El Salvador, meaning “The Saviour” in Spanish, is a Central American nation no bigger than West Virginia but one that is best known for its frequent volcanic activity. El Salvador is the only country in the region without a Caribbean coastline, taking up a small 20,000 square kilometer pocket to the southwest of Honduras, but what El Salvador does have is varied wildlife.
From crocodiles to wild cats, even Volcán Izalco and its 50 eruptions haven’t managed to wipe out the extreme biodiversity that you’ll find in the “Land of the Volcanoes”. Among El Salvador’s exotic inhabitants are more than a few species of dangerous snakes that you might to look out for.
Our guide tells you everything you need to know about the poisonous pit vipers and noisy rattlesnakes that inhabit this small country from its volcanic highlands to coastal shrubland. Should you be worried about the dangerous snakes in El Salvador? Let’s find out.
Scientifically known as the Agkistrodon Bilineatus, cantil snakes are a type of medium-sized ground pit viper with a wide head and short fangs. They’re close cousins with the cottonmouth and copperhead vipers that are no stranger to the US, but these snakes live south of the border in the forests and lowlands of Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador.
They can grow to lengths of 40 inches and live five to ten years in the wild. They’re usually dark brown to black with white, orange, or yellow bands. The cantil also has white stripes accented with yellow or orange along the sides of its head and mouth. They have short heavy bodies, with most of their length made up by their tail.
Their anatomy allows cantils to be fast-moving. When young, they lure prey by wiggling their bright yellow tails and when matured, cantils find prey through the heat-sensing pits in their heads and immobilize their victims with their venom. Cantils feed on amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals.
They can be shy around humans and try to avoid them, but they’ve also been known to be aggressive and in some areas of the country, cantil snakes are feared more than any other animal. Their venom is powerful and contains enzymes that are hemotoxic, which means it can stop blood coagulation, and the effect on humans is the same.
A single bite can cause extreme pain, hemorrhaging, respiratory issues, vomiting, shock, kidney failure, and necrosis. A bite from a cantil can prove fatal if the patient isn’t treated properly, but most victims only require pain control and some medical monitoring which you should seek as soon as you think you’ve been bitten.
This jumping pit viper that’s native to Central America is aggressive and unpredictable and one of the most dangerous snakes in El Salvador. Jumping pit vipers are brown or gray with diamond-shaped crosswise markings along their backs. They usually reach lengths of around 25 inches (more than two feet).
It gets its name from its erratic behavior of seemingly jumping in the air when it strikes. They don’t usually come off the ground and if they do it is typically only an inch or two, but their harsh movements can be threatening and work effectively as a form of defense.
They’re not the most venomous pit vipers but a bite from one of these snakes could still do some damage, especially if the victim were to have an allergic reaction or be very old, very young, or have a weakened immune system. The most important thing is to keep the wound clean and high and seek medical attention as soon as possible. Snake bites can easily get infected in tropical countries like El Salvador and a serious blood infection could prove fatal for anyone.
Mountain Pit Viper
Mountain pit vipers are ambush predators, meaning they’ll wait in a single position, camouflaged from their prey, until they’re ready to pounce. They’re relatively small, with males reaching lengths of 11-15 inches and females 20 to 25 inches. There is not much known about the toxicity of their venom, but they are poisonous and use their venom to immobilize prey before swallowing them whole.
The snake is mid to dark brown with lighter brown dorsal markings. Like other pit vipers, they have two movable fangs and heat-sensitive pit organs between each eye and nostril which help them aim their strike at warm-blooded prey.
Mountain pit vipers are usually found in elevated areas, such as the Sierra Madre range in the north which marks the border between El Salvador and Honduras. This means mountain pit vipers are also no strangers to Honduras’ highlands, but they prefer leafy forested areas.
A bite from a mountain pit viper is likely to cause nausea, headaches, vomiting, dizziness, and possible convulsions and shock. Their range is less widespread in El Salvador than some of the other poisonous snakes on this list, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wary of them, especially if you’re heading into the mountains.
Central American Rattlesnake
This large rattlesnake is native to the semi-arid scrub forests, tropical jungles, and coastal woodlands of Central America but they can often be found on the fringes of rainforests and meadow clearings too. They can reach lengths in excess of 50 inches with males growing to 70 inches in some cases.
Like other rattlesnakes, the Central American species has a rough appearance due to their accentuated dorsal scales and protuberances. They tend to be light brown to yellow in color with darker light brown markings. They’re sometimes known as “flat-nosed” rattlesnakes since their head is much blunter than that of a lancehead—one of the only highly venomous Central American snakes that doesn’t roam El Salvador’s jungles. However, what defines them most is the characteristic “rattle” at the tip of the tail that warns others of their presence and has made them one of the most iconic species of snake in the world.
The Central American rattlesnake is venomous, but they mainly use their venom to immobilize prey. Still, if they do strike human flesh a bite could cause changes in blood cells, prevent blood from clotting, damage vessels, and even lead to internal bleeding, respiratory issues, and heart or kidney failure.
More than 5,000 people receive venomous snake bites in Central America every year, of which around four prove fatal. The statistics for the Central American rattlesnake are not known, with the eastern diamondback rattlesnake killing more people than any other species. That said, you wouldn’t want to encounter one of these large snakes on your visit to El Salvador, so keep an ear out for that distinctive rattle when venturing off the beaten track or walking near forest and scrubland.
Hog-nosed Pit Viper
Another snake from the family of pit vipers, these hog-nosed rainforest-dwelling snakes rely on their camouflage as a primary defense but they do carry potent venom and may readily bite if they feel under threat. Males and females are similarly sized, both reaching around 25 inches in length but females can be slightly bigger.
They’re recognized by their stout bodies, triangular heads, upturned snouts, and pattern of cream and dark brown rectangular markings on their dorsum. Larger snakes, especially female individuals, might lack a discernible pattern but they always boast an upturned snout and tend to be consistent in their pale silvery or purple color. They also have heat-sensing pits for detecting prey like other pit vipers.
Hog-nosed pit vipers are distributed throughout Central and South America from El Salvador to Ecuador. They’re mostly terrestrial but can perch on low vegetation or tree trunks. They’re nocturnal hunters and spend most of the day hiding or sleeping coiled underground debris. If you are venturing into the rainforest, this could mean that happening upon one accidentally and startling it is a possibility. This is when pit vipers are most likely to strike humans.
Their venom is hemotoxic and can cause intense pain, inflammation, motor impairment, edema, necrosis, hemorrhage, and even death—which puts them up there with the most dangerous snakes in El Salvador. Critical envenomated patients could die from a brain hemorrhage or acute renal failure in a short space of time following a bite, but most bites only result in moderate envenomation and easily treatable symptoms.
That said, you should always seek medical treatment after a snake bite, especially in a tropical or subtropical country. Around 15 to 30 percent of snake bites are attributed to pit vipers. Fortunately, El Salvador has the lowest incidents of snake bites in Central America, with around 50 recorded every year and an unknown mortality rate, but there are still more than a few highly dangerous species here that you need to look out for.
Are there sharks in El Salvador?
El Salvador is the only Central American country without a Caribean coastline, but this doesn’t mean its marine life isn’t diverse. With over 300 kilometers of Pacific shores, El Salvador’s waters are home to a number of shark species including the bigeye thresher, the common thresher, the scalloped hammerhead, the great hammerhead, the silky shark, the oceanic whitetip, and the shortfin mako. These species make for great sites on diving excursions and usually don’t show aggression towards humans. However, there have been four shark attacks in El Salvador since 1880, two of which were fatal.
Are there jaguars in El Salvador?
El Salvador, like nearby Central American nations, is home to more than one species of wild cat including margays and ocelots, but one of the only American big cats that don’t roam its lands is the jaguar. El Salvador is the only country in Central America without an active jaguar population and the animal is now declared extinct within its borders due to a lack of protection in the 1990s when poachers targeted the animal for its prize coat. Uruguay is the only nation in South America with no jaguars.