The Best Way to see Sloths in Costa Rica

For about five years, it had been my dream to go to Costa Rica, for several reasons. Firstly, because to me it seemed like the happiest country on the planet, with no army since it was abolished in 1949- instead diverting all the funds to healthcare and education, secondly because it seemed like such a starkly different place nature-wise to England that it must be incredible, and thirdly: BECAUSE OF THE SLOTHS. I’m not sure exactly why, but I was completely obsessed with the idea of meeting one. In the flesh. Up close and personal. And so, when I was offered a contract to sing on a ship that docked regularly in Costa Rica, I leapt at the chance. Finally. My sloth dreams were about to come true. Joy to the world!! Take me to the SLOTHS.

You don’t need to look far to find one

A while ago, the wildlife and general eco-system of Costa Rica were being seriously threatened by deforestation. Rainforest was being chopped down left, right and centre to make way for farmland for cattle and crops; it was all getting a bit Fern Gully, know what I’m saying!? Luckily the government realised that this spelled Big Trouble for such a unique place (or any place, really), and made a concerted effort to decrease the level of deforestation and bring back the forests.

Although the problem-solving is a work in progress, nowadays there are trees wherever you look, and where there are trees…THERE ARE SLOTHS. In the more obvious places, like trekking through Cahuita National Park, on a boat through the Tortuguero Canals, or whilst ziplining amongst rainforest treetops, but even any time we got in a taxi to take us anywhere, we (and our obliging taxi driver), would keep our eyes peeled on the roadside trees to watch for balls of wiry sloth-hair tacked onto the branches overhead like starfish sticking to rocks in the sea. And pals, you’d be surprised by the frequency with which cries of ‘SLOTH!!!!’ were yelled as we drove, coupled with each time the stopping of the taxi and the entire contents of the car piling out to ogle at the completely still creature smiling lazily down from above.

Related: Ziplining in Costa Rica

Don’t go to the house of a random guy for a sloth photo-op

Clearly, I wasn’t the only visitor to Costa Rica who was intrigued by sloths, and people have cottoned on to the fact that these strange animals are a big tourist attraction. I mean, look at such animated sloth-celebrities as Sid the Sloth, and the hilariously slow sloths of Zootopia. It’s kind of like the Nemo effect, when everyone was suddenly desperate to get their hands on a Clownfish to tell them a joke or two, even though they weren’t really sure how to best look after them.

Every taxi driver in Puerto Limón seemed to know a local with a pet sloth hidden in their basement, who’s more than happy to let tourists have a hold and a photo for a small fee. The problem with this is: why and how do they have a sloth for a pet in the first place, and do they actually know how to take care of the poor guy? My guess is no, they do not, and firmly decided against being taken to a randomer’s house to have a hold.

Related: The Strangest Welcome to Costa Rica

The Sloth Sanctuary is the way forward!

So a group of us headed for the Sloth Sactuary near Cahuita, for what we hoped was a more ethical meet-and-greet. I wasn’t even fussed about holding one; I just wanted to see one up close, and at this place that was exactly the meeting we were going to get. After about half an hour in a taxi from the port, we approached the sanctuary which was marked with a gigantic stone statue of a sloth standing on its hind legs against a backdrop of rainforest trees. I wasn’t sure what to expect at this gigantic totem. We waited outside the building in the boiling sun, trying to photograph the odd lizard that appeared amongst the brightly coloured flowers in the dirt before disappearing hurriedly back into the foliage.

It turns out that it was a good thing I wasn’t fussed about holding a sloth; at the Sloth Sanctuary holding the animals is completely prohibited, because too much handling by humans can really mess with a sloth’s wellbeing. The majority of the sloths are kept together in one building, whether two-toed or three-toed (they’re actually completely different animals, with a starkly different genetic make-up), and they’ve ended up at the sanctuary for a variety of reasons. Some of them have been rescued from people who kept them illegally as pets, others were orphaned as babies or were hit by cars or power lines- turns out sloths aren’t fantastic at telling the difference between a tree and an electricity cable, the poor dears. Sometimes the sanctuary can nurse them back to health and release them back to the wild; but often the sloths who were brought here as babies won’t have the skills or immune system to survive in the wild.

I was fascinated to finally see so many of these amazing animals so close, you guys! One of my pals, however, was more than a little freaked out by the way they always seem to be smiling; I kind of see her point but they’re just so chilled out that I personally couldn’t see them as creepy at all. What a bunch of beauts!!

The staff at the Sloth Sanctuary had as much information about the sloths as you could ever hope to know, and my main curiosity was how two-toed and three-toed really did evolve completely differently at the same time, creating two separate genus of what was once the same species. Their skeletal structures are completely different; aside from the fact that one has three toes and the other two, one has long hair and the other short, and one is nocturnal and the other not. It can take these crazy critters up to a month to digest one meal through their four stomachs, and honestly whilst watching one lovely sloth eat it’s leafy dinner I thought it was going so slowly that it looked like the biggest chore in the world. Combine that with the fact that they only leave the shelter of their tree branches once a week, when they commute to the ground to go to the proverbial bathroom. Fancy.

But pals, I do not believe that sloths deserve the ‘lazy’ title that they’ve been given. This extreme lack of movement has allowed these creatures to survive in some form or other for over 65 million years, and I’d say that’s pretty good going! Now that humans appear to be taking over the planet in droves, it’s thanks to places like the Sloth Sanctuary that care for and rehabilitate them as well as study the way they live and their behavioural patterns, that help to ensure their survival. I was full on glad that we chose to come here to visit these beautiful creatures over paying someone $10 for a meet-and-greet with a suspiciously-procured pet.

How to see sloths in Costa Rica. A day at the Sloth Sanctuary which cares for adult and baby sloths.

What you need to know before you visit the Sloth Sanctuary

  • Normal entry price is $30 and also includes a boat ride along the Estrella River where you can check out the local flora and fauna, and probably see a few wild sloths.
  • You can pay more to go to the ‘Slothpital’ which I think is a downright fantastic word. This is where the tiny sloth-babies are looked after, although paying more DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN HOLD ONE.
  • It’s also possible to stay at the Sanctuary’s Buttercup Inn for around $100 a night.
  • The Sanctuary is closed on Mondays. So don’t even try it.
  • For more information on this beautiful place- check out the Sloth Sanctuary’s website
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