Tulum Monkey Sanctuary, in a world of its own
We arrived at the unmarked gate off the road to Coba early in the morning. Worried we were late, we rushed out of the car, happy to see a small group of people leaving what looked like the main entrance building. We were greeted by name by our tour guide, Frederick, and joined the rest of the group. Relieved we made it in time, we relaxed and looked around. We were on a tiny dirt road. To the right–horses were in a large fenced in enclosure. To our left rose the jungle. Our guide was quick to point out one of the ranch’s earliest residents, Don Tito. We looked overhead and perched in a tangle of branches overhead was a spider monkey, watching the new visitors to his home. We scrambled to take photos of him–high above–but Frederick urged us to follow him. We’d see more of him later he said, besides, there were plenty more that we could see up close and personal.
This was the start of our day at the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary–an area of close to 3 acres within a vast 61 acre ranch. The tour turned out to be one of several memorable highlights of our trip. It’s very different from the typical Tulum beach activities that we were used to…that’s what made it so enjoyable. It’s not often that you can wander through a jungle, dive into a cenote or have a spider monkey hold onto your finger for a photo-op. We also had a chance to learn a bit about the history of the Sanctuary. The story of how this wonderful animal refuge came into being is almost as fascinating as the animals themselves and we’ll be covering that in a separate article. For now though, we wanted to share our first-hand experience.
We heard about the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary while in Tulum last fall. It’s still a relatively new project. While the ranch and its owner, Richard, have been rescuing animals for over 15 years, it wasn’t until late 2012 that the actual Monkey Sanctuary was established and tours became available. The property is a sprawling jungle space full of plants, wildlife and cenotes (sinkholes of collapsed limestone that provide access to the underground freshwater river system that runs underneath the Yucatan Peninsula).
As we entered and joined the tour, walking along the dirt entrance road, we saw the horses and pony that now called the Sanctuary home. It reminded us of a petting zoo back home, with everyone scrambling around to pet the calm animals as they grazed on grass in their enclosure. After having the head of the spider monkey community, Don Tito, pointed out to us, our guide gave us a brief history of the observant monkey. He had been the first spider monkey rescued by the ranch’s owner over 15 years ago. He’d been there since he was around 8 years old and as others had been rescued, he had asserted himself as the leader of the community. Apparently spider monkeys have a complicated social and hierarchical structure engrained in them. The strongest alpha takes on the role of leader. This head monkey would enjoy the role of being in charge until a younger one decided to physically challenge him for the role of the alpha. If Don Tito lost the challenge he basically had 3 options: continue fighting to the death, admit defeat and remain a part of the community only now as a follower in the Sanctuary’s monkey community or go off in exile on his own where he’d be confronted with the dangers and threats of being on his own in the wild. It was a sad story to hear but also a fascinating one, giving depth to the internal makeup of an animal that we never knew had such a detailed ingrained social structure and in that way, making them all the more real and relatable.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, Frederick promised we would see more monkeys and he was true to his word. We headed towards the enclosure called “Monkey Island”–a large parcel of the ranch’s property that is protected by a shoulder-high fence. The fence allowed the monkeys within to get out and explore while keeping them safe from hungry predators. Just before the fence, we came to two large pens that housed two spider monkeys each.
These pairs of monkeys weren’t quite ready for introduction into the wild community of the Sanctuary. Having been rescued from the illegal pet trade, they had lived their lives in cages, never learning the intricate social skills monkeys used to interact with each other. Until they acquired these skills they risked being rejected, attacked or killed by the free monkeys on the property. By keeping the monkeys segregated for now, the Sanctuary hoped to integrate them slowly into the general population on Monkey Island when they are rehabilitated and stand a chance of surviving on their own. It’s a tough situation because the animals can’t be released on their own because they’d never survive. Having been around humans so long, they’ve lost the skills and knowledge so essential to their species survival such as recognizing humans and predator animals as threats, climbing high in the trees for travel instead of crossing busy roadways, avoiding high-voltage wires and other things that monkeys in the wild just seseem to innately know. As tragic as the background of these animals was, it was heartwarming to know they were now being cared for and had a chance at living more natural lives. It’s also a unique experience to be so close to these exotic jungle inhabitants.
We walked along the perimeter of the fenced-in Monkey Island, watching a newly born spider monkey follow its parent. The animals were clearly happy and content here, Frederick suggested, or else chances are they wouldn’t be reproducing.
After convincing us that the monkeys would still be there when we returned–the group didn’t want to leave the spider monkey part of the tour–we were guided to a round palapa house nearby where the volunteers who worked at the Sanctuary–presently a revolving group of 5-6 people–lived communally. Next up was a stop at a cenote teeming with fish that rests alongside the home of the ranch’s owner, Richard. We even got a glimpse of a small crocodile who recently began calling the swimming hole home before we moved deeper into the jungle.
Frederick took time to point out some of the local flora in the area and their unique properties. We saw a pairing of two unique trees that you can only find scattered in this region of Mexico. One–a normal looking tree which seeped a deep black sap–would leave anyone who touched its resin with something similar to a severe case of poison ivy while the other–one with flaky red bark–was the only known remedy to the irritant, its bark crushed and rubbed upon the afflicted skin. The pair would always be found right next to each other, which tied into an ancient Mayan myth about these trees which he happily shared before moving on and pointing out a tree covered with thorny protrusions going all the way up its trunk.
We wandered past the 5 acre enclosure that is home to a herd of white-tailed deer–the descendents of ones that the owner of the Sanctuary rescued from an abusive rancher years earlier. We came to the next part of the tour–and a perfect way to cool off after 2 hours in the wild. A narrow cenote, or opening in the limestone ground of the jungle, gave access to a larger pool of water about 40 feet away. After reassuring some of the group that the crocodile lived in the first body of water we’d come across a while back, we were invited to plunge in through the opening and swim underground to the main section. The less adventurous were given the option of simply walking over and descending a set of wooden stairs. Surprisingly most of the guests welcomed the excitement of taking a step off the ledge and falling 10 feet into the deep, cold water. We joined in. Feet toeing the edge of the opening, we took one step and dropped right down and swam through the tunnel–stalactites and a few bats skittering overhead–before reaching the calm, relaxing pool at the end.
Time had flown. We’d already been on the property for close to 3 hours and after drying off, were escorted back to the spider monkey area for one last glimpse of them before heading back to the main entrance.
The Tulum Monkey Sanctuary offered us something vastly different to do than just sit on the beach. It was a fun, interesting, easy-going excursion that you could never experience anywhere else. Located 10 minutes from the Tulum’s hotel zone, it felt as if it was in a world all its own. It was also satisfying to know the proceeds from the our tour were helping to feed the animals, run the conservation center and allow for further improvement to the rehabilitation services that it can provide. With two tours running daily, a visit is easy to fit into anyone’s vacation itinerary. It was truly a perfect break from the beach sun, offered amazing photograph opportunities and would be a terrific, quick excursion for couples, families or solo travelers.
The future of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary seems bright. Plans are underway for the purchase of a 140o acre ranch that will allow for rehabilitated spider monkeys to be reintroduced into the wild far from the rapidly developing coastal area. It would offer more space for further rescue projects for other animals including dogs–something very needed in all regions of Mexico, cats, pigs and horses. There are also plans to offer lodging in a hotel or hostel that will be built in the area. For those interested, stay tuned. We will keep you up-to-date and will be posting the news on this project as it moves along.
In the meantime, if you’re in the area, make a visit to the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary part of your vacation. You can book it through http://destination-tulum.com/ via their Gateway to Tulum Travel Services or you can visit the Sanctuary’s website to reserve a slot in one of the tour groups. http://www.tulummonkeysanctuary.com/
Co-founded Destination-Tulum in 2013. Presently balancing life between NY and the Yucatan Peninsula with the goal of being based full-time in Tulum.