By Dale Morris Photo by Dale Morris
A guide on how to enjoy the “dangerous” animals of Costa Rica up close without being struck, eaten or poisoned.
It’s a jungle out there, as the saying goes, and as far as Costa Rica is concerned, it really is. National parks, wildlife reserves and conservation areas protect 26% of the land, making it one of the primary nature-tourism centers in the world.
There are undeveloped beaches, riverside forests and tangled mangrove swamps to explore. We have tropical dry forests, rain forests and cloud forests, all of which are literally teaming with wild animals. Many of these exotic places are completely foreign and delightful to many of us.
But are they dangerous?
Discovery Channel and Animal Planet are full of men in suspiciously tight shorts who wrestle tropical wildlife proclaiming that “One false move on my part and it’s off to hospital I go…Crikey!”
After that, those rearing snakes and lunging tarantulas look particularly fierce and exceptionally scary. But so would you if a big Australian pulled you out of your house and started rolling around on top of you.
In reality, most wild animals, even the scary ones, are in fact more afraid of us then we are of them. They have every reason to be. We step on them, sit on them, run them over in our cars and spray them with chemicals.
Here is my personal guide on how to enjoy “dangerous” animals up close without upsetting them to the point where they are obliged to defend themselves or their young.
There is no escaping the fact that spiders are plain creepy, but although Costa Rica is seething with them, you are exceptionally unlikely to get bitten.
Even if you so find yourself on the receiving end of a fang or two don’t sweat it; chances are the bite won’t be dangerous. There really is no such thing as a deadly tarantula.
The big ones tend to spend their agoraphobic lives in burrows, occasionally emerging for a stroll after heavy rain flushes them out, or when in search of spidery love. Once dawn arrives they will seek a safe, dark place. A pair of shoes left outside will suffice. Shaking them out every morning can reveal some surprising occupants and lessen the risks of a fang in the toe.
Ancient Egyptians were forever assassinating their enemies with scorpions, but the Costa Rican species cannot be used in this manner - they have very weak venom. Like spiders, scorpions have a tendency to crawl into dark spaces. Hotel rooms, beds, and piles of clothing are where we generally make first contact.
A sudden sharp sting from somewhere in your pants can often be attributed to a small scorpion. They crawl in during the night and can react grumpily when they discover a human in their bed. Removing your pants in public is really the worst thing that can happen. If you do get stung, you may feel a bit of local numbness and a strange metallic taste in your mouth, but the symptoms subside within an hour or so.
Dracula exists. I’m not joking. Vampire bats are real enough, although they don’t turn into caped villains. Every night, they fly from their caves in search of unsuspecting animals. Painlessly they puncture a vein on their sleeping victim, introducing an anticoagulant so that the blood flows freely. It is possible to contract rabies from a bite, and so you should not sleep outdoors unprotected (garlic and crucifixes won’t work). Vampires are fairly rare (partly because they are persecuted and killed by humans) and do not commonly bite humans.
Some snakes (especially vipers) are armed with strong poisons used primarily in the disablement of prey. Bites to people arise when the snake is stepped on. Often if a bite does occur the snake withholds its venom, as it does not like to waste it on human ankles.
The best way to avoid snake incidents is to STAY ON THE TRAILS and NEVER wear open-toe shoes in the forest. If you do meet a snake, don’t panic; the snake is not interested in attacking you. However, should you attempt doing a Steve Erwin maneuver on it you will likely get what you deserve. In the unlikely event that you do receive a venomous bite, stay calm and get a look at the snake (but do not try to catch it - you will just get bitten again). Place a pressure bandage a few inches above the bite (but not too tight) and get to a hospital. Even in severe cases where a lot of poison has entered a person’s body, fatalities are rare.
Forget it. You ain’t gonna see one.
Costa Rican brochures are brimming with jaguars, pumas and ocelots. But the reality is that they are extremely elusive and getting rarer every year due to an increase in poaching. If you get a glimpse, you are luckier than most.
There have been no recorded deaths anywhere on earth attributed to jaguars, whilst pumas have only rarely attacked humans (mainly in defense of their kittens). When it happens, the incident hits the headlines, but in reality more people are killed by accidents involving domestic chickens than are killed by big cats.
Should you ever find yourself in a standoff situation (which is about as likely as seeing Elvis Presley in downtown San José) don’t turn around. Just back away slowly, taking photos as you go!
Crocodiles measuring up to five meters live in rivers and estuaries throughout the lowlands. Each year, there are a few unfortunate incidents caused by people entering waters near where crocodiles nest.
However, it’s quite easy to avoid being consumed if you follow a few basic rules.
1) Don’t swim in rivers where crocodiles are known to frequent,
2) Don’t go wading around in estuaries and mangroves, and
3) If you’re not sure, ask the locals.
Crocs and caimans are only found in slow moving rivers in low elevations, so don’t worry if you fall from your raft while river running. Once again, be warned that crocodile wrestling is not as easy as it looks on television.
Wasps look angry, but in reality, they only sting when provoked. If one should alight upon you, stay calm. Most of the time they just want a sip of your Pepsi. Swatting is most definitely not what you want to do. A swatted wasp is likely to sting you. Occasionally you may blunder into a nest (which is sometimes very small and well camouflaged), and if this happens, you will be informed of your infraction in a painful manner. Retreat from the area (quite fast if you can). The righteously annoyed insects will not give chase beyond a few paces.
You may have seen Charlton Heston pitted against a plague of killer ants in the 60s movie “The Naked Jungle.” They stripped his plantation staff to their bare bones but were eventually repelled by a trench full of flaming gasoline. The marauders were modeled after real life army ants, which are a species capable of amassing in giant swarms. They consume scorpions, tarantulas, and a myriad of other animals. They do not however, strip humans to the bone - their jaws just aren’t up to the job - and so you need not be concerned.
Ants are very closely related to wasps. Many possessing stings, but none of them is dangerous. Some of the larger species can be painful though, especially when sat upon. It’s always a good idea to check before you sit down. If ants discover your picnic, they can be persistent, and you may have to move or risk losing your sandwiches.
In six years of hiking the Costa Rican forests I have yet to be eaten by a crocodile or big cat; I have never been struck at by a snake; nor poisoned by a tarantula. I have on occasions accidentally head butted wasp nests, stepped on ant trails, sat on scorpions and pushed my face into spider’s webs, and for my sins I have been chastened by those who I have affronted, but it only hurts a little bit - honestly.
There really is no need for paranoia about these things, so don’t worry, just enjoy everything that nature has to offer. Even if it is a mild sting or two, it’s all part of the Costa Rican experience.
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