Mingle with Monkeys in this Caribbean Island's National Parks
But hide your mangos. And your cocktails.
We’re in the mountainous rainforest of St. Kitts—almost 10,000 acres of protected land, designated the Central Forest Reserve National Park in 2006—when a couple of mangos plunge down from the sky, narrowly missing our noggins. I’m convinced we’re being attacked by the island’s most notorious residents.
“Monkeys!” I conclude, pointing at the fallen fruit. Specifically, the black-faced, hazel-eyed green vervet monkeys indigenous to Africa that for 300 years have roamed freely around the Eastern Caribbean island and its sister isle, Nevis. But my guide, O'Neil Mulraine, says no, the mangos have simply dropped off the tree. Any monkeys would have disappeared as soon as we thundered up in our safari Jeep.
Still, the monkey evidence is strong. Below us, the muddy ground is littered with juicy yellow mangos—the kind that would go for a pretty penny back home in the States—many displaying a single, delicate monkey-sized chomp. Mulraine concedes this one. “The monkey is a very wasteful animal,” he says. “They behave like they have rich people taste.”
Drive around St. Kitts and the mangos are plentiful: hanging low on branches, raining down in over 40 species throughout the summer. They’re so revered that every July, Nevis holds a mango festival, an ode to the versatile varieties, with mango eating competitions, cocktails, tastings, and cooking demos.
But while the fruit is indigenous to the island, the 80,000 or so green vervet monkeys that snack on them—almost double the number of St. Kitts’ human population—are a product of colonial whims. There are a couple of stories explaining how these furry guys made their way here from West Africa back in the 17th century. Some say they were brought by the French as pets while transporting the enslaved. Others say the French brought them to terrorize the British after the two countries—who initially agreed to share the island—went to war. Either way, when the French were defeated and eventually took off, the monkeys stayed.
Today, the primates are both a help and a hindrance for St. Kittitians. They get drunk on stolen cocktails and frustratingly swipe and feast on farmers’ crops (some citizens dine on monkey stew as a means of retaliation and population control). But they’re also so darn cute. Tourists flock to St. Kitts just for the photo opps, the green vervets wrangled by reliable handlers—or “monkey men”—at bars or down by Port Zante, where cruise ships dock in the capital city of Basseterre.
For better or worse, the island is so intertwined with the little guys that you can hike up to the town of Monkey Hill, have a drink on the beach at Monkey Bar, or dive at Monkey Shoals Reef off Nevis. Monkeys stare you down from postage stamps and promotional materials advertising the islands as a tourist destination. There’s even a children book starring two vervet monkeys, Lia and Wally.
Later, I spotted a monkey in the wild at the imposing Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, the second national park in St. Kitts. The animal’s light tan fur was almost camouflaged by the trees and surprisingly, it took a few beats between noticing us and disappearing. Here, they don’t mind the humans—they’re even encouraged. On our way up to the fortress, we see a sign: No Dogs Allowed. We’re told it’s because they frighten away the monkeys.
Explore a rainforest that defies the odds
A lesson from the monkey and mango-laden St. Kitts rainforest: Sometimes it pays to be difficult. The tropical rainforest we’re touring with Mulraine escaped sugarcane cultivation—the major industry in St. Kitts from the time of its European settlement in the 1600s up until 2005—thanks to its challenging access and nutrient-deficient soil, at least for agricultural purposes. Now, it’s looked at as a model of conservation. Taking over a swath of thickly vegetated, contoured land in the middle of the island, the Central Forest Reserve National Park was designated a national park for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. And because of the re-envelopment of land formerly used for sugarcane, it’s an example of a rainforest that’s actually growing.
It sustains itself in myriad ways, not only the domain of monkeys and other wild creatures like mongoose, but also ecotourism groups like ours that hike its steep trails to the dormant Mount Liamuiga volcano some 3,792 feet up, or climb aboard Jeeps for educational safari tours. Here, rainfall serves as a major freshwater source for the national water supply. And as we travel, Mulraine points out naturally occuring produce like breadfruit and mamey sapote plus plants his family has used for medicinal remedies for generations: lemongrass for fever, silver trumpet for hypertension, and so on. He presses the bottom of a silver fern against our skin to make a white “tattoo.” That one’s just for fun.
Tour a scenic landscape once only seen by sugarcane
These days you might spot green vervets in residential neighborhoods and on beaches, but there was a time they kept primarily to the mountains. Because that was where the sugarcane was (see: the main photo of this story). By 1775, there were 200 sugar estates on the island, rendering it the wealthiest of all the British colonies. But the introduction of the sugar beet undercut cane prices and kicked off a steady downfall, and while St Kitts was one of the last holdouts of the sugar industry, it finally shut down in 2005. When the cane went away, monkeys started making their way down the hills looking for other sources of food.
Around the island you’ll still find remnants of the sugar industry’s past, ruins of factories and windmills used for grinding the stalks. And a train. From 1912 to 1926, a railway transported sugarcane from estates 30 miles around the island to a central factory in Basseterre. In 2003, it was converted to the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, a three-hour sightseeing and informational tour taking riders through villages and around the outskirts of the island and treating them to spectacular views once only witnessed by the crops. It also carries the distinction as the “Last Railway in the West Indies.”
Some of the original estates also remain intact, like Romney Manor, dating back to the mid-1600s. It was the first estate on the island to free the enslaved, and was once owned by Sam Jefferson II, ancestor of Thomas Jefferson. Outside the building sits lush botanical gardens, including a 400-year-old Saman tree. Inside is Caribelle Batik, which, since the 1970s, has been producing popular Indonesian-inspired batik textiles right there on property. (If you can’t make it to the estate to pick one up, there’s also a retail outpost on Port Zante.)
Adjacent to the Manor is Wingfield Estate, where you’ll find Amerindian petroglyphs as well as the office of Sky Safari zipline tours, and, perhaps most exciting, remains of the oldest rum distillery in the Caribbean. When you’re done dreaming about the booze of yore, head to the Rainforest Bar at Romney Manor for a taste of the modern iteration in the form of St. Kitts’ own Old Road Rum.
Explore the weight of the island’s colonial past
Monkeys and plantation relics aren’t the only visible remnants of the island’s colonial history. But the most significant has to be the massive Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park. Though St. Kitts was first named by Christopher Columbus after he spotted it in 1493, the island wasn’t actually settled by Europeans until the British set up shop in 1623, followed shortly after by the French. It thus became the first Caribbean island to be colonized, sporting a fortress designed by British architects to protect its coastline against multiple attacks (the fort was abandoned by 1854, while St. Kitts & Nevis remained under British control until independence in 1983).
Today the fortress is a remarkably preserved feat of 17th and 18th century military engineering, built over several levels over 100 years and complete with freshwater drainage and sturdy arches. It’s perched high up on an 800-foot-tall volcanic hill, with multiple canons pointing toward views of pristine blue waters, sandy beaches, and islands miles away on a clear day.
Knowing this hulking structure was built on the backs of the enslaved makes a visit at once impressive and unsettling. Alongside examples of weaponry, uniforms, re-created living and sleeping quarters, and life-sized mannequins in the museum the fortress now houses, the building process is detailed in a set of three images illustrating the carving of the stone, carrying the stone up the hill, and using the stones together to build a wall. There’s also an explanation of the role of the enslaved in the French siege of Brimstone Hill in 1782, put to work fighting guerrilla warfare on behalf of the British, and capturing French officials.
And, of course, a display showcasing the origins of the one and only green vervet monkey.
When to visit St. Kitts
With gorgeous weather year-round and plenty of uncrowded sandy beaches and bays to soak up sun (and seafood), there’s never a bad time to visit St. Kitts. But there are times when the island feels particularly alive. Every last weekend in June features the St. Kitts Music Festival, running since 1996 and now one of the most star-studded and eclectic events on the Caribbean’s music calendar. But it’s not just names like Sean Paul, Ashanti, Kelly Rowland, Destra, Popcaan, and, yup, Kenny Rogers (in 2005) that draw the crowds. You’ll also get up-and-coming local players like the soulful Dejour and Venelle Powell, and dancehall artist Hi-Light. You can say you saw them when.
In St. Kitts, there’s no such thing as a downtime lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Their Carnival, also known as Sugar Mas, starts mid-November and goes hard for six weeks until January 2. There are pageants, concerts, parties, parades, J’ouvert, calypso and colorful bacchanalia blending Caribbean and African traditions, sprinkled with a heavy dose of holiday cheer. Just bring a costume, hit the streets, and prepare to party.