Photos by: Micaella Penning
Photos by: Micaella Penning

“I know it’s early, but do you want to go look for monkeys now?” my mother asked. We wandered up the road, gravel crunching beneath our feet, the morning heat already heavy. We heard a distant howl, and hoped it was the howler monkeys. I’d always dreamt of seeing them in the wild. A Great Kiskadee whirred past, with a bright yellow stomach, sienna wings, and black and white striped head. Pink flowers bloomed amidst the treetops, upon which the shadows of birds flitted. Palm fronds layered in shadow and light created an undulating, woven pattern. A plaid of sun and shade, a plaid of branches. But the monkeys remained elusive, the howls that of a dog.

Back near the ocean’s edge, frigatebirds swooped across the sky. Little lizards darted along the meandering pathways, beneath the wings of dozens of hovering damselflies. The air smelled salty, and parakeets squawked from tree to tree. Iguanas, speckled and spiny, bobbed their heads, darting suddenly through the leaves, which were sere and crisp, like burnt potato chips, their movement a prehistoric, slithering waddle.

We were on Costa Rica’s northwestern coast, just north of the small village of Potrero, in the province of Guanacaste. Named for the country’s national tree, (also known as the elephant ear tree, for the curious shape of its seedpods), the province is the least-populated part of the nation.
One morning I walked south during low tide, around a rocky outcrop that was underwater and wave-thrashed at high tide. Above rose a steep hillside of volcanic rock, with arrow-straight saguaros poking up like ridged toothpicks, bleached white at the base. Thick, curling branches of poinciana trees with long green pods grew sinisterly in looping curves and jagged angles, backlit by the gray-white sky. I scanned the treetops – hoping for a glimpse of curled tail or the sound of a soft grunt. Nothing. I couldn’t quite define my intense desire to see monkeys in the wild – perhaps it stemmed from my childhood, and the hours I spent reading Curious George, or playing with red plastic Monkeys in a Barrel, or watching The Endless Summer II over and over, dreaming of a vagabonding existence, seeing Pat and Wingnut squeal with laughter in Costa Rica as howler monkeys roared in the trees above.

I peered into clear, calm tide pools, with gouged-out indentations filled with inky purple sea urchins. Pale, burnished pink coral fans like feathers swayed gently underwater. The rocks glinted and squirmed with the sideways scuttling of blue-shelled crabs – it seemed each step I took ignited a new wave of scurrying.

The water was now turquoise, not the faded khaki green when the dark sand rushed akimbo in the thundered waves. A shirtless man crouched over the tide pools with a five-gallon bucket nearby. I wondered what he was searching for. Perhaps sea urchins – I had recently read of eating them raw on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. But they were plentiful here, and the man seemed not to be finding anything.

A large pelican sat high above me, in a tree with giant pods. Its large, webbed feet splayed over the skinny branch. It shook its neck violently, then raised its beak to the sky, swallowing. Then it sat still, alone, for no monkeys were yet in sight.
Tiny snails burrowed just beneath the surface, leaving graceful, swooping lines through the grayed sand; yet they felt ominous, as if serpents were wallowing stealthily below my feet. Their tracks were swiftly wiped clean by the tumbling waves, over whose tops spray furled back toward the ocean, hurled seaward against the waves’ shoreward motion.

I snorkeled nearly every day, skimming the eerie, sand-filled water, which hissed foam as it bubbled, popped, and fizzed, wave after wave. A sense of blindness overcame me, amidst the sandy swirl, as though I was about to hit something. I kept putting my hands out in front of me, to be sure that I could see something. The sea crackled, whether from snapping shrimp or the grinding of sand and grit, I didn’t know. A small school of yellow fish with wispy fins fluttered below. Water slopped against my head, the sun warmed my back, and my breath sounded like Darth Vader. Above the horizon’s watery edge poked the humped outline of Islas Santa Catalina, several miles out to sea. A pelican skimmed the edge of a wave, along the line between sea and sky.

At dusk, as I walked towards the water’s edge, the leaves to my right rustled loudly in the stillness. I stopped, discovering a great migration through the crisped leaves lining a wood of cacti. The path had become a super highway for hermit crabs. They were all heading to the cacti interior in a peregrination from the sea, leaving trails in their wake that looked like the tracks of mountain bike tires, each with its own unique tread. The sand became covered in their crisscrossing, wheeled paths. Most crabs seemed too large for their shells, as if they were carrying backpacks instead of their homes.  

On our last day in Costa Rica, we walked once more through the woods, still hoping to glimpse a monkey. Suddenly, I looked to my left and saw inky silhouettes spread across a tree. I had expected to hear them first, for after all they were called howler monkeys. But they were mostly silent, except their noisy chewing of leaves, and the occasional thrash of one seeking better forage. They stared me in the eyes with a calm, piercing gaze, and chomped on leaves so crunchy they sounded like Cheetos. Only once did we hear one howl, a deep, sonorous, hollow-sounding grunt-like roar.

We followed below as they slowly swung and loped on all fours across the treetops, disappearing and reappearing in the dense canopy. They moved stealthily, like prowling cats, and swung with agility, the tail a fifth appendage, gracefully wrapping and unwrapping around branches to stabilize their next grab or leap or swing, only unfurling their tail once their next hold was secure.

The monkey mamas stayed close to their babies, holding and nursing them, or sitting side by side with their little tail and large tail wrapped around the thick branch upon which they sat. One embraced its baby, who responded by looping its tail around the mother’s head.
After they finished eating they all fell asleep, draped and supine or curled up in the hooks of branches. One laid wriggling on its back, scratching itself against the tree’s rough bark. Another sprawled belly down with its legs and arms dangling freely on either side of the branch, its head turned to one side, tail wound for balance.

I wished I were a monkey. I wanted to join them, and cruise the treetops, swinging from branch to branch with ease, the ocean a softened rumble through the leaves, and pausing frequently to nap.