A few months ago I had booked a trip to Costa Rica for one thing in particular- to see the sloths of Aviarios del Caribe, the largest sloth sanctuary in the world. It has been my dream to see and meet these amazing animals for so long that it was a dream come true when I eventually arrived to Penshurt on Friday (the day exactly after fashion week! We had had a little party of our own on Thursday night to celebrate including drinks with my boss which was great to see- he’s usually very focused on just work! I eventually made it to the airport at 4am, albeit drunk and bleary eyed).
I had arranged private transport to take me to the sanctuary from the airport and although it cost me an arm and a leg, it was the easiest way to get there (which I needed, considering I was so tired and pretty hungover). The first thing to hit me was the heat- muggy and horrendous, I waddled out of the car, all other emotions overridden by pure adrenaline, and took in the marvel that is the sloth sanctuary. It’s a pretty big ranch with lots of different outbuildings and spaces outside. They even have a life size replica of the original pre-historic sloth that was as big as a T-Rex but was purely herbivorous.
After having a brief look around, I was greeted by Ursula, daughter of Judy, who had originally opened the sanctuary in 1972. It felt so strange to be greeted by the people I had been effectively stalking for the past decade on YouTube…
I was shown my room- a cute, air conditioned (thank Christ!) double room next to a gorgeous river. I was then invited to go upstairs and meet Buttercup. For those that don’t know, Buttercup is the original sloth that started the sanctuary in the first place when she was brought to Judy by a local who didn’t know what to do with her. She’s now been the patron of the sanctuary for just over 20 years. With that run up, you can imagine how excited I was at this point.
I went upstairs, through the gift shop and was greeted by a sleepy Buttercup, perched high up on her basket seat. As Ursula was nowhere to be seen at this point, I took the opportunity to offload some emotional responses to Buttercup- the first sloth I’d ever met in my life!
After pulling it back together and putting on my stoic British face, I went to check in with Ursula before going to have a look around the sanctuary. I spied the slothpital at the back of the sanctuary but managed to hold myself back from breaking through the gates! Tomorrow, I would have my tour.
A trip to a supermarket was what I had planned next but after waiting on the side of the road for an hour and a half to no avail, I raided a local corner shop just opposite the sanctuary for some bread and a drink.
After chilling with buttercup whilst eating my make-shift dinner, I decided to call it a night- sleeping for 15 hours straight in my air conditioned cabin with views out onto the lake and hearing Buttercup squeak every so often was pure bliss!
The next morning I awoke early for the main event: the insiders tour. I got up, greeted buttercup and had my breakfast with her on the porch. A nice French couple showed up who also wanted to do the tour and so after they had eaten, we went on the first part- the canoe ride.
What I couldn’t get over was the largest range of wildlife I had ever seen in my life: massive overhanging trees, sand crabs, a baby crocodile and even a family of bats were spied on the tour whilst silently gliding along the stream. It was so blissfully quiet and peaceful that it was hard to think about life back home and all the madness that is waiting for me when I get back!
We then went to see the baby sloths- those who had either been abandoned or had their mothers killed when they were too young to look after themselves. There were also a couple of ‘oops’ babies, so named by Claire, the voluntary carer who looks after them, who had been bread in captivity. Unfortunately, due to the fact that they haven’t learnt how to survive in the wild without their mums, they will have to live in captivity for the rest of their lives. However, adults that are brought to the sanctuary are all being prepared for release. That’s not to say that they don’t want to come back though- one sloth in particular has been released twice and both times, she managed to find her way back to the sanctuary: swimming lakes and climbing through miles of forest.
Hearing all their stories was fascinating and saddening. How these animals came to be at the sanctuary meant that the was always a sad tale, with many being electrocuted, attacked by dogs or humans (with one particularly vile man who was found kicking one to death because it was a ‘witch’ in disguise) or falling into hard surfaces and fracturing their spines. One sloth had to have his arm amputated when he fell off a power line, having been burnt all over his paws. One leg in particular had developed gangrene although the rest had all been saved. The staff at the sanctuary didn’t think he would make it, but when he awoke from surgery, he immediately went to his food and started chomping- a very happy sloth indeed! They named him Toyota as he has a lifetime guarantee!
As we had paid for the insiders tour we then got to see behind the scenes including playing with the baby sloths (albeit through their cages as if they meet too many newbies, they get stressed out). We also met the adults who we fed sloth chocolate too (a form of pink flower that grows at the sanctuary) before viewing the slothpital.
The slothpital is simply one little room at the back of the sanctuary. They’re still missing a lot of equipment but hope to buy more with the increase In visitors through tourism. They also keep stillborns and organs in preserves to aid with education purposes. They regard themselves as the place to come if you want to study sloths or practice veterinary on these animals. Judy’s grandson, Jeff, walked us through the process and told us how difficult it is to be a vet for sloths. He nearly became one himself but said how devastating it was to lose sloths when you’re so emotionally attached. I could definitely see why as he took us to the next room- the slothcubators, where all the newest and youngest sloths are kept. These are the little ones who can’t look after themselves and so are kept in temperature regulated cages and monitored hourly. We fed them a few petals of sloth chocolate before ending the tour with feeding buttercup the leftovers!
It’s been magical being at the sanctuary which I’ve been watching on YouTube since I don’t know when. I have one more night here before heading down to the Caribbean Coast for a little bit of me time. I’m then heading back to Medellín before finally making it back home to England- and what a year it has been!
I’ll be making some videos of my time in South America so keep your eyes peeled on my social platforms!