All that SLithers
The Monteverde Herpetarium offers visitors the chance to see Costa Rica’s native reptiles and amphibians.
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
A scream pierced the air. Joselyn Molina’s mother ran across the yard to gently yet hastily pull the vibrantly red and yellow coral snake from around her daughter’s neck. Joselyn Molina and her brother had been playing dress up, using the snake as a necklace. Unbeknownst to them, the riveting colors of the coral snake mark it as one of the most venomous creatures on earth. One bite to her neck would have killed Molina in minutes.
Molina’s fascination with snakes has only grown since that afternoon almost 20 years ago. Now, she is living her dream working as a guide and caretaker at the Monteverde Herpetarium Adventures.
Visitors can find all manner of slithering, crawling creatures at the serpentarium, located in the heart of Monteverde, a few steps from downtown. They can see the rare and elusive Bushmaster, the lizard that runs on water and the red-eyed tree frog without hiking through old-growth jungle.
The Herpetarium houses more than 40 species of snakes, turtles, frogs and tarantulas native to Costa Rica in customized, individual terrarium habitats.
"Mark is our Bushmaster. His venom would kill you in just twenty minutes on average."
The serpentarium is dedicated to preservation, education and species continuation. Each terrarium contains native plants specific to each species’ natural habitat and is temperature and humidity controlled to ensure their optimal health and comfort. Their feeding schedules are also carefully monitored.
“We feed them with rats and mice that we breed here in captivity,” said Joselyn Molina, who has worked at the serpentarium for two years. “We feed them twice in a month, and the diet is according to the size or weight of the species.”
The turtles are fed chicken, which is outsourced, and the frogs are fed crickets and termites that are bred onsite by the serpentarium staff. Observant visitors can spot the bulging stomachs of a recently fed snake.
When large groups of visitors first enter the area housing the terrariums, they view a short presentation describing some of the biological and environmental facts about the species housed in the facility. For example, the presentation explains the difference between venomous species and the non-venomous counterparts that mimic them, the life cycle of jungle frogs and the difference between a frog and a toad.
Tourists visit the serpentarium for many reasons. Evelyn Lentos, a guide at the Monteverde Herpetarium, said some come out of curiosity, some are eager to learn more about the fascinating creatures, seek to face an old fear or see the species on display they would otherwise not be able to observe in the wild due to their location and the risk involved in finding them.
“We don’t like, really, the snakes. We feel a little bit frightened about them,” said Silvia Sanders, who is visiting from Spain and came despite being apprehensive after encountering a snake on a hike earlier that week.
The world-famous Bushmaster is one of the primary draws for visitors. It is a venomous pit viper, the longest in the world, averaging two meters (six feet) in length though some have been recorded as long as three meters (10 feet). They are a deep tan with darker coffee-colored and black triangular markings. They often have distinct facial markings in black. Although the Bushmaster’s venom is potentially fatal, of the species housed in Monteverde, they are not considered the most dangerous because they are not typically aggressive and avoid human population.
“We house one; Mark is our Bushmaster,” Molina said. “He is my baby here. He is about two meters (six feet) in length. His venom would kill you in just twenty minutes on average.”
In addition to caring for their current residents, the serpentarium staff are often called to collect snakes that have been found in residential areas. On average, they respond to one call a week, catching the subject, examining it for injury and releasing it in a safe location if it is healthy.
“The boa constrictor is one of the most common species in this area,” Molina said. “Two or three months ago we got a call about a pregnant boa constrictor, so every day for awhile we got calls about baby boas.”
The Monteverde Herpetarium is part of the Sky Adventures tour company’s offerings. Tickets can be purchased online ahead of time or at the door. The ticket includes a day admittance and a return night trip to see the nocturnal residents.