The Crocodile Whisperer

Monkeys on a Boat
Monkeys on a Boat

"Spen, now we're really going to see some crocodiles." Those were the words our guide, Marvin, enthusiastically said to me, patting me on the shoulder, and walking up towards the boat captain. This was just after we had seen a couple baby crocodiles on the shore. My response: "Yeah, ok Marvin." If you know me, then you're probably aware that there was a tone of sarcasm in that statement. Yet, there was a reluctance.  Sitting there as our small river boat slowly glided down the river, I wondered if Marvin was really serious, as if we were actually going to the crocodiles. It was also one of many times that I wondered if Marvin really thought my name was Spen, or if it was just his nickname for me.

An hour into our river safari through Palo Verde National Park on the Río Tempisque, and I had declared it a success. Tomorrow was my birthday and this was my "birthday trip" of sorts. The day had started off by feeding monkeys, a couple of which were fascinated by sitting atop my shoulder and head. I always knew that after years of being picked on as a child for such a large head, that it would finally find purpose: the perfect perch for capuchin monkeys. We had also seen a couple of scarlet macaws. The significance of this is that while they are one of the most beautiful bird species, they aren't exactly social and are rarely seen on these river safaris.

After a 10-minute ride, we came to a stop along the bank. I started looking around and didn't see anything. No scarlet macaws, no capuchin monkeys, no sloths; nothing. "Spen, I hope you have your camera ready." Marvin and the boat captain confidently walked toward the back of the boat, as if they knew something we didn't. My gut response: "Ready for what." That's when the captain started bouncing a long stick against the water and calling out in Spanish. I sat there somewhat bewildered, before I finally made my way to the back of the boat. The rest of the group was huddled together at the front, like the Loch Ness Monster was all of a sudden going to jut out of the water.

"You have got to be shittin' me." 50 yards up I could see them. Their eyes barely sticking out of the water, two crocodiles had crossed from one side of the water to the other and were now on a straight shot to our boat. Sure, I had seen people call animals, but typically this was a house pet. We're talking crocodiles here. And not just any crocodile. Big ass crocodiles. Honestly, I wanted to start looking around to see if there were film crews in the woods. I started to wonder if Swamp People had headed south for the winter to do filming in Costa Rica.

Very unassuming, the largest croc of the two, Salamon came right up to our boat. Our guide started putting pieces of chicken on the end of the stick to hang out over the boat. All of a sudden, Salamon raised out of the water, mouth open wide, and in one motion, the chicken was gone. The guide repeated this several times. Each time, it would seem like the crocodile would come even further out of the water and closer to our boat. Surprisingly, I didn't care. I was at the edge of the boat, mesmerized, but with a certain sense of reverence at what I was seeing.


"Spen, how's that for a crocodile." Marvin was smiling from ear to ear. "Not too bad Marvin, not too bad." Evidently, these crocodiles were very territorial. Salamon was the biggest in the entire river and somewhat of the alpha dog, or alpha croc. He was evidently smart enough to know what was coming his way when the boat captain started calling out. However, neither for my upcoming trip to Louisiana, nor the next time I'm on a river, do I have any intentions of using what I learned about calling crocodiles. Can you imagine? "Come here boy. Come get this yummy, slimey chicken breast. Oooh you're a big boy aren't you. Roll over. Shake." Yeah, no thanks.

Like so many times before, there was such a strong sense of satisfaction as our river safari was coming to an end and we were riding back to the dock. A big grin came over my face. National Geographic was right when they said that this was the one thing you had to do when visiting the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica. Once again, travel had proved that it was much bigger than myself.

The Facts

  • River safaris go out daily on Río Tempisque at Palo Verde National Park. They are usually a half day, depending on where you're departing from. I left Coco at 8 a.m. and was back by 3 p.m. This included a big Costa Rica lunch afterward with rice and beans, chicken, pork, fried cheese, and yuca fries. I went with Mardigi Tours, which is based out of Coco.
  • The actual tour on the river is a couple hours. The price of the tour should range from $60-$100, depending on the tour company and number of people. This includes transportation and typically a hearty lunch after the safari.
  • I can't guarantee you'll see crocodiles, monkeys, scarlet macaws, or any of the other species we saw. However, I recommend talking to your guide in advance. They may be able to give recommendations and information about tide levels, as typically you're able to see more wildlife during low tide.
  • Bring sun screen and bug repellent.
  • Plan to go during the dry season. June through November usually means rain, daily, and a lot of it.
  • If you're allergic to monkeys or have a problem with monkeys being in your personal space, then this probably isn't for you.