Sloths are something like the unofficial mascot for Costa Rica. Take a look at why everyone loves the lazy, fuzzy creatures.
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
In a humid Costa Rican forest, a tour guide stops suddenly to take a call. There is not much noise, except the sounds of birds calling in the distance and the short answers he gives as he presses the cell phone to his face. The conversation ends quickly. He has a message.
A sloth is descending from a tree.
This is an event in La Fortuna. Tourists and townspeople alike have stopped on the side of the road to get a good look at the creature. People take pictures with their phones. Cars slow down to gawk at the furry creature, a mother, climbing slowly across branches while her child clings to her. It is rare to see a sloth so clearly visible and even rarer to catch one in motion.
There is something compelling about the fuzzy, lazy, clawed critters that make them an unofficial symbol of Costa Rica. At the San José International Airport, there’s a mural that welcomes travelers into the country, depicting a toucan, a bottle of Imperial beer and a sloth. Just what is it about these mammalian slackers that people love so much?
"Everyone wants to come see a sloth. It’s a nice creature. It has a nice face, it looks like a little toy, and everybody likes it, especially families with kids."
“To me, it’s an animal like in Australia with the koala,” said Johan Peraza, owner of the Sloth Watching Trail. “Everyone who goes to Australia wants to see a koala. I think one day, it’s going to be like this [in Costa Rica]. Everyone wants to come see a sloth. It’s a nice creature. It has a nice face, it looks like a little toy, and everybody likes it, especially families with kids.”
The Arenal Jungle Tours Sloth Watching Trail is a nine hectare property featuring new forest growth near downtown La Fortuna. Cattle fields surround the property, so sloths migrate to the area for its comfortable forest habitat. In one tour visitors can typically see five sloths, though 11 live on the property.
There are two kinds of sloths in Costa Rica, two-toed and three-toed. These creatures are some of the oldest mammals in the Americas, existing mostly unchanged since prehistoric times. They have a symbiotic relationship with moths, and their laziness partially comes from their very slow metabolism. Sloths are vegetarian, and most enjoy a tree called cecropia, which has leaves that can provide an intoxicating effect.
Another sloth park in the Arenal area is the Ecocentro Danaus, an ecological reserve also featuring butterflies, frogs and many other creatures. At the Ecocentro, animals are neither restrained nor fed by park employees. It’s a facility meant to replicate the environment and give animals a protected space.
“Our idea is to preserve the forest with animals in natural habitats,” said Osvaldo Paz, a guide at the park. “We have only the butterfly garden, that’s our project. After that all the animals are totally free.”
Tours at the Ecocentro can either be guided or not, but if visitors want to see sloths, it’s better to go with a guide. The creatures are typically high in the trees and can be difficult to see due to their camouflage. They also rarely move, descending from the branches only once a week to defecate.
Paz said sloths tended to come to the Ecocentro to reproduce and care for newborn babies. The area around the facility is open land used for cattle ranching, and the guide described the Ecocentro as an “island” for animals in the middle of that unfamiliar area.
At the Ecocentro, there are many other sights to see, including agouti, a large (and cute) rodent indigenous to Costa Rica. Visitors can walk across a bridge and go eye-to-eye with a crocodile, and there are dozens of colorful birds to hear and see.
But the main attraction at the park is the sloth. Peraza said the animal was interesting because it acted like it knew how to relax. Up in the trees, sloths recline, look around at the landscape, and enjoy the sun and the wind. They seem like they’re having a good time.
“All it needs is a beer,” he said.