I came closer to some cute white-faced capuchin monkeys and a river crocodile than I ever had before on an eco tour from Punta Arenas in Costa Rica.
A shipmate knew a tour guide in this port, so we arranged a tour for eight of us to spend the day visiting a monkey forest then taking a tour on a boat along the Tarcoles River to look for the resident crocodiles.
The tour first stopped at a monkey forest to meet some animated white-faced capuchin monkeys. The “forest” was really someone’s back yard at the edge of the jungle. The clearing was encircled by tall cypress trees with low branches that faded out into the full forest beyond, the floor carpeted with leaves on the dark, rich looking soil. We piled out of the van and heard the primates before we saw them.
The woman who lived in the house greeted our guide Diego and handed him a large Tupperware box containing crackers and banana cut into thirds with the skin still on. Diego walked us round into the garden, and as he approached with the open box the ruckus became more raucous. The chattering primates were very cute, and curious. A few of the youngest ones came down from the trees to inspect us straight away. When we showed our contributions of banana pieces and crackers, a few of the parents became more interested too. Seven or eight animals joined the three or four capuchins that had been lounging in the area most of them were young. Diego showed us how make the offerings.
The technique was to stand with arms outstretched with one near a branch and hold a banana piece in the other hand held straight out. This gave the monkeys an easy way to climb over your arm from the branch if they chose, and get the fruit, while allowing you to have a close encounter with them that wasn’t too obtrusive.
The group took it in turns to offer treats. We let them run over our “branch” arms, grab their treats, and then leave. When I offered mine, one of the young monkeys first strolled across my arm bridge and took the banana. He then sauntered back and rather than leaving straight away, he paused to eat the spoils while perching on my right shoulder, which was next to the branch. Being so close to this intensely cute baby was incredible. I didn’t try to touch him – none of us did. As he sat on my right shoulder I carefully began to turn my head towards him to see his adorable tiny face without disturbing him. As I inched my gaze around, I felt a warm wetness appear on my shoulder. The cheeky monkey screeched as if laughing, and scarpered.
The other youngsters joined in with the “laughing” and it attracted the attention of their parents who’d previously been supervising the events from a tree just beyond. The group’s alpha male came over and appeared to be telling the little ones that playtime with the strange larger primates, was over. He screeched and bared his teeth, and the little ones scampered behind him.
We took the hint and left the rest of the food on the ground and climbed back into our van.
We then headed to the murky Tarcoles River for the wildest part of the tour. Our small boat slid into the water and quietly glided east towards an area Diego knew some of the biggest crocs spent their time. After around ten minutes, the small boat’s captain Rodrigo turned off the engine, looked out at the water said, “We’re here”.
This was evidently a favored mud bank with the crocs – and one in particular. At first we didn’t see anything. Then to our astonishment, Rodrigo left the safety of the boat and walked onto the mud bank and started to slap the water with his hands. Nothing happened. So he came back to the boat, then reappeared on the mud bank, this time with a large piece of raw chicken in tow, and started slapping the water with that. After a few minutes, the sound, and smell of the chicken attracted him.
We saw the eyes and nostrils appear first from the water, followed by a slither of scaly vertebrae, and then the long tail flicked up.
Our tour guide Diego – who stayed safely on the boat – declared, “That’s the oldest and largest male croc on the river. We named him Bin Laden.”
The croc was 18 feet long, with teeth for days. To our amazement, Rodrigo wasn’t rushing out of the water and diving into the boat. He stood his ground, still slapping the chicken on the surface of the water. “Bin Laden” kept on coming, slowly and deliberately. My friends and I were now getting very nervous for the man’s safety. We asked him to come back to the boat, and get out of there. He shook his head and just focused his gaze on the approaching crocodile.
The beast came to a halt at the riverbank, his gargantuan cranium calmly stopping about two feet from Rodrigo’s bare toes. Rodrigo held the chicken closer, letting him really smell it. Bin Laden lifted his head towards the scent, and Rodrigo let go. The croc snapped his jaws loudly and caught the fowl on his huge rough tongue. He slid back into the water, resting by the bank, seeming calm and content. We gawped at the display, which seemed to be a familiar ritual.
Rodrigo gave Diego a nod, then pulled out another piece of raw chicken and waved it before the croc’s nose again. As he was doing this, on the boat Diego reached down into the water and lifted the end of the massive scaly tail by about a foot.
Pulling a crocodile by the tail seemed to me to be one of the most ill advised things one could do. Diego offered, “Would you like to touch his tail?” We wondered if we’d heard correctly as the group stared blankly at him. I looked over the side of the boat, assessing how far away the tail was, and then looked again at the end with the teeth, which was 18 feet away and busy with the chicken. I reached my hand down into the murky river water to wet it then touched the tail. I was touching the tail of an 18-foot crocodile whose name was Bin Laden who was well capable of ripping my head off in one swoop. The tail felt rough and tough like old leather, but actually touching this animal for just those few seconds was exhilarating. The croc seemed completely unfazed by this.
Most of the group partook, and then after the last piece of chicken had been given away, Rodrigo returned to the boat and sailed us down the river. We admired the birds, wild horses that cantered by, and got drenched in a thunderstorm. We spied three more crocs from a distance across the river and admired them from afar.
The most exciting and memorable part of the experience was connecting with the impressive prehistoric river croc. And there are worse animals to get peed on than a tiny insanely cute young capuchin.
See the crocs and brave guides in action in my vlog of the tour in Punta Arenas here: