I don't think it's any kind of secret that my husband loves monkeys. I mean really, really loves them. For some kids, the wish every year at Christmas is for a puppy. Others, like me, become obsessed with horses. For Rob, it was all about the monkeys and it's an interest he has held onto even into adulthood. You can imagine my delight when, in the process of planning a spectacular weekend to celebrate my sweetie's 40th, I stumbled upon some interesting comments on the web about a spider monkey sanctuary just down the road in Chemuyil! This mysterious habitat, The Jungle Place, sounded like just the right kind of unforgettable destination for Rob and the kids to enjoy together on his birthday.
I had made previous arrangements with the owners, via email, several weeks in advance and was told the best time to interact with the monkeys would be in the late morning. So, off we went, south on 307, and just 35 minutes later made the turn into Chemuyil. The Jungle Place, or Kuxi Kaax, is easy to find just another 3 minutes or so past the puebla. We pulled in, crept down the narrow winding driveway surrounded by beautiful palms and flowering plants and quickly arrived at our destination. I couldn't help thinking how strange it was that we have lived in Playa del Carmen for nearly 4 years and I have heard barely a whisper about this amazing place. The owners, Heidi and Joel were waiting and welcomed us to their home, a home they share happily with 13 rescued spider monkeys!
We exchanged hellos with Heidi, Joel and Linda, a primatologist and educator on an extended visit from Washington State. We each shared a bit of our respective histories, where we are all originally from, how long we have lived in Mexico, what drew us here etc., all within just a few feet of an enclosure which rivals those of most modern zoos. It turns out that, at one time, Joel and Heidi had grand plans for a beach house. Then they were "bit" as they say, by the "monkey bug" and the house on the beach turned into a home on 20 acres of jungle interwoven with cages and bungalows. During this time, the monkeys are sizing us up, listening to our voices, watching our body language and becoming accustomed to our presence from the shelter of their cage.
Heidi gave me some tips on successful herb gardening.
Connor says "hello" to a new furry friend.
Joel introducing Cole to the group.
Birdie bottle feeding the new baby.
Finally, it was time to enter the enclosure. Joel took the lead and calmly guided Rob, Birdie and Cole into the large habitat set up for the female spider monkeys. I chose to stay outside and document the encounter and poor Connor, battling "la gripa", was not allowed prolonged close contact with the monkeys. The primates can catch whatever virus we may introduce but have no way to battle the illness and may ultimately die from a simple cold. It is also dangerous for the monkeys to come into contact with many of the chemicals used in sunscreens and insect repellents. While Heidi does provide a wonderful all-natural bug cream, she has also painstakingly planted the entire property with naturally repellent plants like lemon grass which keeps their home and the monkeys' cages mosquito free! We never saw a single bug during our visit. These monkeys are quite obviously happy and healthy. One of the females gave birth last year to their first "baby" conceived on-site. Spider monkeys, much like humans, mate by choice. The mother will tend to her off-spring diligently for the first 4 years, shunning all advances from interested males.
Birdie anticipating a "dive bomb" from above!
It amazed us all how clean the monkeys were. Even in this close proximity, they had no odor at all. Joel showed us how they "bathe" themselves using the oils from lime leaves!
I can only hope that my pictures tell the story because to say that this experience was magical does not come close to doing it justice. Rob and the kids were in the enclosure interacting with the monkeys for over an hour! The smile on my husband's face as these playful creatures climbed him like a jungle gym, eventually falling asleep on his shoulders and in his arms, was priceless. The monkeys seemed to regard Birdie and Cole as one of their own and busied themselves trying to untie shoe laces and remove hair-ties from their new friends. The children were instructed to try not to show their teeth when they smile as this is perceived as an act of aggression (one we would see later while visiting the males). Sweet Birdie couldn't help but grin ear to ear and spent most of the time with one hand firmly clamped over her mouth!
Connor looking on with Heidi and Linda.
It was easy to see who was voted Mr. Popularity in the monkey set. Handsome even without the prehensile tail!
Then, just as suddenly as they had attached themselves to Rob and the kids when they entered the cage, the monkeys retreated to their respective areas in the enclosure and settled in for a mid-day siesta, leaving the humans to chat about daily life and routines at The Jungle Place, where all of these monkeys came from and how they could possibly support such a huge endeavor on donations and bungalow rentals. Heidi and Joel were thrilled to find out that we are friends and supporters of the Peanut Animal Shelter in Playa del Carmen, and we promised to put them in touch with Andy and Jen to help build their network of supporters. The lifespan of these fragile creatures is 30-40 years and they have no chance of survival outside of the care of Heidi and Joel and the security provided by The Jungle Place. This endeavor is truly a lifetime commitment.
Connor saying goodbye with the secret monkey handshake.
After a bit of conversation and exploration of their amazing palapa home we went to visit the male monkeys. Many of these poor creatures had been so abused and malnourished that they will never fully recover emotionally. It was interesting to see the vast differences in personalities and mannerisms and be able to clearly pick out which ones are "not all there", so to speak. Despite repeated warnings to stay out of the reach of long monkey arms, one of them, Chucky, managed to get ahold of my hair. Unlike the playful females who may tug at your hair out of curiousity, the males are aggressive, strong and they are playing for keeps. My scalp is still tender today!
One of the enclosures is over 30 feet tall.
More of the labyrinth of cages and chutes.
The "unfinished symphony" . A building project that took a backseat to cage repairs after hurricane Wilma. Funds raised from visitors will go a long way toward finishing this remarkable guest cottage.
We reluctantly bid our farewells, promising not only to return soon, but to get the word out, in our own way, to as many locals and visitors as possible. If you have children, this is an experience not to be missed. Even if you don't have children, if you love the Riviera Maya for all of its exotic flora and fauna, this is an opportunity to preserve a small piece of that unspoiled beauty and support a worthy enterprise. Looking for a way to take in the natural resources of this region? An outing that is more authentic and economical ($15 dollars per person) than Xel Ha or Xcaret? Why not spend a morning with the spider monkeys, take a dip in the nearby cenote Xunan Ha, grab a delicious pizza to go at Leo's Pizza in Chemuyil and then spend a lazy afternoon on one of the most beautiful and remote stretches of beach in all the Riviera Maya, Xcacel. I guarantee you will come away with the feeling that you really experienced some of the best of what Quintana Roo has to offer its more inquisitive and adventurous visitors.