The Story of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

The Story of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

Last week, we shared our experience at the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary.  It was an eye-opening experience that you should definitely read about if you’re heading to Tulum and are looking for something to do away from the beach. But something just as interesting and inspiring is the Story of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary and how it came to be. As with most impressive ventures, it all started with just one man.

 An Accidental Conservationalist –The Story of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

While the vast 60+ acres of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary is constantly being improved upon to better meet the needs of the animals being sheltered and rehabilitated, it only recently came into being. Before that, 20 years ago to be exact, it was a jungle lot purchased by an expatriot named Richard. The property was purchased as an investment and a weekend getaway. Richard figured that he would use the property and when he turned 60 and decided to retire, it could be sold to help fund his retirement years.

Not long after, fate stepped in and the region was hit with a powerful category 5 hurricane. After the storm had passed, Richard visited the ranch to survey the damage. The only structure at that time–a wooden, thatch-roof house–was destroyed along with most of the trees and plantlife in the area. While attempting to clear out the debris, Richard noticed starving animals desperately foraging for food. Saddened by the animals’ plight, he hopped into his truck and drove to downtown Tulum. There he asked the many local fruit and vegetable vendors and restaurant owners to donate the food that they were going to throw away. With the truck loaded up, he returned and dumped the food on his lot. To his amazement, countless animals came to eat including monkeys, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, deer and birds.

It didn’t end there. Richard continued these food drops every day for the next two months. By then the jungle had restored itself and the natural feeding habits of the ecosystem began again.

Richard went back to his normal daily life. But his path had already been set and rumors about the crazy foreigner who feeds the wild animals began to spread. One day a stranger came to visit Richard and asked for his aid. He claimed that a old local rancher had some deer and horses on his property and that these animals were being treated poorly. Like most, he initially didn’t want to get involved but something compelled him to investigate. He stopped by the rancher’s property and was horrified to find 6 white-tailed deer and two horses in terrible condition. All the animals were malnourished and in need of veterinary care–one horse even had an aluminum can wedge into its hoof. He approached the rancher and offered to purchase the animals. At first, the owner refused but then came back with an astronomical price. Richard countered and eventually they settled on a price–though still far higher than what the animals were worth. Richard’s only stipulation was that the rancher include the wooden fencing and posts in the deal, stating that he had no way to corral the animals and needed a fence. In truth, Richard hoped taking the man’s fence might prevent him from purchasing and mistreating any other animals on his ranch in the future.


With this, Richard’s property had its first rescued inhabitants. The descendents of these deer still living on the ranch today within a 5 acre enclosure on the property.

Still, while what was once solely an investment property and retirement plan was now an animal sanctuary of sorts, it couldn’t be called a monkey sanctuary without one final thing–monkeys. As with everything else in this story, this also happened by chance.

15 years ago, Richard received a call from a friend, the mayor of Tulum. A pet spider monkey had either escaped or been released near Tulum. Now, this 8 year old monkey was frightening tourists and locals with his daily food scavenging adventures. The mayor had heard that Richard was rescuing animals and letting them live on his land. He hoped that Richard would come and help catch the monkey before he was forced to call animal control–who would simply put down the animal. Richard dropped everything and came to catch the mischievous monkey. Unfortunately, the monkey was pretty clever and kept avoiding his traps. The cat and mouse game went on for 3 weeks until Richard finally captured the animal and brought him to his ranch. With that, he had what would turn out to be the first of many spider monkey residents. He’s still there to this day and is now the alpha in the Sanctuary’s monkey community. His name is Don Tito.

Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

Birth of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

Over the 15 years since then, Richard rescued countless animals and offered them safety on his ranch. But with his retirement was looming on the horizon he was faced with a dilemma. Back when he purchased this jungle property 20 years ago, his plan was to sell it and use the money made to fund his twilight years. He never envisioned that the ranch would take on a life of its own and become an wild animal refuge. He couldn’t just sell it and abandon these animals–leaving them starving and forced to fend for themselves.

He saw 2 options. The first was to find an individual who wanted to own and run an animal sanctuary. Unfortunately, these kind of people don’t grow on trees. The other option was to sell the property to the only other buyers investing in the Tulum market–real estate developers. This path would get Richard the money he needed to enjoy his retirement but at a price. The developers would have visions of subdivisions or luxury condos and those visions wouldn’t include wild animals running around the property. Confused about his options, Richard tried to formulate another plan.

Then in September of 2012, Richard bumped into a friend of his, John Cavanaugh. John was a fellow expat and local business owner, having expanded the Weary Traveler from a 12 hammock hostel to a property that offers over 100 beds in dorms, private rooms and apartments. Richard proposed that perhaps John would like to bring the hostel’s guests to his ranch for daily tours. He hoped the money earned from the tours would cover the money it cost to feed the animals he was caring for.

John was unfortunately busy juggling several local projects but wanted to help somehow. He couldn’t personally do tours, but he knew several tour guides in the area and offered to bring them to meet with Richard to discuss the idea. True to his word, he arrived with a bunch of colleagues in tow shortly after. Richard, John and a group of 7 tour guides wandered the lush jungle ranch amazed at the abundance of wildlife–monkeys, crocodiles, birds, raccoons, iguanas and fish–as well as the natural beauty of the surroundings and cenotes on the property. Despite their appreciation for the natural wonder of the ranch, the tour guides all said the same thing. They’d love to do tours on the grounds but the property needs major work first–call them when he’s done.


There was one person on the walk that day who decided that preserving this little corner of Tulum for the animals–John Cavanaugh. Despite his many projects, the challenge and mission of helping to keep this ranch open as an animal refuge appealed to him. With the creation of this new partnership, the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary was formally created.


Tulum Monkey Sanctuary–Today and Tomorrow

Today, the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary is thriving. Two tours are given daily, guided by enthusiastic volunteers who are happy to show guests all the wonders of the ranch. The revenue earned from the tours is now totally covering the day-to-day expenses required to run the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary also hopes to be able to buy the ranch from Richard in 3 to 5 years, giving someone who has given so much to helpless animals his well-deserved and long-overdue retirement.

Other plans are in the works as well. The Sanctuary has its eyes on another much larger property a few hours away. The plans are to purchase this piece of land to create another conservation center–one large enough to allow space for rescued horses, dogs, cats and of course, more monkeys. Guests will be welcome to visit this conservation center as well and stay overnight at the onsite hostel. While the location, far removed from the development along Tulum’s coast, will provide the Sanctuary with the perfect spot to transport monkeys who have completed the rehabilitation program. From there, they can be safely released back into the wild.

Clearly, the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary is looking towards the future. But the most important thing is that the wild animals that have been rescued are now safe and that the Sanctuary will continue to carry out its mission for generations to come. Who would have thought that all this good could come from one man who decided to feed a few animals on his newly purchased property 20 years ago?


Want to visit the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary? Visit their site and book your guided tour today! Or visit our Travel Services section and we’ll be happy to make all your Travel Arrangements for you.

*Destination-Tulum would like to extend a special thanks to the tour guides at The Tulum Monkey Sanctuary and John Cavanaugh for taking the time to share the history of the Sanctuary with us.



  1. Any chance of getting a tour of the Monkey Sanctuary?

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