A Visit to the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary–Tulum Gone Wild!

A Visit to the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary–Tulum Gone Wild!

Adventure at the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary


UPDATED: 1/20/2015: Since the time of our visit, the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary has permanently closed down. The owner was tragically killed at the site and it shut down not long after the accident. If you are interested in visiting an animal refuge in the area, you can take a 20 minute ride up to Akumal and visit the Akumal Monkey Sanctuary. 

  We arrived at the unmarked gate off the road to the ancient ruins at Coba early in the morning.  We joined a small group of people at the main entrance building and were greeted by name by our tour guide, Frederick. From the outside, the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary didn’t look like much: an unassuming gate off the road, unpaved dirt roads and jungle all around us. But our guide assured us there was a lot to see and we had to get moving. 

Tulum Monkey Sanctuary entrance

A worker opens up the gates at the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary.


   Frederick was quick to point out one of the ranch’s earliest residents who he called Don Tito. We looked overhead and perched in a tangle of branches overhead was a spider monkey curiously watching the new visitors to his home.  We scrambled to take photos of him but Frederick urged us to follow him. He told us we’d see him later and besides, there were more animals that we could see up close and personal.



Don Tito Tulum Monkey

Don Tito, the first spider monkey resident of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary, on guard duty.


A horse and pony graze in their corral at the Sanctuary.


  This was the start of our day at the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary–a 3 acre animal refuge within a vast 61 acre ranch. It’s very different from the typical Tulum beach activities we were used to but that’s what made it so enjoyable. It’s not often that you can wander through a jungle, dive into a cenote or have a spider monkey hold onto your finger for a photo-op.  We also had a chance to learn about the history of the Sanctuary.  The story of how this wonderful animal refuge came into being is almost as fascinating as the animals themselves and we’ll be covering that in a separate article. For now though, we wanted to share our first-hand experience.


  We heard about the  Tulum Monkey Sanctuary on our last trip to the area. It was still a relatively new project. The owner of the ranch, Richard, had been rescuing animals for over 15 years but it wasn’t until late 2012 that the actual Monkey Sanctuary was established. It wasn’t long after that when he decided to start offering tours of the refuge.


  The property is a dense, sprawling jungle space full of wildlife and cenotes (sinkholes of collapsed limestone that provide access to  the underground freshwater river system that runs underneath the Yucatan Peninsula). As we entered and joined the tour, walking along the dirt entrance road, we saw the horses and pony that now called the sanctuary home.  Like a petting zoo back home, everyone scrambled around to pet the magnificent animals as they grazed on grass. 


  Our guide walked with us and explained that it all started with Don Tito, 15 years ago.  He’d been there since he was around 8 years old and as others had been rescued, he had asserted himself as the leader of the community. Apparently spider monkeys have a complicated social structure; the strongest alpha taking on the role of leader. This head monkey would enjoy the role of being in charge until a younger one decided to physically challenge him for the role of head chimp. If Don Tito lost the challenge he basically had 3 options: continue fighting to the death, admit defeat and remain a part of the community but as a follower in the monkey community or go off in exile on his own where he’d be confronted with the dangers and threats of the outside world. It was a sad story but a fascinating one, giving depth to the internal makeup of the animals that somehow made them more relatable.


Tulum horses monkey sanctuary


As I mentioned at the start of this article, Frederick promised we would see more monkeys and he was true to his word. We headed towards the enclosure called “Monkey Island”–a large parcel of the ranch’s property that is protected by a shoulder-high fence.  The fence allows the monkeys within to get out and explore while keeping them safe from hungry predators. Just before the fence, we came to two large pens that each housed a pair of spider monkeys.


Tulum Monkey Sancutary spider monkeys

Spider monkeys who don’t have the necessary skills to safely interact with other monkeys in the wild–due to years of being kept as pets or in stores—are rescued and rehabilitated in smaller enclosures before being safely transferred to the larger population at Monkey Island.


Close-up spider monkey at Tulum Monkey Sanctuary


tulum spider monkeys at Monkey Sanctuary


  These monkeys weren’t quite ready for introduction into the wild community of the sanctuary. Having been rescued from the illegal pet trade, they’ve lived their lives in cages, never learning the social and survival skills monkeys picked up in the wild. Until they acquired these skills they risked being rejected, attacked or killed by the free monkeys on the property. By keeping the monkeys segregated for now, they hoped to integrate them slowly into the general population on Monkey Island. Having been around humans so long, they’ve lost the skills and knowledge so essential to their species survival such as recognizing humans and predator animals as threats, climbing high in the trees for travel instead of crossing busy roadways, avoiding high-voltage wires and other things that monkeys in the wild just seem to innately know. As tragic as the background of these animals was, it was heartwarming to know they were now being cared for and had a chance of living better lives. It’s also a unique experience to be so close to these exotic jungle inhabitants.






Tulum Monkey Sanctuary don tito

Don Tito, curious of the newcomers to the ranch, stops by for a visit.


  We walked along the perimeter of the fenced-in Monkey Island, watching a newly born spider monkey follow its mother. The animals were clearly happy and content here, Frederick suggested, or else chances are they wouldn’t be reproducing.


Monkey Island at Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

Spider monkeys capable of interacting with others but not yet ready to be released into the wild are free to roam the land at the ranch.


  After convincing us that the monkeys would still be there when we returned–the group didn’t want to leave the spider monkey part of the tour–we were guided to a round palapa house nearby where the volunteers who worked at the Sanctuary–presently a revolving group of  5–lived communally. The sanctuary is run by these volunteers, many of whom come from abroad to live for free at the ranch in exchange for work.


Next up was a stop at a cenote teeming with fish that rests alongside Richard’s home. We even got a glimpse of a small crocodile who recently began calling the swimming hole home before moving deeper into the jungle.


Round Volunteer quarters at Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

The rebuilt round house at the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary now serves at the home for volunteers who live and work at the conservation.


Crocodile at Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

We meet the resident crocodile of the Sanctuary in the first cenote.


Tulum Monkey Sanctuary tour group

The group gathers along the cenote. The primary residence at the Sanctuary sits in the background.


Dog at Tulum Monkey Sanctuary

Our unofficial assistant tour guide–a rescue dog who now lives with the volunteers–followed us throughout the entire tour.




  Frederick took time to point out some of the local flora in the area and their unique properties. We saw a pairing of trees that you can only find scattered in this region of Mexico. One–a normal looking tree which seeped a deep black sap–would leave anyone who touched its resin with a rash, similar to a severe case of poison ivy while the other tree–with flaky red bark–was the only known remedy to the irritant, its bark crushed and rubbed on the afflicted skin. The pair would always be found right next to each other, which tied into an ancient Mayan myth about these trees which he happily shared before moving on and pointing out a tree covered with thorny protrusions going all the way up its trunk.










  We wandered past the 5 acre enclosure that is home to a herd of white-tailed deer–the descendents of ones that the owner of the Sanctuary rescued from an abusive rancher years earlier. We came to the last leg of our tour–and a perfect way to cool off after 2 hours in the wild. A narrow opening gave access to a large cenote about 40 feet away. After reassuring some of the group  that the crocodile we saw earlier wasn’t here, we were invited to jump down through the opening and swim underground to the main section. The less adventurous were given the option of simply walking over and descending a set of wooden stairs. Surprisingly, most of the guests welcomed the excitement of taking a step off the ledge and falling 10 feet into the deep, cold water. Feet toeing the edge of the opening, we took one step and dropped right down and swam through the tunnel–stalactites and a few skittering bats overhead–before reaching the calm, relaxing pool at the end.


Tulum monkey sanctuary cenote 1

For those looking for a dip, all you need to do is step off the ledge and drop into the cool water below…


Tulum monkey sanctuary cenote 2

…and swim through the tunnel to get to this awesome pool of fresh water.



Tulum monkey sanctuary cenote 3


  Time had flown. We’d  already been on the property for close to 3 hours and after drying off,  were escorted back to the spider monkey area for one last glimpse of them before heading back to the main entrance.


leaving the tulum monkey sancutary

After 3 quick hours at the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary, the group gathers at the entrance to say their goodbyes. We wish we took the dog with us.

  The Tulum Monkey Sanctuary offered us something vastly different to do than just sit on the beach. It was a fun, interesting, easy-going excursion that you could never experience anywhere else. Located 10 minutes from Tulum’s hotel zone, it felt as if it was in a world all its own. It was also satisfying to know the proceeds from the our tour were helping to feed the animals, run the conservation center and allow for further improvement to the rehabilitation services that it can provide. With two tours running daily, a visit is easy to fit into anyone’s vacation itinerary. It was truly a perfect break from the beach sun, offered amazing photograph opportunities and would be a terrific, quick excursion for couples, families or solo travelers.

  The future of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary seems bright. Plans are underway for the purchase of a 140o acre ranch that will allow for rehabilitated spider monkeys to be reintroduced into the wild far from the rapidly developing coastal area. It would offer more space for further rescue projects for other animals including dogs–something very needed in all regions of Mexico, cats, pigs and horses. There are also plans to offer lodging in a hotel or hostel that will be built in the area. For those interested, stay tuned. We will keep you up-to-date and will  be posting the news on this project as it moves along.

  In the meantime, if you’re in the area, make a visit to the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary part of your vacation. We can book it for you via our Gateway to Tulum Travel Services or you can visit the Sanctuary’s website to reserve a slot in one of the tour groups.

  Tomorrow we’ll be posting Part II of our coverage of the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary featuring the fascinating story of how the project came to be and how one man became an accidental conservationalist.

  Ever been to the Tulum Monkey Sanctuary? Planning to go? Have any questions? Comment below, we’d love to hear from you! And if you enjoyed this article and want others like it–as well as other email-exclusive content–delivered right to your inbox, don’t forget to sign up  for our monthly newsletter.



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