By Sky Fisher
Located on Costa Rica‘s Caribbean Coast, just a twenty minute bus ride outside the small beach town of Cahuita, The Sloth Sanctuary is one of the only places in the world to focus solely on the sloth through education, research, and rehabilitation.
The Sloth Sanctuary became an official rescue center in 1997, five years after the Arroyo family found themselves the caretaker of an orphaned three-fingered sloth. At the time, even the San Jose Zoo was unable to provide information on how to properly care for the animal, so the Arroyo family figured it out themselves — and soon found themselves the caretakers of other orphaned sloths.
Since then, the Sloth Sanctuary has rescued approximately 500 sloths, with over 120 being rehabilitated to the wild. Unfortunately, not all sloths are able to return to the wild, either due to injury or being born in the sanctuary and therefore being incapable of surviving in the wild. These sloths find a permanent home at the sanctuary while the organization actively searches for a scientifically-backed method for reintroducing abandoned baby sloths to the rainforest.
A Sloth Sanctuary Tour Experience
It’s these sloths that they use to teach tourists about the often misunderstood but adored species. The sanctuary offers two tours: the Buttercup Tour and the Insider’s Tour.
When I visited in January 2015, I eagerly signed up for the Buttercup Tour. The experience begins with an educational lecture on the species and different types of sloths, as well as an introduction to the sloths which call the sanctuary home, including Buttercup, the first sloth the Arroyo family rescued. During this part of the tour, visitors are given an opportunity to see the sloths up close — though touching is prohibited (more on this below) — while learning interesting facts about the species, like that one of the biggest threats to sloths is electrical wires as many of their resident sloths are amputees due to electrocution.
Visitors are then taken to the nursery, where all of the sloths born at the sanctuary or babies found abandoned in the rainforest are taken care of. The education continues here, though the most exciting part is being introduced to one of the babies.
For those who want even more knowledge of sloths, the Insider’s Tour includes breakfast or lunch with Buttercup as well as extended access to different parts of the sanctuary. Visitors who participate in the Insider’s Tour are also able to make reservations at Buttercup Inn, the sanctuary’s on-site hotel.
Don’t Touch The Sloths
Both tours end with a guided canoe ride through the tropical lowland rainforest. Ideally, this is an opportunity to see a variety of wildlife and many even some sloths out in the wild but, despite having an excellent guide, we did not see any animals. Regardless, it was still a great conclusion to the tour.
However, the purpose of the Sloth Sanctuary is not just to educate tourists who dream of seeing a sloth up close but also devoting an extensive amount of time to researching the entire species.
One major discovery by the sanctuary was the connection between human handlers and the health of the sloths. They discovered that the sloths’ immune systems are fragile against foreign microbes, pathogens, and allergens. Additionally, they discovered the sloths experience acute tachycardia — a dramatic heart rate increase due to stress — when being handled by different people.
These important discoveries led to a strict no-touching policy at the sanctuary, as well as the closure of their internship/volunteer program. Though it can be disappointing to visitors, the Sloth Sanctuary keeps the health and safety of sloths as their main priority and encourage tourists to avoid touching sloths in the wild as well.
For those heading to Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast — and the sanctuary is a reason to visit itself — taking a tour at the sloth sanctuary is a must. It is rare to find an organization so committed to their mission and the research they’ve done has provided invaluable information on the species. Plus, baby sloths are too adorable to pass up seeing.
Buttercup Tours are available hourly from 8am-2pm, Tuesday-Sunday with no reservation required. Insider Tours happen twice a day and require a reservation.
Have you visited The Sloth Sanctuary? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.
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