Traveling to Costa Rica and exploring its many ecosystems can be an amazing experience. But we get a lot of questions from people who are uneasy about something pattering across the floor or slithering into their suitcase. In this post, we’ll let you know what to expect when it comes to bugs, spiders, and snakes in Costa Rica.
The big question for many is how close you might get to these creepy crawlies. After all, seeing them in the wild is one thing, but having a meet and greet in your hotel room or next to the pool is another.
From our experience living in Costa Rica for almost eight years, we can tell you that it really varies. The average traveler who is staying in an air-conditioned hotel may not see much in their room. Those shacking up in ecolodges or open-air accommodations could see a lot more.
Common Things to See
In our travels around Costa Rica, we commonly see two things in hotel rooms and vacation rentals: ants and geckos. There is also the occasional cockroach here and there. These critters are mostly harmless and nothing to lose sleep about.
The ants come through to eat any food that is left around or sometimes they nest inside the structure of a building. Costa Rica has almost 1,000 different ant species, so chances are you will meet a few varieties.
An interesting ant that you probably wouldn’t see on vacation but could run into after staying a few months is the army ant. These invade homes by the hundreds in long, organized lines, hence the name. They come in to clean up any bugs that may be hiding in your house. Once they’re done their job, they will happily leave. Most people just let them do their thing and they are gone in a couple of hours.
Geckos (little lizards with suction-cup feet) are very common. They creep around the walls at night but are skittish around people. They like to eat bugs like mosquitoes that may have gotten into the room. Consider them another part of the cleaning staff, working a 24-hour shift.
Other Critters You May See
Now that we have talked about the most common critters, we’ll cover some that you could see, more rarely. This is especially true if you spend more time in Costa Rica or stay in accommodations that are open air and near the jungle.
This is the part of the post where those who are really scared of bugs, spiders, and snakes can go back to our home page and find a different article to read. Also find an air-conditioned hotel room to stay in!
Some scientists estimate that there could be up to 300,000 different insect species in Costa Rica. So far, only around 35,000 have been recorded. With that many bugs, you are bound to cross paths with several dozen species on a given day. Many of these are quite amazing, with flashy colors and intricate body structures. Most are also harmless to humans.
Of course, with any population, there are some more dangerous ones as well. Here are some to watch out for.
Biting Ants and Bullet Ants
Biting ants, known as picas in Costa Rica, are common and can take you completely by surprise. Just one wrong step onto their underground nest or food source, and you will suddenly be dancing up and down.
These ants are normally small and black but can be red too. They swarm to defend themselves and give a stinging bite that often itches afterward. The pain usually goes away within a few minutes and water helps soothe it.
Bullet ants are much larger and have an elongated body. These ants have a sting that gives you shooting pain, like getting shot by a bullet. It can last hours or even a full day but is not harmful. Though we have seen bullet ants, no one in our family has ever been stung by one.
Everyone knows that mosquitoes leave itchy bites and can spread disease. In Costa Rica, the most common disease from mosquitoes is called dengue. It is most common in the rainier months (May-November) when there are more mosquitoes around.
Other less common mosquito-related diseases in Costa Rica include zika, chikungunya, and very rarely, malaria.
In Costa Rica, mosquito-borne illnesses are most common in agricultural workers or in congested neighborhoods with standing water. Most visitors coming for a short amount of time are not affected. Using insect repellent, window screens, and proper clothing can go a long way in preventing bites.
For tips on preventing mosquito bites, read our post, Costa Rica and Mosquitoes: Tips to Prevent Zika, Dengue, and More.
Sandflies are a different type of biting insect that can be dangerous in some areas. These are smaller than mosquitoes and live within forested areas. They are not to be confused with sandfleas, which are found at the beach.
The danger of a sandfly bite is when the fly rarely contains a tiny parasite and transmits it to you when biting. This parasite can cause a sort of flesh-eating wound known as leishmaniasis. Locally it is called papalomoyo.
Although very uncommon for normal travelers, Matt actually came down with this during our time living in the Dominical area. He had to have daily injections (45 in total) of a powerful medicine to fight it off. He now has a large scar the size of a silver dollar on his leg. Leishmaniasis is said to be most common in the southern forested parts of Costa Rica (both Pacific and Caribbean slopes).
Bees and Wasps
Bees and wasps are important pollinators for Costa Rica’s intricate forests and crops, but many of them sting too. For most travelers, it’s very easy to avoid contact with bees and wasps since they are only aggressive when threatened.
For those allergic to bees and other biting insects, be sure to bring your EpiPen. Also inform your naturalist guides that you have an allergy, just in case.
Keep in mind that Costa Rica has several varieties of stingless bee too. These are black or brown, smaller, and will sometimes hover near your food or drinks at a restaurant. They are harmless and actually produce a delicious honey.
Caterpillars are often looked at fondly since they turn into beautiful butterflies and moths. However, think twice before touching one. Many caterpillars in Costa Rica have fuzzy hairs along their bodies that contain powerful toxins. These protect the caterpillar from predators but can also leave a nasty (non-lethal) sting on your skin.
Our family has been stung by caterpillars a few times. Often, they crawl onto something like an outdoor chair or item of clothing and then we brush up against them. The skin irritation can last for days or even weeks, depending on the species.
This beetle (a type of triatomine insect) is known as the kissing bug, or locally, chinche. It can cause chagas disease when it bites you, and you itch the area.
When this happens, a tiny parasite from the bug’s feces enters the bite and your body. Chagas disease affects the heart and can be fatal if untreated. These bugs are pretty rare and mostly found in poorer communities that have homes without screens. They can occur in other locations throughout Costa Rica, though, and mostly emerge in the home at night. Learn more about these bugs and chagas disease on the CDC’s website.
Spiders & Other Arachnids
We’re not going to lie, there are lots of hairy, scary looking spiders in Costa Rica. For the most part, they keep to themselves and we keep to ourselves. Occasionally, though, one might enter your house or hotel room. These spiders aren’t going to attack you if you leave them alone, but you really don’t want them around.
Spiders like tarantulas and most web-making species don’t bite people. They can actually be quite impressive, and since they catch bugs, beneficial in the garden.
There are some other large spiders, though, that are dangerous. The most infamous is the Brazilian wandering spider. Its bite can be deadly to smaller mammals. Medical attention is usually needed for humans. We have never seen one.
We have, however, seen several different types of wolf spiders. These can give a nasty poisonous bite. In our house, since we have young kids, they have always met the bottom of a flip-flop before causing any trouble. Wolf spider bites are uncomfortable and can cause pain and inflammation but don’t usually require medical attention, unless you have a severe reaction.
Scorpions are very common in Costa Rica. Although they can give a painful sting, they are not lethal. A University of Costa Rica article explains that it is actually sort of a mystery, since the two types found here are closely related to lethal varieties in other countries. Maybe they are just too happy and pura vida to make stronger poison? We’re not sure.
Scorpions often enter homes or sometimes hotel rooms to find cool, dry shelter. Occasionally, they crawl between stacked clothing or into shoes.
In our experience, they are more active when the seasons change. For example, when it transitions from rainy season to dry season, we often find a few in the house. We usually see them under the stove or refrigerator, or in the closet. We have yet to be stung.
Many hotels spray pesticides for scorpions so there is a good chance you won’t see one during a short visit.
Ticks do live in Costa Rica, but with all the hiking we have done, we’ve only had them on us a few times. They are a bigger problem for dogs and cats, especially since they can cause a disease known as ehrlichiosis. If left untreated, this can kill the animals.
Lyme disease, which is more common in other countries, has not seemed to spread to Costa Rica so far.
The thought of a slithery snake often makes people cringe. But snakes are an important part of Costa Rica’s ecosystem. They can be quite fascinating too. And what most people don’t realize is that most species are not venomous.
According to the University of Costa Rica, of the 140 species of snake found in Costa Rica, only 23 are venomous. The chances of running into one of these 23 types on a normal vacation is very slim. If you do see one, it will probably be on a tour where the guide has pointed it out to you. Usually, snakes won’t be directly on the main trail where people frequently walk either.
Of course, snake encounters do happen. During our roughly 10 years of hiking in Costa Rica, we have seen a snake cross the trail in front of us only twice. At home, we have seen maybe a dozen snakes pass through our yard, one coil up on our patio, and a very small one enter the house (under the door sweep). All have been non-venomous, usually a vine snake or something like that.
One family who we helped with trip planning did report a surprise to us. A six-foot-long boa constrictor had coiled up in the shower of their hotel room! It was the presidential suite at a fancy establishment, but all the doors had been opened up during the day and the jungle was just a few feet away.
As far as venomous snakes go, the most feared in Costa Rica is the fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper). It is known locally as the terciopelo. This snake is responsible for over 50% of snake bites in Costa Rica.
On average, around 500-600 snake bites are recorded in Costa Rica annually. Luckily, the country has one of the most well-respected antivenom laboratories in the world, and deaths from snake bites are very low.
Costa Rica’s Instituto Clodomiro Picado has developed highly effective medicines to combat the human body’s reaction to a poisonous snake bite. This technology saves all but one or two snake-bite victims per year, mostly because they had to travel too far to get the treatment.
Hospitals in Costa Rica have antivenom on hand in the unlikely event you do get a snake bite. In very rural areas, we have heard of veterinarians providing the antivenom as well. For information on what to do if you get bite by a snake, here is a useful article.
If you are letting some of Costa Rica’s less-desirable creatures prevent you from coming, don’t. Your chances of having a big hairy spider on your pillow or a snake coiled up in your shower are extremely low. If you keep to the main trails and attractions, close up your accommodations, and use insect repellent, you should be able to put all your fears behind you and enjoy everything that this beautiful country has to offer.
Have a question about bugs, spiders, or snakes in Costa Rica? Or maybe a story to tell? Leave a comment below.
Looking for more information to help you plan? Check out these posts:
Planning a Family Trip to Costa Rica: Essential Tips and Info – Traveling with kids can be amazing and challenging at the same time. Check out this post for some Costa Rica-specific tips.
Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before you Go – Wondering if driving is right for you? Check out this post for what to expect on Costa Rica’s roads.
Safety Tips for Your Next Trip to Costa Rica – Crimes can happen on vacation but most can be prevented with some simple measures.