Fabiola Fabbian came to Costa Rica from her native Italy to help her boy friend Lorenzo build a house at the edge of the rain forest. Although she has been living right next to the unique jungle for several months, she has never ventured very far inside.
Andreas Krieger is a wilderness tour guide at a resort hotel in southwestern Costa Rica. The rain forest is a very special place to him and he has lead many groups of Eco-tourists along its familiar trails. Today he is happy to be giving his good friend Fabiola a personal tour of the jungle he knows so well; totally unaware that what is starting out as a perfect day for a pleasant walk in the jungle will soon take an unexpected twist.
Andreas cannot locate his machete and is slightly concerned because it is considered a good practice to carry a machete anytime one ventures into the jungle. However, it is an otherwise perfect day so he decides that if he and Fabiola stay on the well-groomed trails they will be safe. Without hesitation, he places his binoculars around his neck then he and Fabiola descend the steep path into the rain forest.
Once under the jungle canopy, they begin to encounter the abundance of wild life living within the 1200 acres of this tropical rain forest. They both have binoculars to enjoy a close up view of the hundreds of bird species and other animals, which populate the area. At one point, they encounter a rare sight–three different types of monkeys playing in a single tree. They stop for a while to laugh at the crazy antics of the lovable primates then continue pushing deeper into the forest. Along the way they pass several dramatic waterfalls. The cascading showers form pools of fresh cool water creating an excellent place to swim and neutralize the heat of the jungle.
The rain forest of the Osa is among the last remaining wilderness of its kind–a truly wonderful place, but it can be a place of danger as well. As they move deeper into forest Andreas pushes, aside a small spine covered tree for Fabiola and one of the spines slices deep into his finger. This is an omen of things to come.
After about an hour of hiking, Andreas and Fabiola approach a large tree next to the path. Suddenly, Andreas hears a strange rustling sound in the leaves. Instinctively he steps in front of Fabiola to halt her forward progress. The jungle here is a patchwork of bright sunlight and dark shadows so at first the source of the strange sound is not evident to him. He peers intensely into the dimly lit area from where the sound is emanating and in the shadows; he sees the body of a snake. Fabiola does not see the snake, but she reacts in horror when Andreas points out the snake that is slowly moving through the leaves. It is clear that the snake is aware of them as well because it begins smashing its tail into the leaves as if to say, “go away.”
There is no easy way for them to pass around the snake so Andreas suggests that they avoid a risky confrontation and go back the way they came. Fabiola does not wait for a second invitation and she begins retreating but Andreas stands fast, curious to see what the head of the viper looks like so that he can try to identify the species. Methodically he follows the dark black body with his eyes, but it disappears from sight around the tree. This puzzles Andreas, but his dilemma is short lived when he catches sight of a large serpent head rising up several feet beyond the tree. The snake is over 13 feet long with a body in the shape of a triangle three and a half inches wide; a creation straight from “The Devil’s Workshop.” Whatever the species, it is clearly larger than any snake that Andreas has seen in his previous trips into the rain forest.
Andreas stares in awe as the large serpent head slowly rises and turns toward him. Now there can be no doubt that the snake knows that he and Fabiola have invaded its territory and it is not happy about the intrusion. The unexpected close encounter has brought together two humans and a snake, each now being driven by instinct.
Andreas wants to flee, but the creature before him has mesmerized him. Experience has taught him that the simple act of leaving the area of a snake encounter will cause the viper to show little interest, but this snake seems to be the exception to the rule. His senses tell him that something is different about this snake.
Pure instinct is directing Andreas now. He yells at Fabiola to hasten her retreat, and then he turns and begins to move away as well. Too late, the large head of the viper is facing them and the expressionless eyes have made contact with the two human forms now in retreat. Twenty-five feet separate them from the snake–normally a comfortable distance but not this time. Suddenly, as if propelled by some unnatural force, the snake accelerates to attack speed. Fabiola, already running as fast as she can, looses sight of the path where it turns and falls down in the confused growth of the jungle floor. Andreas can only watch as she rolls out of control down an embankment.
Andreas is a physical education teacher in Switzerland, and a very fast runner. On one occasion, I personally watched him outrun a dog in a short sprint on the beach, so it is lucky that the snake continues to pursue him and shows no interest in Fabiola. However, this time Andreas is faced with formidable competition. In just seconds, the snake has eliminated the twenty-five-foot head start as well as the additional thirty feet that Andreas has managed to cover in the same time. With Fabiola down, and the heavy sound of the snake coming from behind him, Andreas knows it is here where he must turn and face the nightmare that pursues him.
For Andreas everything now seems to be happening in slow motion. The snake is coming fast, but with his own senses somehow accelerated Andreas has time to analyze the course of the attacking viper. Time itself seems expanded for him now but even so, the snake is right there only a few feet away and in full pursuit. He is clearly experiencing the full intensity of the attack, and there is no doubt in his mind that he is the target.
With a movement that starts with the grace of a ballet dancer, Andreas spins around. As he spins his hands grasp the straps that hold the binoculars around his neck. He pulls them over his head, and then with all his strength smashes them down squarely on the head of the snake. The serpent receives the full force of the binoculars on his head and immediately falls to the ground. Andreas, his body pumped full of adrenaline, whips the binoculars around in a large arc as if returning a tennis ball. He yells at the snake as the binoculars find their target again. The force of the impact is so great that it causes the binoculars to explode into several pieces. The shoulder strap separates from what is left of the binoculars and it is all that Andreas has left in his hand. Again, the binoculars have struck the head of the serpent, which now lies completely motionless on the ground. Andreas is filled with primal fear, all of his attention is focused on the stunned creature at his feet. The events of the last few moments totally dominate his thinking. For him what has just taken place seems like a nightmare, but fear is a very real emotion, even in a nightmare.
Slowly his fear begins to subside as he comes to the realization that the snake is stunned barely moving. His fear changes to anger toward the serpent that purposely stalked and attacked him. Why was he attacked? He did not bother the snake or even go close, but by its actions, the snake defied all that Andreas had learned about snakes during his many incursions into the rain forest.
In the now silent forest Andreas becomes aware that Fabiola is calling to him. She had fallen below the level of the path and did not witness the attack. She heard Andreas yell his rage at the snake as he struck out at it, but now there is only the silence of the rain forest and the sound of her own pounding heart. Cautiously Andreas releases his attention from the stunned viper and hurries over to aid her. She is scared and shaken, but unhurt. He reaches out to help her up, and her eyes betray the fact that she is happy and relieved that Andreas has survived the attack untouched by the snake.
Andreas is exhausted but he wants to bring the snake back to the lodge. He picks up a nearby stick but the wood is old and full of ants; it crumbles in his hands. He uses his Swiss Army Knife to cut down a small sapling tree, then fashions a forked stick to hold the head of the snake. When he approaches the snake, the viper starts to revive and twist on the ground. It is too risky now to continue this course of action because if the snake recovers Andreas will have little defense against another attack. He decides it is best to leave the area now and return later with his machete.
Andreas and Fabiola leave the snake and return to the tree where earlier they had encountered the monkeys playing. The monkeys have long since moved on, but the two shaken humans sit under the tree to discuss their feelings and vent some of the pent-up emotion. The quiet of the jungle and the calm of the moment are exactly what they need.
After a short rest, they start back to the lodge and continue to relive the events of the recent past. Suddenly without warning, a large light colored snake slithers across the path just in front of them. They both recoil in terror as the serpent quickly flashes past. They stand there stunned while they watch it climb a tree just beyond the path. Now in the dim light of the forest, and the dark recesses of their own imaginations, every vine becomes a snake, and there is a predator in every shadow. The once warm and friendly environment has become a forest of dangers in their minds and now they can only wonder — where might the other vipers be lurking?
Andreas walks Fabiola to her dwelling then returns to the lodge where he excitedly recounts to all in attendance the events of the unusual day. We are all captivated by the story and each of us vows to never venture into the rain forest again without a machete. When he finishes the story Andreas locates a machete and a flashlight then starts back to retrieve the snake.
When he arrives at the spot of the encounter, it is nearly dark so he approaches the area with caution. He finds the broken binoculars so he is sure that he has returned to exactly the right place. He pulls out his flashlight and scans the area, but there is no snake to be found. Could it be in hiding just beyond the tree waiting for another chance to attack him? Suddenly there is a rustling sound in the leaves. With his machete poised for action he spins around to face the danger, but what has just made his heart pound like a jackhammer is only a small harmless green lizard scampering across the leaves.
Darkness finally envelops the rain forest so reluctantly Andreas gives up the search and returns to the lodge. He would have liked to come back with the proof of his nightmare, but it is not to be. The broken binoculars will have to suffice as a symbol of the attack.
For some people, the physical appearance of a snake is at best, unpleasant. Many species are known to bite, and some are venomous. While it is true that not all snakes are dangerous, the thought of being stalked and attacked by a snake, poisonous or not, is for most of us, unimaginable. The snake attack did not dissuade Andreas, or any of us at the lodge from enjoying the magnificent rain forest. He told me that he feels the attack was an isolated event that will never happen again. He continues to take people of all ages into the rain forest, including a woman in her nineties. Andreas has trained his body to move swiftly and gracefully. His physical conditioning and coordination were no doubt his salvation from the snake. He has now spent almost a year in the various jungles of Central America and as I hear him relate the story of the attack for a second time I am aware that if I had been there in place of him I would have had to find another way to avoid becoming a victim of that snake.
If like me, you find this story a bit scary then consider this. Everyday hundreds of people walk the trails of the rain forest and never even encounter a snake. I personally spent months wandering the rain forest trails of the Osa Peninsula, and during that time I have only encountered three small snakes; none of which showed any interest in me–not even the one that I almost stepped on during a rare night excursion. The beauty of a rain forest filled with abundant wild life is something that I feel everyone should experience at least once in his or her life. It is far more beautiful and much less dangerous than the streets of a big citiy.
First published in The Tico Times of Costa Rica in 1993