Of Oaxaca’s many dozens of snake species, the great majority couldn’t harm you even if they tried. Furthermore, most snakes are shy and will clear out if you give them plenty of warning. In Oaxaca, poisonous snakes have been largely driven out of city and tourist areas. In the bush or jungle, however, carry a stick and beat the shrubbery in front of you while watching where you put your feet. When hiking or rock-climbing in the country, don’t put your hands in niches you can’t see into.
While such precautions minimize potential hazards, outback travelers should be prepared to encounter members of Oaxaca’s most notorious snake families, the rattlesnakes and the fer-de-lances. Each occurs in a number of species, all potently venomous and generally aggressive. Mexican rattlesnakes, or cascabeles (kahs-kah-BAY-lays), with the same warning rattle and the diamondback markings as their north-of-the-border U.S. relatives, need little introduction. Their tropical viper-cousins, the fer-de-lances (Bothrops atrox), are known locally by various names, such as nauyaca, cuatro narices, palanca, and barba amarilla. Although about the same size (to six feet/two meters) and general appearance as rattlesnakes, fer-de-lances lack warning rattles and are consequently even more dangerous. On treks into the jungle, where the fer-de-lance commonly lives, guard against them by wearing high-topped leather boots, rustling the bushes ahead of you with a stick, and watching carefully where you put your feet.
Snakes in the tropics are not confined to land. Although very unlikely, it is possible that you may encounter a sea snake (culebra marina) while swimming offshore at an isolated Oaxaca beach. If small, yellow, and black, it will certainly be the Pelamis platurus, which, although shy, lives in groups and has been reported to inflict a serious, venomous bite. Some eels, which resemble snakes but have gills like fish and inhabit rocky crevices, can inflict nonpoisonous bites and should also be avoided.
The Oaxacan land counterpart of the poisonous sea snake is the coral snake (coralillo), which occurs in several species, all with bright multicolored bands that always include red. Although relatively rare, small, and shy, coral snakes occasionally bite, sometimes fatally.
The Gila monster (confined in Mexico to northern Sonora) and its southern tropical relative, the black-with-yellow-spots escorpión, are the world’s only poisonous lizards. Despite its beaded skin and menacing, fleshy appearance, the escorpión (Heloderma horridum) bites only when severely provoked; even then, its venom is rarely, if ever, fatal.
The rest of Oaxaca’s many lizard species are much more benign; some are even endearing. Of them, the iguana, locally called the garrobo, is most popular, mainly because of its tasty flesh. Although usually masked in the bush by its spotted green camouflage, you may glimpse an iguana scurrying, in a flash of green, across the road in front of your car or bus. Despite their fierce dinosaurian aspect, iguanas are peaceful vegetarians, often munching flowers in a favorite treetop.
One of Oaxaca’s most endearing reptilian which was introduced from Europe as a game animal and now lives wild, ranging from South America to central Mexico residents is the gecko, known as guerita (blondie) in the coastal towns and villages where they are common. Visitors usually encounter them in their hotel rooms. If you hear their homey clicking sound (for which residents affectionately call them besucona, the “kissing one”), don’t be alarmed. Quite the contrary, for each room cannot be without its resident gecko to properly cleanse it of gnats and mosquitoes. If your room doesn’t have one, ask the management to find a guerita for you.
The crocodile (cocodrilo or caiman), once prized for its meat and hide, came close to vanishing from Oaxaca’s coastal lagoons until the government stepped in to ensure its survival. Now officially protected, crocodiles are becoming increasingly common in the wild as government and private hatcheries are breeding more for the eventual repopulation of lagoons where they once were common. A coastal crocodile hatchery open for touring is located in Lagunas de Chacahua , west of Puerto Escondido .
Two crocodile species are native to Oaxaca. The true crocodile (Crocodilus acutus) has a narrower snout than its local cousin (Caiman crocodilus fuscus), a type of alligator (lagarto). Although past individuals have been recorded up to 15 feet (five meters) long, wild native crocodiles are usually young and a few feet or less in length.
The story of Mexican sea turtles is similar to that of the crocodiles. They once swarmed ashore on Mexican beaches to lay their eggs. Prized for their meat, eggs, hide, and shell, the turtle populations were severely devastated. Now officially protected, growing numbers of sea turtles are hatching and returning to the sea from Oaxaca’s beaches, thanks to the increasing ranks of eco-volunteers who guard against poachers. Very accessible Oaxaca turtle sanctuaries include the entire Bahías de Huatulco , a pair of home-grown sanctuaries near Puerto Escondido , and especially Mazunte , near Puerto Ángel . There, a government turtle aquarium and hatchery occupies the site of a former turtle processing factory.
Of the four locally occurring species, the olive ridley (tortuga golfina) and the green turtle (tortuga verde) are the most common. From tour boats, sea turtles can often be seen grazing on sea grass offshore from Puerto Escondido , Puerto Ángel , and the Bahías de Huatulco .