Three Americans on a crazy expedition cause a sensation in Colombia
June 05, 1960

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 Bogotà 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.

On their 22nd day in the jungle Mark Cantrell tried to split a palm sprout for food. His machete slipped, and he cut his knee. Dr. Gonzalez sewed it up and gave him a shot of penicillin. The next day Mark could not stand up. When he tried to walk he fainted. A tarpaulin was stretched between two poles on the bank of the Guayas River, and Susan and Mark were left there, the villagers and Yates hurrying on.

The Guayas flowed through Puerto Rico to join the Càguan, which flowed into the Amazon. Five villagers built a raft to try to float down the Guayas to Puerto Rico. Within seconds the raft was splintered, but the five somehow got ashore. One villager tried to take a short cut down a cliff to the river, lost his footing, fell and was drowned. His body washed over a 200-foot waterfall. After 35 days in the jungle the 75-year-old Mosquera said he could go no farther. "I am dying," he said calmly, and died.

When the villagers back in Gigante faced the fact that their expedition was lost, they were not quite sure what they ought to do. At last a search party was organized. It consisted of 11 men and one 12-year-old boy.

They made good time, for it was easy to follow the first party. But their food ran out. Their powder got wet, and they could not shoot monkeys for food. They gave up trying to save anyone, and raced toward Puerto Rico to save themselves, living on nuts and berries.

A third party set out. It was a military party of 19 soldiers commanded by a lieutenant. Yates's brown dog, Smokey, was taken along to help find the trail. But the soldiers were soon lost in turn. Sickness overcame them, and they holed up in a cave on the slope. When their food ran out, they ate Smokey. Eventually they were saved by planes.

After leaving the Cantrells the first party moved on down the Guayas. On the 36th day after leaving Gigante, Dr. Gonzalez heard a dog bark. He came upon a thatched hut by the riverbank, borrowed a dugout and reached Puerto Rico with four of the party. Next day the remainder straggled in. The day following that, the first rescue party of 11 men and small boy arrived.

A group of jungle-hardened villagers of Puerto Rico now started back to look for the Cantrells. After three weeks alone in the jungle Mark and Susan Cantrell saw a grim-looking party coming up the river. The two Americans were still surprisingly trim, almost well-groomed, and in better shape than the weary men who found them. Trees were felled to make a platform on which a helicopter could land, and 44 days after leaving Gigante the Cantrells were flown out. They were whisked to Gigante for a great welcoming celebration.

They showed surprisingly little enthusiasm for it. As their photographs were blazoned on the front pages of the newspapers, a shopkeeper in Bogotà gave a start of surprise and hurried to the headquarters of the secret police. There he said that the picture was not of Mark Cantrell. It was of Mark Shepherd. Shepherd had bought an emerald in his store, using his credit card. Then it turned out that credit regulations confused the purchase, and there was much trouble.

Meanwhile, Mark and Susan were shaking hands with all the other survivors in Gigante's main plaza. An emotional speech was directed to them from a balcony. When they retreated to Yates's house the secret police arrived. They searched Yates's house, and questioned the Cantrells. Mark and Susan quietly caught a bus to Bogotà. Said Yates, "The next time an American couple comes to town with a donkey, I am going to demand to see their papers."

The Cantrells checked into a Bogotà hotel, slipped out past a sleeping sentry in the lobby at 4 a.m., caught a train to Puerto Salgar, bought a dugout and began paddling down the Magdalena in the direction of Barranquilla 500 miles away, with police launches in pursuit. Reporters intervened and smuggled them back to Bogotà. There a famed liberal lawyer demanded to know why the police were persecuting them. The answer was that the police chased them because they ran. Said one cop thoughtfully, "We do not know why we are pursuing the Cantrells."

Back in public view, Mark and Susan were kept busy with television and radio appearances, although Mark said, with evident sincerity:

"Publicity is the last thing I want." In a burst of candor, he admitted there had been a little trouble about an automobile in Houston, Texas. There was talk also about his involvement with a St. Louis schoolteacher, a dancer on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and several others. As for the question of names, Susan's was Cantrell: she was born in Russia in 1932, the daughter of an American engineer. "I guess I'm an international adventurer," Mark said. "A fellow like myself usually doesn't have the proper papers."

These disclosures didn't shock the people. Mark and Susan Cantrell are more popular now than they were when they emerged from the jungle. If in Gigante there is no longer any enthusiasm for a road leading to enchanted valleys beyond the mountains, there is at least one person in Colombia who still savors the events of the past few weeks. "It was like a dinner where you eat too much," Susan Cantrell said. "You are sorry for about 20 minutes, but you get over that, and you enjoyed the dinner."

MAPPARTY WAS LOST in region between Gigante and Puerto Rico. Map also shows Americans' route as they fled police, publicity and the past after being rescued.
MILES 0 100 200 300
Magdalena River
smuggled back by reporters
on foot
Caguàn River