A Memorable Monkey Sanctuary Day Trip to Puerto Barillas

First and foremost, welcome to the final blog post of my El Salvador series! If you have read all of my #INElSalvador posts, we did it, Joe. I decided that it was only appropriate to end this series with the highlight of the trip, the monkey sanctuary. This encounter has become one of my top 3 travel experiences. Of course, I have seen monkeys on various occasions, but never like this. Never so close. And never so, free. Let’s rewind.

Leaving our original accommodation, my sister suggested paying a visit to a monkey sanctuary she stumbled on. As it was an activity we all would be interested in, I grew deeply invested. I promptly headed to the website and began corresponding with the business. The site made it explicit that reservations are mandatory. With that in mind, I called and emailed numerous times, on multiple occasions, for several days to no avail. Disappointed, we chose that the best course of action would be to show up. The worst they can do is turn us down. And, what company declines business from a group?

Making our way was not an enigma. The question was, which day would we commit to doing a sum of 6 hours of driving? Yes, 6. The 5 of us went back and forth, contemplating what we desired to do before our trip came to an end. Later, we concluded that the most suitable day for this excursion was my birthday. We settled on leaving very early on the morning of my 25th. We prepared to leave our Airbnb in Teotepeque at some outlandish hour, 5 am, if I am not mistaken.

The day of the 20th, we awoke late, of course. Closer to the time we were meant to arrive in Puerto Barillas. Following midnight celebrations, it was to be assumed. We left the house with snacks and refreshments, equipped for the hours we would spend in the car. After turning on our (proven unreliable) Google Maps, we put on music and commenced counting down the hours in the vehicle.

The trip went by more swiftly than anticipated. Following the first hour or so of highway driving, we drove along the countryside of this beautiful South American nation. Believe it or not, I honestly appreciated it. Plus, I’m sure my best friend insisting that she drive significantly contributed.

With roughly 20 minutes to go, we crossed through this quaint, cute town called Jiquilisco. After being smooshed in a small car for approaching 3 hours, moods were visibly elevated. Aromas of a variety of foods filled the vehicle. It did not take long for us to realize that this was a necessary stop. We parked on the right side of the cobblestone street. Before I knew it, we all exited and made our way to a food stand. As your token lactose-intolerant, I separated myself from traditional Spanish foods containing more cheese than my body could ever fathom in a single sitting. I grabbed a natural fruit smoothie and found seats while my friends got their food. We consumed the semi-decent food/drinks and allowed ourselves a few moments to tour the small shops, take photos, and stretch our legs before returning to the car.

Before departing, we inquired about routes to the sanctuary as Google gave my sister and me conflicting instructions. A storekeeper confirmed my instructions and physically pointed to where we had to go. We followed suit.

If I attempted to recollect the number of times we got lost, handed our phones to strangers, drove to dead ends, and recalculated the directions, it would be a misuse. Out of annoyance, we attempted instructions from my sister’s phone. I’m not sure what took us so long to do so, but my stubbornness more than likely contributed.

Once we ultimately allowed my best friend’s phone to guide us, we began making headway. At the time, it was not evident. The pavement beneath the tires quickly turned into rocks, dirt, and mud. We went down windy, rocky roads with no car in sight but the one we were seated. Confused and nervous, I grew reluctant. Passing through a field with a handful of tiny airplanes, we were adamant that we were in the wrong place. She (Queen) persisted. Shortly after, we approached a gate with an attendant. The attendant confirmed that we were in the correct area, but more driving was needed. It was bold of me to assume that the gate was just minutes from the sanctuary. It seemed as though we drove for miles beyond the initial barrier. Time passed before we proceeded to the second gate. Greeted by a security guard asking for reservation details, we recorded our information as if we had one. He let us in and directed us to follow our soon-to-be tour guide. The man rode his bike and signaled us where to park. The vacant parking lots assured us there was nothing to worry about reservation-wise.

We scrambled out of the vehicle. Our soon-to-be tour guide escorted us to the office, where we needed to confirm our activities. Although I understood this was a lodge and had more than just the monkey sanctuary, I did not discern how much there was to do here. The packages included the monkeys only, half-day, and full-day admissions. The half and full-day passes gave unrestricted access to all of their offerings, including (but not limited to) the monkey sanctuary, of course, bike tours, kayak rentals/tours, cacao plantation tours, boat tours, and sports fishing. As we arrived later than planned, we elected to do the sanctuary only. For 15 Salvadoran colóns, this ticket also included a meal. Given the options, we placed our order so it would be ready by our return.

As none of us ever experienced anything like this, we came equipped with questions. Through our series of inquiries, we got a feel for the sanctuary and the animals. One of my questions included how many monkeys are there and how many will we be seeing? The response put things into perspective. She didn’t know. No, that was not her being ignorant about her workplace. We received the same response from the man we later met who has taken care of the monkeys for more years than I have been on this earth. She revealed that they are unaware of how many monkeys are in this space since the animals are not in captivity, nor are they tagged. They are home. She explained that we would tour through the rainforest to locate the animals. I did not know quite what to expect, but it wasn’t this.

As we were leaving, she gave us a warning regarding one of the youngest monkeys, Lola. Lola is the only monkey that has grown up with humans visiting her for the entirety of her being. She stated that Lola tends to be shy and standoffish. But, if she is comfortable with you, you will see how playful she can be. Consider us warned.

It takes us a minute or two to stroll from the office to the entrance of the rainforest. From the instant we enter, I am in complete bliss. Mangoes and bananas fell from the trees creating shade. We listened to the movement of animals as we progressed and thought we arrived at our monkey friends, but that was not the case. The guide explained that some do wander along the path, but for the most part, they stay in one area, which we were yet to approach. To the left was a large body of water, a lake, with a few birds that I have never seen. The images of alligators and snakes immediately consumed me. He assured us that we would be fine, and although we did see peeping eyes from the water, we had no choice but to put our trust in him.

Approaching what resembled a break in the trail, our guide started calling for Lola. Suddenly, we hear wrestling in the trees. And observe spider monkeys above us flying from one branch to another. Our tour guide picked up ripe fruits and handed them to us along the way for this very instant. So, we arrived bearing gifts. They noticed immediately, and I know it was the only reason they initially entertained us entering their home. We were in awe. Looking up, I saw monkeys flying from trees taller than skyscrapers. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Nothing to force these wild animals to stay in place, no tags. Just pure freedom and the desire to be exactly where they are.

After taking in the experience for a moment, I soon FaceTimed my mom. I did not suspect I would get any service, but that one bar pulled through, and my mom was able to join in on the experience for just a minute. I started taking photos and videos, but nothing appeared to capture my views.

Euphoria nearly produced tears. As swiftly as the monkeys came, they went. A few lingered, waiting for us to offer the fresh fruit kept in our hands. A man approached us from a small house in the break of the trail. He was the man that we learned about in the office. We communicated to the best of our ability, given the language barrier. From what I understood, he has been living there for over 30 years. He takes care of the animals and has witnessed generations of monkeys during his time there. Our guide loosely translated to us that the animals wake him up every morning. When he called them by their names, they came. His bond with the monkeys was apparent. They were comfortable with him. They wrapped their tails around his body and hung down, they sat on his head, and this is his daily life. These relationships were years in the making.

Within seconds of being there, I desired the monkeys to be comfortable with me as well. I wanted them to wrap their tails around me, hang from my body, and sit on my head. I asked and boy, did I receive. I offered the monkeys my fruit. Most accepted. Some could immediately determine it was not ripe enough for their liking and rejected my offer. I was hurt. Others grasped it from my hands and flung it right back at me. I suppose it’s disrespectful to offer a monkey a fruit they have access to when it is not the best, right? The rest had the fruit and shared it with the babies that held onto them so tightly. That was it, the breakthrough. They started to get comfortable with us, especially Lola, to our surprise.

Before we knew it, Lola was jumping from my head to my siblings. I soon recognized that black people do not visit regularly. If at all. Or perhaps just black women with protective styles because Lola had a field day. As soon as she got comfortable, she began tugging at our braids and faux locs. Lola would go from jumping from each of our heads to filling her tiny hands with braids and yanking while running. She would sit on top of our heads and massage our hair as if she was in awe. Lola was extremely playful. She would stretch out her hand for me to hold as her tail was wrapped around a branch expecting me to swing her little body. We immediately became friends, and what was mine became hers. Trying to take a selfie while she sat on my head, she reached for my phone as if she wanted to take a selfie too. She gently pulled the bracelets on my wrist while looking at me, almost to say give me.

As stated earlier, these are independent beings. Free to roam, free to run, free to leave, free. Yet, there was a single monkey held in captivity. This spider monkey was one of the first we saw. I instantly felt terrible. The tour guide and the man living among the animals soon revealed that he was responsible for taking the life of another monkey. To me, he looked like an innocent animal, so I had a hard time grasping the half Spanish, half English we spoke. The caretaker confirmed that this was the oldest male in the area, and as a result of his actions, he could not roam freely. He held my hand and was very gentle when I fed him the fruits the other monkeys refused to accept. He allowed me to be comfortable with him before exposing myself to the rest.

Although I have mainly spoken about Lola, many monkeys kept us company, played around with us, and exemplified just how intelligent these animals are. Observing them in their natural habitat and being so willing to spend time with us warmed my heart. These creatures deserve to live in a place where they are free to live life. My experience reinforced my hatred of zoos and keeping animals captive for entertainment purposes.

I cannot recollect how long our small group spent with the monkeys, but roughly 40 minutes sounds about right. We traveled back the same way we came in. This time, we could not stop raving about the adventure we just had. Times of silence were non-existent. A bit sadder than the last time we walked this path but overjoyed nonetheless.

We arrived from the rainforests with our meals waiting for us. Regularly, included meals are nothing notable. Or just not that appealing. For the millionth time that day, I was stunned. The cute establishment overlooked one of the lakes on the property. Shortly after we were seated, we received appetizers. I had no clue that I would indulge in a three-course meal at the very place I came to see monkeys. And actually, enjoy it? I digress.

Our $15 brought us a very long way. The company could have charged 5x the amount, and I would willingly spend these coins to see my girl, Lola. The 6 hours of driving and the prices we paid for snacks and gas were worth it.

Reflecting on this adventure makes me want to visit El Salvador annually. If you admire animals and nature, this is right up your alley. 10/10 recommend!

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