Natural dangers in Guate: spiders & insects

Violin spiderHow dangerous is to spend some time in Guatemalan nature; forests, hills, lakes? Are there any dangers in houses? Here is just a part of advices and facts, most deadly animal of Guatemala (and I think most deadly world animal) is not mentioned – mosquito. That is for another article on natural dangers…

Spiders in Central America? But of course. Central America has more than its fair share of spiders, especially in jungle regions. Many Central America spiders are of enormous size, and with colors more elaborate than a Mayan blanket. While some Central America spiders are indeed poisonous, the majority tend to mind their own business.

Although tarantulas are the largest and most intimidating-looking spiders in the world, they only strike if annoyed or threatened, and their bites are only harmful if you happen to be allergic. However, an encounter with a tarantula’s hair can result in itching, burning, and of course pain. So even if they don’t scare you, be sure not to pet them!

Now, most dangerous one, that you can encounter in Guatemala even in urban areas is fiddleback spider. It is called Chilean recluse and is widespread through Latin America and the USA, even Finland. Guatemalans use the name “violin”.


The Chilean recluse is one of the larger species of recluse spiders, generally ranging from 8–40 mm in size (including legs, notice the bastard is not big). Like most recluses, it is brown and usually has markings on the dorsal side of its thorax, with a black line coming from it that looks like a violin with the neck of the violin pointing to the rear of the spider resulting in the nickname “fiddleback spider” or “violin spider” in English-speaking areas. Coloring varies from light tan to brown and the violin marking may not be visible. Since the “violin pattern” is not diagnostic, it is far more important, for purposes of identification, to examine the eyes. Most spiders have eight eyes, but recluse spiders have 6 eyes arranged in pairs (dyads) with one median pair and 2 lateral pairs.

Scorpions. Bad news: for every person killed by a poisonous spider bite, ten are allegedly killed by scorpion stings. Not all scorpions are dangerous, but obviously, it’s better to be safe than sorry. While Central America spiders are out night and day, sun-sensitive scorpions hunt mostly by night. Never walk around barefoot in the dark, and it doesn’t hurt to shake out your shoes before you put them on.

Snakes. It CAN be a matter of life and death. It is known that worldwide thousands of people die each year from snake bites. However, most snakes are NOT poisonous! There are possibly 700 species of snakes in Guatemala and only a few of them are venomous: Coral, Guatemalan palm-pitviper, Barba amarilla, Tamagas, Green-headed tree snake and some of these are not even close to fatal.

Snakes played an important role in Mayan mythology. The serpent was a very important social and religious symbol, revered by the Maya. Maya mythology describes serpents as being the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, cross the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal. To read more about this click here.

Now, getting back to snakes you may see here! It isn’t easy to identify a poisonous snake. The triangular head, which many people think are a giveaway sign, is also common in non-poisonous snakes, while the red coral snake, one of the most poisonous, has a pointed head which can hardly be differentiated from its neck. If you have ANY doubts, avoid them all!!! But try not to disturb them anyway; 80% of snake bites happen when someone is trying to kill one or pick one up.

Even the most aggressive snakes can be quite harmless if you do not disturb ANY of them. To make sure you don’t bother them, take the following precautions:

- When possible, stay on trails and look where you are going when walking in areas that snakes may live.

- When stepping over tree trunks or fallen trees, make sure that there isn’t a snake on the other side waiting for you. If you are climbing up walls or walking over rocks, make sure that there isn’t a snake in the hole where you are putting your hand or foot.

- When you walk in areas with undergrowth, chop at the vegetation with a machete, or make visual contact with a walking stick with the ground where you are about to step, this will scare the snakes. At least it will uncover them from their hiding spot so you can avoid them.

- When walking close to trees or rocky walls, apply the same precautions and avoid gaps and holes. Make sure you don’t put your hands into those holes before checking that they are free of something that will bite or sting.

- Don’t put your hands under rocks or logs. If you have to move them, push them with a stick or something first.

- When going into an area where they live, wear thick-soled shoes or high boots. Remember that 80% of snake bites are made below the knee.

If you do get bitten by a snake:

Snake poison has one of two effects: hemorrhagic or neurotoxic. The first affects the coagulation of the blood; the second paralyzes the victim. All snakes have both of these components, though they vary in the amount.

Keep calm! Snake poison is not as violent as people make it out to be and panic is responsible for most complications. You have up to 36 hours in most cases to act, but the quicker you get to a doctor, the better.

Coral snake

Common name: Coral, coralillo, coral snake.


Species: Micrurus nigrocinctus

Family: Elapidae

Distribution: Low to moderate elevations from Chiapas, Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize to northern South America.

Habitat: Virgin or human-altered areas. 0-1,500 m.

Microhabitat: Terrestrial and fossorial.

Activity: Crepuscular and nocturnal.

Food: Primarily small snakes.

Reproduction: Oviparous.

Guatemalan legends and popular beliefs: Believed to sting with tail due by its defensive posture of coiling and slashing it over its body.

Comments: It is commonly found inside leaf-cutting ant mounds.

Coral snake


Common name: Gushnayera, lora, cantil verde, Guatemalan palm-pitviper.


Species: Bothriechis bicolor

Family: Viperidae

Distribution: Moderate to intermediate elevations from southern Chiapas, Mexico, to southern Guatemala. Disjunct populations in northern Honduras.

Habitat: Cloud forests. 500-2,000 m.

Microhabitat: Primarily arboreal.

Activity: Probably diurnal.

Food: Small vertebrates.

Reproduction: Viviparous.

Guatemalan legends and popular beliefs:

Comments: Commonly found in old or shade coffee plantations.


Barba amarilla (Yellow bearded snake)

Common name: Ik’bolay, barba amarilla, devanador, cantil cola de hueso, fer-de-lance.

Extremely venomous

Species: Bothrops asper

Family: Viperidae

Distribution: Low and moderate elevations from Mexico to northern South America

Habitat: Humid areas. 0-1,150 m.

Microhabitat: Terrestrial

Activity: Nocturnal.

Food: Vertebrates, primarily rodents. Juveniles may consume insects and other invertebrates.

Reproduction: Viviparous, up to 90 young per parturition.

Guatemalan legends and popular beliefs:

Comments: The snake that causes more envenomation accidents in Central America and northern South America. In Guatemala it is involved in more than one thousand serious bites inflicted to humans, many of them fatal. It is extremely abundant in palm plantations and rice paddies. It can reach more than 2.5 m long.

Barba amarilla


Common name: Sheta, cantil, tamagás, Godman’s montane pitviper.


Species: Cerrophidion godmani

Family: Viperidae

Distribution: Intermediate and high elevations from south-eastern Oaxaca, Mexico, to western Panama.

Habitat: Dry or humid areas. 1,520-3,500 m.

Microhabitat: Terrestrial.

Activity: Diurnal and nocturnal.

Food: Vertebrates and insects.

Reproduction: Viviparous.

Guatemalan legends and popular beliefs:

Comments: The common viper on the highlands of Guatemala.



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