“Chito and Poncho are friends,” reads a sign at Finca Las Tilapias, Gilberto Sheedan’s ranch near the Caribbean-slope town of Siquirres.
Chito, as Sheedan is widely known, and Poncho, a one-eyed crocodile estimated to be 50 years old, are friends because they have spent a lot of time together during the past 17 years, since the day Chito rescued a near lifeless Poncho from a nearby river.
Every Sunday at 4 p.m., Chito jumps into a 100-square-meter artificial lake he built on the 23-hectare property he inherited from his father. Once in the water, he searches for Poncho, wading chest-deep through the green water, calling quietly for his companion: “Ponchoponchoponcho ponchoponcho…”
Once Poncho appears, Chito, who at 50 is the same age as his reptile partner, gives him simple instructions, peppered with Spanish slang.
“Mae, cierre el ojo a la güila (‘Dude, wink at the girl’),” Chito cajoles, and Poncho dutifully obeys.
Other commands Poncho follows include lifting his head and tail from the water, rolling over, and even allowing Chito to bite his fang. When Poncho is in a really good mood, Chito says, he’ll venture putting his head all the way into the reptile’s mouth, between his massive jaws.
Chito was working as a sportfishing guide 17 years ago when he found a three-meterlong crocodile dying on the shore of the ParisminaRiver, in the Caribbean province of Limón. The crocodile had been shot in the left eye, probably by a cattle farmer protecting his herd, Chito says.
After enlisting the help of several friends to load the massive reptile into his boat, Chito brought the injured crocodile home to care for him, eventually naming him Poncho.
He claims he healed the reptile with medicine, food, and, more importantly, lots of care and attention.
“I just wanted him to feel that someone loved him, that not all humans are bad,” Chito says. “I love all animals, especially ones that have suffered.”
During the recovery process, Chito stayed by Poncho’s side, even sleeping with him at night.
“It meant a lot of sacrifice. I had to be there every day,” he said.
After Chito felt that Poncho had bonded with him, he started swimming with the crocodile. But it wasn’t until seven years ago, when an employee saw Chito swimming with Poncho and told his wife, that “all the craziness began,” Chito explains.
The first time Chito and Poncho did a show was July 4, 2000, after Channel 7 TV News found out about the unusual pair of friends and went to film them. Chito says he never thought about putting on a show for the public; he only wanted to spend time with the crocodile “so he would have a companion.”
Since then, Chito and Poncho have been featured on almost every channel and newspaper in Costa Rica, as well as on Chilean, English and North American television.
At the request of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), in addition to Chito’s loving care, Poncho has a veterinarian and a biologist keeping an eye on his well being, and receives 30 kilograms of chicken and fish per week. Though Chito doesn’t have a written permit to have a crocodile in captivity, MINAE has allowed him to keep Poncho at his ranch in Siquirres as long as the ministry can monitor him.
“There isn’t a crocodile in captivity in Costa Rica that has the space Poncho has. If somebody takes him away and puts him in a place like this, I will be happy,” Chito says.
Chito’s business vision and tireless work have resulted in a tourist complex called Las Tilapias, with a restaurant, swimming pools, hotel rooms and a protected system of canals he dug himself, populated by herons, sloths, monkeys and other species of wildlife.
At the restaurant, run by Chito’s wife Olga Valle, visitors can enjoy Caribbean food such as the traditional rice and beans with chicken in Caribbean sauce (¢1,800/$3.50) or whole fried fish with patacones (fried green plantains) (¢3,300/$6.30), as well as a variety of other Costa Rican dishes.
Chito also offers boat tours of his canals.
Gliding past a small row of hotel rooms overlooking the water, Chito takes his passengers into a world of jungle, water and wildlife.
One might happen upon nest after inhabited nest of night herons, a startled great blue heron, hummingbirds, flocks of white egrets, a family of howler monkeys, a domesticated and caged peccary or a snoozing sloth. This Tico Times reporter saw all this and more, surrounded by colorful tropical flora, in a 20-minute trip through the canals.
The amiable Chito and his crocodile friend work to offer visitors not only a show unlike any other in the world, but also the opportunity to spend a nice day in a friendly, family atmosphere in the Caribbean Zone.
Getting There, Rates, Info
To get to Las Tilapias, drive to the center of Siquirres, on the highway between San José and the Caribbean port of Limón. Cross the train tracks, turn north and continue for one kilometer. It’s a good idea to ask for directions to make sure you are going the right way – everybody in the area knows Chito and Poncho.
Admission to Las Tilapias on Sundays – the only day for the Chito and Poncho show, at 4 p.m. – costs ¢1,000 (about $2); visitors may stay as long as they like, enjoying the show and the property. For $65 per person, guests can spend the night in one of Las Tilapias’ 11 cabinas (four more are under construction) with private bathroom, TV, fan and double or single beds; enjoy a boat tour; and feast on three delicious meals at the restaurant.
For info, call 398-1517, 768-8636 or 768-9293.