BY: Mari Pintkowski

Everyone loves monkeys, especially when you are lucky enough to get a peek at them frolicking in the wild. There is just such a place, El Santuario de los monos arañas, in Punta Laguna just thirty minutes from our little B&B in Macario Gomez, La Selva Mariposa.

The road west from Tulum to Coba is a very well maintained highway that leads through three interesting pueblos with an assortment of tiny restaurants and artisan shops calling to you to 'STOP' and linger. But, if you are going to the monkey sanctuary in the morning, you should plan to arrive before 8 AM for the best viewing; so, save your shopping for the ride home. Our guide at the Sanctuario, Angel, later told us that 4 PM is an even better time to visit. At that time of the day, you may also be able to see the howler monkeys. This gives you all morning to visit the Cobá ruins and three cenotes, have a leisurely lunch and then, when you leave Cobá, instead of making the turn back east at the roundabout to Tulum, continue straight ahead toward Nuevo X-can. Punta Laguna is 20 Km more along the narrow two-lane road.

This overcast Saturday, when my husband Lou and I arrived at the site, we found only a few dogs sleeping in the street and two cats at the door of a hut on the left side of the entrance. No one was in the ticket house, but within minutes, a young man appeared and told us it cost 50 pesos (about $5) to enter. A guide would be 250 pesos extra for both of us and we could pay him directly.

Angel was there to greet us in English as we walked out of the ticket hut. The chipi chipi rain continued off and on all morning and the natural limestone and sascab covering it was a bit slippery. We were glad we had worn walking shoes, applied bug spray and brought along a hiking stick.

Our self-taught, English-speaking guide pointed out each distinct tree or plant along the somewhat rocky and uneven path. We were fascinated with the huge 500-year-old guanacastle and ramon trees that do not grow on our property in Macario Gomez. The reason for their absence became evident when he told us how his grandfather, who has since passed on, had the foresight and vision to set aside these hundreds of acres as a monkey sanctuary. The Mayans established their pueblo across the road and were prohibited from hunting and cutting trees in the preserve.

Angel pointed out a wooden cross planted in the ground, surrounded by stones near a raised altar. The local Shaman says prayers at the four principal points (north, south, east and west) on the property to dispel any evil spirits brought by the strong winds that may be causing physical and mental disturbances to the people of the pueblo. Offerings to the gods are placed on the altar during significant periods of the year.

We spotted lots of berries and fruit on the ground from the big trees that towered above our heads, and Angel explained that the rainy season provides an abundance of food for the birds and monkeys. Later in the day, the monkeys travel 2 Km into the jungle to drink water from a cenote in a cave and then return in the late afternoon to the reserve to settle down for the night. Some of the trees were marked with red bands, and Angel said that the biologists who were studying the habits of the monkeys marked the trees where the monkeys were spotted. Understandably, these trees happened to be ones that bear fruit

As we walked along the path, we noticed a large patch of dark, reddish sand. This was, in fact, a large ant colony that fed on decomposed leaves the same color of the sand. It was difficult to tell the ants from the earth they were living in. Mother Nature had once again performed her magic and provided a perfect camouflage for them.

Not far beyond the trail, we could see several small pre-Columbian ruins that had been roughly excavated. Once Angel described their presence, we were able to see other mounds. Perhaps ancient temples existed here as well as at Cobá, visited by royalty and travelers alike.

A coati mundi scattered off in the distance and ran back up a guanacastle tree to join his family. When Lou, Angel, and I happened upon a hollow tree that had died years ago, Angel used a stick to poke into one of the holes and a few small bats came fluttering out of an opening at the top of the tree and settled on the weathered trunk.

Our self-educated guide knew the names of most trees, plants, flowers, animals, insects and birds in several languages. In addition to English, Spanish and Mayan, he also knows Italian and is currently teaching himself French. Angel stopped often to listen for sounds where the monkeys are usually seen. With his prompts, we could hear the rustling in the trees, some branches cracking and the squeaky chatter nearby. How thrilling it was to watch families of spider monkeys frolicking in the trees overhead as if they were putting on a show just for us. When you are in the company of a guide at the right time of day you WILL see monkeys.

It was difficult to get good photos, but I gave it a try and snapped away. Lou and I knew we would later need a neck massage from craning our heads to get just one more glimpse of these playful fellows. Angel even called a few by name. The male leader was named Tule, and he sported a gray patch around the neck area. We learned that monkeys always travel in family groups, so if you spot a single monkey, he most likely has been exiled from his group.

After examining a tree loaded with guava fruit near the path about 45 minutes