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Tree of Life in Costa Rica like an African safari on a budget

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Several Costa Rica "monkey islands" surrounded by moats serve as residential treatment centers for spider monkeys, howlers and capuchins, who are gradually introduced to troop life. Photo Credit: Patricia Vermeulen

Do you want to see amazing animals but lack the time and cash for an African safari? Interested in learning how to maintain the planet’s rich, but imperiled biodiversity? Hankering for a gorgeous tropical paradise?

If so, you have few better vacation bets than the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, which boasts phenomenal national parks and animal rehab centers.

Birders flock from all over the world to see toucans, kingfishers, herons and sandpipers in Cahuita National Park, where sloths and eyelash vipers dangle from trees like Christmas tinsel, howler monkeys and capuchins hurtle through the tree canopy and cheeky coatimundis share the trail with leaf cutter ants and trekkers.

Cahuita — a tiny village on the Caribbean Coast about 10 miles north of Puerto Viejo — is also home to the splendid but little-known Tree of Life animal rehab center and sanctuary, a lush botanical Shangri-La that preps injured and rescued kinkajous, pacas, pizotes, monkeys, red-lored parrots and other exotic birds to re-enter the tropical jungle.

The founder and frequent tour guide for the 12-acre paradise, Patricia Vermeulen, crusades to convince people that wild animals belong in the wild and of the importance of preserving wild habitats so they can stay there.

Whenever possible, the rescued animals at Tree of Life are returned to the Caribbean jungle, but sometimes their injuries make that impossible. Vermeulen tells visitors their heartrending stories: A jaguarundi — an elegant, compact bronze-black-cat with snakelike muscles — was found as a kitten after a bulldozer killed its two siblings. Monkeys kidnapped as infants were turned into the center after having turned aggressive.

Several “monkey islands” surrounded by moats serve as residential treatment centers for spider monkeys, howlers and capuchins, who are gradually introduced to troop life.

“We teach them how to become monkeys again,” said Vermeulen, who once worked with chimps in Sierra Leone.

Beyond the kinkajou and polka-dotted agouti, Tree of Life is also a good place to gawk at more familiar animals — little white-tailed deer (smaller than the specimens seen in New York State), turtles, snakes and raccoons, all kept in spacious enclosures on the 12-acre preserve.


If you go: Tree of Life can only be visited on tours, which are held Tuesday-Sunday at 11 a.m from November to mid-April and July-August. Admission is $15. For more information, go to

Nearby places of interest: More sanctuaries to visit include the world-famous Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica in Cahuita and the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo.

Getting there: Cahuita is closest to the Limon International Airport, but most visitors fly into Juan Santamaria International Airport in San José, the country’s capital, and rent a car or take a bus to Cahuita. If you’re schlepping lots of luggage, Interbus offers door to door service and costs about $52 from San José but requires reservations. There are also public buses run by Transportes Mepe.

Where to stay: Hotel Kelly Creek, Hotel La Diosa, Atlantida Lodge and Jenny’s Cabinas are all good budget options in Cahuita.


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