In search of an anaconda in Peru

Longer stuff
May 20, 2014

As I woke on my first morning on the Amazon, blinking through the fug of last night’s pisco sours, strange, fleshy dolphins broke the waters around my boat. Local folk-tales claim these creatures used to be human, and sometimes take human form again to steal young boys and girls.

Unperturbed, storks perched precariously on piles of floating driftwood, peering through the floor-to-ceiling glass of my floating suite. It was 5am and the rainforest had been awake for hours. Spider monkeys leapt through the canopy, kingfishers scanned the water’s surface and sloths… well, they didn’t do much of anything. But this trip wasn’t about sloths. I had come to look into the reptilian eyes of an anaconda.

My journey began in Iquitos, a remote colonial city that’s only accessible by plane, or a very, very long boat ride. From there I followed the Amazon to the Ucayali river, its largest tributary, before looping back.

One of the great joys of being in such an isolated, unexplored corner of the world is being able to soak in the sheer size of the place – you can travel for days and feel like you’ve made no progress at all, the forest and its river unfolding ad infinitum ahead of you. This is the primordial sludge from which crawled countless species that exist nowhere but this jungle – many of them never seen by human eyes. Every day I’d sit on deck, drinking coffee and watching the endless green expanse drift by.

Once or twice a day I’d board a small boat – skiff – that would be my carriage into the depths of the jungle. From there I embarked on brisk marches on foot, gawping at beetles the size of my fist and termite nests that towered over my head. You’d be well advised to go trekking in the morning, when the mosquitos are still groggy from the previous night’s feasting; later in the afternoon they’re ferocious and no amount of Deet will deter them.

My guide, a local from a now disbanded tribe, suggested a spot of fishing. The catch of the day: piranha. The rivers are thick with them – up to 60 different species – although very few will attack a human. Not a live one, anyway. For bait I used strips of raw beef, off-cuttings from the previous night’s dinner. Using a bamboo rod I cast my line and waited. One girl in my group obviously knew something I didn’t, pulling up a piranha after piranha – bright orange things with a ferocious overbites with razor-sharp teeth, snapping all the way up. She’d reel them in, unhook them and toss them back like it was nothing. Every time my line tightened I’d pull it up to find the meat stripped away and a gleaming, empty hook. Eventually I landed a mean looking specimen that snapped menacingly until it was returned it to the water.

Next up: swimming. Ha! Very funny. But no, really: swimming. “The piranha won’t bite you,” said my guide. “It’s the ghost fish you should be worried about, but you don’t tend to find them in this stretch of river…” The ghost fish is a particularly unpleasant creature; less than a millimetre wide it is said, perhaps apocryphally, to swim up your urethra and hook onto you bladder, causing intense pain and eventually death. Very reassuring. Swimming, however, was one of the highlights of the trip; the water is thick as soup and warm as a jacuzzi. Once you’re underwater you can’t see your hand in front of your face and if you dive more than a couple of metres below the surface everything goes inky black and icy cold; I was too much of a coward to probe any further under – who knows what’s down there.

At night the river is more alive than ever. Crickets and frogs chirrup and riddup at each other, and unknown beasts crash through the canopy overhead. We took the skiff up several winding tributaries, the boat brushing up against thickets of reeds where frogs in shades of neon and leopard print hopped from leaf to leaf and rainbow-coloured bugs darted from the glare of the flashlight. Tonight I was looking for something bigger, though: a cayman.

Finding one is easy – shine a torch at the river bank and every now and then you’ll see a pair of amber dots wink back at you. Evolution may have bestowed the cayman with an armoured hide but it didn’t anticipate the invention of the flashlight. Actually catching one is trickier. Their instinct is to remain still until the last possible moment, meaning you can approach them, but even the relatively small specimen I found put up a hell of a fight once it realised the game was up. Once the guide had a firm grasp of it, it relaxed somewhat, regarding me with a casual malice, before it was set back in the river; one swipe of its tail and it vanished under the murky water.

But three days of searching had failed to yield an anaconda, or any snakes for that matter. On the final afternoon I sped past wildlife that had seemed fascinating only days ago.

It was looking bleak. My guide was hopping on and off the boat, exploring likely hiding spots, kicking forlornly at rotting logs and piles of damp reeds. We were about to head back when he became transfixed by a patch of river bank that looked exactly like every other inch of river bank. “Anaconda. Big one,” he whispered. Two other skiffs – and, crucially, two other guides – swung in; it takes more than one person to catch an anaconda and I wasn’t about to volunteer.

Two of them jumped onto the bank and thrust their hands into an innocuous-looking pile of leaves, emerging with a gigantic mouth bearing stubby, hooked fangs (anaconda are non-venomous, the fangs are used to keep you close while it crushes the life out of you). They slowly hauled its sinewy, glossy bulk from the water, the thing hissing and thrashing like an angry cat. Once three guides had supported its weight – it was three and a half metres long, around half the length of a truly massive specimen – I leaned in for the obligatory triumphant photograph before it was released, unscathed, into the water.

At least that was the plan – the snake had other ideas. Instead of gliding off into the Amazon, it made a bee-line for the skiff, leaving me with the unenviable choice of remaining on the vessel with the enraged snake, or jumping into the water from which we had just fished a 3.5 metre anaconda, neither of which seemed very appealing. It was livid; this was its revenge. At the last second a guide dived from the bank and knocked it off course into the river, where it promptly vanished.

The last night on the boat was spent the same way as the first, celebrating with Peru’s national drink.

First published in City A.M.