Chile is for Animal Lovers

Those bound for South America this winter may enjoy dropping ın on two family-run sanctuaries in Chile: a desert hummingbird haven near Arica, and a small-town monkey refuge outside Santiago.

Centro de Prımates Peñaflor

Humans are the only primates native to Chile but–as in the U.S.–some keep illegally-imported exotic cousins as pets.  When a boy knocked on the Almazán-Lopez family’s door in 1994, offering to sell a monkey he carried in a box, the family’s four children thought the animal looked miserable, and convinced their parents to buy him.

Three capuchin monkeys peer out of their enclosure.

They named the monkey Cristobal and learned to care for him, relying in part on the experience of Carlos Almazán, 63, a pediatrician. As word got around their community, the family began to receive other monkeys in need.

Later, they learned that Chile requires a license to keep non-human primates.  But the responsible government agency was leaving animals in unlicensed homes, since there was no care facility which could receive them.  So the family offered to register as Chile’s first primate sanctuary, and the agency accepted.

Slowly their two walled properties in the town of Peñaflor began to fill wıth enclosures designed for different monkey species and the occasional chimpanzee.  Today 160 monkeys live at the center, along with the Almazán-Lopez extended family and their 25 dogs.

A howler monkey greets Lorena Almazàn and her daughter Magdalena.

Many monkeys arrive in poor physical and psychological health, requiring medical operations and gentle patience.  To speed their recovery, the family must also pay attention to social affinities and dislikes among the animals.  Elba Muñoz-Lopez, 60, who devotes the most tıme to the monkeys, explained that they were just like any group of people–most individuals form frienships with some, and don’t get along with others.

According to daughter Lorena Almazán, 36, who runs a one-woman wedding cake business, the center cannot reintroduce its inhabitants to the wild. Trying to collaborate with foreign governments that are corrupt enough to permit the animals’ initial capture, she said, is too uncertain.  Monkeys’ social organization also makes reintroduction unlikely, since a captured monkey’s territory is likely to be usurped in his absence.

A capuchin monkey who arrived with such rotten teeth that dentists could only leave two in his mouth.

In their current home, the monkeys all have room to swing and climb, along with toys, ropes, tunnels, and doors  to keep them busy. But the chain links of their cages are never out of site.

Lorena admitted that captivity was not ideal for the monkeys, but said the center provides for their needs as best it can, with limited resources.  The center receives no government funds, and fifteen percent of their operating budget is covered by the donations of long-distance adopters. Local supermarkets donate truckloads of expired fruit, and all other costs must be covered by the family’s outside salaries.

The Tricky Part

Because the Almazán-Lopezes run the sanctuary in their own gardens, they only open their doors to visitors who have adopted a primate–which costs as little as 3,000 Chilean pesos per month, or US$6.00.

This low traffic makes the animals unusually engaging.  Far from the blasè attitudes of animals in zoos, the monkeys of Peñaflor are curious and responsive to visitors.  As I walked among their enclosures, some reached hands out to me wıth expressions that looked imploring.

Keeping all contact on my side of the cage, as per Lorena’s instructions, I held the smooth hands that were offered to me.  Looking into the monkeys’ eyes, I wished I could know some of the memories, impressions, and longing that lay behind them.

To contact Centro de Primates Peñaflor or to arrange a long-distance adoption, visit  Lorena Almazán speaks excellent English.

Santuario de los Picaflores

About a half-hour drive up the cultivated Azapa Valley from the coastal desert city of Arica, a nectar-thick oasis of native plants entices hummingbirds to make extended layovers along their migration routes. Trees open their flowers to foragers, and beneath them cloth-draped sofas form surprising outdoor parlors around displays of antique objects and newspapers.

While birds linger over flowers, compositions of antique curios detain humans visitors.

Is it a Darwin-themed steam punk gathering? No! It’s the home and work of Maria Teresa Madrid, 51, who grew up in this valley, watched hummingbird numbers dwindle as crops replaced native plants, and convinced her father to return their land to the birds.

Her project has succeeded in bringing hummingbirds back, and visitors from around the world find their ways down her dusty country road, to observe her avian guests.

The property feels like a Peaceable Kingdon: a donkey grazes, two ebullient pit bulls tumble over one another, chicks run through bushes after their mother, blurry-winged fliers drink nectar, and humans wander, wonder, and repose as they please.

A male hummingbird, at rest for an instant.

Madrid hopes that her gardens will spur visitors—especially young ones—to understand our interdependence with wild animals, and act to protect them.

There is no charge to visit the sanctuary, though they appreciate donations of any size.  If you take a guided tour of the sanctuary, I suggest leaving behind a few thousand pesos in exchange for Ms. Madrid’s time.

Maria Teresa Madrid explains how hummingbirds draw nectar out of a plant she has reintroduced to her part of the Valle de Azapa.

The Tricky Part

The location of El Santuario de los Picaflores is not known in the usual cartographic terms you may be used to. I was sent from Arica in a taxi, and told to inquire at the Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa (which offers an extraordinary artefactual tour through Chilean populations from pre-history to the present era, inlcluding examples of Chinchorro mummies—the world’s earliest).

This inquiry did not set me on a direct path to the sanctuary, and I lost myself for a few hours among small farms on narrow roads, whose inhabitants knew nothing about a picaflor-keeping neighbor.

But that itself was a beautiful walk, and at last I found a shopkeeper who pointed me toward the sanctuary.  As the dog walks, it should be no more than 40 minutes from the museum.

Perhaps useful to those driving: a local journalist who also struggled to find the sanctuary describes it as lying at “kilometer 14” of the road from Arica.  Also, the hummingbird is known by two terms in Chile:  picaflor and colibrí.

One of the simplest graves in the San Miguel de Azapa's Aymara cemetery, strewn with plastic flowers.

There is also a breathtaking cemetery of the indigenous Aymara ethnic group, in San Miguel. Bright pastel-colored memorials  spread out over a sandy hillside, dotted with a flurry of plastic flowers. The graves are simple, often handmade, unique from one other, and light-filled. Amid celebratory colors and small groups of men dousing themselves and graves in liquor as they paid respects, I felt comfortable and non-disruptive as a respectful visitor.

Anyone visiting Arica should give themselves the treat of locating these three desert gems, along with the geoglyphs of animals that decorate the nearby hillsides.

One thought on “Chile is for Animal Lovers

  1. My husband and I visited Maria Teresa last year. She is wonderful and has a most extraordinary garden for her birds– not just the hummers! She understands the impact of man on nature and is fighting for the sustainability of the area. Well worth the trip if you can find her and make a donation to her cause.

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