Giant anacondas lurk in this Peruvian nature reserve, or so everyone says.

Curious and exotic places.
Feb. 17 2011 3:50 PM

On the Trail of a 40-Foot Anaconda

The fifth hidden wonder of South America.

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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.

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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.

With special thanks to Davarian Hall.

GoPro provided the travelers with some camera equipment free of charge.

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