Welcome to Sloth Town, a visual journey by Suzi Ezsterhas

Welcome to Sloth Town, a visual journey by Suzi Ezsterhas


Welcome to Sloth Town, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a brightly colored surf town in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica.  In Puerto Viejo, it is not uncommon to find sloths awkwardly climbing along fences or under the eaves, hanging out in bars, and generally making themselves at home. The locals like them. Traffic stops for them (when it can), tourists take pictures, and most of the locals have a wildlife rescue center on speed dial.

The town is more known for its surfing than for its scientists, there’s no industry other than a bit of tourism, and the roads are a mess. As the rate of development accelerates and the concrete jungle expands, the remaining trees are starting to disappear. The urban sloths of Puerto Viejo are losing the only things they need for survival.


The sloth mom at the Café

Stop in for a cup of coffee at Café Rico while admiring their resident, a wild sloth who often takes shelter in the café’s kitchen when it rains. Café Rico’s beloved sloth surprised everyone when she showed up on the kitchen shelf with a newborn baby. It boggled my mind that wild sloths could make themselves so at home in such urban environments in Puerto Viejo.


sloth mother on a shelf


Undoubtedly vulnerable, Café Rico’s sloth is fortunate to be surrounded by sloth-loving staff members that do their best to allow her to rest peacefully and quietly – wherever she wants. They don’t mind her climbing on the rafters, or hanging out above the bathroom sink. And much to the delight of  The Sloth Conservation Foundation, they bark fiercely at tourists that get too close to her


sloth next to tables

A town of dogs

In fragmented habitat, when sloths have to come to the ground to get from one patch of trees to the next they may encounter many dangers. Domestic dogs that are a danger to sloths include feral and free-ranging strays, as well as those that are cared for by humans as pets.


man walking a dog next to a sloth


And it’s not just sloths that are threatened by domestic dogs. Over 180 different species of wild animals are now threatened by dogs and at least 11 are now extinct because of our canine companions. After cats and rats, domestic dogs have become the third-most-damaging mammals – and yet this fact has received almost no media attention.


Sloth Dilemma

Dog attacks are the second leading cause of death for sloths in Costa Rica. Because the dog in this photo had recently gone through SloCo’s Oh My Dog training program, so when the owners called it off, the dog obeyed and simply sniffed the sloth and walked away.


sloth dilemma dog facing sloth
Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

I am grateful for responsible dog owners like my friends at Tasty Waves Cantina who do everything they can to make sure the sloths on their property are safe from humans and dogs.

This photograph has been “highly commended” in the Urban Wildlife category of the prestigious ‘Wildlife Photography of the Year 2022’ of the National History Museum.

Tourists and Cantinas

Another danger to sloths when they come to the ground is harassment from tourists. Often these are well-meaning, sloth-loving travelers. In excitement (or often in an attempt to get the perfect selfie) they often crowd the animal, make a lot of noise and even reach out to touch the fur.



This is Nacho, one of the resident sloths at Tasty Waves Cantina, another sloth-loving business in Puerto Viejo. Nacho likes to feed on the almond trees surrounding the bar and the owners, Bryton and Lydia, make sure their patrons allow him to feed in peace. Tasty Waves is also a huge supporter of The Sloth Conservation Foundation and see the sloths as an integral part of local tourism. As much as Nacho is loved, Dr. Rebecca Cliffe suspects that his urban life brings hardship.


Nacho going down to his weekly poop dance.

Bizarre places to be

Dr. Rebecca Cliffe and I found some urban sloths in some pretty bizarre places but this one took the cake. The Sloth Conservation Foundation received a report from a community member that a sloth had crossed a very busy road and climbed into a fruit stand. We have no idea why the sloth went there but when we arrived we found her clinging to the sink faucet. As more and more sloths are displaced by deforestation, SloCo is finding them in random places in town.


sloth on a fruit stand


Around the world urban wildlife can be found living in some pretty filthy places and urban sloths are no exception. Several sloths live in the trees at the sewer in the town of Puerto Viejo. One would assume that these sloths are exposed to human pathogens and pollutants, but no one knows for sure. These sloths are being monitored by The Sloth Conservation Foundation’s Urban Sloth Project. In order to photograph them, I spent much time tromping around some truly disgusting and stinky areas, something that the SloCo team must endure every time they check in on them.



SloCo suspects that one of the reasons why the sloths are living there is because it is one of the few places in town with no humans. No human in their right mind, except for us crazy sloth people, would ever go to such a place


The saddest postcard

During my urban sloth shoots, we found sloths in some extraordinary situations and this was, by far, the saddest one. The Sloth Conservation Foundation received a report of a sloth sleeping in a crack between two buildings, one of which was an actual drug house. Miraculously this sloth was able to carve out an existence in this environment, feeding on the trees on the property and then sleeping in his little crack.


sloth between two buildings

Every hotel has a sloth

After hanging out in drug houses and sewers we finally found some urban sloths hanging out in nice places, including luxury hotels! Our favorite was a little boutique hotel next to the beach, not only because it was dreamy to hang out there but also because it was a kind of safe haven for the sloths living there. Guests often see sloths casually walking on the pathways and feeding in the many trees on the hotel’s property.


Scenes nobody prepares you to deal with

Working with urban wildlife is an emotional rollercoaster. This heartwarming scene very quickly turned devastating. Dr. Rebecca Cliffe and I were photographing a mother and baby sloth that were slowly climbing down a tree. We were so wrapped up in their adorableness that we didn’t notice two men creeping up behind us.



They were clearly very drunk, and aggressive, and started talking about taking my camera gear. We immediately started to retreat to the truck, and the men then turned on the mother sloth and began harassing her. They taunted her, yelled and screamed, and tried to fist pump her as she froze and put her arm up to defend herself and her baby (typical sloth behavior when threatened). When Becky and I tried to intervene they threatened us. They had machetes and we knew they were dangerous so we had no choice but to back off. Vehicles passing by were stopping briefly but no one was willing to help, due to the danger of the situation.



We of course called the police but knew they would take ages to respond. The men escalated to whipping the sloth with some kind of clothing or rag and at that point, I nearly had to physically restrain Becky from getting out of the truck and lunging at them. Luckily they eventually lost interest and wandered off, and the sloth climbed back up the tree to safety. Both mom and baby were physically unharmed but clearly traumatized

Heartbreaking development

One morning during my urban sloth shoot Dr. Rebecca Cliffe took me to meet some of her favorite sloths being studied in The Urban Sloth Project. We arrived to a horrific scene of all of their trees chopped down. Even more tragic, after searching we found a few of the sloths in the nearby area, now displaced and homeless.


deforestation habitat loss


One sloth was pacing back and forth on a power line, clearly distressed, with nowhere to go. Under Costa Rica’s Forestry Law, cutting down any tree requires permission from the government regardless if it is on private or public land, but this kind of illegal deforestation is occurring at an alarming pace in the South Caribbean. SloCo reports incidents like this, but sadly the government rarely takes action against the offenders.


sloth on a powerline

The Urban Sloth Project

As the rainforest canopy is replaced by corrugated tin rooftops, and houses grow where trees used to be, the planet’s slowest mammals are struggling to adapt and coexist in an increasingly urban world. In 2020 The Sloth Conservation Foundation began a five-year-long research called the Urban Sloth Project to study how urbanization affects sloths.


Dr rebecca cliffe with a sloth


“Humans aren’t going anywhere,” says Dr. Rebecca Cliffe. “We need to find ways for humans and sloths to coexist. Can we really live side by side? Can we give sloths the space they need and still provide for developing communities?”


-Suzi Eszterhas

Wildlife Photographer

SloCo Trustee

The Adventures of Nacho

The Adventures of Nacho

Nacho, a feisty Hoffmann’s two-fingered Sloth, joined the Urban Sloth Project in May 2021. Nacho was one of the most interesting sloths we monitored during the months he was part of the project.



He was always surprising us with the places we found him in, the distance he traveled, or the photos tourists and locals post on social media with him.



Almost as soon as he was collared, Nacho decided he needed a change of scenery, and made the two-week journey from Tasty Waves Cantina into the center of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, where he has (mostly) remained. In this blog, we’ll recap the adventures of a sloth living in a busy tourist town, and what we learned from it.


Troublesome Sloth

Nacho’s first misadventure was when he was picked up by the local rescue center for relocation in July 2021 (3), after he was caught bothering the patrons of a restaurant (2), trying to bite their ankles like a little dog!



The only upside to this situation was that we were able to conduct a full health check on him and found that his weight in July was almost half a kilogram heavier than in May. This indicates that the collar he was wearing and our research on him had not affected his ability to thrive in his natural habitat.



Sometimes during this period he also gained a large scar between his eyes that he had not had when we first collared him.

We took this opportunity to fit Nacho with a micro-logger Daily Diary, a.k.a. tracking backpack, which would give us an in-depth view of his behavior and movements for 28 days, and provide invaluable data for the USP.


From the swamp in town to the beach bar

After we fitted him with the backpack we released him to a more appropriate spot in his territory near the swamp he had previously spent some time in (4). Nacho must have disagreed with the new spot though, and he decided to move somewhere a little more familiar: another bar (5).



After a nice wild goose chase through the month of May, Nacho found a home at Stanford’s (6). This made him a very enjoyable sloth to track (and made the Tracking Team a familiar sight in town), while we began to recognize his movements and patterns. It was very encouraging to watch Nacho thrive in spite of the ultra-urban environment that most sloths would avoid.



The bar he patronized had chosen to maintain the tree connectivity around their establishment—this is a great policy that makes for a nice atmosphere around the bar, as well as preventing erosion by anchoring the sand with the roots of the sea almond trees…which is important when your bar is located on the beach! Not to mention, it looks nice.


Problematic Humans

Spotting sloths in sea almond trees is easier than in many of the other trees sloths favor, as sea almonds’ branches are not usually cluttered with other plants and vines. They usually hold only almond leaves and the occasional sloth.

So when Nacho’s backpack signal went stationary (indicating that it had not moved in a while), and there was no sloth in the spot where the signal was coming from, we got worried.



The signal was coming from a tarpaulin tent, where a nomadic person had been living for many years.

Concern peaked on day four of the unchanging signal when the Tracking Team spotted a sloth who was around the same size and color as Nacho, snoozing in one of Nacho’s favorite spots, doing an excellent impersonation of Nacho in all ways – except he was missing a backpack. We had to find out if this sloth was really Nacho.

Luckily, we had one very defining future of Nacho’s identity: his scar.

Dr. Cliffe herself scaled the palm tree that potential-Nacho was napping in and was able to confirm that it was indeed Nacho resting in the tree—blissfully unaware of the drama occurring around him. It was very clear that this sloth did not have a backpack on, and the signal was still being emitted from the DIY Settlement.


Moving On Without a Backpack

While there was some relief that Nacho was not in fact being held hostage, we were presented with a new problem—equipment being stolen off the backs of the Urban Sloths.

The very expensive sloth backpack was useless to anyone other than us, held a month’s worth of important scientific data, and was now gone. Unfortunately, trying to communicate with the person who took the equipment proved futile and fruitless.



Team Sloth decided to recollar Nacho and performed a quick health check on him. Despite having an eventful month—visiting the rescue center, being fitted with some new tracking hardware, and apparently having been accosted by a man with scissors who stole his backpack—Nacho was doing as good as ever and had even gained some weight.



For the following months, Nacho remained in the area surrounding the bar and a hostel, finding shelter from the rain in a small lean-to structure. He had a high visibility rate in the months after his ordeal.

In January 2022 we got a case of déjà vu when his tracking signal (this time from a collar and not a backpack) once again was traced to the camp, and once again there was no sign of Nacho.

After a few days of stress and worry on the part of the Tracking Team, Nacho reappeared in exactly the same palm tree as the previous time he had been stolen from. Nacho’s collar was gone.


The End of an Era

It was a difficult decision for Team Sloth to retire Nacho from the USP. While the loss of time, money, and research data from the appropriated equipment was large, the deciding factor was Nacho’s welfare.

In order to fit two-fingered sloths with tracking equipment they must first be sedated, which is not a procedure that should be performed lightly in wild animals, as it can cause the animals a great deal of stress.



Recollaring Nacho would mean a third sedation in less than a year, and the equipment was making Nacho a target for unscrupulous humans. This was not something we could accept for the sake of our research, and we ultimately had to put Nacho’s welfare above all else.

We are happy to say that Nacho has handled his collarings (and de-collarings) with great aplomb and is thriving in his current territory! We are less happy to say that we have not yet gotten our stolen equipment back, but that’s not Nacho’s fault, after all.

We anticipate that without any wearable tech to make him a target for future interference, he will continue to be Puerto Viejo’s unofficial mascot, greeting tourists from his Sea Almonds on the beach, and embodying the spirit of Pura Vida.

What We Learned from Nacho

While there are many questions yet to be answered about Nacho’s lifestyle, and while we gathered valuable data while tracking him, we won’t be able to come to any conclusions about his activities until the end of this long project, when the data from all sloths is collated and analyzed. Not to mention, our treasure trove of data on his movements was never able to be analyzed before being stolen.



We are surprised at how well adapted Nacho is to his urban habitat. However two-fingered sloths are disproportionally likely to be admitted into rescue centers with injuries from dog attacks, car strikes, and electrocutions.

We don’t know what the future holds for a sloth that lives in a busy town, and although we don’t officially monitor him anymore, we still see Nacho as we run errands in town, and the staff at Stanford’s keeps an eye out for him.



-Amelia Symeou & Ames Reeder

The Urban Sloth Project