Before I left the cold, rainy, mountainous city of Cusco, Peru, for the hot, sunny, Amazonian River Basin just 11,200 feet below, I shared a few fears via email with a friend: “I’m terrified of going to the jungle,” I said. “Of tarantulas, and snakes, and of anything that bites.”
My friend wrote back: “You’re like Joan in the movie ‘Romancing the Stone’.”
I had recently watched the ’80′s film, and thought the comparison was appropriate. In the movie, the swashbuckling bird-smuggler, Jack Colton (played by Michael Douglas) teams up with Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), a timid, heel-wearing romance novelist, and has all sorts of adventures in the South American jungle. One memorable scene involves Jack saving Joan from a South American Bushmaster, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. It was a scene that, as a kid, gave me the chills.
I laughed. I wasn’t anything like Joan Wilder! I had left my heels back in Brooklyn, after all, and, in lieu of being led on a whirlwind romance through the jungle by a dashing thief, I’d be guided through the rainforest by a 21-year-old guide wearing a baseball cap.
Looking back, I realize how naive I was. It’s ME after all, and, if something at all was going to happen, it would be bound to happen to me. That’s just the way it works. Some people attract love, money or power. I attract… situations. Particularly ones involving snakes, jellyfish and insects (a severe allergy to bees doesn’t help).
As it ended up, I was to have a few ‘Romancing the Stone’ moments… Below, just one of them.
Imagine waking up in the jungle in your mosquito-netted bed to the chorus of Howler Monkeys, parrots, tree frogs and insects. It’s dark- pitch dark. Something big scrambles over the roof of your bungalow; the heavy click-clacking of its claws lets you know its a big animal. Worse, overhead, there’s a scratchy rustle of cloth: something is moving over your mosquito-netting. You tell yourself that it’s probably a giant cockroach, and pray that it’s not something else. You allow your fingers to scramble around the edges of your bed to ensure that the netting is still securely tucked in: it wouldn’t be much fun to start out your day by letting in a poisonous spider.
Thus describes my first morning at the Inotawa Lodge in the Tambopata rainforest. It was, for lack of a better word, exhilarating. Having dealt with car stereos, gunshots, screaming and drunkards on the streets in the ‘concrete jungle’ of Brooklyn for the past ten years, the early morning sounds of the rainforest were a welcome cacophony.
Slowly, the sun rose over the trees. An orchestra joined the chorus- various species of monkeys, a toucan, a few macaws- and more breeds of parrots than I believed could exist. In this place- it was easy to believe that anything could exist. Excitedly, I lifted the netting over my bed, watched a few striped cockroaches disband, and leapt across the room to wake my daughter.
Five minutes later, my sleepy, albeit excited, pre-teen daughter and I were wandering down the path to the outdoor ‘kitchen’. We jumped over a trail of red army ants (not too dangerous unless you trod upon them or stand in their path, we were told), looked up to see a toucan swoop just ten feet from the ground (their beaks are so heavy that they rarely take anything but short flights up high in the canopy of the trees), and reached our destination.
Immediately, in hanging on one of the wooden beams supporting the kitchen, we saw it. A snake. A HUGE SNAKE. It was hanging by its head, and, while it was obvious that it was dead, it still raised the hairs on my arms.
Our guide found us there, staring. “It’s a South American Bushmaster,” he said. “The deadliest snake on the continent.”
I gulped. “Wh-wh-what’s it doing here?” I asked in my best husky Joan Wilder voice.
“It lived here,” our guide laughed. “Last night we took a group of teens on a walk. The snake went right over one of their feet, then rose up– It could’ve bitten her.”
Apparently, the snake rose up as if to lunge. The guide sent the kids back to the main lodge and, waiting for help, kept the snake at bay with a stick. In the dark.
He had to wait awhile. The other guide who had been with him, in his promise to return with assistance, ended up hiding out in his room, terrified. Eventually, the kids, riding on adrenaline, recruited three others to join their guide. It took the four of them about a half an hour to kill the snake.
Yep, they killed it. While I’m not an advocate for killing any animal (heck, I won’t even kill a mosquito), the South American Bushmaster is a very dangerous animal. The owners of the lodge, who have a four-year-old son who roams the lodge grounds from morning until night, made the call to kill the snake. I can’t say that I blamed them.
The largest venomous snake in the world, the Bushmaster can grow to lengths of 14 feet (although it typically won’t grow much longer than six). The snake doesn’t discriminate much between its pray. Using special heat-sensing organs (it’s a type of pit viper), it will strike at anything warm by lunging at the hottest parts of an animal’s body; typically a human will be struck in his/her midriff, chest or neck. Even if it does strike at the ankle, rubber boots offer little to no protection, as the creature’s inch-long fangs pierce the rubber as easily flesh. Pumping copious amounts of venom deep into its victims, death occurs in just minutes. Terrifyingly, there are reports of these snakes actually pursuing people who disturb them. Can you imagine? Being chased by one of the most poisonous snakes in the world? The horror!
Outside of the jungle, snake experts might tell you that over 80% of people who get bitten by the Bushmaster will die painful and horrible deaths, but the people who we met who grew up in the jungle said that NO ONE dies from this snake. At least, no one who can recognize the vine that offers the anecdote. Our guide, during a medicinal plant walk, pointed out this vine to me, which means that if you ever travel with me to the jungle and get bitten by the Bushmaster, I’ll save you! One of the other guides told us that his grandfather, a shaman, had been bitten not once, but twice. Our guides’ fear of the snake wasn’t of death, but of the severe, debilitating pain a person apparently has while recovering.
“That’s one of the ways you can tell its poisonous,” our guide told us.
We both admired the markings, the shape of its head, even its fangs. We learned how- while not having a rattle like a rattlesnake- the Bushmaster’s tail does end in a horny spike that vibrates when disturbed. The guides that killed the female snake we were studying heard the telltale *rap*rap*rap* of its partner’s tail.
“Wait a minute,” I said, letting this information sink in. “Does this mean that the male is still out there?“
“Yes,” said our guide. “We couldn’t find it.”
Immediately, Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 short story, ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’, came to mind. In that story, Rikki, a valiant, young mongoose, living in a bungalow with a British family in India, protects his friends against a pair of cobras, Nag and Nagaina. When Nag is killed, Nagaina attempts revenge by threatening to bite a child, but Rikki saves the day by killing the malicious snake.
“Do you think the snake will want revenge?” I asked, imagining that the mate of the dead creature at our feet- in mourning for his true love- was plotting a scheme against us all.
“Probably,” our guide joked.
“You never know,” I grumbled.
“Ready to go?” our guide asked.
Oh, right. We were heading out- just the three of us- upriver a ways to go piranha fishing and to learn more about the rainforest, biodiversity and the river basin.
“Do we, um, need to walk through the jungle to get to wherever it is we’re going?” I asked, thinking that perhaps walking through thigh-high grasses and plants weren’t such a good thing when a snake with revenge on its mind was on the loose.
Anevay just rolled her eyes. “C’mon, mama,” she commanded. “Just remember to grab your bug spray.”
Right. Bug spray. Of course. Oh, and I should probably grab sun hats, too, and rain ponchos, and perhaps a couple of snacks, and water, and– and– and–
“You’ll need to be careful out there!” Anevay called back.
“Oh?” I asked, my heart starting to fall into my stomach. “Of what?”
“Oh my!” our guide chimed in.
As it turned out, we WOULD need to be careful. Be that, my friends, is a story for another day…
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about our adventures in Peru, make sure to check out our comprehensive **GUIDE TO A MONTH IN PERU**, in which we cover trips to Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Cusco and other destinations, as well as discuss important vaccinations, travel insurance, flights and budgeting.