A green parrot snake climbing on a magenta plant.

The green parrot snake, native to Costa Rica. While their venom is too weak to harm a human, their bite can cause a bacterial infection. Photo © Barb Ignatius, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Snakes and bugs in Costa Rica are not nearly as serious a hazard as cars and their drivers. But when you’re visiting or making a new home in a foreign country, it’s a good idea to know about natural hazards such as scorpions, snakes, and the sizzling sun.

Bugs in Costa Rica

Many people are drawn to Costa Rica for its amazing abundance of animal life. Most species are harmless if left unmolested, but there are a few exceptions to every rule. In and around the Central Valley, the higher altitude means fewer bugs. You hardly ever see houseflies, spiders are of reasonable size and lead discreet lives, and even the ants don’t seem as aggressive as in other areas.

Wear long sleeves and long pants, use insect repellent containing DEET, and sleep under a mosquito net.In lowland and more humid areas, you’ll find more quantity and variety in the insect department. Some, like the enormous Hercules beetle or the bright blue morpho butterfly, are stunning but harmless. It’s the more prosaic insects like mosquitoes that do greater harm, occasionally transmitting dengue fever and, more rarely, malaria—mostly in wet lowland areas with poor sanitation. Malaria is rare enough in Costa Rica that few doctors suggest taking chloroquine pills along on your trip. But cases have been reported, and the best prevention against both malaria and dengue fever is to guard against mosquito bites. Wear long sleeves and long pants, use insect repellent containing DEET, and sleep under a mosquito net. Some suggest that spraying your clothes with the insecticide permethrin will guard against dengue fever.

Africanized bees have arrived in parts of Costa Rica and are as aggressive here as they are elsewhere. Experts advise running in a zigzag pattern if they come after you, getting under a sheet, or submerging yourself in water if there’s any available.

Some areas have scorpions. I heard of a woman who, when she washed her family’s clothes, made sure to put them away inside out. That way, when they dressed, they’d have to turn everything right side out and thus would be automatically checking for bugs that might have hidden in the armpit of a shirt or in the leg of a pair of jeans. Despite her precautions, one day her husband found a scorpion crawling out of his sleeve. Then he noticed the seams on his shirt—it was still inside out. In scorpion areas, make sure you shake out your clothing and shoes before getting dressed in the morning. This will help with snakes too, which love nothing better than to curl up in a warm, odoriferous boot.

Snakes in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has more than 100 kinds of snakes, including venomous ones such as the much-feared fer-de-lance, which accounts for 80 percent of all snakebites in the country, and the yellow-bellied, black-backed sea snake, which paddles along in the Pacific Ocean with its oar-like tail. Despite the variety of snakes here, death from snakebite is rare. Most bites occur when snakes are stepped on—watch where you’re going!—or if you harass or try to handle a snake. Leave snakes alone and they’ll return the favor. Be especially careful in long grass, and remember that many snakes are arboreal—the tree branch you grab onto for balance just may be alive. Snakes also like to hang out in bromeliads, so be careful when looking inside these tightly wound whorls of stiff leaves and brilliant flowers.

If you are bitten, move as little as possible. If the bite is to a limb, apply a tight bandage (not a tourniquet) above the bite, and release it for a minute or two every 15 minutes. Apply ice if available, and keep the bitten limb elevated while getting to a hospital or clinic. Don’t try that old remedy of cutting an X over the bite and sucking out the venom. Some snake venom contains anticoagulants, which will make any cut bleed like crazy.

Sun Safety

What people come to Costa Rica for can also be their downfall. The sun can be like a molten hammer, especially around midday. Sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and a long-sleeved light-colored shirt may make you look like your typical gringo in the tropics, but that’s a small price to pay for guarding against sunburn, skin cancer, and heatstroke. Don’t forget to drink a lot of liquids, and I’m not talking beer, which goes right through you. Take it slow at first, especially in areas of high humidity. After you’ve been here for a while, you’ll adjust to your chosen area’s weather.

In the most sizzling areas, early mornings and late afternoons are the best times to be out and about. There’s a reason hot countries invented the siesta, that midday break that gets you out of the sun and into a hammock. Do as the locals do and spend the early afternoon swaying on the front porch, a cool drink within reach.

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Living Abroad Costa Rica.