Category Archives: Central America

Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

Mike & I visited the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica about 15 years ago on a cruise excursion from Limón. At that time, founders Judy Avery-Arroyo, an American, and her Costa Rican husband Luis Arroyo had been rescuing sloths for about ten years. As they explain on their website, “ In 1992, three neighbor girls brought a tiny baby sloth to the Arroyos. They had found it near an adult sloth that had been killed by a car. The girls knew the Arroyos were animal lovers, so they gave it to them. Judy and Luis had no knowledge of sloth care—most people considered them to be vermin at that time. Although they sought assistance, not even zoos or wildlife rescue centers knew how to guide them in sloth care. So they observed what wild sloths ate on their property, and used their common sense to hand raise this sloth. Today, Buttercup™ is 25 years old and the iconic face of the Sloth Sanctuary. Sadly, Luis Arroyo passed away in 2011, but the family has continued on with their vision.“

Indeed, little was known about the proper way to care for sloths in captivity or rehabilitate them in order to reintroduce them in the wild and mistakes were made. When we visited the Sloth Sanctuary 15 years ago, we were allowed to hold Buttercup and the other sloths, a lovely experience for the visitor but terrible for the sloths. These poor practices made it impossible to reintroduce  several otherwise healthy sloths, turning them into lifelong residents of the Sloth Sanctuary. Today, only staff members are allowed to touch and handle the sloths. The Sloth Sanctuary works with the University of Costa Rica to ensure the sloths are cared for in accordance with the latest scientific research and only Costa Ricans work or volunteer there.

While we’re staying in the area, Mike & I decide to visit the Sloth Sanctuary again and learn more about their efforts on behalf of the sloths.

Entrance to the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

When we arrive at the Sloth Sanctuary, a 40 minute bus ride about halfway between where we’re staying in Cahuita and Puerto Limón, we opt for the standard “Buttercup tour” for $30 per person, which includes a 45-minute canoe ride followed by an hour long tour of the sanctuary facility. We have time to use the restroom, do a little birding, and visit a Two-toed Sloth before the next tour starts.

Two-toed Sloth in the visitors’ reception area

At noon we board a sturdy fiberglass canoe (along with another family) and our boatman paddles us along the shallow Estrella River to see lowland rainforest flora and fauna. We see several wild sloths hanging in the trees, blue crabs along the shore, and several Emerald Basilisks.

We board a canoe for a paddle on the Estrella River to see sloths in the wild as well as Emerald Basilisks and birds (Passerini’sTanager)

After our boat ride, we start the second part of our tour in which we see inside the sloth sanctuary and learn more about sloths. The first thing we learn is that the Two-toed and the Three-toed sloths –  or more accurately, the Two-fingered and Three-fingered Sloths as they’re referred to at the Sanctuary since all sloths have three toes but two or thre fingers depending on the species – are completely different from each other. Besides the number of fingers, Three-fingered Sloths weigh much less than Two-fingered Sloths. Since their diet consists entirely of leaves, Three-fingered Sloths have only molars while Two-fingered Sloths have both molars and canines to enable them to eat leaves, flowers, nuts, green fruits, eggs, and small prey. And Three-fingered Sloths look completely different from the Two-fingered Sloths with smaller eyes, a small tail (the Two-fingered Sloth has no tail), a longer neck, and forelegs that are longer than their rear legs (on a Two-fingered Sloth, all legs are the same length).

Three-toed Sloth at the Sloth Sanctuary

We enjoy seeing both species of sloths in their cages and learning their stories, even though all the stories are very sad. Most of the sloths are in captivity because they’ve been seriously injured (electrocuted on power lines, hit by cars, fallen from trees) and their injuries prevent them from living in the wild. Some are there because when they started the Sloth Sanctuary, they didn’t know as much as they do now and they handled the sloths too much and allowed visitors to hold them. Other sloths are there because they were abandoned by their mothers or they were injured but now healed; most of these sloths are being prepared for reintroduction to the wild.

Two-toed Sloth eating its lunch of leaves

Sloths are difficult to see in the wild, perched as they are among branches at the top of trees and moving very seldom. A  visit to the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica will ensure that you see both species of sloths found in Costa Rica. You’ll learn some fascinating facts about sloths, how to tell the Two-toed and Three-toed Sloths apart, and about sloth conservation efforts. And your visit supports the conservation efforts of this wonderful organization!

Now this sloth is relaxed!

For more information about the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, visit their website:


Parque Nacional Cahuita

It’s amazing to contemplate that over 25% of Costa Rica is set aside as national parks, reserves, wetlands, other protected natural areas. That’s the highest percentage of any country in the world!

Parque Nacional Cahuita is one of the lesser known national parks in Costa Rica. Established in 1970 to protect the coral reef just offshore, its 2,635 acres protect five different habitats:  beach, mangrove, margin/edge, marine and tropical rainforest-lowland. And most of those habitats can be experienced by hiking 8.2 km trail between the two park entrances.

A few of the birds we saw on our hike: (clockwise from upper left) Black-chested Jay, Band-Backed Wren, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Keel-billed Toucan

We start at the Puerto Vargas entrance, just a 10 minute walk from the house where we’re staying. We arrive right when the gates open at 8:00 am. We see some new birds – Black-Chested Jays and a Band-Backed Wren – and a large Golden Orb spider on its web before we ever enter the park.

Entrance is $5 per person. We tell the park ranger about our plan to walk the entire trail through the park to the other entrance in the town of Cahuita; she suggests that we start with the 2.1 km boardwalk.

Mike on the boardwalk surrounded by the rain forest

We’re completely enchanted with the experience of being immersed in the rain forest as we walk slowly along the boardwalk. We see more birds (including a Purple-throated Fruitcrow and a Keel-billed Toucan), a huge variety of plant life & fungi, more Golden Orb spiders, frogs, and an Emerald Basilisk.

A few of the interesting plants seen from the boardwalk

We watch a small lizard hunting and then catching & eating a little white worm. The background sounds are the ubiquitous Howler monkeys and the crashing of the waves on the offshore reef, reminding us that we’re not that far from the ocean. We take our time – there’s so much to see! – so it takes us about two hours to cover the entire boardwalk.

Fungi seen from the boardwalk – and notice the little frog on the upper-right mushroom!

The rain holds off until we reach the end of the boardwalk. We take a short break and watch a Crab-Eating Raccoon saunter across the parking lot. Then we start the second part of our hike on the trail along the shore.

Crab-Eating Raccoon saunters across the parking lot.

At first, the rain isn’t too bad and actually cools us off. Mike dons his rain poncho and we put the camera away in his backpack (protected by the poncho) so it doesn’t get too wet. All the photos along the shoreline part of the trail are taken with our phones. The birds largely disappear when it starts raining but we do see a group of Magnificent Frigatebirds perched on old pilings to wait out the rain, and a couple of Royal Terns.

Magnificent Frigatebirds and Royal Tern

We also see several Hermit Crabs, one large one and one much smaller one, and two very venomous snakes: the small yellow Eyelash Viper and the larger brown Rainforest Hognosed Pit Viper. Neither of these snakes are bothering anybody, just hanging out in their tree. We make sure to keep a safe distance while we observe them.

Two venomous snakes encountered on our hike: the little yellow Eyelash Viper and the larger brown Rainforest Hognosed Pit Viper

The trail is largely hard-packed sand and the views of the beach are very pretty with the waves crashing on the coral reef about 150-200 yards offshore.

View of the Caribbean as we hike along the hard-packed sandy trail

We pass Punta Vargas and then we have a water crossing through the tanin-stained Rio Perezoso (Sloth River) – the water is surprisingly warm and where we cross, just over our ankles – before we get to Punta Cahuita (about two-thirds of the way to the Cahuita park entrance).

Linda crossing the Rio Perezoso (Sloth River)

At this point, the trail deteriorates into a muddy mess. We have to slog with ankle deep mud in some places where there’s no way around it. I’m wearing hiking sandals so my feet get covered in mud; Mike just does his best to get as little mud on his shoes as possible. There’s another, deeper water crossing through the Rio Suarez that washes our feet clean but we’re soon muddy again as we continue hiking. We’re not sure if the trail is so muddy because it’s been raining or if it’s always this way, but I’m already tired from the hike so far and it’s a struggle. It’s such a relief when we reach another boardwalk (more dilapidated than the first one) and can make better time. When the boardwalk ends, we decide to walk along the beach rather than the trail because of the mud. There are lots of people enjoying a day at the beach – picnicking, sitting in one of the many shelters, or playing in the water – in spite of the rain. Howler and Capuchin monkeys make their ways through the trees around us.

Capuchin Monkey

Finally, we take the trail again to reach the national park entrance in the town of Cahuita at about 2:00 pm, six hours after we started hiking. We all agree that we enjoyed the first two-thirds of the hike much more than the last third! But it was an adventure that  I wouldn’t have missed for the world.