The fifth hidden wonder of South America.
By Joshua Foer
Posted Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, at 3:50 PM ET
PACAYA SAMIRIA, Peru—Of all the crazy mythical creatures that starry-eyed monster hunters have gone in search of—the Yeti, Sasquatch, Nessie, the chupacabra—South America’s giant anaconda would seem to be the least implausible. None of the Amazon’s early explorers dared emerge from the forest without a harrowing tale of a face-to-face encounter with a humongous snake. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was practically a requirement of the jungle adventure genre. English explorer Percy Fawcett (of Lost City of Z fame) reportedly shot a 62-foot anaconda in 1907 while on a surveying mission in western Brazil. Cândido Rondon, who led Teddy Roosevelt’s famous journey down the River of Doubt, claimed to have measured a 38-footer “in the flesh.” In 1933, a 100-foot serpent was said to have been machine-gunned by officials from the Brazil-Colombia Boundary Commission. According to witnesses, four men together couldn’t lift its head. The photos, of course, were lost.
Had they been captured alive, any of these giants would have merited the $50,000 bounty that the New York Zoological Society (later the Wildlife Conservation Society) offered for much of the 20th century to anyone who could bring a 30-foot snake back to the Bronx Zoo. Though thousands of anacondas have been caught, measured, and released by scientists over the years, few have ever surpassed 18 feet. Still, stories of Amazonian megasnakes continue to surface every few years, and they continue to inspire credulous souls to set off into the jungle. People like Dylan and me.
We had made our way from Gocta to Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road, to engage in what Loren Coleman, founder of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, has dubbed “cryptotourism,” a form of adventure travel driven by the hunt for creatures that have eluded science. Most cryptotourists are truer believers than we. But that’s almost beside the point. Their expeditions sometimes seem to be as much about finding undiscovered animals as about creating an excuse to get out into some of the wildest places left on earth, to play-act as real explorers. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, for example, coordinates regular Sasquatch hunts not only in the Pacific Northwest, where you might expect the elusive beast to hang out, but also in places like Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia. In some cases, cryptotourism can be quite cushy: One company offers a fully outfitted 18-day Yeti-hunting trek across the Bhutanese Himalayas for a mere $5,450 per person.
More commonly, though, cryptohunters are lone enthusiasts with a genuine mission to prove the world and science wrong. Recently, Mike Warner, a 74-year-old retired lithographer from Lisburn, Northern Ireland, poured his life’s savings into a search for the giant anaconda, first commissioning satellite imagery and then organizing a two-week expedition to the confluence of the Napo and Amazon rivers, east of Iquitos. He returned with an aerial photograph that shows what is either the head of a 120-foot-long serpent or a mudbank.
It’s a fine line between the curious and the kooky. On the Atlas Obscura, which bills itself as a user-generated compendium of “curiosities and esoterica,” we regularly receive postings of haunted houses, “spook lights,” UFO sightings, and countless other products of overheated imaginations. Our editors are supposed to scrape the site of anything that exudes a whiff of the paranormal or supernatural, unless it somehow tells us something legitimately interesting about the world we live in. But as a general rule, we retain a soft spot for cryptozoologists like Warner, who so earnestly wear all the trappings of science while chasing the impossible. In a world in which everything seems to have been explored, they’re among the last people to believe that our planet still holds big, unrevealed secrets. Their pursuits may be naive, but they seem like an awful lot of fun.
Our own half-baked spell as cryptotourists landed us in the boat of Juan Carlos Palomino, a 35-year-old Peruvian ex-commando who once survived for 11 days in the jungle with nothing but his wits and a bowie knife. The grandson of a Nazi who escaped to the jungle after the war, Juan Carlos considers himself part German, part Indian, and something of an elite killing machine. He proudly gave us a guided tour of the half-dozen wounds he acquired in jungle gunfights with drug dealers and Shining Path terrorists. Even before we had broken bread together, he demonstrated the 10 different ways he could kill me with just two fingers.
Juan Carlos claims that his army unit once shot a 40-foot anaconda while on a commando mission deep in the Amazon. He says military brass took the beast—he suspects its bones are hanging on an officer’s wall somewhere—and so his record-breaking catch was never verified. But he is convinced that with financial backing and enough time, he could mount an expedition that would bring back a snake just as big. “I’m 100 percent certain I can find one that tops 30 feet,” he told me. “People have wasted a lot of money looking in the wrong places.”
Juan Carlos agreed to take us on a four-day trip down the Marañón and Samiria rivers, into the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, one of the largest swaths of protected rain forest in the Peruvian Amazon. The Pacaya is prime anaconda country, where every local seems to have a story about the massive serpent that got away. If there is a 30-footer lurking somewhere in South America, this is as likely a spot as any. I told Juan Carlos I’d be happy if we saw even a small one. From a distance.
When big-snake hunters talk about giant anacondas, they seem to be referring to two different beasts: both unlikely, but one more so than the other. To some, the giant snake is simply a bigger, fatter version of Eunectes murinus, the common green anaconda found throughout the Amazon basin. Since snakes, like other reptiles, grow until death, they say it’s not entirely inconceivable that a massive one might someday turn up from the very tail end of the bell curve. Others are chasing an entirely different species: a school-bus-sized monster that can lie dormant in lakes for months or even years at a time, stirring only rarely to gulp down a very big—ideally man-sized—meal. On our travels up- and downriver, in conversations with park rangers and local fisherman, we heard plenty of tales of both.
One night we camped in San Martín de Tipishca, a 600-person Cocama Indian village on the Samiria River, and spent the evening listening to locals recount their snake stories. One was dead certain he’d spotted a 60-footer, half in the water, half out. Another had seen a serpent spit a large bubble of water out of its mouth and knock a bird from the air. An elder from the village explained that the giant anacondas use underground tunnels to move between lakes. Farther downstream, a young boy showed us the spot where he said a giant snake had come crashing through the weeds, startling him and his uncle. Anaconda stories on the Amazon, we quickly learned, are like fish stories in Minnesota: Everyone seems to have a tale of locking eyes with a monster just before it slipped off the riverbank and disappeared—but nobody has ever caught one.
Our own entirely amateurish attempts to net an anaconda took place in the hours before dawn. On several dark and starless nights, Juan Carlos roused us at 3 a.m. to patrol the tributaries of the Samiria in a dugout canoe. We kept our flashlights trained on the prickly shoreside grasses where a snake would be likely to spend the night. Along the banks, the jungle is so thick that in most places, even in daylight, a person would disappear from sight within five steps of the water’s edge. For protection, Juan Carlos carried a 6-foot spiked harpoon in the canoe. Whenever he thought our boat might be nearing a caiman, one of the giant crocodile relatives that are ubiquitous in this part of the Amazon, he made a loud gulping sound with his throat to let the croc know we were coming. Every hundred yards or so, one of our flashlight beams would pass over the sparkling orange reflections of a reptile’s eyes. But none belonging to anacondas.
On the afternoon of our second full day on the water, we arrived at the Ungurahui ranger station, a small, primitive cabin set on the banks of the Samiria, and the only structure for dozens of miles in any direction. When we signed the visitors’ logbook, we saw that the station hadn’t seen a visitor in more than nine months. The rangers were grateful when we pulled a cooler of lukewarm beers from our boat and raised a toast to their solitude.
Over drinks, one of the rangers told us that just a month earlier, while patrolling a nearby lake famous for its 400-pound paiche fish, he’d spotted what he estimated to be a 45-foot-long anaconda. The next morning we set off with him at dawn on a hike through dense jungle. We passed under ficus lianas and wild mango trees, prop-root palms and ceibas with giant buttress roots that stand as tall as three people. When we finally reached the lake, Juan Carlos and the ranger made their way around the perimeter on foot, while we paddled around fruitlessly in a small dugout canoe. The only snake we encountered was a recently molted 2-foot-long emerald tree boa. It turns out that even less-than-giant anacondas are pretty hard to come by.
You might imagine that so much fruitless hunting would prove discouraging, but for cryptozoologists, there’s always just enough evidence to justify the search. They point out—rightly—that weirder creatures than giant snakes have occasionally turned up over the years. Okapis, mountain gorillas, and Komodo dragons were all once considered too fantastic to be real, and the giant squid wasn’t photographed alive until 2004.
In 2009, in Colombia, a group of paleontologists discovered several fossilized vertebrae of a giant 60-million-year-old snake they dubbed Titanoboa cerrejonensis. They figure the entire creature would have been 43 feet long and weighed 2,500 pounds. But they caution against drawing any conclusions about the maximum possible size of a snake today: 60 million years ago, the climate was about 6 degrees warmer and would have been considerably more hospitable to a humungous cold-blooded reptile. Still, for giant snake hunters, the find offered a suggestion of scientific credibility that will no doubt fuel many adventures even more ill-conceived than our own.