site inspection. A test-run. It just happens to be in a beautiful tropical country that ranks among my favorite places in the world. No, it’s not a vacation. It’ll be work. Shut up.

But four more months!? I’m starting to lose it over here. I can practically feel the sunshine. Taste the mangoes. Hear the frogs and macaws.

Smell the monkeys.

But also because I’m really reaching for blog content these days. And photos of farm animals just ain’t cutting it. Yeah, there’s been a good amount of wildlife here, from chicken-stealing eagles in the fields to chicken-playing deer crossing the roads, but I miss cool. The colorful. The weird. The jungle. Hell, I even miss the damn bugs.

Ooh, I’m going to regret saying that, aren’t I?

So in between everything else I’ll try to throw up another flashback story or two to keep active. After all, writing a memoir seems like less and less of a reality these days so I might as well dig into some of those stories for content. Dig through my old journals and photo archives for lost gems. Maybe generate enough hate for one more rant about ants.

Ok, definitely going to regret saying that.

How to Fight Animals

Life on a small island with no large snakes to speak of has been comfortable, but has left me little inspiration or material. So I went through my old drafts and found this, which I planned to turn into a book at one point. Here’s a sample.

If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself in combat with wild animals. How the fight began–whether from competition for resources, an insult to honor, for the right to eat one another, or because you were just bored–is irrelevant. But due to the great number and wide variety of species that I have fought or still plan to fight, I thought I would submit this to the archive of the internet for the public good.

Please treat the following information with all the respect it deserves. Also, note that if you are already fighting an animal, it is too late to seek advice. You must do battle with nothing but your own wits. Good luck.

Stop reading, put your phone down.

Snakes

The obvious first entry. My bread and butter. A significant threat, a worthy foe. According to one good book I read, snakes have been mankind’s enemy since one gave poor dietary advice to two nudists. Also, they bite.

If you can’t ID the snake, assume it is venomous. But venom or no, all snakebites can be dangerous.

My experience is extensive and so is my advice about them. Ask anyone who’s spoken to me for more than 5 minutes. But key points to summarize: snakes are only dangerous at one end. This may seem obvious, but remember that once you immobilize that business end you can pretty much do whatever you want. Snakes, it seems, sacrificed their arms and legs in exchange for turning the rest of their body into one large limb, a gamble that may not have necessarily paid off when humans entered the picture. Granted, some snakes are strong enough to overpower a human with the rest of their body, but these are rarely encountered by humans and are usually so large that they lack the energy to go a whole 10 rounds. They tire quickly, and also have vital organs along 70% of their body that are sensitive to a sharp jab or a good tickling.

However, one important caveat: snakes are fast. Faster than you. Don’t be fooled by sluggish behavior–a free head is a bitey head, and can strike from roughly ⅓ a body length away. And some species can jump. But while you cannot be faster than a snake, you can be smarter. Try to predict where the head will go, and then go somewhere else. Wait for it to move, then go for the neck.

Like so.

Unless it’s a kind that spits, of course. Some do that. And mole vipers bite backwards. You know what? I should probably do an entry just on snakes. Moving on.

Large Flightless Birds

Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh. Ratites and cracids and kin are no joking matter. These ain’t your barnyard chickens, which can already be pretty nasty. Ask anyone who’s gotten on a rooster’s bad side.

These are the birds who haven’t forgotten that they’re dinosaurs. The ones that traded working wings for serious claws. Your ostriches, emus, and rheas. Jungle fowl. Freaking cassowaries. I’ve tangled with a curassow that had been fed only fruit, and was trying to supplement its protein-starved diet with my fingers. Then it flew up to short branches and went for my ears. I soon discovered a reliable technique: the kick. A good hefty kick with a booted foot. Unblockable, Daniel-san. So sweep the leg and watch your surroundings.

Curassow: like a large jungle turkey. Females are brown, males are black. Both are ornery.

Bears

Full disclosure: I’ve never fought a bear. But I did hug one once, while it was sedated. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and I never pass up a chance to tell the story. But while I was in its deep fuzzy embrace, I learned something: bears smell really, really, bad. I thought this was worth keeping in mind. If you do end up fighting a bear, you wouldn’t want to be taken off guard by its stench. Lord knows bears have enough going for them already.

Monkeys

If you are fighting a monkey, you have already screwed up. Terribly. There is no victory here, at least not one with any shred of dignity. There is no way to emerge completely unscathed. Step one is considering the life choices that brought you to this moment. Where did you go wrong?

Where didn’t you go wrong?

Monkeys are horrible creatures. Expect the craftiness and dexterity of humans with the raw aggression and strength of a wild animal. I had one capuchin grab me by the hair, yank my scalp back, then shove me face-first into a concrete path. And I was lucky. You don’t know fear until you’ve been curb-stomped by a primate that comes to your knees.

Seriously, monkeys eat ants. These things have no limits.

My only advice? Hold nothing back. Use every dirty trick and item at your disposal. Weapons. Fire. Explosives. Feint and scream. Fight Harkonnen-style: deception within deception. Don’t fight with honor because you will see none in return. Convince that monkey that it will face utter destruction at your hands. Only then will it consider cutting its losses and losing face. In fact, subjugation and dominance is one of the few concepts monkeys understand.

But they understand them well.

Oh, and note that my experience only extends to New World monkeys, which tend to be small. I’ve never fought, say, a baboon. And I don’t plan to. Baboons eat people.

That is all for now.

Wunderbaer

The first word I learned in the German language was the word for coati: nasenbaer. Part of the reason it stuck with me is that it means, literally, “nose bear.” How great is that?

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Side note: there are no coatis in Germany, and no bears in Costa Rica. How’s that for weird?

Apparently many German animal names work this way. The kinkajou is the “honey bear.” A sloth is a “lazy bear.” Delightful. It’s almost genius in its simplicity. Name = adjective or notable trait + bear. But this has led me to an odd thought.

I have never been to Germany, but seeing that they apparently use the bear as their sole reference for new animals, I have to conclude that the country is populated exclusively by bears. Bears everywhere. Just bears. And when Germans travel abroad, they can only interpret foreign wildlife through the lens of the only animal they know, that is: the bear.

So as a service to any potential German travelers out there, I would like to offer this helpful Costa Rican bestiary, which I hope to publish one day under the title A Field Guide to Costa Rican Bears (German Edition).

Willkommen to Costa Rica!

Costa Rica is a beautiful and lush tropical country known for its proud history of conservation, and for its wide variety of native bears. This guide will provide a brief description of the many bears you may see during your visit.

Some of the most striking and most popular are the feathery wing bears, many of which are endemic to the country. Because of its geography, Costa Rica hosts a great number of bear species as they migrate across the isthmus, and many bearwatchers are drawn here to add to their lifer bear lists.

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With some experience, you may be able to identify a bear by its song.

Of course, at night, the little flappy wing bears come out in spectacular diversity, with Costa Rica supporting several dozen species. Here, you may find wing bears that have specialized to eat fruit, nectar, insects, fish, and even a few blood-drinking vampire bears. Don’t worry—they very rarely feed on humans.

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It’s a well-known fact that these bears sleep upside-down. Some, even under leaves.

Look up in the trees of the rainforest for nasty tail bears. Always iconic of the tropical forest, they are amusing and fascinating to watch as they socialize and forage. However, for your safety, please do not ever feed the bears.

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For their safety as well as yours. Some human diseases can spread to Tropical bears.

While you may be concerned about long scaly deadly bears, most of these are shy and rarely encountered. But be sure to keep your eyes out! Most of the ones you will see are only long and squeezy.

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Some very long, and very squeezy.

Around the rainy season you will see and hear plenty of slimy jumping bears, which come out to sing and breed when conditions are wet. Make sure to look and not touch, as many of these bears are toxic.

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Green-and-back poison dart bear.

It’s my duty as a guide and naturalist to accommodate all peoples and as many languages as I can. If you are German, I hope this has been helpful. I hope that you will keep Costa Rica in mind when COVID is over and you can leave Germany, where you are currently isolating, no doubt surrounded by bears.

Missed Connections

You: the couple of tourists feeding the monkeys the other day

Me: the guy who asked you repeatedly to stop feeding the monkeys.

Hi there!

Remember me? No doubt you do—I spoke to you several times, trying to be as polite and professional as I could to explain why it was unsafe, illegal, and irresponsible to give food to wild monkeys. You tried your best to blow me off, but I’m sure I made an impression. It’s just that I had a tour group to attend to, so as I was walking off and saw you giving the monkeys Cheetos I never got a chance to tell you what horrible human beings you are.

You see, I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. I know a lot of people don’t have monkeys at home, and really don’t like to use their brains in the slightest, and can’t imagine the consequences of giving them junk food handouts. But that excuse just doesn’t fly since I gave you that flier called “11 Reasons Not to Feed Wildlife.” Although, wait—maybe you can’t read? Did you need me to spell it out in pictures? Pictures like the ones that accompanied the flier? Well, shoot, maybe I should’ve used smaller words.

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YOU. NOT. FEED THIS.

No, the issue here has nothing to do with communication. I made every attempt to be civil, and accommodate for your ignorance. You did something bad, you knew it was bad, and you did it anyway. That makes you a bad person. A stupid person. And for the benefit of everyone else reading this, I’m going to explain just how bad and stupid a thing you did.

First, it was dangerous. Monkeys are aggressive, and common knowledge will tell you this. Also me. I told you this. You or your children could have been bitten. You could have lost a finger. You could have caught a disease. Did you know that monkeys often carry diseases they can pass to humans, including skin parasites, giardia, and the fucking herpes simplex virus? Of course you know because I told you that too, you—oh my god, was this all part of your plan to come up with an excuse to your spouse why you have herpes? Or some perverse weight-loss diet? Are you after a Giardia body?

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“Honey, I swear I got this herpes from a monkey! Wait…”

Second, by feeding the wild animals, you teach them to expect food from all humans, something the rest of us have to deal with long after you’ve crammed your Cheetos-smelling bodies into your crappy rental car and left. Thanks to people like you, this community is now dealing with emboldened, habituated monkeys who regularly shake down or outright rob park visitors, tearing open bags and breaking into houses. The locals call them “la Mafia” now. But I doubt you care about other people. You certainly didn’t care about the volume and behavior of your kids. Although it just occurs to me that this all might have been a misunderstanding because you confused the monkeys for your own ugly children.

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Yeah, I’m seeing it now.

Third, you could make the monkeys sick. Local troops are showing signs of diabetes, tooth decay, sugar addiction, and mouth ulcers from eating too much human food. You might be content to shovel junk into your bodies like grunting swine, but please spare the wildlife. They don’t know any better. You do. Or at least, you should.

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“Leave me out of this.”

I could go on, but since you may as well have used that flyer to wipe Cheeto dust off your monkey-feeding fingers, I won’t waste my time. But the worst part about this isn’t so much that you did it, it’s that you did it in front of your children. You got them involved. You gave them Cheetos to give to monkeys, and told them that was okay. You had them ignore my advice, and deprived them of a chance to learn to be better than you. You arrogant pieces of shit. Do you also tell your kids to ignore their doctor and not wash their hands? To not wear seatbelts? If you want to be such bad parents, why don’t you just give them forks and tell them to tickle electrical sockets? Or go play on train tracks?

Oh, I get it—you don’t like to be disturbed on your vacation. You don’t like to be told what to do. You thought I was bothering your fun. Fuck you. I was trying to help you. You chose to be assholes. Do you also go to Niagara Falls and piss over the edge? Go to Paris and grope the Venus de Milo? Being on vacation doesn’t give you that right. People live here. You just visit.

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Seriously, what is wrong with you?

So leave. Get back on your crappy rental and get out of here. For your next trip, you can go to Alaska and cuddle the bears. Or go to Australia and tease the sharks. I don’t care. Just don’t come back.

Also talk to your doctor, you might have herpes.

A Funny Thing Happened to Me Last Week

This last week I did something I haven’t done in I-don’t-know-how-long: I went on vacation.

I mean a real pleasure trip–not a border run, not a location scout, not an expedition. Completely non-work related, completely self-indulgent, and completely disconnected. I left my phone and computer behind. Went utterly off the grid. Did nothing but enjoy myself without ambition. I cannot remember the last time I did that.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not complaining. Part of the blessing of my work is that I get to travel and explore exciting places, doing things like catching snakes and climbing trees to rescue sloths. I’m constantly surrounded by natural beauty.

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I mean, I work with these things. I really can’t complain.

But the flipside of that is I am often extremely busy. My time off–when I get it–is saved for critical border runs and international travel expense is saved for infrequent trips home. Currently, I’m in a position that requires a lot of logistics and coordination across several time zones, so I am rarely away from my phone. On grounds, I carry a radio. I’m on call all day, over 6 days a week. True “time off” isn’t really a thing, and when I do get it I’m usually too tired or stingy to do anything but stay home, sleep in, and catch up on my own work.

But this time, I made a point of moving things around to cover my job and returned to one of my old haunts in the Osa Peninsula, an underrated and nearly unheard-of location without a single bar of cell service for kilometers. Power came from solar panels. Water came from the stream. AC came from the wind. Food came from–actually, we were pretty set in that department. I’m talking fresh fish every night, caught right off the private beach in a private cove.

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Just to be clear: I had the best ceviche in my life which had just come from right there. While enjoying this view.

But that’s just my point! It was a completely isolated, closed system, just myself, a couple guys doing maintenance, and a handful of spider monkeys who sat outside the front porch eating breadnuts in the branches of a tree. Paradise.

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Am I right, spider monkeys?

I chilled like I’ve never chilled before. Like I’ve never needed to chill before. Just relaxed, read, played guitar, and walked around the forest. Ok, so I had a little adventure when I caught sight of a tayra and ran after it, camera in hand and vision tunneling on the target. Ran right into a patch of quicksand. Went up to my knees in a flash. Rookie mistake. I’ll never see those boots again.

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After all that, this was the best photo I managed to get. Definitely not worth two boots.

I think I finally understand the mentality of the tourist who comes to just sit on the beach. The backpackers who just want to sit in a hammock. Me, I’ve never wanted to waste a moment hear and usually turn my trips into, well, adventures. I don’t relax well. It’s a habit. Or maybe a curse.

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Oh yeah, there was a waterfall. I seriously cannot rate this place highly enough.

But it worked. I feel so refreshed. Ready to go back to work and the backlog of emails awaiting me. Ready to endure the stories of rampant snakes and guests they had to deal with in my absence. It’s rather nice to be missed.

I Prefer a Park Less Traveled

The town of Quepos–and in fact, most of the surrounding coastline–is known for Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s a rare preserved Coastal Tropical Rainforest, one of the last remaining patches in a region hit hard by development and agriculture. It includes some Primary forest, several scenic viewpoints for spotting whales, and some of the most beautiful beaches on Earth.

But even living within spitting distance of this popular destination, I rarely go. Why? Well, besides the fact that I already live in the jungle and see animals all the time, it’s just a little too close. Even though I refer guests there about every day, when I travel for myself it’s to go somewhere a bit more distant and novel. There’s no reason to spend an entrance fee to see what’s already in my own backyard.

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Threatened habitat? Not impressed.

So besides the infrequent guiding gigs or animal pickups, I don’t get there much. But with yesterday being Costa Rican National Park Day and my workplace running a table out front, I had the chance to remember the other reason I don’t go to Manuel Antonio much: the crowds.

MA is one of the most accessible National Parks, and therefore one of the most popular. The road–and businesses–go literally right up to the front gate. Its paths are well-groomed gravel or flat raised platforms. It’s like jungle with training wheels. It’s not even all that big. You could walk the whole thing in a morning at a leisurely pace.

And the animals? Right out there in the open. Fearless. Bold. Practically habituated in some cases. And in some cases, worse.

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Pictured: worse.

Too many people and not enough regulation has led to an obscene amount of human interference with the animals, namely feeding. This has created a situation where the monkeys (of course) are begging or outright robbing people for food. If teased, they have even been known to attack. Last week, I saw an adult male capuchin practically shaking people down as they passed by. He leaped on the backpack of one woman and when she panicked he bit her. Hard. There was blood. I helped her friends chase him off and then advised she seek medical attention.

But even animal animal banditry aside, the park just tends to attract a slightly different crowd than most reserves. Some just come for the beach, and bring with them a different set of expectations and a different level of speaking volume. Even if they are here for the wildlife, guided tours are so common that you can best spot a sloth by just moving from one crowd to the next, looking in the same direction the guides are pointing. It feels like cheating, but it works.

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Although I did spot this bat nursing her young before any of the professional guides did so go me.

None of this is to badmouth Manuel Antonio, or the Park personnel. But be forewarned: this is no Monteverde. This is no Corcovado. You want an easy introduction to jungle hiking and happen to be in the area? Then this is for you. Can’t stand crowds and are seeking more illusive wildlife? I can recommend better.

Manuel Antonio seems to have found its niche. And it doesn’t seem to be about to change. In fact, while I was tabling, a local school orchestra set up by the entrance. It was fine, but chamber music wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Many of the guests seemed confused as well.

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And the animals? Apparently unconcerned. Guess this deer wasn’t a John Williams fan.

So curb your expectations for Manuel Antonio. If you visit, come early and avoid the worst of the crowds. Aim for the middle of the week. And for the love of everything that’s holy, don’t feed the animals.

Interspecies Conflict

One good thing I can say about Capuchins is that they tend to be equal-opportunity bastards. That is, they don’t specifically target humans with their awful behavior. Rather, they are more than happy to terrorize, annoy, harass, rob, or poop on any kind of animal, as long as they aren’t a direct threat or potential food source. The shrieks, toothy threats, and falling branches that we endure as we follow them all day can also be directed at a number of other creatures, even other monkeys.

Guanacaste Dry Forest is also home to Black Mantled Howler Monkeys, and we regularly encounter them in the reserve. To us, they’re generally more of a distraction. Or a tease. I once spent several long minutes crashing through underbrush to stakeout a sleep tree where someone had seen monkeys the evening before. When I heard the first throaty beats, like an immense truck revving its engine, I knew that we’d been duped into tracking the wrong monkey and the morning was wasted.

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Most people have their morning ruined by traffic or a broken Keurig. Me? Chasing the wrong monkey.

But sometimes the two species encounter each other, and when they do, it rarely goes well for the howlers. See, as strict herbivores whose diet consists mostly of leaves, they tend to be sluggish and require a lot of sun-warmed siesta time to digest their food. They’re also heavier, and so they can’t climb on thinner branches or jump as far. This makes them easy prey for the Capuchins, when they get in their default mood of “let’s make life hell for everything around us.”

On an easy day, the worst the howlers have to endure is a few tail-pulls and dropped sticks. They react to this the way they react to most things: with nearly infra-sonic hoots and half-hearted attempts to move. But the other day the when the two troops overlapped in the same tree, the howlers had babies with them. That was when the Capuchins’ asshole dials went to 11.

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Don’t worry–this isn’t going to end they way most of these stories do.

Several adult capuchins lunged for the baby howlers, who were still riding on their mothers’ backs. Some were tiny–newborn, maybe. Had the capuchins grabbed them, they wouldn’t have stood a chance. As it happened, the females were trapped at the base of large branches. If they had attempted to climb, it would have exposed their babies to the little monkeys. They didn’t have the speed or claws to fight back.

In the end, one large male howler–who I can assume was the alpha–bullrushed the monkeys and sent the scattering, using nothing but his bulk as a weapon. It was the fastest I’ve ever seen a howler move, and sure enough, it worked. The capuchins fled, but stuck around long enough to bare their teeth some more from a safe distance.

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Demonstrating that, along with everything else, they are also cowards.

What the capuchins were planning to do with the babies, I don’t know. Or, I probably do, but I’m not sure why. Would they have eaten them? While Capuchins commit infanticide all the times, there’s no record of cannibalism. But would it have counted with another monkey species? Did they view the howlers as a threat? Was this a demonstration of dominance among their own group? Were they just bored?

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If it was an interspecies thing, does that make Capuchins racist, too? God, it’s easy to hate these things.

To the relief of myself and my new coworkers, no howler babies were killed that day. But we’re coming up on peak dry season now. Animal ranges shrink, and there is more competition around food and water sources. The forest dies back, and there is simply less to go around. Not everyone will survive. I’ve been warned to steel myself.