Home North America Costa Rica 9 Deadly and Venomous Snakes In Costa Rica You Might See

9 Deadly and Venomous Snakes In Costa Rica You Might See

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Costa Rica is a wonderful place. From the luscious jungles and cloud forests of Monteverde all the way to the shimmering beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula and across to the glinting Caribbean Sea, this country is famed for its gorgeous landscapes and booming biodiversity. But what about snakes in Costa Rica? Yep, they do exist. And there are quite a few of them, too…

Cue this guide. It’s a 101 that focuses in on nine of the most deadly and dangerous snakes in Costa Rica. From the formidable fer de lance to the blink-and-you’ll miss it hog-nosed pit viper, they are the serpents that have the power to dispatch you in just a matter of hours. Some are more common than others, but all have a habitat somewhere in this land of waves and smoking volcanoes.

Before we begin, though, we think it’s worth pointing out that most of Costa Rica’s snakes aren’t deadly at all. There are a whopping 137 species in the country in total, of which only 22 are venomous. Either way, you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for the following customers…

Fer de lance

Fer de lance
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček/Unsplash
  • Latin name: Bothrops asper
  • Attacks: Vemon delivered through a fast bite
  • Treatment: Antivenin administered by medical professional
  • Where they live: Moist environments up to 600m
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Colloquially known as a terciopelo in Costa Rica, the fer de lance is one of the most dangerous snake species in the world. It packs a very powerful venom that kills in 6% of all bite incidents. That’s helped to make it by far the most deadly snake in the country, responsible for a whopping 46% of all attacks and over 30% of all hospitalizations. Those are some hefty figures!

The bad news is that encounters with a fer de lance are extremely common. That’s especially true for casual hikers and day-trippers exploring the natural parks, because these guys live virtually all over the country and exist in high numbers in the lush rainforests below 600 meters above sea level. And there’s more bad news: These snakes are nigh-on perfectly camouflaged with their mottled brown skin and rough scales, so are tricky to spot.

A fer de lance can grow up to 2 meters in length and is known for aggressive behavior. If provoked, these snakes will bite and release venom through the fangs. Envenomation causes all sorts of horrible things, including searing pain at the site of contact, necrosis of the flesh, swelling, fever, uncontrollable vomiting – the list goes on. Treatment of antivenin is required as soon as possible. While fatalities are rare, the fer de lance snake’s venom is strong enough to kill an adult if left untreated.

Central American coral snake

Photo by mgrpowerlifting/Pixabay
  • Latin name: Micrurus nigrocinctus
  • Attacks: Venomous bite
  • Treatment: Antivenom and medical attention
  • Where they live: dry and humid forests on the Pacific side of Costa Rica
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Coral snakes are bright and bold, so they should be easy to identify! They showcase a distinct red, yellow, and black banded pattern the whole way down the one-meter-long body. That’s pretty similar to the 80 or so other coral snakes that live in Central America, but you can tell this one for the presence of white rings between the red and the black.

Unlike the fer de lance, coral snakes are much more reclusive, so encounters are rare. If provoked or threatened, however, a coral snake will attack. Behind their fangs is a strong neurotoxin that attacks the nervous system of the victim. It can disorientate and create a sensation similar to pins and needles. This can then develop into a loss of movement of the limb, drowsiness, loss of speech, or respiratory arrest if left untreated.

Make note there are some lookalike species that coral snakes are easily confused with, most notably the king snake and the tropical milk snake. Both of these are completely harmless. However, we still advise you never to approach a red, yellow, and black banded snake when visiting Costa Rica – just to be safe!

Eyelash palm pit viper

Photo by WernerEck/Pixabay
  • Latin name: Bothriechis shclegelii
  • Attacks: Strong hemotoxic venom that destroys blood cells
  • Treatment: Antivenom and medical attention
  • Where they live: Under rocks, leaf piles, or in underground burrows across the Costa Rican jungle
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The eyelash palm pit viper is a commonly sighted snake in Costa Rica, usually because it likes to reside in vine tangles and low-hanging branches. The distinct crest over the eye explains the name, while the striking color – a bold yellow that sort of says “stay away” – makes them easy to identify.

These guys are relatively small when compared to other snakes in Costa Rica. On average, the eyelash palm pit viper grows up to 2.5 feet (approximately 70-80cm). But don’t let their smaller size fool you, these snakes are still very deadly and can change from relaxed to aggressive in just a matter of seconds when they feel threatened.

Eyelash vipers stock a strong hemotoxic venom that destroys blood cells and blood vessels of the victim. While these snakes don’t often attack humans, their bite can be extremely painful and even fatal in some cases. Most attacks happen when someone accidentally stands on one while hiking in one of Costa Rica’s national parks, so be sure to keep watch for that yellow body on the trails, folks!

Hog-nosed pit viper

Hog nosed pit viper
Photo by Geoff Gallice/Wikicommons/resized/CC BY 2.0
  • Latin name: Porthidium nasutum
  • Attacks: Strong hemotoxic venom that destroys blood cells
  • Treatment: Antivenom and medical attention
  • Where they live: Costa Rica’s damp undergrowth and lowland rainforest
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Hog-nosed pit vipers are another small Central American snake, averaging around 50cm in length. They’re closely related to the aforementioned eyelash palm pit viper, but are a little better camouflaged since they ditch the bright yellow coloring for forests browns and beiges, helping it blend in perfectly with the lowland forests where they make their home.

The head is broad and triangular when viewed from above, with prominent scales around the nose. They are what give the snake its name, as they curve upwards like something out of The Grinch. Colors vary from brown to grey, with patterned blotches in either triangular or square shape forming the pattern down their back.

Hog-nosed pit vipers can be found in the lowland rainforest of southwestern Costa Rica, mainly in the damp undergrowth. That’s why it’s highly advised that hikers stick to well-trodden paths and listen to guides on the trail. While its venom isn’t the strongest, a snake bite from a hog-nosed pit viper should still be treated with caution and requires immediate medical attention.

Yellow-bellied sea snake

Photo by MSaldais/Pixabay
  • Latin name: Hydrophis platurus
  • Attacks: Venom that causes shutdown of the nervous system
  • Treatment: Antivenom and medical attention
  • Where they live: The Pacific coast of Costa Rica
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The yellow-bellied sea snake lives in the tropical quarters of the Pacific Ocean, all the way from the coastline of southern California to the jungle-dressed shores of Colombia and Peru. It’s a common snake but rarely seen, mainly because it prefers the deeper waters far from land, where it survives by drinking surface rainwater and small pelagic fish.

Sometimes, though, the currents will bring it into contact with humans. And that’s where you’ve gotta’ watch out. The yellow-bellied is actually one of the most venomous snakes on the planet – let alone just one of the most venomous snakes in Costa Rica!

It possesses a formidable mix of isotoxins and neurotoxins that effectively block the ability of neurons to talk to each other, shutting down the nervous system almost completely if left untreated. The only good news here is that sea snakes usually need to bite and chew to deliver enough venom for a bite to be deadly.

Blotched palm pit viper

Photo by Tad Arensmeier/Wikimedia commons/Image resized and cropped/CC BY 2.0
  • Latin name: Bothriechis aurifer
  • Attacks: Venom – but we’re not really sure how strong!
  • Treatment: Antivenom and medical attention
  • Where they live: Cloud forests above 1,200m
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

This elusive species, now listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, is thought to live mainly in the southern parts of Guatemala and in Mexico’s tropical states, but there’s also a good chance that there are some of them present in the home of pura vida, too. That’s largely down to their propensity for cloud forest, of which Costa Rica has some of the most pristine in the world!

Another of the pit viper family, they come with an interesting pattern of lime green and brown patchwork running down the body. That helps them fit in with the lush teak trees and emerald viners up in the mountains above 1,200m.  

Not much is known about the venom of the blotched palm pit viper. That’s mainly because very few bites have ever been documented. However, we do know that all pit vipers are venomous, which means you probably won’t get off too lightly if you come into contact with one these guys and the encounter goes south!

Central American jumping pit viper

Jumping pit viper
Photo by Patrick Gijsbers/Wikicommons/resized/CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Latin name: Metlapilcoatlus mexicanus
  • Attacks: A mild venom that can cause mild swelling
  • Treatment: Warm water rinse
  • Where they live: Costa Rica lowland rainforest
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The jumping pit viper is one of the more fascinating snakes found in Costa Rica. This species has an extremely thick body with a broad head and rounded snout. Colors typically consist of grey-brown or reddish-brown – sometimes with a yellow, cream, purplish brown, or black – also covered with a range of lateral and dorsal blotches.

Unlike other species of venomous snakes, this jumping pit viper does not quickly release after biting its victim. Instead, it proceeds to chew, keeping hold of its grip, administering more toxin into its prey. Some force is required to pry this snake off if you’re bitten.

However, the good news is the venom is not going to kill you! (Some locals even believe this snake is non-venomous.) Effects of the venom typically cause mild swelling and a brief amount of pain. They also give plenty of warning before they strike, as they don’t mean to be aggressive. So if you’re facing an open-mouth jumping pit viper, be sure to retreat backward and give them their space.

Central American rattlesnake

Rattlesnake
ayPhoto by Foto-Rabe/Pixab
  • Latin name: Crotalus simus
  • Attacks: A strong venom that can cause severe pain, swelling, and more
  • Treatment: Antivenin from a medical professional
  • Where they live: Dry arid spaces in forests and bushland
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Flat nosed with an infamous rattle to its tail, the Central American rattlesnake (also known as the neotropical rattlesnake) is another venomous pitviper species found in Costa Rica. These snakes can grow up to two meters in length and are found in semiarid habitats, including dry or very dry tropical forests.

Mayans were known to have used the rattlesnake in their ancient medicinal practices. They also symbolized the unknown and are depicted in many temple carvings across Central and South America. But of course, the venom is potent and can cause serious harm to anyone unlucky to receive a dose. Symptoms after a bite include:

  • Severe pain
  • Uncontrollable swelling
  • Blistering
  • Necrosis leading to potential amputations
  • Kidney failure (in severe cases)

Bushmaster

Bushmaster
Photo by Christopher Murray/Wikicommons/Public Domain
  • Latin name: Lachesis stenophrys
  • Attacks: An average venom administered through multiple strikes
  • Treatment: Antivenin from a medical professional
  • Where they live: Damp and dark rainforest environments
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Last but not least, the bushmaster. This is another deadly snake found in Costa Rica and throughout the Americas as a whole. It stands out from the rest on this list because of its aggressive and attacking behavior. The bushmaster doesn’t just strike once, but rather a number of times and in quick succession.

The venom of the bushmaster is a mean mix of coagulants and hemorrhagic toxins. That means the blood system is affected almost immediately. Victims will experience a drop in blood pressure and a loss of consciousness pretty fast, which can eventually lead to death if left untreated. Fortunately, this snake is nocturnal and so encounters with humans remain extremely rare.

Bushmaster snakes are the longest snake species found in Costa Rica. They can grow up to a whopping four meters in length on some occasions. These large snakes are often reddish-brown, allowing them to blend seamlessly into the forest floor. The markings are somewhat similar to the boa constrictor and mistaken identification is very common.

Top tips for surviving snakes in Costa Rica

green snake
Photo by Alfonso Castro on Unsplash

Don’t let the snakes of Costa Rica put you off visiting this incredible country! So long as you keep your wits about you and follow all the normal precautions, it’s very unlikely that you’ll run into trouble with one of these critters. Just remember some keys points, especially if you’re going off the beaten track and into the jungles and cloud forests:

  1. When hiking, always wear appropriate footwear. Never wear sandals! The best footwear for trekking through the tropics is mid-calf or high-ankle boots.
  2. Never attempt to pick up a snake.
  3. If you see a snake in Costa Rica, give them plenty of space and do your best not to disturb or threaten them.
  4. Always stick to marked hiking trails. Never diverge.
  5. In the unfortunate event of a snake bite, be sure to seek urgent medical attention. Also, take note of the color and markings of the snake that attacked you.

FAQs

How common are snake bites in Costa Rica?

On average, there are 500 recorded snake bites in Costa Rica every year. The majority of these snake bites are in poverty-afflicted communities in the country. The WHO recognizes the social and economic correlation and is working towards reducing the number of snakebites in Costa Rica by strengthening health systems and improving community education.

Should I be worried about snakes in Costa Rica?

Visitors to Costa Rica should be aware of the risk of snakes but should not let that worry them too much while on vacation. Most snake species are found in the jungles and rainforests, so if you’re planning on trekking and hiking, then stick to well-trodden paths to avoid accidentally disturbing snakes. Most snakes will not choose to attack humans without first being provoked.

What is the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica?

The most dangerous snake in Costa Rica is the fer de lance (bothrops). The venom this snake packs is lethal, strong enough to cause serious harm to any unlucky victim. The bushmaster and neotropical rattlesnake are also incredibly dangerous snakes in Costa Rica and should be avoided at all costs.