I suddenly realized it had been a very long day, and fear stole my breath. We were passing around a few beers on a break from a night of snake searching in the jungle, and as I got to know this crew of “snake guys” – a group of biology majors from San Jose University – Jonny’s campfire-like tales spooked me through as the cerveza settled my wits:
“We’ve found 14 species here, but we know there’s a lot more. Last night we saw a tercio THIS BIG, 1.7 meters, and his head was like THAT,” he tells me, making a pear-sized spade with his hands. “It was the fourth one we’ve found. I’m sure we’ll find one tonight.
“Ah Maiy, the Most Venomous? That would be the Mexican Jumping Viper.”
Alan, with long hair, glasses, and a stereotypical Mexican accent, interjects, “¡El JYomping Viper de México!”
Jonny continues, “Los Caballeros find them in cracks in the desert, and are usually so far out that if they’re bitten they are dead. With the Jumping Viper you’re dead in less than an hour. I don’t even think there’s an antidote.
“Now, the tercios are definitely the most aggressive. If you step near them like that they will coil up and get ready to bite. I’ve had one chase me down the trail before. Usually you won’t die – here you won’t. You have like four hours to get to the hospital and we could get there in time from here. But you won’t be the same. Their venom eats the tissue. Maiy if you’re bitten in the toe or foot, you’ll be fine, they might cut off your foot. My uncle, he walks with a dead foot because he was bitten by a tercio and it destroyed his tissue. In the finger you might lose use of your hand, in the leg or torso, chuta, Maiy, forget about it.
“But the most dangerous, the most powerful, se llama el Matabuey. “The Ox Killer.” They aren’t as venomous as a tercio, but they get big, and when they’re bigger they have more venom. When a Matabuey bites, they inject all of it. That’s why they can kill a cow – ”
“¿De veras, Maiy, El Matabuey mata las vacas? (Oh really? The Ox Killer kills cows?),” Alan interjects again.
“So in the 80s when all the cows came here to Costa Rica many were killed by el Matabuey. So they started killing them all. Maiy, ¡they killed thousands! For fear. When they’d start a new ranch they would go around killing all the snakes just to kill the Matabuey. Maiy, on Facebook I just saw a friend posted a picture. It was a Matabuey and he wrote: ‘My mom killed this today in fear.’ And I was like, ‘No, Maiy, ahhhhhh…”
The group sighs in consolation. I am a bit dizzy in all the imagery, fatigue, and spirits.
“The worst part? He said it measured 3.1 meters. That’s like the biggest on record here.”
“I would go crazy to see a Matabuey. But I doubt I ever will. There’s so few left. Shame.”
I had to sit down. These guys invited us to tag along on their weekend-ly snake outings to measure the biodiversity at the Qubrada Gonzalez sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park. We had just arrived that evening so I did not know the lay of the land nor the extent of the trails. I didn’t know that we would be out until far past midnight, hiking through the streambeds in the canyon below. I didn’t sleep at all last night. I hadn’t really drank in months due to my kidney-destroying anti-parasite treatment and my evening of a couple beers really hit me. I went and sat down next to Shay, in a haze. I am used to these adventures, have been hiking alone in the night through the jungle and usually dismiss the risks as statistics and play the odds (see: “who actually gets leishmaniasis”). But for some reason, now, I was really afraid. And I didn’t like that.
Part of the reason I was scared is because Shay has told me on several occasions she’d run into a terciopelo (fur-de-lance) on the trail while working on the Antbird project. She said they had gotten close because they hide under dead palms and are well-camouflaged. That was during the day. Now at night, wearing my sweaty glasses and walking like Captain Jack Sparrow on boozed-up, tired bones, I summoned all my will power to analyze my situation and really focus on the situation I had gotten myself into.
“I’m scared. I’m kinda freaking out,” I whispered to Shalynn, as the guys were getting ready to keep on.
“Oh you’ll be fine.”
She was right. Once we were off again I left my fear behind and assumed the role of the cameraman. Through my blurry, 3 inch LCD screen I was sure I wouldn’t spot any snakes, but I would get them on video. My camera followed the guys and saw frogs, toads, and a few snakes, and it was entirely exhilarating to get to know them and this piece of land, looking for El Matabuey.