Parque Reptilandia: Komodo dragon, anaconda and tortoise, together at last

Karl Kahler | March 18, 2016
A chameleon rattlesnake with a peccary skull at Parque Reptilandia near Dominical.

DOMINICAL, Puntarenas — The soft-spoken Flemish man who gave me a tour of Parque Reptilandia on Tuesday started out by unlocking windows so I could take pictures of bright green South American tree boas.

“They are not dangerous but they have long teeth,” said Roel de Plecker in his understated style, before moving on to snakes that actually were dangerous.

An Amazon basin tree boa sleeps with its eyes open, as all snakes do.
An Amazon basin tree boa sleeps with its eyes open, as all snakes do. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

We came to an exhibit identifying some kind of rattlesnake, and he said, “This I cannot open.” Not that I wanted him to.

But he opened the windows for a few other deadly snakes, including the brilliant yellow eyelash pit viper and the much-feared fer-de-lance.

Parque Reptilandia V2


Don’t put your hand in the cage,” he said as I moved in for a picture. But then he added, as if to indicate they weren’t very hungry for tourists, They ate on Friday.”

Rainbow boa.
Rainbow boa. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Roel’s droll delivery was all the more amusing because he wasn’t trying to be funny. He appeared to be perfectly comfortable living on the edge of two worlds, reptile and human, and he was in the perfect spot to do so.

Parque Reptilandia, 10km from Dominical on the highway to San Isidro, calls itself Costa Rica’s largest and most diverse reptile park, with about 70 species of all kinds on display here, and about 400 individuals. Few fans of creepy-crawly things, from snakes to lizards to turtles to crocodiles to the only Komodo dragon in Central America, will walk away disappointed.

Of course, there are some people with moral objections to any kind of business that puts animals on display for human edification, and those people would probably not like this place.

Giant gecko.
Giant gecko. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Roel said the public can watch the snakes being fed rats and mice, which are also bred here, every Friday from 10 to 3. He said they eat only once a week because of their slow metabolism. The larger animals, like the Komodo dragon, anaconda and pythons, are fed chicken and other meats, as well as rats.

Roel grabbed a snake handle in case we needed it, and I asked if he was an experienced snake handler. He said he’s never been bitten, at least not by a venomous snake.

He showed me a boa that was pregnant — a refrain he would often be repeating, as the park breeds almost all its species.

South American tree boa.
South American tree boa. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

“See how the scales are a bit apart from each other?” he asked. “That’s because of the babies. Boas are live bearers, so the babies get born in the mother and then she drops them.”

He showed me a harmless tropical milk snake that mimics the coral, with its red, black and yellow coloring.

Tropical milk snake.
Tropical milk snake. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

“We don’t keep coral snakes because they’re very hard to keep,” he said. “They eat snakes and other lizards. So these (milk snakes) mimic the coral snakes, but they get bigger than coral snakes. They also eat coral snakes.”

As at any herpetarium, some snakes were hard to spot or photograph, as they were lurking inside logs or behind foliage.

But a couple of snakes appeared to be posing for glamour shots, notably the tree boas, the vine snake and the rattlesnake that was coiled front and center next to a peccary skull.

Green vine snake.
Green vine snake. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

“Chameleon rattlesnake, they call it, that’s because they get darker at night,” he said. As for the desert-like enclosure, he said, “We like to imitate habitat, it’s better for the animals and nicer for the eye.”

We moved on to a display containing turtles and poison dart frogs. I asked Roel if he ever touched the frogs.

“No. They don’t bother really me, I’m pretty resistant, but some people feel numbness,” he said. “They’re not as toxic as the Colombian ones. There’s one in Colombia, if you touch him, you die. Or three species, deadly to humans. These can get you sick, though.”

Strawberry and green-and-black poison dart frogs.
Strawberry and green-and-black poison dart frogs. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

He added, “It’s always advisable not to touch animals.”

The park’s collection is a mix of local and international species, many of them traded with zoos through exchange programs.

Roel showed me a black bushmaster, saying it was one of the largest vipers in the world.

“Bushmasters are a bit shy creatures,” he said. “We have to keep them dark, and they always go in caves.”

Perhaps the park’s most spectacular serpent is the 5m (16-foot) green anaconda, though it was lurking underwater and we could see only one patch of its giant body. The photos Roel shared with me later, though, were amazing.

Green anaconda.
Green anaconda. (Courtesy of Parque Reptilandia)

He said the anaconda is the heaviest snake in the world, and he estimates this female’s weight at between 80 and 90 kilos (175-200 pounds). She hails from Suriname, and her name is Shakira.

We also looked at an American crocodile, though sadly the caiman that formerly shared its pond had died.

My favorite showoff was a Mertens’ water monitor, who put on an aquatic dance for me in her water tank, swimming and circling and seemingly even waving.

Mertens' water monitor.
Mertens' water monitor. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times
Mertens' water monitor.
Mertens' water monitor. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times
Mertens' water monitor.
Mertens' water monitor. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Another standout was the Roti Island snaked-necked turtle, a native of Indonesia and an agile swimmer whose shell was completely covered in moss and who indeed had a long, snakelike neck.

Roti Island snake-necked turtle.
Roti Island snake-necked turtle. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times
Roti Island snake-necked turtle.
Roti Island snake-necked turtle. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Roel invited me to climb over the rail into the African spurred tortoise enclosure. The three females were huddled in a shady spot, but Roel picked one up (with some difficulty) and turned her toward me.

Roel de Plecker of Parque Reptilandia feeds hibiscus flowers to an African tortoise.
Roel de Plecker of Parque Reptilandia feeds hibiscus flowers to an African tortoise. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

He plucked some hibiscus flowers, the tortoises’ favorite food, and she began to devour them with gusto.

A giant African spur-thighed tortoise eats hibiscus leaves.
A giant African spur-thighed tortoise eats hibiscus leaves. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

We came to a very cool-looking black water monitor, who stuck out his forked tongue at me.

“This is probably the most intelligent lizard in the world,” Roel said. “You can see it in his eyes.”

Black water monitor.
Black water monitor. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

But the pièce de résistance was a Komodo dragon named Langka, born in 2004 in Spain’s Canary Islands as part of an international breeding program. She stood there looking at me like the pit bull of the reptile world.

The species is endemic to five islands in southeast Indonesia, and is the world’s largest lizard. It’s known for having several strains of virulent bacteria in its saliva, as well as glands in its lower jaw that produce a dangerous toxin.

Langka, Central America's first Komodo dragon, was born in 2004 in Spain's Canary Islands as part of a international breeding program. The species is endemic to five islands in southeast Indonesia.
Langka, Central America's first Komodo dragon, was born in 2004 in Spain's Canary Islands as part of a international breeding program. The species is endemic to five islands in southeast Indonesia. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Roel said a couple of weeks ago Langka (which means “rare”) laid 21 eggs, three of which were found to be fertile — though she’s never seen a male Komodo in her life.

“They call it parthenogenesis,” he said, referring to the ability of some animals to reproduce asexually. “It’s an adaptation in nature for isolated populations in some species.”

When we returned to reception, Roel introduced me to Quetzal Dwyer of New York, the owner of Parque Reptilandia. I asked him how long this place has been open.

“It’s been open to the public for 12 years, but far longer in building and permits and stuff like that,” he said. “But I’ve been in reptiles my whole life.”

“How did you get into reptiles?”

“It just happened,” he said.

As in the reptile kingdom, so in the human: It takes all kinds.


Getting there: Parque Reptilandia is 10km north of Dominical on the highway to San Isidro, marked by a large sign.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day.
Admission: For nationals, ₡2,500 for adults, ₡1,000 for kids; for foreigners with residency, ₡4,000 for adults, ₡2000 for kids; for foreigners, ₡6,000 for adults and ₡3,000 for kids.
For more info:

Contact Karl Kahler at






  1. I don’t like the idea of zoos for entertainment. If they are breeding and releasing native species and doing rehabilitation work then that is a different story. A good example is Zoo Ave in La Garita about 15 minutes from the Alajuela airport.
    Just to have exhibits for people to look at, is a disservice to the individual animals in the enclosures. There is going to be a new reptile zoo or serpentarium opening up soon about a hundred meters/yards before the Tarcoles river. I have seen it from the inside and it is extremely impressive. The owner Vincenzo Salvatica is a herpetologist and conservationist, whos heart is in the right place. He hopes to make some intial income when he opens so he can continue his project which includes breeding native species, which he is doing at the present time. These will eventually be released back into the wild. The project will eventually have a lab for reptile specialists (herpetologists) to do scientific research as well. I am looking forward to this new reptile zoo to open. It can be found at
    NatureSalvaticaHerpResearchCenter on facebook.

    Comment by henry kantrowitz — March 18, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

  2. Henry, always enjoy hearing from you, but just to get this straight: You disapprove of the 12-year-old reptile park I visited in Dominical but you approve of the reptile park being built by your friend at the Tárcoles River that hasn’t even opened yet? And it looks like you have a couple of friends who operate zoos? You say you “don’t like the idea of zoos for entertainment,” but don’t you think your friends’ new zoo will entertain hundreds if not thousands of people? You are “looking forward to this new reptile zoo to open,” but you don’t like the “reptile zoo” I have reviewed here? My friend, I know this is a long story, but I’m a little lost. To simplify: Would it be better if all reptile zoos in Central America were personally approved by you? And what would be the deciding criterion, that the owners’ “hearts are in the right place”?

    Comment by Karl Kahler — March 18, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

  3. Henry, I have never won an argument with you before, so I won’t try now, but please understand that I value your knowledge more than I disagree with your wisdom. I hear you saying that reptile parks should be oriented toward release, not captivity. Did you hear that Sea World is going to retire its orcas? Holy $#@%, that’s incredible. So where are they going to move them? Same problem with the Komodo dragon and the 5m anaconda at Parque Reptilandia. You can’t just let them go! I would be the first to agree that zoos can be a problem — but zoos can also guarantee the survival of highly vulnerable species by feeding and breeding them, when the alternative could be extinction.

    Comment by Karl Kahler — March 19, 2016 @ 9:43 pm

  4. Hi Karl,
    It isn’t about winning an argument with you, as you mentioned. It is more about informing the readers to the reality of how some of these projects are detrimental in the long run, like zip lines and other “eco” projects that aren’t really “eco-friendly”.
    Nothing was really mentioned that Reptilandia is breeding and “releasing” native species of reptiles and amphibians back into the wild. I didn’t hear anything regarding educational information. The only info that seemed to come across was the dangers of the snakes and frogs that are on exhibit. We need to point out the importance of these animals to the entire ecosystem. False fears is why many of these animals are endangered. I have handled all of species of dart frogs here in Costa Rica and many of my clients have as well. I only mention to my clients not to rub their eyes or put their fingers in their mouths as that might be a problem. Once you wash your hands there is no problem at all. No one has ever gotten sick from the toxins in their skins from handling them. I know many other nature guides that have done the same and no problems as well. Yes, dendrobates terribilis dart frog is quite dangerous to handle and can kill you, but it lives in Columbia.
    The “zoos” I refer to have a major emphasis on breeding, releasing, rehabilitating and educating. They have to display some of these animals to make an income to make these projects viable. The new reptile project, I mentioned, is going to be specifically breeding threatened species and doing lab work to understand more about these animals and hopefully some of the benefits they can provide for humans as well. Zoo Ave, where I was curator for several years, is the largest breeding, rehab and release center in all of central and south America. It has reintroduced 1000’s of birds, monkeys and reptiles back into the Costa Rican environment. Almost all of their inhabitants have been donated by ticos. The animals that can’t be released are at leased kept in much better conditions then they were in kept as pets. Most are also set up for breeding so their babies can be released back into the wild. Zoo Ave, as well as the new reptile center coming near the tarcoles river, provide educational provisions for local schools for free or very affordable prices. They also do outreach programs that go to schools to educate children in Costa Rica. Zoo Ave has hundreds of school children pass through the zoo weekly. The zoo has educational information everywhere you look. Most zoos are about a bottom line at the expense of so many animals being kept in jails for people to just look at.
    I won’t even comment on Sea World as they are only reacting because their sales went down after being exposed by the film blackfish on CNN. They aren’t releasing their orcas they are just not going to breed them anymore. Most animals there are just for display and entertainment and nothing more.
    It is very different releasing reptiles compared to mammals and birds. Reptiles and amphibians are much easier to release because they have more instinctive qualities and adapt easily to their natural environment. Therefore it would be fairly easy to release the reptiles you mentioned back in their native habitat. I could go on about how to do that but this is not the forum for that.
    Karl, thanks for allowing this discussion.

    Comment by henry kantrowitz — March 21, 2016 @ 10:37 am

  5. Thanks for this interesting dialogue
    Between herpetologists.
    I tend to believe to that zoos that only
    Display animals in captivity are a concept
    Of the past.

    Comment by steff kuhn — March 23, 2016 @ 6:52 am

  6. Just a quick comment regarding Parque Reptilandia. Primary among it’s goals are education and service. Along with a few exotic species, they collect indigenous venomous snakes to provide much needed fresh venom for the manufacture of antivenin, and engage in exchange programs with other research facilities in order to expand breeding capacity for the same purpose. So, while they are open to visitors, that is a side benefit, not the main motive.
    During the first few years of operation, owners Quetzal and his wife, Monica, personally financed the building and operation of Reptilandia. Roel, one of the world’s leading authorities on venomous tropical snakes, volunteered endless hours, collecting snakes, assisting with all operations from breeding, feeding, to cleaning, as well as designing and building the environmentally correct terrariums and enclosures. Together, through their combined dedication, they have created, and sustained, one of the finest examples of a healthy serpentarium anywhere on the planet, and should be congratulated.

    Comment by Andrew Hardin — May 29, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

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