Skip to main content
Original Issue

Adventure on the Serpent River

In the wild and primitive jungles of southern Mexico hunters are discovering a unique outdoor experience

Each year half a million Americans travel south to Mexico, a vacationland of big fish and bullfights, exotic beaches and ancient ruins. Some come to relax in the winter sun or to wander through quaint Spanish villages; others to troll the waters of the blue Pacific or the inlets along the Gulf. A growing number of them come each season to hunt Mexico's abundant game—jaguars, ocelots, javelinas and myriads of waterfowl—and a few of them are now discovering a new kind of outdoor adventure in the wilderness pictured on these pages. For this is the forgotten part of Mexico, a primitive and forbidding jungle known as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which separates the country's plains and mountains from the peninsula of Yucatan.

A great river flows through the Isthmus, springing from the mountains of Chimalapa on the Pacific Coast, and winding like a giant serpent to the Gulf of Mexico on the east. The Coatzacoalcos, which indeed means the sanctuary of the serpent in the language of the Nahuatlan Indians, forms the only access to the rain forests of Tehuantepec. It is a hostile, and mainly uncharted, river. Rapids course over rock-studded shoals, crocodiles linger in brush-shrouded eddies and from the banks a massive wall of growth rises skyward to block out the sun.

On a spring day, when mists rose steaming from the yellow water, my husband Bob Grimm and I followed this river into the jungles of Tehuantepec. We wanted to explore as well as to hunt this wild and lonely part of Mexico. But from our first correspondence with Mexico City Outfitter Tex Purvis, who provided us with our guides and camp equipment, we knew that this was not to be a hunting safari in the ordinary sense.

The game which does exist in the rain forests of Tehuantepec is widely scattered and far less abundant than in central and northern Mexico. A sportsman must hunt long hours under primitive and indescribably difficult physical conditions even to find game, and when he does often the trophy is inferior to that he might encounter farther north. But the challenge of this kind of hunting is perhaps the most exciting—and exacting—left on the continent. It is the same kind of challenge which for centuries has lured adventurers into unmapped wildernesses and mountaineers to the tops of unclimbed peaks. For Bob and me the prospect of exploring Tehuantepec's wild and primitive jungles was far more intriguing than the game we might ultimately bag. In fact, as far as both of us were concerned, any trophy would really be a bonus at the end of a unique experience.

Our crew—Purvis' guide Floyd Cranfill, his assistant, 17-year-old George Johansen, and a handful of natives—met us at the airport in Minatitlàn, 325 miles south of Mexico City. From Minatitlàn we headed inland by truck to Jesus Carranza (see map), the last town of any size on the Coatzacoalcos. Here we were to pick up our dugout canoes for the river journey and, we hoped, locate a few more natives for our "staff." This was a greater problem than we anticipated. Most of the natives, it seemed, were afraid to join our expedition when they heard we were headed for the interior of Tehuantepec. According to Indian legend, this area is ruled by a jaguar god who does not welcome intruders.

Assisted by a handful of American dollars, however, we finally persuaded four of the natives (including a cook) to join us, purchased additional provisions and loaded the canoes with gear, tents, guns, ammunition, four bedraggled-looking hounds and several bottles of Mexican gin, rum and brandy, which we bought locally for 35¢, 59¢ and 80¢ per bottle respectively. A gathering of smiling, waving Indians shouted in chorus as we pushed the canoes from shore. The long journey up the Coatzacoalcos at last had begun.

On the banks of the big river, low marshes turned to steep, tree-covered inclines. The heady scent of tropical vegetation hung heavy in the air. Everywhere fertility was rampant. Green sprouted from black oily soil, on branches and bushes. In the scattered villages along the shore, bare-breasted women heavy with child washed naked toddlers in the water. Nearby, swollen mares grazed along the banks. Brilliantly colored birds sat on nests, and a pregnant monkey watched us from a tree.

We felt immediately, too, the wild loneliness of this land. Back home—in New York, Chicago or San Francisco—it is impossible to imagine how far away from civilization a hundred miles can be. Jungle distance is measured in days, and seasons by the rise and fall of the river. Life, too, is measured in seasons.

It was evening when the shadowy outlines of the last huts on the big river loomed above us in the darkness. The banks were steep now and scraped smooth by centuries of tides. Crude footholds led upward to half a dozen thatched huts. Before them, surrounded by skinny pigs and an aging ox, the village populace watched our approach in fascination. Strangers rarely travel this far upriver.

A small, wiry Indian separated himself from the others and climbed down the bank to our canoes. Soon the men of the village followed, and behind them, more hesitantly, came several little boys. While Floyd spoke with the Indian who seemed the leader, the children crept closer to Bob and me, their curiosity about our guns and cameras overriding their initial suspicion. In high-school Spanish I asked the closest little boy his name. The question sent all of the children scurrying from us in terror. Only then did I remember that women, here as in many Mexican-Indian communities, are separated socially from men. The children were unprepared for a woman's voice in this masculine caravan.

On the second day, with four more Indians we had picked up at this village, we left the main Coatzacoalcos and followed an uncharted branch of the river. On a sandspit left by last year's floods we pitched permanent camp, moored the dugouts and built pits in which to cook.

We had brought vast quantities of bottled soda with us—our most valued provision in the tropic heat—cans of staples and a large bag of black beans. We were dependent upon the jungle to yield meat and fowl. Fish could be gathered from the river by dropping crude dynamite grenades into the water, then swimming frantically against the current to retrieve the stunned fish on the surface. From the trees we shot iguanas, grotesque survivors of a prehistoric age, and quartered the bland-tasting, white lizard meat into stews.

From this sand-bar camp, home and headquarters for the next 10 days, we now began to explore the utterly wild and trackless area which surrounded us. This was a hilly jungle, its slopes crowded with mangoes, zapotes, banana trees and giant mahoganies. Fifty yards from the river, even at noon, only a dim evening glow filtered through the tangled growth and across the narrow vine-covered valleys.

On our first trip we realized how implacable an opponent the jungle could be. Travel through this kind of vegetation was slow and discouraging. In single file we struggled up and down the endless miles of virgin bush, looking for signs of deer, javelina or cat. The hounds we had brought with us were practically useless for much of the hunting. We could neither maintain their pace nor keep track of their whereabouts in the dense growth. And every bush seemed covered with thorns, which ripped at our clothing and skin, ensnared our packs and made each step a major effort.

One afternoon we tried using the dogs to flush game on a small island upstream from our camp. Stationing ourselves on three sides of the island, we waited expectantly while a native started the dogs off from the fourth. They were on scent almost immediately. As they set up a cry, I could hear what sounded like a very large animal thundering through the growth directly toward me. It was trampling down small trees and bushes with a giant's fury.

I raised my gun and waited, my heart pounding. Abruptly, the animal changed course. With a howl, the dogs broke into the clearing where I stood, realized their error too late and disappeared again into the bushes. From the right I heard a shot, then another. There was a pause, and then a third, much louder shot.

I raced through the bushes toward the sound of the shooting. Floyd came running from his position. In a small clearing we found Bob, standing next to about 500 pounds of rhinoceroslike animal, an uncertain expression on his face.

"I don't know what it is," he mumbled, "but whatever it is, it came out of the bushes right at me. My first two shots didn't even slow it up."

Floyd laughed. "It's a tapir," he said, "and I bet it was a lot more surprised than you. You seem to have done all right with that last shot though."

"Both of them," Bob said with embarrassment. "I guess in the excitement I forgot to push off the safety after reloading. By the time I realized why the gun hadn't gone off, this thing was practically on top of me. I just pulled both triggers and prayed."

Each adventure, like this, was different and unpredictable. With each we discovered still another facet of the vast, wild country around us. In the days that followed, the exhaustion we had suffered upon our first hunts was gradually forgotten as the jungle enchanted us with its particular magic. We found ourselves eager to reach the next hill, to explore the next valley. Every stream held the promise of excitement and of the unexpected on the other side. Forays from camp stretched into 16- and 20-hour expeditions in which we walked 10 and 12 miles without complaint. Sleep became a necessary but unwelcome interruption.

The land around us was populated with deer, javelina, ocelot and multitudes of game birds. But the prize we wanted most and worked the hardest for was jaguar—the big cat. The suspense of hunting him, especially at night, produced our most exciting moments.

At times we stalked him through the hot, dark bush: at other times we tried unsuccessfully to track him with dogs. Sometimes we crouched long hours in a tree blind, hoping to lure him to us with an animal call, but most often we drifted in the dark of night along the river's watery edge where cats came to drink.

Hunting with head lamps at night is customary in much of Mexico. In dense jungle such as this it is probably the most feasible method but, as in all hunting, luck plays a major role. On several occasions we found tracks at the river's edge made moments before we arrived. Once we found a kill, still warm, but again we were too late.

One evening, with only young George and a native to pole the canoe, I went after the jaguar on my own. Huddled in the bottom of the boat, George and I played our head lamps along the shore, looking for the glow of eyes in the dark. Suddenly, in the yellow circle of light, twin flares flickered like rubies on a jeweler's black velvet. They had to be cat's eyes. I pointed my gun into the darkness just beneath the eyes and fired. There was an angry snarl, the sound of thrashing bushes and then a splash as a heavy body hit the water. In the beam of my light an animal struggled to regain the bank, a dark circle spilling around it in the water.

Even at a distance, I could see it was not a jaguar. It looked more like an overstuffed skunk.

"Tepeizcuinte," George said. "Not very good to eat but it's better than fish."

This was the closest I came to meeting the big cat of the jungle. Nor did I encounter the awesome serpents of the Coatzacoalcos, which intrigued the natives almost as much as their jaguar god. Like any tropical region, this part of the Tehuantepec jungle had its share of reptiles, many of them poisonous, but, as in most snake country, the greatest part of its danger existed in our imaginations. Mine usually worked overtime, especially on certain occasions.

As the only woman in an all-male, plumbingless camp, I had to make some trips into the jungle alone. At night these really scared me. I would postpone the trip as long as possible, then tiptoe gingerly from camp, suspicious of every bush and tree, with a flashlight in one hand and Floyd's .38 in the other. I don't know why I carried the .38, because I couldn't have hit a fer-de-lance at five paces with it, but it made me feel better.

Only young George was sympathetic. And he decided to do something about it. One day he led me a short distance up the 70° incline of jungle wall behind camp and with the pride of an artist showed me a strange-looking tepee of saplings and elephant leaves which he had built while we were out hunting.

"Mademoiselle," he said with a flourish, "your 'YC.' "

"My what?" I asked in dismay.

"Your YC. You know, ladies' room. Now you won't have to go into the jungle alone any more."

It was a touching gift, and for a moment I thought my problem was really solved. But, unfortunately, George had made a small error. His structure was perched directly over a nest of bees.

Besides this brief encounter with bees, mosquitoes and gnats gave us the most trouble. Not only were their appetites insatiable but they actually seemed to enjoy our insect repellent. In desperation Bob tried a rubdown with some of our 35¢ Mexican gin (it had a taste, we thought, which should repel any living thing), and to our amazement we discovered that indeed it did—the mosquitoes didn't like it any better than we! Although we wound up smelling like Martinis, from that point on we were rarely bothered by insects. And we never missed the Mexican gin.

Actually, we found that the jungle heat, which sometimes reached 120°, took away most of our taste for liquor. Our appetites, on the other hand, never suffered. This is surprising, because the "cook" we'd enlisted in Jes√∫s Carranza—references unknown—must unquestionably have had another very different profession before joining us. He seemed dedicated to mutilating everything he touched.

Even so, it was pretty difficult to spoil the taste of faisàn real, a huge, native pheasant which nests in the trees, or the delicate flavor of temazate, the small jungle deer which inhabit this area. Primarily we hunted this game for food. For sport, we found javelina more difficult and more exciting to track.

One particular hunt stands out in memory. It was our last day in the jungle and we had decided to make it a fairly quiet one when the hounds raised a pack of javelina not far from camp. As always, the job of keeping up with them was practically impossible. The trail led out of a valley and started upward, brush growing heavier as we climbed. In the distance, the low-pitched wail of the dogs told us that the trail was still fresh but that the pigs were moving fast. The natives swung their machetes in short, rapid strokes, slashing down vines and branches as they worked to clear a crude trail for us to follow through the dense growth.

Then far ahead of us we heard the hounds break into full bellow. They had the javelinas in sight at last. As if on signal, the natives stopped chopping and darted toward the sound of the commotion.

Before I could realize what was happening, I was completely alone. In every direction the jungle loomed forbiddingly above me in a solid wall of green.

There is a time in fear when suddenly all sound stops. My breathing, it seemed, stopped too. In the jungle heat I was cold, and I think I was as close to experiencing real panic as I have ever come.

Then the silence was broken by a distant bark. Birds began to sing again. Insects chirped. Twigs fell from trees and somewhere on my left I heard the sound of trickling water. The moment of terror was over. Imitating the crouched movement of the natives, I started through the tangled vines and trees toward the dogs. In a few minutes I came upon Bob, picking his way through a dark thicket. I'd probably been within shouting distance of him all along. Together we caught up to Floyd and the natives.

The pigs were circling, with the dogs close behind. Over the din of barking, we could hear them racing toward us through the low bush. Not more than 40 feet away a channel of foliage began to quiver, as first one and then another animal tore through it. We held our fire. There was no way of telling whether the movement was dog or pig. Floyd signaled us to get up on a log in case the pigs broke out in our direction. Although javelina in this area rarely go over 50 pounds, they can still be dangerous to a hunter on foot, particularly when they are being chased in a pack through heavy bush. Their sharp tusks can slash through a boot or trouser leg as cleanly as a fine-honed razor.

As the noise of the chase died off, Bob scrambled to a better position, hoping the javelina would circle again. This time they were being chased toward a clearing directly in front of us. Again the noise grew loud, and over it Floyd shouted, "Watch your feet!" Bob fired as a streak of brown flashed across the clearing. The animal faltered, then dropped with a grunt at the edge of the bush. In an instant the dogs were on top of it, the other pigs forgotten in the excitement.

The javelina hunt was over, and with it our jungle adventure. We broke camp the next morning and began the trip down river and back to civilization. The safari had been a hard one, made more so by the primitive conditions under which we had camped. The hunting itself had been as rugged as any we had ever done, and we considered ourselves well rewarded with the trophies we had. We regretted the lack of only one—the jaguar. That wild and elusive cat still haunts our memories of the magnificent wilderness along the Coatzacoalcos, and if someday we should ever go back again, it will be because the jaguar, the native's god of the serpent river, is still its most challenging prize.



EMERGING FROM JUNGLE, Guide Floyd Cranfill (left), Bob Grimm and author begin descent down steep bank of Coatzacoalcos River to waiting canoe.



JOURNEYING UPRIVER in dugout canoe crowded with firearms and equipment for the hunt, author and husband take time out for napping and reading.



PATIENT HUNT for jaguar, the jungle's prize, was continuous but always in vain.


SERPENT RIVER coils through roadless jungle of Tehuantepec to Gulf of Mexico.