San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Snake center opens to visitors in Santa Ana

Although snakes may not be considered the cutest animals in Costa Rica, they have a friend in Santa Ana, southwest of the capital. Biologist Rodolfo Vargas, who specializes in herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians – rehabilitates injured reptiles at the Refugio Herpetológico de Costa Rica, and recently opened the center to the public.

The refuge has already had illustrious visitors such as herpetologist Brady Barr of National Geographic’s “Dangerous Encounters” TV fame, who attended the inauguration.

“We were thrilled to have him here,” Vargas says. He adds with a grin, “The excellent media coverage has really helped with our promotion.”

The refuge receives no government funding, and with costs increasing daily, Vargas hopes to cover expenses by charging admission and making this family affair into a commercial venture and environmental education center.


Visitors check out a baby crocodile.
Photo by Vicky Longland

It must be emphasized, however, that this is not a zoo, but a rehabilitation center. The main function of the refuge is to release the animals brought to it, after they have recovered from their mostly human-inflicted injuries and can again fend for themselves in the wild. Nevertheless, many of the animals you will see at the refuge sadly will remain there for the rest of their lives, no longer able to survive on their own.

Located in Alto Las Palomas, on the old road to Santa Ana, the refuge is a fascinating place to visit. The 1,500-square-meter property is meticulously maintained. A winding path leads down past the cages where the refuge’s 22 snakes are kept, grouped together according to whether they are venomous or nonvenomous. All are labeled with information in both Spanish and English about their species and habitats.

“[Vargas] has been receiving injured and mistreated reptiles and amphibians since he was 12 years old,” says Lidia Coto, the knowledgeable volunteer guide who gave The Tico Times an extremely interesting and entertaining tour of the refuge.

Vargas lectures at the National University School of Veterinary Medicine in Heredia, north of San José, and does private research projects for companies and the Environment Ministry, but his herpetology studies at the refuge are his passion. He says he manages to treat and release about 60 percent of the animals brought to him.

“It’s very difficult to release snakes unless you know where they have been found and you can return them to their habitat,” Coto explains. “We get a lot of boas, and they are one of the few species that are easier to release.”

Among the other species you will see at the refuge are a venomous tiger snake and a harmless false coral snake, both with stunning coloring, as well as a northern bird snake, different varieties of vipers, a terciopelo or fer-de-lance, a bushmaster and even rattlesnakes.

“Very often firemen who have received an emergency call bring us mutilated snakes such as rattlers with their rattle removed. People think that will stop them from biting,” Coto says.


Palm pit viper
Photo by Vicky Longland

You will find other permanent residents at the refuge, such as César the iguana, rescued from a San José market and missing the end of its tail, as well as Sobek, a crocodile with its front claws amputated. Other residents include a spider monkey that was confiscated by the police from drug dealers; though it was accustomed to eating only dog food, now it loves fruit and veggies, particularly celery. And there’s an adorable squirrel monkey that was obviously a mistreated pet and hates men; having lived in captivity, she could never survive in the wild, but she is now well looked after and is great friends with the family dog.

At the entrance to the refuge is a charming gift shop offering a variety of items: jewelry, wooden handicrafts, hand-painted mugs and very reasonably priced, good-quality T-shirts, including ones with Sobek on the front for ₡3,000 ($6). Even if you aren’t going to visit the refuge, the gift shop in itself is worth a visit to shop for presents. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to see and learn about the refuge’s interesting work and residents.

Going There

The Refugio Herpetológico de Costa Rica is in Alto Las Palomas, on the old road between Escazú and Santa Ana, 150 meters east of the Alta Hotel. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; closed Mondays. Admission costs ₡2,000 ($4) for adults and ₡1,500 ($3) for seniors and kids 12 and under. For information, visit, or call 2282-4614 or 8828-0324.

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