The Search for the Howler Monkey

The Search for the Howler Monkey

I had lived in Canada for two years before travelling around Costa Rica, but it in no way prepared me for the trip that I was about to experience. Unlike the other 99.99% (statistics not accurate) of Australians who travel to and live in Canada, I didn’t work in the mountain resorts, spending every second snowboarding. Instead, I lived and worked in Vancouver with my Canadian boyfriend, Matt. I followed the hockey, drank Caesars and acquired an accent. I thought of myself as a citizen of the world, as well as well-travelled. How wrong I was. Saying you’re a traveller after living in Canada is like saying you’re a yogi after taking a few yoga classes. You’re not. You just moved from one English-speaking country to another, the only real difference between the two is that you can offend people when being sarcastic in Canada – and it gets a lot colder.

So, without taking any of that into consideration, I grabbed my backpack, took my malaria pills and headed off with Matt on a five-week journey through this tiny Central American country, with only my Lonely Planet guide to give me tips on the Costa Rican culture. My Spanish went as far as being able to tell the difference between buenos dias, buenas tardes and buenos noches.

But, I was excited to start the trip! I was ready to leave the sombre, wintry days of Vancouver and enter the balmy, tropical paradise that was Playa Hermosa.

There were two things that I absolutely had to experience whilst in Costa Rica: white-water rafting and seeing a howler monkey.  The black howler monkeys are the largest primates in the Americas, being able to grow up to almost a metre in height. I didn’t think it would be too hard of a task to spot these relatively giant monkeys amongst the trees. Big, black creatures who literally howl at almost all hours of the day really shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? Wrong.

The howlers were most vocal in the early morning and evening. Matt and I knew they were there; we heard them. They were, at least it sounded as if they were, right outside our cabana. Upon hearing them on our very first night in Playa Hermosa, we searched the trees and the tiny spit of rainforest that was right at our doorstep. We found fireflies, geckos and even a chicken perched in a tree that night. But no howlers.

The next morning, the barks, howls and roars started again, and even in the fresh light of the day, the monkeys were still hiding in the trees. Later on, our neighbours, Americans who were staying in the cabana next to ours, told us that the howlers were seen earlier that morning on a hiking trail. They gave us the directions for the trail, and we went to bed early with the best intentions to rise with the sun in the morning.

Waking up at the crack of mid-morning, Matt and I had slept through the howlers’ busiest part of their day. Disappointed but determined, we decided we would still go hiking and hope that we could see some monkeys who had slept in like we had. So off we set at 10:30 in the blazing sun, with the air temperature at about 38 degrees Celsius.


Never seen a mirage? Go to Costa Rica. I was beginning to look for gondolas coming down the road. Did I mention we had travelled from a Canadian winter? It was hot.

Matt and I had reached the crest of a small mountain without seeing or hearing any monkeys. The sun was high up in the sky now and like the rest of us, the monkeys were presumably exhausted from the heat and taking a siesta. Today was not going to be our day.

Giving up, we decided instead to hike down the mountain and take a dip in the Pacific. It was taunting us. Daring us to swim amongst it. Standing on top of that sweltering, dusty mountain, I wanted nothing more than to be in that ocean. One problem: we had to get down.

Being a Canadian, Matt was (and still is) ridiculously good at anything that involves slopes, hills and mountains, and I was not.

He began the easy (looking) task of what can only be described as dirt skiing. Basically, one uses their own feet as a set of skis and begins the descent down the mountain, spraying dirt, rocks and grass everywhere as one goes, including in one’s shoes and up one’s nose.

I took two steps down and fell on my face.

45 painstakingly slow minutes later, we had reached the bottom and found we had our own private beach. The air was cooler and the water was a refreshing temperature. I winced as the salt hit my scrapes and cuts, but was grateful to have reached the beach.

We took the rest of the day to discover the surrounding beaches and caves that wound around the Nicoya coastline, and even though we didn’t find my beloved howler monkey I did discover:

  • I could in fact climb across rocks and caverns not unlike the kind Captain Hook leaves Princess Tiger-Lily in in Peter Pan.
  • It doesn’t matter that you cannot speak fluent Spanish – locals are still extremely thankful when you help them pull their bogged truck out of the crashing waves.
  • A place still exists where Fanta is served in glass bottles.
  • SPF 60 plus sunscreen is still not strong enough when your skin has not seen the light of day for five months.

For the whole week while we were in Playa Hermosa, Matt and I saw a total of zero howler monkeys. We saw an abundance of lizards, strange birds that we assumed have to be the direct descents of pterodactyls, stray cats without tails, dogs who were willing to bite us in two if we came any closer into their territories and colonies upon colonies of bats.

We did eventually see the howlers. At our next stop, a sleepy, little surf town called Playa Guiones. Matt and I were finding our room in a hostel and in a tree right above our front door was a baby black howler monkey, quietly eating berries off of a branch.

We hadn’t even been looking.


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