Monkeying around in Miami at Monkey Jungle

Monkey Jungle in Miami. Photo by Scurzuzu on Flickr.comThe Barenaked Ladies knew what they were talking about when they asked: “Haven’t you always wanted a monkey?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I have always wanted a monkey – and now that I’ve visited Miami’s Monkey Jungle (, I want one even more.

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It all began in 1933 when animal behaviourist Joseph DuMond released six Java monkeys into the wilds of Florida, just outside the city limits of Miami.  Little did he know what he was creating!  Now a 30-acre reserve that houses nearly 400 primates of more than 30 different species, the Monkey Jungle is unlike any other zoo or nature preserve I’ve visited in one very important respect.  It’s the tourists who are caged…not the animals.  Although some of the animals are housed in spacious pens for feeding or protection purposes, the vast majority of those happy primates run free in a glorious ten-acre jungle wilderness filled with the plants and trees native to the monkeys’ natural habitats.

Squirrel monkeys at Monkey Jungle, MiamiSo how do the visitors see them?

Ingenious little holes are cut into the ceiling of the wire mesh cover that surrounds the pedestrian walkway through which visitors pass.   Attached to the holes are long chains with small bowls at the end.  If a spider monkey is feeling sociable for example, he or she can scamper through the trees to the walkway, drop a bowl down by its chain and make friends with the delighted visitor below who’ll quickly toss in some ‘monkey-approved’ snacks of raisins and dried cranberries.   In a flash, tiny monkey fingers pull that chain, yank the bowl through the hole and gobble down the treat.  It’s a game rather than a feeding method, since the free-roaming animals have access to all the food in their forest.

In another area, a Java monkey troop frolics happily in a pool, while a couple of incredibly lazy sloths hang around nearby.

For those who, like me, want to get out of the cage and be as free as the monkeys, the facility offers a special adventure.  Guided by a naturalist, visitors to the Amazonian Rain Forest are allowed to enter the jungle itself to meet the monkeys face to face – I couldn’t wait!

It was a dream come true, but the first few moments were nevertheless a bit nerve-wracking.  Surrounded by a forest of dense, damp leafy trees and plants (imported from Peru and misted by an intricate irrigation system) our little group of monkey fans waited, tense with anticipation.

Monkey pulling up food at Monkey Jungle, Miami. Photo by Scurzuzu on

Did spider monkeys, I suddenly wondered, have ripper claws I didn’t know about?  Did those adorable little faces perhaps conceal a mouthful of nasty shark teeth?

Standing with a palm full of peanuts and dried fruit stretched above my head, I wondered what sound I should make to call a monkey.  I’m an expert at “Here kitty, kitty,” but that didn’t seem workable. 

As it happened, I needn’t have worried about calls, claws or teeth because the inhabitants of the Monkey Jungle’s Amazonian Rain Forest were as eager to meet me as I was to greet them – and considerably more gentle than many humans I’ve dealt with. 

Swinging down from the trees with improbable grace, the spider monkeys didn’t just snatch the food and run.  Instead, they hopped onto my arm and delicately plucked the goodies from my hand with their soft little fingers.  Instead of claws, spider monkeys have fingernails, much like ours, and skin that feels like a human baby’s.  As they nibbled, those monkeys and I gazed into each others’ eyes like adolescents on a first date.  One furry little diner was so grateful for the treats I was providing that he paused long enough to stroke my cheek with his tiny fingers before leaping back into the trees.  I felt as if we’d transcended the barrier between species and bonded and it was the strongest evidence for evolution I could imagine.  

It’s just a darned good thing they didn’t have an adoption centre or I’d have had some serious explaining to do at Customs later in the week.

Ready to monkey around yourself?  Visit for more information!

Why visit Miami now?

Miami, like many U.S. destinations striving to recover from the economic meltdown, is throwing open its doors and offering specials, discounts, two-for-one packages and festivals all designed to encourage tourism.   Add to that the usual off-season summer pricing, remember that our Canadian dollar is stronger than it has been in years and it’s easy to see why Miami is a hot destination this summer! 

If you go: 

It’s great to give yourself a bit of contrast on a trip, so why not divide your trip and book into two hotels?  Spend the first half of your holiday winding down at the Biltimore Hotel (, a stately property recognized as a National Historical Landmark in Miami’s Coral Gables area that oozes old Floridian charm.  Its 273 room are beautifully appointed, the pool is huge and quiet and the food is to die for.  The Palme d’Or Restaurant was recently named one of the best in the U.S. by the prestigious Zagat Survey. 

While you’re there, be sure to grab your bathing suit and spend an afternoon at the nearby Venetian Pool (, a lagoon carved out of coral and another historic landmark of the area.

Spend the second half your getaway strolling beautiful South Beach, after you check into the trendy Gansevoort Miami Beach (  Loll in the rooftop lounge for the afternoon in your private poolside cabana or come alive with the nightlife that ignites there when the sun goes down.  Try their specialty mohitos and then work off your guilt in their unusually beautiful, Moroccan-themed gym and health club.

Miami is a food lover’s heaven, so be sure to hit some of the hotspots and try the ceviche at Ola ( and the amazing cultural mix of Japanese, Peruvian and Brazilian delectables at SushiSamba (

Liz Fleming is an award-winning Canadian travel journalist who specializes in adventure, health and wellness and learning travel. For more from Liz, go to: Liz Fleming’s Travel Tales

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