When we first moved here, twenty years ago, our neighbors in Punta Uva warned us repeatedly about snakes. “Don’t walk in the jungle without a machete, ” is what they told my husband. What they told me was that women didn’t belong in the jungle in the first place. They believed that just seeing a man bitten by a snake could bring bad luck to my family. They were adamant. I wasn’t keen on seeing one either, but sometimes a snake is just where it is at the very same
time you are.
Costa Rica has some of the deadliest snakes on the planet. There are thirteen species of pit vipers in this tropical paradise. The Bushmaster (Lachesis muta), also called Matabuey in Spanish, leads the group for size. The largest of the venomous snakes in the Americas, they grow up the 3.5 meters in length, are a soft tan color with a darker brown stripe running down their backs, and a V-pattern down their sides.
By far the most feared by the locals, though, is the Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asperi), also called Terciopelo. Terciopelo are more common than the Bushmaster, as they can have 70-80 young at a time- and the neonates are just as venomous as their parents. Their telltale dark brown diamond markings overlay a charcoal grey body making them very hard to spot in the bush.
This was the snake I encountered yesterday, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the bush!
Numerous Eye Lash vipers and the Coral, both false and real live in our world. I have yet to meet a man who stopped to repeat the famous rhyme: “red to black, venom lack, red to yellow, dead a fellow,” before perfunctorily killing a Coral of any kind.
I’ve heard lots of stories about men being bitten by snakes, the most vulnerable being those who chop bush for a living. Choppers use a forked stick about a meter in length to assist them in their work.Assuming they are right-handed, they carry the stick in their left hand, pulling the bush up and away from them while chopping with a
machete, held in their right. If there should be a snake they haven’t scared away with their footsteps, or the chopping itself, they are likely to disturb it with this action. The men can be bitten anywhere, but the left side of the body, or underarm, is typical, as the snake strikes out from under the disturbed camouflage.
The other frequent victims of snakebite are people walking along the road at night. Snakes will often come to the road because it radiates heat stored up from the day. They like to bask on the warm asphalt and hunt small animals doing the same. Walking here at night without a flashlight is ill advised. I know of two people who were bitten this way. One died and the other was in the hospital for about a month on antivenin and dialysis, due to complications.
We are also blessed with snakes that, while not venomous, are no less lethal. The Boa is a common resident of our world, and we treat it with respect. I have learned a bit about Boas; they can suffocate an adult person in a matter of minutes, squeezing tighter every time the victim tries to take a breath. The exertion of the squeeze can actually stop the heart. And, if they manage to get a wrap on the victim’s neck they can snap it with one constriction. They fracture bones during the constriction process so the victim becomes more pliable for eventual ingestion.
My husband learned more about Boas than I, and his lesson came the hard way. It was all a really big mistake and he felt bad after doing it, as Boas are quite useful in rodent control. But, as anyone knows who has been threatened by a snake, a person is capable of doing all manner of things not normally in their character.
The first year we bought our property, my husband had an unintentional run-in with a Boa. He was cutting high bush using our Stihl 280 string trimmer, but instead of string he was using a metal blade attachment. Being a novice chopper, he cut in a circle and cut inward. By the end of the day he’d narrowed the circle down to an old log in the center of the pasture, or potrero as it’s called in Spanish.
He must have trapped a Boa inside his chopping pattern, because, as he got closer and closer, the Boa, with nowhere left to hide, came out from under the log to protect itself. It was huge, about 3.5 meters long and about as big around as my thigh. My husband said later, “She just raised up on her haunches and opened that gaping mouth of hers and hissed… I could hear it over the
roar of the motor.”
He said he stuck the spinning blade directly into its mouth. The blade just bounced off. He then sped the motor up and stuck the blade into the snake’s side, just below the head. It was striking repeatedly at him while he shoved the blade into it. The whole episode took quite awhile to finally subdue the snake. Later, My husband said he felt bad, but when the adrenalin is pumping, it is fright or flight, baby. After that experience he’s always chopped outward, allowing an escape route for any wildlife that might share our space.
Over the years we have learned never to touch a tree trunk before looking at it first. When we are out in the jungle we use a walking stick or machete for balance rather than to rely on a low-lying limb to stabilize ourselves. We walk looking at our feet rather than gazing upwards at the many toucans, parrots, and other spectacular birds that might be flying by. We keep our property chopped short because snakes don’t like short grass, and have very few shrubs or
ornamental plants close to the house. A snake has bitten neither of us.
Yesterday, my husband and I went up to Bribri– the county seat–to pay the garbage bill for the year. It was the usual trip over extremely bad road. It’s been raining here so there was a lot of water standing on the road. We picked our way through the mud, potholes, and general muck in our aging, but dependable, Jeep pickup. The trip took about an hour. We got to Bribri, parked in front of the building, and I asked my husband if he wanted to go into the office
with me. I got the answer I expected, so I left him in the truck and went in to pay the bill. I was probably gone about ten minutes.
I was feeling quite proud of myself for getting the chore done in such short order. Normally, bureaucratic jobs of this nature are more involved, but today was an in-and-out operation. I opened the passenger door of the truck, jumped into the seat, and, before I closed the door, started to tell my husband about how I’d gotten the
job done. Something caught my eye.
I looked down and to my right. There, just in front of my knees, was a snake emerging from a hole where the hinges of the door met the body of the truck. It took a split second to react, but I remember thinking: This can’t be right. How could there be a damned snake in my car? A high, quavering voice I hardly recognized as my own said, “Oh M’Gosh. Snake. Snake!” For the next five or six seconds time froze. The snake and I locked eyes and then began the ancient and primitive dance of predator and prey.
The snake’s head was about five centimeters around, something on the order of a banana. At first it headed straight toward me, suspended in mid air, sliding its thick body along over the bottom hinge of the door. That was bad enough, but then it folded back against itself as if to strike, or perhaps to slither further out into the cab of the
truck. It easily had enough tension stored to strike my knees, which were now well within striking range. Thirty centimeters away, no more. I saw the brown hash marks on its dark gray sides. Two pits in its face just above its nostrils and that triangular shaped head identified it for sure. No doubt about it. Terciopelo.
It looked annoyed. It was probably hot and shaken up by the trip. When I opened the door it must have sensed cooler air and came there to escape the engine heat. It waved about in mid air looking for an escape route. I sucked my stomach in and drew my chest and face as far away from it as possible. My breath was ragged. My knees were so
close to it now, I was afraid it would use them as its next landing zone, and slither across them. I had to get out.
I began to swing my legs around to get out of the truck when it struck at me. It seemed to happen in slow motion. At that point, I was half the way out of the vehicle and turning back was not an option. My husband said as I piled out of the truck, the snake struck twice more, snapping at the air to its right and then again, to the left. It didn’t use all of its incredible force, or extend itself fully. It if had, I would have been bitten for sure.
Once out, I slammed the door hoping to catch it in the hinge. No such luck. My husband said while I was getting out he watched helplessly from the driver’s seat on the other side of the center console as the snake first struck. It then turned and went back inside the fender wall, rolling over the hinge in the process. He estimated the snake
was about a meter in length. How big! How fast!
The average venom injected by the Terciopelo is about 105mg, although they can deliver as much as 310mg. A fatal dose for humans is 50mg. However, not all bites are envenomed. Venomous snakes are able to regulate the amount, depending on the age and size of their intended victim. I suppose that would mean it would have used all it could for
me, being as I am quite a bit larger than a rabbit, for instance.
Once bitten, Terciopelo venom is hemotoxic and causes havoc with the circulatory system. Unless given antivenin, the victim is very likely to die. Complications with clotting factors are the number one cause of death. As the blood becomes more and more coagulated, the body begins to throw clots to the coronary arteries causing cardiac
arrest. Pulmonary artery blockage can also occur, evidence suggests.
In the old days, and that was not so long ago, there were bush snake specialists in this area of Costa Rica; people who knew jungle plants that could save a man’s life. One of our neighbors, Rogelio Smith, is a one of the last surviving people here who practiced the trade. He is eighty years old now, but still remembers. He’s told me about it but will not reveal the native plants he used. I imagine they would use some kind of plant with an anticoagulant property. There are several likely plants that grow here. Guaco (Mikania guaco) is one. He says the government made it illegal to pass down the information after the antivenin was made more readily available. He is very frail these days and the lore will likely pass off with him when he goes.
Thankfully I did not need antivenin or a bush doctor, but we did need something. Here we were in Bribri with a Terciopelo in our car. Granted it was not in the cab, or we didn’t think so, anyway. After we both caught our breath, my husband gingerly opened the driver’s side door and, after a secure look around, released the hood latch, and closed the door.
“Watch your fingers,” I said as he carefully unlatched and raised the hood. We both peered down into the bowels of our truck motor. Not a snake to be seen. It hadn’t slithered across the road either– I was keeping one eye on my sandaled feet. We concluded that it was still in there somewhere.
“I’ll go get some repellent,” I said, and ran across the street and bought a can of “Off” at the grocery store. Snakes have a strong sense of smell and, I reasoned, wouldn’t much care for mosquito repellent. I returned. My husband cautiously opened up my side of the truck where the snake was last seen. No snake. He sprayed repellent
into the space the snake was currently calling home and slammed the door again. We waited. No snake emerged from under the vehicle. We were at a stand off.
During this time we discussed the anatomy of our truck. The only reasonable explanation was that, at some point, the snake crawled up the wheel well– last night? Two weeks ago?– and found an entry into the space between the exterior paneling of the truck and the inner wheel well. The only exit was either how it got in, or the way it tried to get out when I encountered it.
“Well, if we keep the door shut it can’t get at us,” I said.
“Unless, of course, there are snake sized holes in the firewall of the dash,” my husband countered.
“Great.” I suddenly became very aware of just how much rust the old Jeep has endured after almost twenty years in the tropics.
“We can’t stay here all night. I guess we’ll take a chance.” That was my husband speaking. I was ready to leave the keys in it and walk away forever. Maybe put a sign in the window that read, “Please steal this car, Terciopelo inside.”
“Let’s go get something to eat, ” he said. “Maybe it’ll leave while we have lunch.” I wasn’t very hungry, but I wasn’t very eager for the hour ride back home with a snake in our vehicle either. In an act of faith, I opened my side of the truck, peered into the dark hole- now a snake home-, jumped in, and slammed the door.
We ate lunch at a little café in Bribri and, after telling the proprietor about our adventures, he kept a close watch on the car while we ate. I am certain the snake would have been seen if it had left the truck. During lunch we got advice about how to deal with the situation. One customer suggested we spray in there with insecticide. I explained I’d already used mosquito repellent. Another said, “It is very dangerous to have a snake in the car.” The understatement for all time. We thanked them for their concerns, though.
The drive back was uneventful. My husband said I rode in my seat like a nine-year-old school girl, sitting ramrod straight, my knees bent, and feet tucked as far away from the dash as I could get them. At one point the bead seat cover brushed up against the back of my calf, and I just about went out through the open window. I kept a good eye on the floorboards the entire trip home.
We have not encountered the snake again. It may well still be in there today. My husband says, “When he gets hungry, he’ll leave.”So, how often does a Terciopelo eat, anyway?