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Why Howler Monkeys Howl & Other Animal Tales from Totoco

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


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It was our first night in Totoco. We’d climbed onto a little platform, enough for a double bed and a bag, above the farm’s open-air communal dining room. There was a dirty, old mattress with ill-fitting sheets, thatched A-frame walls of palm leaves to the left and right, and our headboard was the night sky. Emma had lit a mosquito coil on a shelf that dangled on chains fixed to the ceiling beams. At about four am, the growling began.

Why Howler Monkeys Howl


Life on Ometepe Island was a first regular exposure to monkeys. I’ve seen several species from a fair distance, usually tree-bound and far from anywhere I’d be sleeping. So, when the howlers began that morning—it starts with a throaty rev and builds into an all-out croaking roar—I was sure they were within striking distance. This was not pointing to a couple of dangling primates spotted by a guide on a jungle hike. These creatures were near, and they sound pissed.

Once it woke me up, I was really awake, my fingers clutching to the mattress, eyes flung ajar. My whole body had tensed into a ready position. Ready for what, I do not know, but soon enough something was rooting around in the kitchen below us and growls turned into terse snorts, sure signs of seething aggression. The morning had created a luminous glow, and after some discussion—“I’m not going down there. Have you seen a howler monkey’s teeth?”—Emma and I decided to peek over the edge of our loft.

There, in the middle of the dining room floor, the Totoco organic pig was snout-ing out a massive hole. To be honest, at the point, I wasn’t super excited about going down to meet the pig.


A couple of days later, I found out why howler monkeys howl: It’s a territorial thing, the equivalent to shouting again and again, “I’m here!” This apparently keeps other monkeys at a distance. Why it has to be done at four am, I still don’t know, and the irony of the Totoco troop is that our section of the forest was too removed from other trees for neighboring monkeys to invade. In the weeks to come, we had several up-close encounters (as little as a few yards/meters) with our guys, who loved to nibble on the leaves of the papaya tree outside the kitchen.

Two Toads Diverged in a Wood

I’m not sure exactly what animals I expected to see in abundance there—monkeys were on the list—but toads had not really occurred to me. However, come nightfall, you’d think a plague of Revelations had kicked off: Walking required watched were you stepped, not just for balance but for animal preservation. Giant cane toads were everywhere.

By day, they’d disappear, and that’s where I’d begin to jump. I’m a pretty squeamish guy for sporting such a manly beard, so when digging through a pile of rocks or rotten sticks, a common occurrence at Totoco Farm, I’d always be prepared to drop my shovel and run for dear life at the sight of a coral snake. I never saw one. But, I nearly wet myself a dozen times or more when I unearthed sleeping cane toads. Holy jumping Jesus!

Never did learn if it caused warts if a toad made you pee yourself.


Averagely Exotic Bird Mixes

What’s that in the sky? Is it a magpie? Is it a jay? No, it’s a magpie jay! The white-throated magpie-jay to be more persnickety.

I’m no ornithological expert. In fact, my version of bird-watching consists of pointing at birds and whispering—God forbid I scared it off with me vocal volume—“That blue one’s purty.” And, the white-throated magpie-jay certainly qualifies for a whisper. It’s bright blue with a slender tail feathering down about a foot below it’s body, and atop its head is a little Mohawk of black squibbly things.

The problem with the magpie-jay is that, despite its wildly exotic outfit, they are freaking everywhere on Ometepe. They fill the morning air with cackles (to go with the howls). They fill the roadside trees with flashes of blue and white. For about the first hour on the island, they completely mystify. After that, they’re reduced to being “another one”.

It’s amazing how quickly the exotic becomes commonplace.

Honorable Animal Mentions

  • Despite my certainty of snakes in the area, I never stumbled upon one in any rock pile. They were few and far between, but we did spot a couple of tiny black snakes, one lethargic but adequately large boa constrictor, and a dead green vine snake turned into children’s toy.


  • Most folks who know me have heard the infamous scorpion story. While living in Guatemala, I was awoken by an angry scorpion laying into my chest. I was never stung in Nicaragua, but I did put my hands right next to a couple considerable larger (apparently less dangerous) ones. Our last week there, scorpions literally started coming out of the woodwork: We saw at least half a dozen—under a seat cushion, running around the pizza oven, the garden—all the size of a meaty middle finger.
  • The bigass flying beetle (not the scientific name) came from nowhere. One minute we were sitting there in after-dinner glow, the next we are all diving for cover. I’ve heard helicopters quieter than that thing. It crashed into the table and began walking around, circling nothing and moving with the stunning ineptness associated with beetles. According to Internet sources, we’d officially encountered the Hercules beetle.
  • Exhibitionist geckos that, more than once, were caught in the throes of passion on the rafter above our dining room table. Otherwise, the lizards were heard: There call sounds like a person giggling, mocking almost, perhaps because of the plethora of mosquitos and bullet ants (the most painful insect bites known to Totoco) attacking us down below. Every once and a while, though, a gecko would lose grip and drop--Splat!--on the table or floor below. It was always a gloriously funny moment.


  • And, to round out the experience of creepy crawlers, tarantulas were a dozen a cordoba (1 cordoba=roughly 4 cents USD) around Ometepe. As they are ground dwellers, I came across them daily in the gardens. Big, fuzzy, eight legs—you know the drill. They are not likely to fly onto the kitchen table, but they warrant stopping for a second to admire. For some of us, with big beards and gentle dispositions, we do so from a distance.

Posted by jonathonengels 07:41 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged animals travel farm backpacking humor expat

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