How to take a responsible Costa Rican mangrove boat tour

A few days ago we (4 adults and 4 kids, 1.5-5yo) went on a boat tour of the Damas Estuary near Manuel Antonio National Park. There are a lot of tours to choose from, but fundamentally you want a place that will tell you NO if you ask to touch the monkeys (or other wildlife).

It’s so tempting to want to participate in the observation, but these rich wildlife habitats are already stressed, so let’s not push it. The guides are also under intense economic pressure to please tourists, so it’s crucial that you, as a visitor, take the lead in setting expectations. Let your guide know from the start that you know it’s not okay to touch the wildlife, particularly not the sociable capuchin monkeys. And don’t pressure them to take you closer for photo ops. If the animals are disturbed, the animals are disturbed. It’s their house and it’s possible to enjoy them without being all up in their business. Take a good camera and a pair of binoculars.

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Sweet bats resting under an old train bridge

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Weeeee!

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Little Whiptail lizard

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Majestic Mangrove Black Hawk, just checking us out

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Egrets

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Beehive

We booked our tour through the concierge at Tulemar Resort and our guide, Jason, was excellent. He had been a rafting wildlife guide for 10 years before starting to do the mangrove tours. The company is called Avenatura and if you are in the area it’s easy to book. The concierge at Tulemar made it clear that the guides only take you out at high tide, so there’s no flexibility with the start time–you go when they go. That’s a first sign to look for when booking your trip. We’ve heard of guides taking people out at low tide when the mangroves were barely navigable.

In our case that meant leaving at noon (naptime!). Jason picked us all up and brought us to a small restaurant hotel just outside the mangrove forest for a delicious lunch before heading in.1-IMG_8578-001

He stopped at the side of the road and grabbed a leaf off a tree. “Costa Rican toilet paper!” He laughed. One side was rough and the other velvety soft. He asked our kids what color the leaf was “olive!” but he smiled and rubbed the leaf between his fingers. When he took his fingers away they were blood red. It was a teak leaf, he explained. The red came from iron and was used by indigenous peoples for paint. Now, as we know, it’s a valuable export wood for all kinds of other reasons.

We talked local politics as it was an election day. He answered our pent up questions–why were the buses so much fancier than we’d seen other places in Central America (and honestly, even in the US where public transport in most places is a lame afterthought)? He explained that the Costa Rican government recently began requiring that all buses be from the year 2000 or more recent, and have a set of features and safety standards. As a political science PhD, this was my kind of tour guide!

When we arrived he checked everyone’s shoes and said that, because it was a new moon the water was a foot and a half higher than normal at high tide and the little sand bag pier was a bit under water. Our fearless 5 year old walked out holding Jason’s hand, but the boat figured out how to pull up to shore so we didn’t have to wade.

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Jason made a few too many jokes (for my taste) about us all being eaten by huge snakes if we fell overboard, but was an incredible guide. He had a great sense of humor and was wonderful with the kids. When they got rowdy he said, “eh, it’s pretty shallow, but here’s a picture of the poisonous snake we saw yesterday, that was something we hadn’t seen in a long time” and showed us a little brown snake on his phone.

The wildlife was incredible. There were so many birds! Jason explained the different types of mangrove in the estuary–white, red, and black–and the differences in their appearance. His explanation (all in English) of the way the roots take in salt water, process it, and return the excess, as well as “breath” creatively in low oxygen environments, was eloquent. He talked about the number of species that live in the tropical forests here and in the mangroves, and why maintaining them is so important.

One of the first birds we spotted was a Roseate Spoonbill. Jason said “ooh, it’s been 8 months since we saw those here. Look, there’s the female, that one is the male, see how he’s more apprehensive about us and beginning to posture?” He explained that the babies are born white, but turn pink from eating mollusks.

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Because we were trying to keep our 5 year old from mimicking someone else’s 8 year old who was hitting trees with a long stick and trying to grab the branches, as well as keep our 1.5 year old from jumping overboard to see things, I can’t remember all the names of everything he showed us. As a side note, my husband did not see any wildlife because he was on the toddler while I took photos and managed the big kid. For young toddlers, you’ll have to weigh for yourself whether it’s worth it to take the whole family (also no carseats for the drive out). But it was still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

Jason caught a tiger face crab with quick fingers–tiny little thing–and held it up for us to see, then tossed it to a lizard on the shore to convince it to unfreeze so we could spot it.

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This was when I really began to get a sense of the dance these guides do. How to make the experience interesting and memorable for foreign tourists in a way that doesn’t invade too much. We came across another boat full of kids and a few adults where the guide was mashing banana into one person’s hand after another and calling down capuchin monkeys to eat off their hands.

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What your guide should not let you do

Jason said nothing, but did not follow suite. I switched to Spanish and quietly asked. We aren’t supposed to be touching the animals are we? No, he replied, and actually held up a laminated sheet with ten reasons not to feed the monkeys written on it, and began to explain. We have bug spray and sunscreen on our hands. We have our own gut bacteria and microbes. We make them sick. He said “look at that monkey, see how it sniffs the hand before eating? That’s a monkey that’s had a run in with sickness from eating off a human hand before and now knows to smell for things that seem off. It can make them very very ill.” He went on. Some of these monkeys have rabies, so if you get scratched by accident you can also get sick. But they are ultimately in the most danger. He said softly “tourists just always want to feed the monkeys.” And shrugged. I was grateful no one in our group had asked, it was obvious that they face a lot of pressure to please visitors.

As we were starting to get tired (they’ll tailor the length of the trip to your group’s stamina) Jason reached out and grabbed a fern from the bank, laid it on his arm, and asked my 5 year old to slap it. The underside of the fern left a sort of chalky tattoo, it was lovely and the children were thrilled.

The mangrove boat tour was awesome, and we are so glad it was an option and feel lucky that–without knowing ahead of time the environmental issues or thinking it through at all–we landed a responsible guide. There’s so much to see!

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Can you spot the Iguana?

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Heron

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Cherrie’s Tanager

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Great Blue Heron

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