Snakes of Central America

The scaly and the slithery

Eyelash Viper Bothriechis schlegelii, in Costa Rica
••• R. Andrew Odum/Getty Images

Central America is composed of seven countries including Belize, ​Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. It's located right in the southernmost area of the North American continent, known as the Isthmus of Panama, which is the small strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Central America is home to a variety of diverse wildlife, allowing visitors to see various birds, iguanas, frogs, sea turtles, monkeys, and more.

It is also home to over 25 different categories of snakes, such as the garter snake, milk snake, and the Trimorphodon.

Coral and Viper Snakes

In Costa Rica alone, there are 135 snake species. Out of these, 17 varieties are venomous members of the Coral and Viper snake families. The deadliest Central America snake is the Pacific sea snake, but there's no need to flee the water just yet—it tends to keep to itself.

Coral snakes are the easiest to recognize: They’re always brightly colored in an arrangement of black, red, yellow or white. The Central American coral snake, known as Micrurus nigrocinctus, is a venomous elapid snake with smooth scales, a round head, and black pupils. These nocturnal snakes are typically found in rainforests and wet areas under burrows or logs. Coral snakes feed off of other reptiles, like lizards and other snakes. Their venom can be strong enough to create neuromuscular dysfunction due to the poisonous toxin it carries, which is injected by biting their prey, unlike vipers.

Vipers, such as the rattlesnake and the earth-colored fer-de-lance or teriopelo, are typically less ostentatious but can be even more dangerous. All viper snakes are venomous. These snakes are typically stocky with short tails, long fangs, and a triangular head due to their venom glands. To push venom into their prey, viper snakes strike with their fangs.

The nocturnal Eyelash Viper prepares for the attack in trees and gets its name through its notable two eyelash scales above its eyes.

Snake Bites and Venom

It’s important to remember that a snake’s venom exists to help it immobilize and digest prey. Fortunately, the prey it seeks is not human. Snakes in Central America have no interest in attacking actual people if they don’t feel they are in danger. However, if you see one, the best thing to do is to walk—swiftly and smoothly—in the opposite direction.

Although it is an unlikely situation, tropical naturalist Marc Egger offers advice for the unlucky ones who suffer a rate snakebite:

"The standard procedure is to kill the snake and take it with you for identification. Immobilize the victim and try to keep them calm. The slower the metabolism, the slower the spread of the venom. Then proceed to the nearest hospital, which should have antivenin. A snake bite by a poisonous snake will only begin to have serious systemic manifestations after 2-5 hours."

Fatalities only occur in the remotest of regions, because there isn’t time to reach a hospital for antivenin. Luckily, the vast majority of snakes in Central America are harmless, and many are fantastically beautiful.

A great and safe place to view snakes in Costa Rica is in the Serpentarios in San Jose and in Santa Elena, a village that borders the Monteverde Cloudforest.