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June 06, 1960
Three Americans on a crazy expedition cause a sensation in Colombia
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June 06, 1960

Fun, Games And Death In The Andes

Three Americans on a crazy expedition cause a sensation in Colombia

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The classic adventure story of our time is really a tale of misadventure. Some inexperienced vacationers become trapped in inaccessible terrain, and most of the local manpower is required to bring them down from the mountains or tote them out of the woods. In Colombia, at the moment, the country is enthralled by a story of jungle rescue to end all such stories—almost an epic of inexperience—involving a young American couple who lightheartedly joined a group of natives on an expedition into the country east of the Andes.

The Americans were Mark and Susan Cantrell, handsome, self-possessed, good-natured young people, who first entered the picture sauntering upstream along the Magdalena River, their light luggage strapped on a pregnant donkey. They said they were going to look for a night-flying bird called the guacharo during their vacation in Colombia.

About 185 miles from Bogot� the Magdalena curves through rich grazing country to the old town of Gigante, and the Cantrells left the riverbank and walked three miles into the city, where they ran into a situation that promised more excitement and interest than could be found in nocturnal bird watching.

The next week a Gigante-backed-and-financed expedition was to cross the 9,000-foot-high Miraflores Range to the east. This expedition was the dream of Mayor Humberto Avecedo Falla of Gigante. For years people had talked about two wonderful valleys that were supposed to lie just over the mountains. Why shouldn't the villagers cut their own trail to the fertile region where there would be acres enough for every farmer?

Living in Gigante was a stocky, 34-year-old American lumberman named Edward Yates, who operated a sawmill near by. Yates made the American strangers welcome, and Gigante was electrified to learn that all three were interested in the great project for opening up the unknown valleys. Now, the townspeople assured one another, the project was bound to succeed. Machete-swingers were hired to cut the trail, and old Vincente Mosquera, who had crossed the mountains with cinchona bark cutters 50 years before, signed on as guide. Mayor Avecedo, sincere and idealistic, would lead the expedition in person. Dr. Victorino Gonzalez, the local physician, was to be on hand to care for the health of all. Nothing was left to chance. Food for 12 days was to be carried, even though it would take only six days to reach the tiny settlement of Puerto Rico, and the valleys were between Puerto Rico and Gigante.

So the whole of Gigante stirred with pleased laughter and excitement on the Monday morning in March when the expedition set out. The jeeps bounced over the bumpy roads as far as Yates's sawmill, where the party spent the first night. Then the roads were left behind, and the expedition began to climb the mountains.

The old trail was found quickly enough, and Mosquera was sure this was the way he had come gathering bark in his youth. But the regrowth of the low Andean forest was almost impenetrable. The party threaded through innumerable mountain streams, crossing and recrossing. They waded through deep herbaceous plants and ferns, the villagers cutting the heavy, resilient strands matted between the tree trunks.

Susan Cantrell kept up with the men. She was neatly groomed, and lithe and graceful, and so uncomplaining that Mayor Avecedo got into the habit of speeding up stragglers by saying, "If the gringa can do it, so can you."

After six days, when they should have been drawing near Puerto Rico, there was no sign of any settlement. Four days later, the food supply was low. In another two days, it was exhausted. Over a small transistor radio set, the expedition heard broadcasts expressing alarm for their safety. Then they heard planes of the Colombia Air Force overhead, but they could not make their presence known.

They were now eating palm nuts, the pods of cacao palms and the berries of a kind of nettle. One after another they began to suffer from diarrhea, beri-beri, infected ant bites and inflamed scratches from underbrush. Fungus attacked their feet. Their clothing rotted from the humidity. They began eating monkeys and snakes. Sometimes machetes were drawn as the meat was being divided.

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