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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Click here to launch a slide show on the search for giant anacondas.

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.

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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."

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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.