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Wild Costa Rica

Micrurus alleni, the arrow-headed coral snake.
 Photo via Clodomiro Picado Institute of the University of Costa Rica

Gardening and encountering snakes in Costa Rica

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Published on Monday, June 10, 2024

By Victoria Torley


Sooner or later, if you garden in Costa Rica, you
are going to meet up with a snake. Snakes are very important to the ecosystem, darn it!

They eat rodents, frogs, insects, and even other snakes. True, they can startle you when they slither out of the undergrowth, but they will usually slither away from you. After all, you are really quite large from a snakeís viewpoint, and snakes, small-brained as they are, know that you canít be swallowed.

So, is there any point in being afraid of a snake in the garden? Well, sure! Okay, most snakes are harmless. Take the little coffee snake for example, or the salmon-bellied racer. Totally harmless, both of them and the racer is a real beauty, that is a view from the standpoint of someone who likes snakes, your viewpoint may differ...

I find coffee snakes all the time. Usually, they are less than a foot or so in length and very timid. You can pick one up (if you are so inclined) and handle it with no worries at all (if you arenít so inclined, just leave it alone and it will go away). Most of the time, you wonít even see a snake, especially if you have been tromping in the yard.

Snakes have no ears so they are alerted to danger by vibrations in the ground. Scared of snakes? Bang the ground with a shovel now and then to alert them and they will probably slither away as fast as they can.

There are only a couple of snakes we need to worry about here in Costa Rica. And I have seen a couple of them.

The terciopelo is the most common biter and itís the reason that I tend to stomp when I am out walking. It is also the reason that I use a long-handled claw to pull vegetation out from around trees and shrubs. On chilly rainy days, snakes like to curl up and stay warm in decaying vegetation and under logs. Fortunately, they are usually so cold at that point that they have to be really, really, annoyed to wake up and strike.

A little guy that causes some trouble is the eyelash viper. This snake tends to hang out in trees waiting for tasty morsels to come his way. This is a patient snake. My gardener found one in a tree. Two days later, he wanted to show me the snake and the viper was still there Ė same tree, same spot. It must have been a good spot for snacks.

Then there are the coral snakes with their beautiful red, black, and yellow bands. They are generally small and because they are back-fanged, their bite tends to be thwarted by boots. They also have a lot of imitators. Look in any book on reptiles in Costa Rica and you will see a lot of snakes with red, black, and yellow bands all totally harmless. I encountered it under a piece of wood one chilly morning (he was way too big to be a coral snake) and just admired him until he moved away.

Both the eyelash viper and the terciopelo are pit vipers. The pits that contain their poison are bulges in the snakeís head that make it look triangular. This allows you to look at the snake from a distance and decide if you need to run the other way. The coral snake, however, has a nice smooth head so leave all the pretty snakes alone.

So, if you donít like snakes, get out there and shake the ground. Pretty much any snake will head for the hills. Be careful lifting logs and cleaning out under shrubs. Most of all, remember that the majority of snakes are good for the world and harmless. Try to adopt a positive attitude and share space with them.

Find more amazing stories about gardening in Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Garden website. Regarding questions on this article, Ms. Victoria Torley, gardener columnist, can be reached by emailing