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Up Close With Baby Sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

Up Close With Baby Sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

Are you planning a cruise that stops in Limón, Costa Rica? If you’re sloth-obsessed, or even if you’re just an animal lover, do I have a shore excursion for you! We visited the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica on our Panama Canal cruise to visit rescued baby sloths.

If you haven’t seen my previous post about our Panama Canal cruise, be sure to read about how baby sloths (and my family) talked me into booking a cruise through the Panama Canal.

I ponder whether my daughter is going to kill me if we don’t see baby sloths

My daughter is just a little obsessed with sloths, and the entire reason why we chose this itinerary was to visit rescued baby sloths in Costa Rica.

When I first booked the Panama Canal cruise, there were plenty of tickets for the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica’s Insider tour. This is their “behind-the-scenes” baby sloth excursion. I was sure it wouldn’t sell out before we sailed.

First, it was by far the most expensive excursion Princess offered for this port. Plus, are that many other people really obsessed with sloths?

I was trying to figure out whether we should spend another $250 to have Mr. SBC come along on the sloth tour. He loves animals, but he’s never mentioned a sloth obsession.

Not long after booking, and still months before sailing, we had finally decided that he would go solo on Sloth Day. He found an antique banana train excursion through the Costa Rican countryside that he liked. Perfect. Just the ladies would visit the sloth sanctuary. I went onto the cruise planner on Princess’ website to book our tickets.

You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a movie and scary music unexpectedly plays, giving you a sense of unbelievable dread? That’s the feeling I got in my chest when I logged on and saw the words SOLD OUT.

There must be a waitlist, I thought. If it sold out this fast, they’ll add a second excursion. No waitlist. I called Princess. There was really no waitlist; there was only one tour available that day. She’s going to kill me.

Reverse-engineering a Costa Rica baby sloth tour

Some other tour company must be offering this as a shore excursion, I thought. I’ll find out who it is, and book us through them. Nope, nope, and nope.

I started to panic. The only reason why I completely blew my budget on this trip was so that we could see baby sloths. WE HAVE TO SEE BABY SLOTHS. There were tickets for a shorter excursion to the sloth sanctuary, but there was no access to baby sloths, just regular old grown-up sloths. That wouldn’t work.

From the description on Princess’ website, I knew that the sanctuary was where Animal Planet’s “Meet the Sloths” show was filmed. A quick search revealed that it’s the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica (also known as Aviarios del Caribe) in Cahuita. This small coastal city is a little over a half-hour south of where we’d be docking in Limón.

They offered the same tour that Princess had advertised, but for $125 per adult. It didn’t include transportation, but it was half the price!

Looking at the sanctuary’s schedule, I saw two three-hour “Insider” tours per day (Tuesdays through Sundays at 8:45 AM and 12:45 PM). Our ship’s schedule had us arriving in Limón at 8 AM, but arrival times are never a guarantee. I wasn’t sure how long it would take us to find a taxi at the port, or if we’d even be able to get off the ship quickly enough.

The 12:45 tour plus a 35-minute taxi ride back would get us to the port right at last call to board. I would never cut it that close. There could be traffic, and then we’d be late, and we all know that the ship doesn’t wait for stragglers.

How one email saved my life

I emailed the sanctuary explaining my dilemma, and I promptly received a reply from Gerald. He let me know that the morning tour was full, but there was room in the afternoon tour. Gerald said that he could remove the rowboat excursion from the end of the tour, which would take at least 45 minutes off of the total time. He also told me he would knock $15 off the price of each ticket since we couldn’t do the boat tour.

I had also asked him for advice on transportation from the port, and he said that I could easily catch a taxi from the port area. The driver would most likely wait in the parking lot during the tour, and then drive us back. If he didn’t, they could call another taxi for us. He even mentioned that if for some reason they couldn’t find us a taxi in time, the sanctuary did have a van and they could help us out so we wouldn’t miss our ship.

I was absolutely thrilled. I was glad that we could do the later tour (heck, I was glad we could do the tour at all!) because it would give us time to scout out the taxi situation at the port. If we had to do the morning tour, I would have been the crazy lady running up to the taxi, dragging a girl in sloth socks. I’d look so frantic and desperate that they’d probably charge me double.

I think I was a victim of bait-and-switch?

We actually got into port a little early, so we would have made it to Cahuita by 8:45 if we had been able to book the morning tour. (But I know that if I had the morning tour tickets, something would have happened and we’d be late, because that’s just how it goes.)

The port is inside a fenced-off area, and there were tons of taxi and tour vendors calling out to the passengers who were disembarking. I made arrangements with one of the taxi reps, letting her know that it would be two of us, and that we wanted a round-trip for the three-hour tour in a couple of hours. She told us it would be $25, which I thought was extremely reasonable.

We headed across the street to find a quick lunch before we had to leave. Luckily, we spotted a few cafés and very casual restaurants directly across from the port. We were able to get free WiFi with our meals, so we could check in with the pet sitter (all was well).

After our snack, and after saying goodbye to Mr. SBC as he headed off on his banana train tour, we returned to our taxi lady, and she led us over to our car and driver. There was a bit of confusion, as the $25 fare was now $50. Apparently, she had meant per person? Regardless, it was still much less than a taxi driver in the US would charge for four hours of their time.

Getting to Cahuita to see baby sloths and an unexpected stop!

Our taxi driver was a super-friendly local guy, and his English was excellent. He chatted with us the whole way, pointing out the sights as we drove along the shore toward Cahuita. About halfway through our journey, we approached a car that had pulled off to the side of the road. There were a few people standing next to the car, looking up at the trees and pointing.

“Hold on,” he said. “We need to stop. We have plenty of time, so don’t worry.”

He got out of the car, and also looked up into the trees. My daughter and I looked at each other, confused.

He came back and opened our door. “Come, come, it’s monkeys!” he said, smiling. “You have to come and see them!”

We got out and looked up into the tall trees. There were five or six small chattering monkeys hanging from the branches and jumping from tree to tree, just above our heads. I was able to snap a quick photo before the monkeys were on their way.

There are monkeys in these trees, I promise!

We got back on the road, and in no time we had arrived at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. Expecting a large, bustling complex full of tourists, the complete quiet surprised me. The center is just a few smallish buildings, surrounded by forest. A tranquil river flows just feet from the entrance. We arrived early, so I decided that we’d check in, and then look around the grounds until our tour began.

An unexpected gift!

Check-in was in the gift shop, up a rustic timber staircase near the outside waiting area. A young man was running the cash register in the shop, and he quickly found our pre-paid reservations. He gave us our tour stickers, and let us know that we could each take a free sloth calendar. He also gave us a $30 credit to the gift shop!

I’ve learned to just say thank you and keep my mouth shut when someone gives me something unexpected. So, I’m not sure if this credit had something to do with not taking the river tour, or if everyone gets it. But I wasn’t about to press him on exactly why he gave it to us; it certainly wasn’t listed as one of the benefits of taking the Insider tour.

We poked around the gift shop for a few minutes, deciding that we would wait until after the tour to choose our souvenir. They had lots of generic sloth-themed items, but I knew I wanted something to take home specifically from the sanctuary. We don’t really do tourist t-shirts, I can’t stand knick-knacks, and we already had free calendars (plus more than enough sloth socks). I’d have to think about this for a bit.

We meet Buttercup, a famous sloth TV star

Still early, we headed to a small veranda adjacent to the gift shop. There in a wicker hanging chair, sat possibly the most famous sloth in existence, and the star of “Meet the Sloths”, the majestic Buttercup.

The oldest female Bradypus (three-toed) sloth ever recorded, Buttercup was born in June 1992. She was orphaned as a baby when her mother was apparently struck by a car, and some local children found her near her mother’s body. The young girls brought the orphaned sloth to their neighbor Judy Avey-Arroyo, an American expat living nearby. Judy and her husband Luis fell in love with the baby that they called Buttercup. After checking with zoos in the area that were unable to take the orphaned sloth, they decided to raise her on their own.

Buttercup has lived on the Avey-Arroyo family’s property since then, and from what I’ve seen, she lives a pretty nice life as the Queen of the Sloths!

Buttercup at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica
Buttercup relaxing in her chair on the veranda

Touring the Sloth Sanctuary in Limón

We headed back down to the waiting area, where our other tour-mates were starting to gather. We began in the adult sloth room, where there were several sloths in large enclosures. While we visited, they were just hanging out on the tree branches provided for them.

Our guide for this section was Ursula, Judy Avey-Arroyo’s daughter. Ursula is extremely knowledgeable about sloths, and she explained the difference between two- and three-toed sloths. It’s not just a matter of counting toes! The two sloth families are not even closely related to one another.

Ursula went on to explain the natural habitat of sloths, who are naturally solitary creatures. All sloths eat the leaves of the cecropia tree, and the two-toed sloths also eat insects, carrion, fruits, leaves, and small lizards.

Adult sloth enclosure Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica
We learn all about sloths at the adult enclosure

Sloths will stick exclusively to a few individual trees that they claim as their own. When a baby sloth is born, the mother will spend a year teaching the baby how to find food and hide from predators. When the baby is ready, it will take over the trees that the mother lived in, and the mother will go off and find a new group of trees for her own habitat.

We learned how many of the sloths brought to the sanctuary sustained injuries from electrical lines, cars, or human cruelty. In some areas, people think sloths are a sign of bad luck. Animals can suffer loss of habitat or injuries when people throw stones at sloths on their property. The sanctuary staff is trying to change this view through outreach programs in the community.

Visiting the Slothpital at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

The sanctuary has a veterinary clinic, or “slothpital”, where staff cares for injured or sick sloths. There were no patients that day, so it was just a quick tour of the facility. It was spacious and very clean, but it wasn’t a highlight of our tour as nothing was happening there.

Off to see the babies!

Our next stop was what we had been eagerly anticipating, the NICU for the baby sloths! Thankfully none of the babies were showing signs of injury, but they all needed special care to make sure they could survive. There were several incubators for some of the babies, as well as enclosures where the other babies sleep at night. During the day, most of the little sloths stayed in plastic totes on the floor, along with blankets and stuffed toys to make them more comfortable.

Some of the babies hanging out in their daytime environment

The baby sloths were far more active than the adults, and they were very curious about their visitors! We weren’t able to pet or hold any of the sloths during our visit. It’s dangerous for their immune systems to have too many people handle them, and they can also potentially bite. But, we were able to spend quite some time sitting on the floor next to their totes to watch them up close.

My daughter was thrilled to be able to sit so close to the tiny babies as they climbed all over one another, trying to get a good look at us. Some were very sleepy, clinging to their stuffed toys, but many were super active. One little guy seemed to like climbing from one tote to another to visit his friends!

After about a half hour, one of the sloth nurses arrived to do her rounds. Each of the babies has a medical chart that she updates, and she soon got to work checking them and feeding them cut fruit as well as goat’s milk from a syringe. As there’s no way to procure sloth milk for the babies, the center has to make do with goat’s milk. It doesn’t contain the same antibodies that sloth milk has, so the rescued babies are at more at risk of illness.

A quick souvenir stop and then back to the ship

Not wanting to risk being late, we quickly headed back to the gift shop while the rest of the tour group continued to the river. I chose to use my credit on a DVD set of the “Meet the Sloths” TV show. Before our trip, I tried to find episodes of the show online, but all I found were short clips on YouTube. The DVD isn’t currently available on Amazon, so if you visit the Sloth Sanctuary, be sure to pick up a copy.

We met our driver, who had been waiting by his taxi, and made our way back down the coast to Limón. There was zero traffic, and we made it back to the ship with plenty of time to spare.

Was the Insider Tour at the Sloth Sanctuary worth it?

We enjoyed our day at the sloth sanctuary! It’s a bucket list attraction for many cruisers doing a Panama Canal cruise, and one of the best things to do in Costa Rica.

I appreciated learning about these beautiful creatures and how they survive and raise their young in the wild. The owners and employees of the sloth sanctuary have a real love for these animals! Their obvious dedication to rescuing injured and orphaned sloths is commendable.

  • The highlight of the day was sitting and watching the tiny babies crawl around and play in their beds. After all the stress of making sure we could visit the babies, I’m glad that it all worked out and we were able to see them.
  • I had no regrets about having to skip the river tour. Although there was a chance we could have seen wild sloths and other animals by the river, I didn’t feel that we had missed out by not going.
  • The price of the tour isn’t cheap, especially if you’re taking the entire family. But a large part of the ticket price goes to the sloths’ care and to the outreach programs that educate people about the animals.

If you’re willing to do a self-guided shore excursion, you can save a lot of money. But, you won’t have the guarantee of not missing the ship. Cruise lines will wait for those returning from their own excursions if the excursion is late. They don’t offer this for privately booked or self-guided tours.

Through Princess, our tour would have cost $500 for the two of us. By booking directly through the sanctuary and arranging our own transportation, it only cost us $350, a savings of $150!

More posts from my Panama Canal cruise

Have you visited the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica? Or are you thinking about it? Let me know in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen


Sunday 21st of November 2021

Would love to volunteer with sloths one day! This looks lovely!


Thursday 27th of February 2020

omg I never would have thought that I needed to see baby sloths but I think I'm now in love. I've never really considered all the interesting excursions cruises offer but it's certainly something to think about when picking one. It sounds like you guys had a great time!

Carrie Ann

Saturday 29th of February 2020

They're just so adorable! A cruise is such a great way to visit several ports in a short time and do something interesting in each one :)


Thursday 6th of February 2020

Who doesn't love sloths? This place looks amazing. I spent a few days in Cahuita a couple of years ago & didn't know this was there or I would definitely have visited! The babies are just adorable. Great photos :)

Carrie Ann

Friday 7th of February 2020

Thanks, Sue! The baby sloths are just the cutest. If you ever get back to Costa Rica I hope you can see them for yourself!


Thursday 23rd of January 2020

OMG, how did I miss this when I visited Costa Rica, it would have been so cute. Although I did spot a few sloths in the wild but not babies. Well done, for saving money and travelling independently. Cruise companies make a killing with the price of some of their tours!

Carrie Ann

Thursday 23rd of January 2020

I agree! The cruise companies bump up the price for convenience, so I definitely like trying to DIY shore excursions when I can. It's cheaper and you have more flexibility, as long as you're sure you can make it back to the ship on time :D


Wednesday 22nd of January 2020

That baby sloth is absolutely adorable! We are visiting Costa Rica soon (for the second time), I'd love to stop at the sloth sanctuary. I'll have to add it to our itinerary.

Carrie Ann

Thursday 23rd of January 2020

The babies are so cute! If you go, definitely book ahead of time and choose the behind-the-scenes tour so you'll have time with the babies. Happy travels!