I’m a planner. It is safe to say that every excursion, meal, and experience will be organized by me when I travel with others. Our family trip to Jaco, Costa Rica was no exception. I wanted our vacation to be memorable and so I spent the better half of two months meticulously researching and organizing ideas.
One thing that people who travel with me should know is: do not fuck with my vision. I’m all for input from others. But, if I have my heart set on seeing a particular site, or if you put me in charge of planning because you’re too lazy to do it…don’t even THINK about reorganizing my carefully laid itinerary.
I nearly lost it when the boss of our driver began, “if you’re staying for a week, I have so many great activities to recommend. Might I suggest our monkey boat tour? Your little one would love it.” My husband nodded enthusiastically at the suggestion.
Don’t you dare I thought to myself as I gripped the seat of the car. A monkey boat tour sounded like the most touristy activity that we could possibly encounter on our trip, and I wasn’t about to spend my day doing that when I had so many “off the beaten path” type activities planned.
So, needless to say if you peep the title, I did in fact spend my day on a monkey boat tour in Costa Rica. Because when you have a family IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU WANT. But, you know what? I loved it, and that monkey boat tour in Costa Rica was the best memory I have from our week long trip.
To start, it was a billion degrees outside and I felt incredibly sexy with only one of my legs and a puddle of sweat accumulating in my shorts which no doubt looked like I had a bathroom accident. Yes, the experience started with all of the components needed for a mediocre day. We wandered through the gift shop selling the usual tourist trap merchandise and I tried to see how many times I could possibly roll my eyes.
However, I’m a people person – and meeting our tour guide and seeing him interact with our son was the catalyst for our best day in Costa Rica.
Andrei (let’s pretend I’m spelling that right) is a natural with people and children especially. He was everything I imagine when I hear the word Tico. Our guide walked through the dirt barefoot, and was enviously tan. Andrei had deep brown kind eyes with a touch of benign mischief shining through, and curly brown hair. He’s a younger and more handsome version of John Leguizamo. I later learned he spends all of his days giving monkey tours, fishing, and surfing. Now that is pura vida. His image definitely matches his lifestyle.
He took an interest in Henry almost immediately and made him laugh and smile. He told us that he has two children himself who were very young and were both expert fishermen. Many days they go down to the river themselves and haul in a catch of sealife. In fact, he jokes with his ex-wife that she shouldn’t need to cook when the boys are over because they can catch their dinner themselves.
We board a small boat which is very low to the water. I had prior assumed that we would be on a giant commercial boat peddling down the river with throngs of tourists like the Creole Queen. I was wrong. One other family from California – two parents and their two children climbed on, and sat in the front of the boat. A young man in the back of the boat operated the engine and Andrei called out directions.
Prior to reaching the famed monkeys we were able to see a lot of the wildlife that calls the waterways home including giant termite colonies, crocodiles, and birds.
The day was steamy and muggy, but being under the canopy of the boat as calmly sailing down the river kept us cool. Only when we would stop did it get semi-hot. Henry being so small was much more intolerant of the heat than anyone else on board. This is where it comes in handy to always be prepared. We fixed him right up with a bottle of Pedialyte and a personal fan.
After sailing down the water and admiring the wildlife and greenery we pulled into a crook in the water and shut the engine off. We were surrounded by trees whose brown paper bag branches twisted and turned like skeleton bones. The branches were covered with masses of deep, dark, overgrown, green leaves. It was largely silent save for the sound of chirping beatles. That was until we were startled by what sounded like softball sized hail falling on the canopied roof of the small boat.
“They’re here” Andrei declared cooly with a smile. (I’m convinced he could deliver any message in that cool and collected manner.) It just works for him. Like my students when I say, “whoever helps me clean gets a prize” they descended cautiously and smoothly toward the boat. Adorable white and black furry monkeys came into focus and began peering into the boat and climbing down over the edges. I couldn’t believe that I had been knocking this activity as too touristy. This was a close encounter! I was in the home of the monkeys.
I walked toward the front of the boat and sat down eyeing the trees around me. Everything seemed to move fast. Wap! A spoonful of mushy bananas was smashed into my hand by the boat driver and the next thing I knew a monkey had literally jumped and landed on my head. I was surprised at the lightweight of the animal. The monkey wasn’t at all aggressive and I was in total bliss with the experience. But, also, I had a full body sunburn.
More monkeys fled to me – two to three at this point and the piles of bananas kept accumulating on my hand. Their tiny little claws felt like razors and sandpaper on my raw red skin. I was so happy, but at the same time said to myself something along the lines of, “Fuck fuck fuck” due to the scratching pain!
My husband was in awe and his eyes darted every way because he never knew which way a monkey might approach him. Henry…not so much. At first he was more entertained by and interested in the people’s reactions on the boat. Once he saw the monkey on my head he drew back and began screaming. I felt awful that he was afraid, but, if I can be the worst mom ever for a moment – I also couldn’t stop laughing. He was never in harm’s way and seeing his tiny hands try to swat the monkey’s away from me was adorably futile. It’s awesome to see the world through his eyes and at all times entertaining!
It was only at the second stop for monkeys did Henry really fall in love with the monkeys. He bounced in excitement when they came around us and onto the boat. Thankfully we got some really great family photographs that do not involve him sobbing. Although he won’t remember the experience, I’m glad that he left the experience more enthralled with the animals than he was traumatized.
Having monkeys crawl all over you isn’t unlike having your small child or pet climb all over you looking for treats. They are entirely adorable and more than once I got the urge to cradle one in my arms like a baby. My best advice? Don’t. Although that goes without saying. The monkeys are curious, small, and behave very much like my son. They pulled gently on my clothes, looked at me inquisitively, and ate food right out of my hand even though maybe I’d rather be eating that food because I work all day and I didn’t get to eat my lunch yet again and I’m seeing stars from lack of nourishment but SURE you go ahead.
We had many opportunities to interact with the monkeys, take great photographs, and learn about them and their habitat. Being in such a small group provided intimacy and relaxation. I much prefer this as opposed to fighting with dozens of others over getting to see the monkeys first and get the best spot for photographs. I knew in these moments that our monkey boat tour in Costa Rica would be my favorite memory. It was more interactive than I would have imagined. (Already want to visit? Click here)
Andrei grew up exploring the backwaters as his playground as a child. So much of what he knows about the wildlife and their behavior is simply from life experience. I can’t tell you how authentic and exciting that was for me. I’m so passionate about learning about people, and I got to experience his local story through this excursion.
It was so refreshing to not be shown around by some guy in a starched uniform and a clipboard. Andrei really gave us a local’s perspective regarding the monkeys. As a local, he really respects the environment where the monkeys and all of the creatures live. It was his own home in many ways.
In one moment in particular, he began clapping loudly and we weren’t sure why. He looked at the water amused and said, “look there”. The bugs on the water would jump high every time he clapped. “They hear that sound and think a fish is coming”. My husband loved this and began clapping himself, we all did. “How’d you figure that out?” I asked. He shrugged and looked out toward the brown water littered with dancing insects. “Just started clapping one day when I was a kid and saw it happen.”
Moments like these are so genuine and so pure. I treasure every chance I get to catch a genuine glimpse into the story of another person. Andrei seemed genuinely happy. He was proud to recall his childhood memories and to share the new memories he creates with his own children in nature.
He ripped palm leaves down from the trees and created giant grasshoppers for Henry and the other two children. The attention to detail was impeccable and inexplicable. If I had a map and 100 years I would never be able to re-create his artistry. “How’d you learn to do that?” I asked. Again he shrugged and looked at me as he wrapped the palm leaves every which way. “Watching people on the water do it as a kid.”
Wandering through the backwaters of the jungle, searching for monkeys and interacting with them certainly feels like I got an authentic Costa Rican experience. I’ve learned that often things that are full of tourists are popular for good reasons – they are almost always worth experiencing. After all, would I suggest someone stay away from 42nd street? Would I suggest others to snub their nose at a chance to see a Broadway performance? Absolutely not. I think there is a clear difference between tourist-ed and cheesy or exploitative. In the case of my monkey tour I had a tremendous opportunity. I had the chance to look at the natural life of Costa Rica. What’s more to see the life of the local people from the area. I nearly snubbed my nose because they happen to offer a gift shop on the premises.
Sometimes the best laid plans do not work out – and for good reason. My original plans were entirely inappropriate for a nine month old. We took the Monkey tour because I’d rather do something that nothing. I’m more than glad that I did. Traveling with children can really change the way that you travel, but sometimes that winds up being for the better.
Looking for more of my adventure? Try this hilarious post: