a peek inside the fishbowl

18 Aug, 2015

A visit to Monkey Land

Posted by andrea tomkins in: travel talk

A good friend was asking me for resort recommendations and I realized I wrote two posts about our 2015 trip to Punta Cana and totally forgot to write about one of the best – and worst – excursions we’ve ever experienced.

As I’ve mentioned before, my idea of a great family holiday includes time for quiet reading/living/contemplation, great food, and some learning and adventure to break up the days. We opted to go on a half day excursion to a place called Monkey Land after chatting with another guest about it at the resort.

We went to see our Air Canada Vacations liaison about it (he held regular meeting hours in the lobby) to see if he could book it for us or make a recommendation. ACV doesn’t have a contract with Monkey Land, so he sought out a colleague from Jet Blue to do the booking for us. This was a little off-putting, because I really just wanted to talk to someone about it before making the leap to booking as it’s not cheap. Fortunately, I had read up on it beforehand, including some Trip Advisor reviews, so we went ahead and booked it. For awhile it looked like there wouldn’t be room for us, but they were eventually able to accommodate the four of us on an excursion leaving the next day.

Pickup at our resort was scheduled for 7:55 a.m. the next morning. We grabbed an early breakfast and were there a few minutes early because my children are saddled with a mother who feels physical pain at the thought of being late for anything. I should have known better. Excursions came and went all around us but we waited and wondered if we’d missed the bus. I asked a staffer and he made a call for me. Apparently the bus was running late (on “Dominican time”) and after an additional 20 minutes or so it finally arrived, after having picked up guests from other hotels. (I’m guessing this is the reason for the delay.)

The bus is an open air bus – bare bones, not unlike a school bus – but with seat belts and no windows. It rained that morning, so one side was covered in semi-transparent plastic sheeting – the other side was open. At first I wondered about the seat belts, but later I’d be grateful to have them.

There were two destinations on the Monkey Land trip itinerary: (1) Monkey Land, a monkey sanctuary and (2) a traditional Dominican home. Since the bus was late the itinerary was switched and we did Monkey Land first instead of last. I only mention this because, in hindsight, it would have been great to end the trip with Monkey Land. I like to go out on a high note! (But more on that in a bit.)

I found the delays at the beginning to be frustrating because I just wanted to get going. We also stopped twice on the way out. Once for what turned out to be a driver switchover at the side of the highway (which wasn’t explained at any point, so we sat there for 10 minutes wondering what was going on) and then we stopped a second time at a gas station to pick up more passengers. This second stop actually took a long time as 5-6 people decided to use the facilities.

There are two “Runners” staff assigned to each tour: a driver and a guide. The driver is up front and the guide rides with the passengers. The guide’s role, as I see it, is to inform and entertain the passengers along the route. It’s about an hour drive so this makes the time go by. I suppose every guide is different, but I could have used more information and less entertainment. Humour is subjective, but our guide, P, was funny at times and awful at others, with a juvenile sense of humour which made me uncomfortable at times.

Anyway, on we went. The first stop was Monkey Land. It’s an insightful drive through the Dominican countryside as it’s dotted with farms, small communities, and roadside stands. This was an enjoyable and very informative part of the excursion and I was glad we had the opportunity to see the open air schools, stores, and homes. To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable being a tourist amid such poverty as it seems almost exploitive, but there’s something to be said about seeing how people live.

A drive through the countryside. This is a school.

A drive through the countryside

A drive through the countryside

The last 10-15 minutes of the drive to Monkey Land is up a very steep hill along a very narrow and bumpy road. It was slow going, but there’s a lot to see so I didn’t mind. It was at this point that I realized the seat belts were preventing us from sliding off our seats as we drove:

Life in the Dominican Republic

Monkey Land was, hands down, the best part of this excursion. We arrived, were greeted by the hosts, and given a few minutes to regroup/use the WC etc.

Monkey Land is essentially a monkey reserve. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised. The couple that own and operate Monkey Land are actually Canadians who worked at the Toronto Zoo. Our guide that day was a relative of the couple (a sister?), who’d been living there for a few months. She was extremely passionate and knowledgeable, and it was a real treat to talk to her.

It might be worth noting that these aren’t actually Dominican monkeys. These are actually imports from Africa, although a growing number are born here. The habitat is much like their own native habitat, with lots of trees and space to run around be monkeys. Here’s the thing about Monkey Land I really appreciated: it’s not a zoo, or a circus, where the monkeys are expected to entertain. People are invited to come by at feeding time and feed the monkeys and watch them eat but once that’s done, that’s it. The monkeys happily disappear into the greenery and go about their business.

After the short introduction we were lead into the monkey feeding area. We were all given dishes of chopped fruit and peanuts and given some basic instruction and tips for monkey lovin’ success: hold out your bowl, stay calm, don’t pet the monkeys, take as many photos as you like.

One little guy dropped on my head within a few moments of entry. They came down from the trees, grabbed food from our bowls, and settled on our shoulders, outstretched arms, and nearby branches to munch away on their chosen treats. (I should point out that this trip is NOT recommended for anyone with a peanut allergy. On fact, one poor girl with a serious allergy got all the way there and realized that peanuts were a major part of the whole event. Not only were there peanuts in every bowl, but our host explained the monkeys have peanut residue on their feet and that it would be on all the smooth surfaces in the feeding area etc. The girl had an epi pen, but the hosts were very concerned – and rightly so because there aren’t hospitals nearby at all.)

The monkeys were incredibly gentle and sweet. The feet were so soft, you could hardly feel them on you. They are such inquisitive little creatures. They were quite interested our attempts to take a selfie. Someone got some mashed banana on my screen, and it wasn’t me:

My attempt at a selfie at Monkey Land

Best monkey selfie ever

Monkey Land, Dominican Republic

Monkey Land, Dominican Republic

The hosts reminded us that these monkeys are not pets, and they don’t like to be petted or hugged. In fact, hugs would seem like an act of aggression. So we took tons of photos instead. Before we knew it, feeding time was over and they scattered back into the trees. This part of the tour was about 30 minutes.

As I mentioned, it would have been really good to end our trip with Monkey Land, because the rest of it pretty much went downhill from there.

P, our guide, took us around the “botanical garden” a.k.a. garden paths outside Monkey Land.

Monkey Land

He pointed out the various plants and their medicinal uses. The sun came out at that time and it suddenly got very hot. This part went on too long and my attention wavered and I wandered away to escape P., whose jokes were starting to get on my nerves. We were handed cold drinks as we boarded the bus, then we drove a short distance to visit a traditional Dominican home. I had mixed feelings about tramping through someone’s home and taking photos, but I told myself it was good to see how other people lived, and good for my kids too. The home we visited was the same design as may houses we passed along the way there: two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and outdoor bathroom. There was no electricity here. A tiny TV and lights were powered by a car battery.

Life in the Dominican Republic

Life in the Dominican Republic

Life in the Dominican Republic

The house tour was very brief, just a walkthrough really, to get to the back yard area which was set up for cocoa and coffee bean roasting. We were given a lesson about traditional farming methods. This part was quite interesting.

Roasting beans over the fire

Then we were directed to some wooden benches and told to sit. This turned out to be an unbelievably long sales pitch, mixed with information about each of the products that are produced and sold there. It was basically an informercial and we were being held hostage. At one point, a couple of the adults were chatting, P. stared them down and asked them to stop, saying they were holding everything up. It was meant to be a joke, but it was actually a subtle intimidation which I really didn’t appreciate as it felt like we were naughty children at Sunday school. Some tour participants had toddlers, and they wandered off to look at the chickens and banana trees. In hindsight I really wish I’d just stood up and left, but I was too stunned and hot to move.

At one point, P went into painfully EXCRUCIATING detail about the laxative-like qualities of coconut oil. He included actions and sound effects, all meant to be funny but was just vulgar.  I wasn’t the only one who was cringing in her seat. After about 30 minutes we were allowed to sample some fresh fruit and buy some of the locally made items. We bought cocoa (which we haven’t used because it doesn’t dissolve in liquid without boiling it in milk first – what’s in this stuff?) and some vanilla. There was also a locally-produced alcohol available for purchase, cane sugar, paprika, and other things. I was happy to buy something, and I would have anyway, but I didn’t appreciate my time being wasted in this way.

At this point, I was very happy to be leaving.

It was interesting to watch the countryside roll by on the way back to the resort and we only made one stop.

I do, ultimately, think this excursion was worth attending, but I do wish I’d walked away from the sales pitch. Here are some tips if you’re thinking of going:

  • If you can, book the Monkey Land trip on a less busy day. (We went on a Friday, at the end of our stay.) Fewer people means more monkeys around your food dish!
  • Do not go to Monkey Land if you have peanut allergies.
  • Bring your camera, but don’t forget to put it down too.
  • Take a couple of Advils before heading out if you have neck or shoulder issues. It’s a bumpy ride! People who get motion sick may want to bring a Gravol.
  • It’s always a good idea to bring your own water and a snack. We didn’t get back until after lunch time.
  • Heed my warnings about the sales pitch, and don’t let yourself be intimidated into buying anything.

More photos from this tour can be seen right here.


2 Responses to "A visit to Monkey Land"

1 | Genevieve

August 19th, 2015 at 7:14 pm

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“To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable being a tourist amid such poverty as it seems almost exploitive, but there’s something to be said about seeing how people live.” I have felt this way when visiting Cuba and Mexico… how do you get around this and how can you visit a country safely while still being respectful? Any thoughts you can share on this? I’ve been a reader of your blog for a while and I respect your opinion on many topics. Thanks! :)

2 | andrea tomkins

August 20th, 2015 at 7:16 pm

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This is a really tough one, and although I haven’t travelled widely, it’s something I struggle with.

We live in our own respective cocoons and I think it’s important to be knowledgeable about other parts of the world. It is through knowledge that ignorance is banished to the sidelines. It is through knowledge that we become better citizens of the world. Part of this is learning how other people live, showing our children how people live, and sharing that knowledge with others. We can do it in respectful ways. It means not being a loudmouth tourist, but it begins with treating others kindly and with respect. The resorts we visit employ hundreds and hundreds of local people, so I like to think that our tourist dollars (and tips!) are making it to the right people. Organized tours, ones that are affiliated with the airline/hotel are probably the safest way to go.

I don’t think this is a very complete answer, but I didn’t want your comment to hang here too long. I need to think about it more, that’s for sure.

Thanks for reading Genevieve!

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark. We have two daughters: Emma (19) and Sarah (17). I am the managing editor of our community newspaper, the Kitchissippi Times. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger, and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999... which makes me either a total dinosaur or a veteran, I'm not sure which! The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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