Jumping pit vipers

As I write these opening paragraphs, there is still adrenaline pumping through my body. My wife, Grisela, and I just barely escaped being bit by a terciopelo snake.

Also known as “fer-de-lance” or as the “jumping pit viper,” this snake is nothing to mess around with. If you ask a Costa Rican about the terciopelo, they usually have a story about someone they knew, either a relative, or a friend who was bitten by one, and either lost a limb or died from the bite. My friend Victor recently lost a horse to one. And his wife is a veterinarian. There is a very disturbing photo of what a bite did to an 11-year-old boy’s leg in Ecuador on the Wikipedia page.

My wife and I were at a local hot spring yesterday to celebrate Valentine’s Day, albeit a few days late. We’ve been to this hot spring many times before as it is only a 10-minute drive from our house. After we had paid our entrance fee, we were walking down a very thin jungle path. The path is well maintained with cement pavers, but you are still walking in the jungle. My wife was telling me old stories of when she was a child, and neither of us was paying much attention when I heard her scream from behind me. At that moment I saw the snake about 6 inches from my sneaker, on my left, moving toward me. I jumped and ran forward. My wife, behind me, ran in the opposite direction up the trail. The snake was now in between us and looking at me with no fear. It was probably 1 meter in length and was about 2 meters from me at this point. I could clearly see it was a terciopelo. Then after a staredown, it turned and slowly climbed off the trail and disappeared into the brush.

From my wife’s point of view, this is where the snake was coiled up when it jumped at us.

Now separated by about 6 meters, Grisela and I talked about what to do next. She told me that she had seen it coiled up and saw it spring towards us. It basically lunged right between us, which could have saved us. Maybe it couldn’t decide who to bite? (We later were told by the workers there that they can leap 1.5 meters in distance to strike.)

From my point of view, this shows the path I saw the snake go.

It literally jumped from a coiled position in between myself and my wife. She ended up running back up the hill and I ran down in the opposite direction. It happened very fast.

At this point, we were trying to decide if I should go to her and just leave, or if she wanted to come to me and try to get to the hot springs?

After about 5 minutes, my wife courageously ran past the dangerous spot so we could finish our walk to the hot springs. Upon arriving at the bar a few minutes later, we talked to the two bartenders who verified that there are terciopelos in that area. We had a good chat with them about other crazy things that have happened there. Like the time a full-sized jaguar walked right in front of the reception on the main road, before heading back into the jungle. They also told us that October through December are the mating months for the terciopelo, and they see a lot of them around that time.

Some interesting facts about the terciopelo from Wikipedia:
• This species is irritable and fast-moving
• Its large size and habit of raising its head high off the ground can result in bites above the knee
• It is considered the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, responsible for 46% of all bites.

As a side note, I almost always wear my 8-inch high hiking boots when I go into the jungle. Even walking our back property, I wear my boots. But not today. I was in my low-top sneakers. And my wife had her flip-flops on!

I’ve run into poisonous snakes in Costa Rica before. I’ve even taken a few out with machetes or shovels. (One right at the entrance to our house, but that is another story.) I’ve even seen a 2-meter long terciopelo with my friend Eric while hiking his mountain property in the southern zone. But I have never had a snake lunge at me. Ever. It scared me. It scared us both and my wife grew up here.

In the moment, a hundred things ran through my mind. Things like: do I try and take a picture of it (so the hospital knows which anti-venom to give us)? Or, which hospital do I drive to? It’s Sunday, is the hospital even open? Is it better to call an ambulance? Can I carry my wife out of here if she gets bit? Literally a hundred things. All while I’m trying to memorize what it looks like so I can identify it later.

After a couple stiff drinks at the bar, we did enjoy the hot springs. But all we could talk about was the snake and what had happened. I think we were making the couple in front of us uncomfortable, as they were probably thinking they had to traverse the same path on their way out as well. We were both still feeling the adrenaline.

Eventually, it was time to head back up the trail to the car. We talked about trying to go with a group, but nobody was leaving. So my brave wife grabbed a big stick and off we went. Moral of the story, wear your boots and pay attention!

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