San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tempisque Safari: An All-Animal Adventure

With the new highway from San José to Caldera drastically shortening driving times to the Central Pacific, a day trip to the Tempisque Safari animal refuge makes a straightforward – and different – day’s outing. Deep in the NicoyaPeninsula hinterlands, 39 kilometers from the AmistadBridge over the TempisqueRiver, it also makes an intriguing half-day side trip for anyone heading to the beaches on the central Guanacaste coast.

The rescue center started almost by accident. Owner of an 800-hectare cattle ranch for more than 16 years, Edward Drew, of Jamaican-British-Tico extraction, built on his love of animals to create an animal refuge.

Things started on a small scale around 2005 with a few pens and aviaries to house injured or orphaned animals mostly brought in by area inhabitants.

As word spread, more creatures turned up, and Drew turned to breeding certain species for reintroduction into the wild. He has CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) approval to breed scarlet macaws and tapirs.

Tempisque Safari now houses some 60 species, including native Costa Rican and South American varieties as well as emus and ostriches representing Austral-African species.

Tempisque Safari offers a build-upon menu with a guided tour of the facility, a ride in a water buffalo-drawn cart, a boat ride on the TempisqueRiver, and lunch. Though dropins are welcome to visit the center, advance notice is required for the other options.

Dean Drew, the owner’s nephew, was my highly informative guide, closely shadowed during our whole tour by a nut-loving ñandú (rhea) that had arrived as an egg and hatched on the premises. Its eye remained fixed on Drew’s outsize bag of peanuts, used to handle other refuge residents.

At any turn, you almost literally bump into free-roaming tapirs, white-tailed and brocket deer, Muscovy ducks and peacocks. Drew invited us into the spacious macaw house to photograph the occupants. The aviary holds a riotous rainbow of young scarlet, blue-and-gold and highly endangered military and great green macaws. Over the peanut squabbles our entry occasioned, Drew explained that the scarlet macaw juveniles, born in the wild from the tiny remnant population in nearby Palo Verde National Park or in on-site nesting boxes, are caged for their own protection. Once mature, they are released to help increase the wild flock that freely commutes between Tempisque Safari and Palo Verde.

We continued past large pens containing South American capybaras, rescued ocelots and coils of boa constrictors. In the fenced shallow ponds, a telltale aroma gave away collared and white-lipped peccaries cooling off in the mud. A tapir female, halfway through her 15-month pregnancy, fought off the beating sun submerged in her specially dug lake. Already a mother of two, she is proof of the success Tempisque Safari has had with its breeding program. In fact, walking around, we saw the numerous offspring of deer, capybaras, agoutis, river turtles and bird species. The center actively breeds iguanas, black-bellied whistling-ducks and Muscovy ducks for release into the wild.

To meet the exacting dietary needs of this exotic throng, Edward Drew planted suitable fruit and almond trees that produce food for the animals, supplemented by surplus produce from local farmers. Water hyacinth is harvested from the lagoons for the agoutis, deer and capybaras, and homemade yogurt from the dairy cows is fed to most of the mammals, starring as a favorite treat among the monkey species. The snakes enjoy a weekly live chicken, and the crocodiles lunge for chunks of raw meat.

Hygiene is paramount, and the day starts with a 6 a.m. cleaning of the whole area and replacing of food and water. A biologist from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry and inspectors from the National System of Conservation Areas make regular visits to check the animals, count bird populations, tag new crocodiles and even bring in wounded animals found on their rounds. A vet from Nicoya deals with any serious injuries; otherwise, Tempisque Safari’s keepers have become expert in dealing with minor ailments. Certainly every animal I saw looked healthy and unstressed.

When is a zoo not a zoo? Drew stressed that this is not a petting zoo with animals confined to cages for life. Where feasible, the animals are free to wander most of the eight-hectare grounds, safely fenced against predators. Overflow deer, peccaries and agoutis are released into an adjacent 60-hectare reserve to roam at large.

The tour’s climax is feeding time at the crocodile lagoons. The rattle of the meat bucket and the keeper’s calls cause dark leathery plates to break the water surface and glide ominously to the bank. With a dramatic charge, a huge five-meter male gulps down a piece of offal. You hope the fence is sturdy.

The females clamber over each other to grab raw morsels. You remind yourself never to swim in lowland rivers again. Crocs are primitive eating and breeding machines, and if food is scarce, they’re not beyond eating each other or anything in their reach (see box).

A quirky option at Tempisque Safari is to ride the gaily painted cart drawn by ambling water buffalo down to the dock for an hour’s trip on the river and yet more bird and wildlife spotting. And once the peanuts have run out and the ñandú has haughtily dismissed you, it’s time for a filling Tico lunch with complimentary homegrown coffee and coffee liqueur.


Getting There, Rates, Info

After crossing the AmistadBridge, continue 9 km to Quebrada Honda, then 30 km on dirt road to Puerto Humo and Rosario, following the signs. The drive time from San José is about three hours.

A guided tour costs $25 per person for foreigners and ¢4,500 for Ticos and residents; with cart ride and lunch, the cost is $30/¢11,000; and with cart ride, lunch and river trip, $65/¢21,000 (10 people minimum in boat). Group rates are available on request.

For information or to reserve, call 2698-4856 or 2698-1069, or visit




To Cull or Not to Cull?

Despite his concern and love for animals, Edward Drew has no romanticized feelings about crocodiles. He showed me gruesome photos of a young man who lost his arm, leg and life in a croc attack; the leg was later removed from the captured animal’s stomach. Such attacks on humans are not unknown in the area, but are hushed up by authorities, Drew claimed.

The TempisqueRiver is over populated by crocodiles, and as fish stocks dwindle, the crocs turn to other food sources: cattle, dogs, birds, even other crocodiles. Highly territorial, the males will spread along the river to establish a suitable patch of 200 to 300 meters. Both the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry and local fishermen regularly ask Drew’s employees to snare and remove aggressive crocs that rip nets and attack livestock – always with the fear of unsuspecting humans falling victim. And it is a badly kept secret that crocodiles are killed on the quiet when risks are too great.

“Wildlife sheriffs operate in every county of the United States with dense crocodile populations. Their policy for any animal over six feet is to shoot and dispose of it, especially if it has a history of attacking,” Drew said. “In the dry season here, an adult crocodile can take a 200-kilo calf. It’s only common sense to have such a policy here, but I am not allowed to cull. At least 30 attacks at sea on both coasts blamed on sharks over the years were actually crocodiles, but this is covered up. Crocodiles flourish along the seashore, and they can swim quite far out to sea.”

So, the center continues to round up juveniles that penetrate the fences into the ponds at Tempisque Safari and transport them to more distant river habitats.

Though this might seem to be exacerbating the problem, for now there is no legal alternative.

–Vicky Longland


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