Surviving FARC and Pit Vipers: A Journey to the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon Jungle Part 2

Mountain Oceans

In a 3-part series, touching on all 3 of Maciek Tarasin’s expeditions to Chiribiquete, and serialized for ExplorersWeb, the expedition team recount their journey to the legendary “Sistine Chapel” of the Amazon.

In part 1 of the series we joined the expedition on their most recent journey in November 2017. The expedition had accomplished the very first stage of their journey, and with valuable local help they hoped to avoid any confrontations with the remaining FARC fighters in the area. The teams next destination was the Rio Ajaju, where they would once again unpack their rafts and try to make some headway towards the paintings of Chiribiquete.

The team, 3 of whom were returning members from previous efforts to reach the paintings in 2014 and 2015, had good reason to fear FARC. Three years previously on the Rio Tunia, having built a raft out of old tractor tyre tubes and balsa wood, the expedition had experienced their first encounter with the guerrilla group.

Rio Tunia, December 2014

After a few days rafting down the Rio Tunia, the explorers saw a long, yellow, wooden boat with a blue engine. It was occupied by three people; two men and a woman. The boats colour suggested it must have belonged to a Don Leo, the local boss in Jaguara village, their expedition’s starting point. His relationship with the areas guerrillas was not clear, but it seemed obvious that Don Leo was a man with some serious clout.

“Don Leo?” Maciek shouted when the boat was only a few meters away, “How good to see you. We’ve slept at your wife’s, Senor, she makes the best breakfast ever.”

As Maciek’s Spanish was far from perfect, he might have said something that translated more like: “we’ve slept with your wife”. The bulky helmsman was dumbstruck, and the guerrillas almost fell out of the boat laughing. The two boats landed on a nearby sandbank. Here they bombarded the explorers with questions, who were they, what were they doing there, and were they aware that they had entered a guerrilla-controlled area? The team assured them that the expedition was all about nature, ancient paintings and the endemic species of Chiribiquete, with no political motives.

The guerrillas listened to the explanation, lit their cigarettes and told the travelers to wait. They said they would be back the next day to announce the decision of their superiors.

***

Three days later and the guerrillas still had not returned.

“Let’s just go” suggested Michal. Maciek decided to talk to their Indian guide, Camilo. He had experience dealing with the guerrillas in the past. Once, when Camilo was a self-employed gold-digger, the guerrillas had opened fire on his boat at night. Unsurprisingly Camilo shook his head and urged them to wait, it was the first time in a week that he did not smile. In fact, he was always full of laughter. He giggled when piranhas swallowed all his fishing hooks, and for the next week the only food available was rice and ground manioc flour. He howled with laughter when he was unlucky enough to be given a ride by an inebriated bike driver, falling off the bike fourteen times. But for this he remained stony faced and unamused, “Go on without me if you want. I know these FARC people and I do not wish to cross paths with them ever. They are capable of anything”.

Listening to Camilo the others were forced to agree that there was nothing else for them to do but turn back.

A week later, somewhere alongside the dark waters of the Rio Mesai, on the other side of Chiribiquete, Camilo confessed to having heard more than he had shared at the time – the guerrillas had said that if they had continued down the river without their consent, they might have opened fire without warning.

But before the expedition could reach the Mesai, they had to somehow get back to Jaguara. They packed their bags, and after a dozen kilometers of cutting their way through the jungle, they arrived at the village. There they were to arrange transportation to La Macarena. Only nobody wanted to give them a ride.

It was Christmas Eve and Indians from the neighboring villages had come to take part in a soccer championship. The first to kick off were the men. The goal posts were made from bars and the ball was deflated, but the players fought hard. The women played next and the intensity somehow doubled. After the match the celebrations started, with everybody dancing and drinking aniseed aguardiente, a strong liqueur. In Maciek’s opinion an equally disgusting drink has not yet been discovered.

The next day saw the expedition set off on small motorbikes to La Macarena. Where, for the next two weeks, they attempted to reach the rock paintings. It was to no avail however. Their raft leaked and new problems sprang up almost daily. There was nothing for it but turn back.

Rio Cunare, December 2015

Another year later the three of them, without Michal, were back in Colombia. In California they had bought a Soar inflatable canoe, Camilo had installed a little engine and they set off up the Yari and Mesai Rivers, to the springs of the Cunare River. Seeking Indian paintings they descended into a rocky cave. The water dripped slowly down the white rocks, thick vegetation surrounded them.

Suddenly, Maciek jumped up as if stung by a bee. Checking his arm he turned pale and the colour drained from his face. There were two red marks below his elbow.

“I’ve been bitten by a snake. I am going to die. Camilo, am I going to die?” he asked the Indian in Spanish. The Indian did not respond. Instead he searched through the grass. The snake was a meter long, it had silver ruby-stained skin. Camilo swiftly cut off the head with a machete. Keeping the head he dumped the rest of its body into the stream springing from the cave.

Nightmares had haunted Maciek throughout the previous night, in the morning he had found a snake skin in the rainforest, and just a moment before it had been his turn to abseil down onto this rocky ledge, his instincts had screamed danger. Now he was standing among tall, almost vertical rock walls, and sucking the poison out of his forearm, all the time perfectly aware that he was his efforts were in vain. When the fer-de-lance, the most poisonous snake of the Amazon, bit Maciek, he was more than 300 kilometers away from the nearest village. This equated to approximately a five day long trip.

Camilo took from the decapitated snake a white bladder, about the size of a human eyeball. It was filled with a dark substance of some sort.

“Drink it”

“What’s that?”

“Yel”

Maciek drank some of the black liquid. The rest Camilo smeared over the wound. Later he explained that his tribe believed that each animal, with the exception of the tapir, has yel, the cure for snake bites, inside it.

“I prefer to die by the river,” Maciek grabbed his backpack and started down the stream, making its way into the succession of caves. The rocky tunnel was dark and it seemed to him like it was a passage to another world. He was not sure if it would be light or darkness on the other side for him.

After only 50 meters, the path which was supposed to take them to the boat suddenly came to an end. To continue down they needed ropes. The Rio Cunare was waiting for them at the bottom of the precipice.

“Is this it? Is this the end?” Maciek asked Camilo.

“It might be. I don’t know,” Camilo answered.

***

An hour later and they were on the river bank. Earlier, the same route had taken them half a day to cover. They pitched camp on the sandy island in a calm stretch of the Rio Cunare, whose black waters circled around the white sand. At first they couldn’t get any signal. When the satellite phone did finally kick in they managed to send information to Maciek’s fiancée. “Maciek was bitten by a snake. According to Camilo, the snake is called a pelo de gato. Please find out what to expect.”

The wound had started to turn black. Out of his backpack Maciek retrieved a bottle of Hungarian white wine, meant for celebrating Camilo’s 60th birthday, which was in 5 days time.

“Camilo, let me open the bottle today. I’d like to have a drink before I die.” They poured out the wine and sipped.

The phone sprang in to life. The information from Poland was bad. “Pelo de gato is an Indian name for the fer-de-lance snake. The first symptoms appear within 12 hours: paralysis, breathing problems, bleeding from the nose and ears. The venom might be deadly. Under no circumstances should you move or drink alcohol.”

***

Three days later, thanks to invaluable help from friends and family, they were rescued by army helicopters. It’s possible that the snake bit without injecting its venom. Such bites are rare; usually you only have a few hours left to live. Having heard the story about the “antidote” from the snake’s head, the doctors in Bogota hospital were skeptical, “It’s folk magic, but we haven’t really looked into it yet.”

***

Next week, in part 3 of our series, we return to the team’s most recent expedition as they head for the Rio Ajaju and continue their hunt for the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon.

Previous / Links:

A Journey to the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon – Part 1

The River of Traps: A Survival Story

Amazon Explorer Rescued After Pit-Viper Bite

The expedition team for 2017 Maciek Tarasin Michał Dzikowski Shane Young and Dominik Szczepański

"The guerrillas listened to the explanation lit their cigarettes and told the travelers to wait. They said they would be back the next day to announce the decision of their superiors."

Maciek Tarasin organized three expeditions to Chiribiquete. The first was unexpectedly foiled by FARC activity (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). During the second expedition Maciek was bitten by a fer-de-lance a species of highly venomous pit-viper.

About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Saigon based freelance writer. Travelling the world one basketball court at a time.

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