Visit an Island Run by Monkeys
You will see many neat things in Puerto Rico, but wild animals are not usually one of them – except if you visit Monkey Island. Monkey Island (officially Cayo Santiago) is a small island, about ½ mile off of the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, that is home to about 1200 free-roaming Rhesus monkeys. The monkeys are the offspring of an original group of monkeys imported from India that were used for scientific research in 1938. Operated by the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Caribbean Primate Research Center (CPRC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Harvard University, scientists there study the monkeys’ behavior, demographics, genetics and physiological changes. The island is not open to tourists, but you can get an up close view of the monkeys from the water. Since the water around the island is so shallow, the best viewing is from a kayak!
Getting to Monkey Island
I am a BIG fan of animals, so this was something I had to do! We recently went out one afternoon with Barefoot Travelers Rooms Adventures. They rent kayaks that you can use to go over to the island and view the monkeys. They will accompany you so that you know where to go.
We met Keishya and Bob at the launch point on the beach, directly across from Monkey Island. When we arrived at the beach they were concerned about the weather – it was thundering in the distance with some large clouds forming on the horizon towards Vieques. We watch the cloud patterns and waited on the beach. They wouldn’t let anyone go out onto the water until they felt it was safe to do so.
Meeting the Research Team
While we waited for the storm to pass, three researchers from Monkey Island stopped to chat on their way home from their day of research. We had time to talk with them and they told us about their jobs, the monkeys and all sorts of interesting first hand experiences and details about what goes on over on the island. Even if you don’t get to meet the researchers on your trip, Keishya is good friends with these researchers, so she can relay lots of what she has heard them say about the monkeys.
At Monkey Island
Amazingly (as predicted by Keishya and Bob), after the rainstorm passed, the sun came out and it was beautiful … so off we went. It was a quick 20-minute kayak trip over to the island. Keishya told us that we had to remain at least 30-feet away from the island so as not to disturb the monkeys. She also told us to be quiet and paddle past the monkeys, parallel to the shoreline, so that they would not get scared and get used to us. It seemed to work, since as we drifted back past the island, the monkeys stayed right there, doing their usual monkey business. Their antics were fascinating to watch.
At no point can you step onto the island. These are wild animals with Herpes B and they may attack (as all the posted signs around the island state). I was happy to just sit in my kayak and watch these beautiful animals enjoy the afternoon. Since they are free to move around, you aren’t guaranteed to see them, but if you go at the right time or area of the islands, you have a much better chance. Keishya knows the best times/places and we saw about 50-100 monkeys during our 30 minutes of watching them. The wind must have been blowing the right way because we didn’t smell a thing. I can imagine if you stop in the wrong spot, 1200 monkeys can make quite a smell! We stayed for a while, just sitting in our kayaks and watching them do the things that monkeys do.
Snorkeling on Monkey Reef
After we observed the monkeys for a while, Keishya and Bob pointed out the remains of a sunken barge where there was decent snorkeling. It is not deep at all, you can see the skeletal remains above and below the water. I thought it was kind of neat to snorkel under beams and look into what’s left of the hull. It is not the best snorkeling you will find- The reef had a lot of sand/silt on it and the day we went, the water had some silt in it. But, all in all, it was pretty good. The reef was teaming with fish, schools of many different types and some colorful ones, too. We also saw a barracuda and stingray. Keishya said she also sees an octopus there a lot, but no one saw it on our visit.
Paddling Back Home
When you’re done watching the monkeys you have to paddle your kayak back to the mainland. You have the option of heading back to the same point where you put-in, or you can take a longer trip back to the beach by Keishya and Bob’s house. We all decided that we were up to the challenge of the longer trip back. So we set off across the sea for about an hour kayak home. The views were beautiful, with the sun on El Yunque. Since we were delayed in starting, the sun was beginning to set and the clouds were colorful. It was a lovely upper body workout. I really enjoyed the trip. All in all, we were on the water about 2 – 2½ hours.
Barefoot Travelers Rooms and Adventures has several kayaks (single and double) that they use for these trips. They can easily handle a group of up to 6 people. If you have a bigger group, they can arrange to get an additional kayak or two. They also provide dry bags for cameras, water shoes, snorkel gear, and life vests (that you are required to wear). You’re welcome to bring your own snorkel gear, if you have it. Anyway, the real attraction here is the monkeys, not the snorkeling. You should also plan to bring along one bottle of water for each person in your party … all the kayaking and the sun will make you thirsty.
Normally, when we review an activity that is not free to the public, we pay the admission price out of our own pockets. However, we just want you to know that the folks at Barefoot Travelers Adventures were kind enough to offer us this trip for free. While we don’t feel that this free ride influenced our review one way or the other, we felt that we should tell you, just as a matter of fact.
Kayak rentals are $55 plus tax per person. Minimum group size is 2 people, maximum 6 people. Reservations required.
If you're happy, let them know it — Don't forget to tip your your bartender, tour guide or trip operator if you enjoyed yourself. Gratuities are appreciated and typically aren't included in the price they charge you.
Barefoot Travelers Rooms and Adventures don’t have any set schedule for this trip. They are available most days. Contact them in advance to set up your trip.
You can visit the Barefoot Travelers Rooms and Adventures web site for more information.
You can call Barefoot Travelers Rooms and Adventures at 787.850.0508 for more information or to make a reservation.
Remember to wear lots of sunscreen!
You should probably allow a good half-day for this trip. You may have to wait out a storm, like we did, or you may have to paddle to a different part of the island to find some monkeys to watch.
If they are not available when you want to go or you have little kids that can’t kayak, other options are a motor boat that departs from Palmas del Mar for about $65/person- contact Maragata Charters 787-637-1802. Or you can try Captain Frank (Paco) Lopez, out of Punta Santiago, at 787-850-7881 or 787-316-0441 Capt. Paco’s web site .
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