Travel and adventures of an English woman in Latin America

Violet Cressy-Marcks

Violet Cressy-Marcks was fearless when faced with physical threats. She had already been trekking from Cape to Cairo and had sleighed across the icy fields to Murmansk before going to the rivers and swamps of South America in 1929. In the Amazon she was woken by a snake which bit her below the knee. She grabbed the snake below the head, crawled out from under her mosquito net and went to find a rock to smash the snake’s head. Then proceeded to use a scalpel to cut across the bite, pushing a tablet of permanganate of potash.

She travelled around the world many times using all means of transport, from sleigh to canoe, horses, motor car and her own feet. Her extensive interests included archaeology, zoology, ethnology and geography. “Up the Amazon and over the Andes” was the first of her books describing her trips. She was a reporter in Chungking (China) for the Daily Express from 1943 to 1945 and interviewed Mao Tse-tung in his Red Army base camp. After the war her journeys became less strenuous. She became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Zoological Society although she was primarily an archaeologist. Violet Cressy-Marcks faced all kinds of difficulties with courage. She was a dedicated traveller and proved that women could achieve high goals at the same level or in some cases higher than men.


The Mouth of the Amazon was first discovered on 26th January, 1500, by Vincente Yanez Pinzon. Orellana (Francisco de) was the first to sail down the river, and reached the sea on the 26th August, 1541. The story of his and Pizarro’s expedition, the breaking up of the party and their return back to Spain by their amazing and unknown routes, was one of the most wonderful feats of endurance and of tropical exploration in the history of the world.

Orellana, after returning to Spain, revived the old story of Herodotus that there was a wonderful tribe of female warriors, who had made his passage dangerous, hence Rio Amazonas. This name was also given by Diodoro de Sicilia to the heroines of Cappadocia, who inhabited the borders of Thermodon, sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ.

The Greek legend of young women warriors who had their right breasts amputated in order to carry implements of war, African women, bound to each other by chains and oaths of chastity, and in histories of the eighth century that women soldiers were used by Wlasta, are some of the stories that have helped in applying the word to women who are brave fighters and of manly appearance. Marvellous reports of the gold to be found in this marvellous river set the whole of Europe ablaze with the desire to explore it. Christopher Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh and others came back, and it was then, as it is to-day, that some romanced and lied in their reports, and that this mighty river was guarded by females was a fable enlarged and used by nearly all. Many men of the tribes to-day up the Amazon wear their hair long, and some wear capes and skirts of grass.

Many indeed have visited and travelled through it since these early days, but the modern books written about it are very unsatisfactory; they are neither reliable nor helpful; there are the very old and bulky works Baron Humboldt, of Martius and Van Spix. Then we have those excellent books written by notable scientists such as Bates (1848-9), Wallace, Spruce (1817-20), Van Spartius. Luis Agassiz (1866), Chandless (1878-80), Stradeli (1889), and Baron Sant’ Anna Nery. And these are to-day the best books to read if there is a desire to study this part of the world.

The Amazon river is the largest body of fresh water in the world. It has been stated that one-tenth of the running water in the world comes down the Amazon, and that the Amazon river brings down twice the amount of water carried by the combined Mississippi and Nile.

The source of the Amazon is rarely agreed upon by any two travellers. I myself consider the Ene and Perene which flow into the Tambo are the probable source. My route was the Ucayale and the Tambo, which I went up as far as it was possible by means of canoe.

The temperature along the Amazon and its tributaries is approximately seventy-five degrees to one hundred and ten degrees, but it is damp heat, and directly one ascends towards the Andes the climate changes. It gets extremely cool, and at altitudes of sixteen to seventeen thousand feet, which it is necessary to attain if the Andes is to be crossed to the Pacific side of South America, twenty degrees of frost are likely to be registered.

It is an interesting fact that sunstroke is unknown in Amazonia, and that the actinic rays of light are considerably diminished is, I think, proved by the fact that instantaneous snapshots are usually unsatisfactory.

A number of birds are to be found along the waterways. The hoatzins, a very primitive bird, of which the young use their wings for climbing, in a way suggestive of quadrupedal ancestors, parrots (the flesh of which makes quite good food), ducks, egrets, cormorants, macaws, tern, kingfisher, heron, eagle, urub. The piranha (or pirana), is an attractively marked fish, usually small, though the size varies from six ounces to three and a half it has silver scales covered with black spots and a red colouring around the gills, belly and tail. This fish is feared by everyone using the great waterway; it has strong-toothed jaws and attacks with great voracity raw flesh; blood will attract hundreds in a few seconds. At first I thought the tales I heard about these fish were exaggerated, but I have now seen many of these things actually happen. A hand trailing outside a canoe may mean the loss of a finger in a second, or standing with one’s feet in the water the loss of a toe, and there are many cases of wounded humans and animals being eaten alive in the space of a few moments before they could not get out of the water. However, they are quite good for food.

Because of this dangerous fish, and another called candiru, bathing is never indulged in without using a small hut, as described in this book. This latter fish is about two inches long. Just behind the gills it has two barbs, and, after entering any natural opening in the body, the barbs open out, and it is impossible to dislodge unless the skin is cut. There are many fish that make excellent eating. Turtle and their eggs (sometimes over a hundred from a single turtle) are excellent eating.

Hundreds of monkeys are seen at times in the jungle jumping from tree to tree, and the place teems with insect life-some being dangerous and a great number extremely interesting and unique. Indeed, in South America the flora is perhaps the richest in the world and its fauna truly remarkable. Since the Union of North and South America, by the upheaval of Central America, forms originally characteristic of the North have passed to the South and Southern types introduced into the Northern; also types characteristics of the North have died out there and are only surviving in the South part of the Continent. An example of this is the tapir, which is the largest animal in South America to-day. The vampire-bat is, to me, the most loathsome living thing on the continent. It attacks the extremities of the human such as the head, nose, elbow or foot, usually when the victim is asleep, the teeth being well adapted for making a curved incision, through which they suck the blood. It has abandoned an insect diet and has lost the leaf nose, and the gullet is so restricted that only liquid can pass through it. The intestinal tract of the vampire bat is short and the nourishment is only retained a short period. It had, I thought, a bulldog appearance with its short cropped ears and broad muzzle. The legs are much better developed than the fruit-eating bat’s; the body is about three and a half inches and the spread of the wings measures from eight to ten inches. The absence of llamas around Machu Picchu I put down to the fact of the presence of these bats, as, a thousand feet lower in elevation there are many in the surrounding countryside. It is impossible in a book of this kind to mention all the many interesting facts of the flora, fauna, and the thousands of curious ethnological facts of the many tribes of Indians inhabiting this part of the world. I have given a few statistics that I thought would be of use and mentioned things of which I had personal experience. I have confined them to this Preface and the Appendices, so that readers not interested might ignore them, and also that the actual story of my journey should be continuous.

I would like to thank all those who have shown me kindness on this and other journeys that I have undertaken during the last seven years, on all of which I have been alone, except for people of other races employed by me. In many far distant, isolated spots on this earth there are men and women whom I shall ever remember for kindness shown to me, which cannot be valued by the monetary standards of so-called civilization, but which was the utmost within their power, and is ever appreciated at its true worth by me. I would also like to thank my tutor and dear friend, E. A. Reeves, of the Royal Geographical Society, for his patient teaching for many years; also, my thanks are due to my literary agent, Mr Leonard Moore, for his time and advice, so kindly placed at my disposal; and lastly to my dear Mother, without whose encouragement and financial help these journeys would not have been possible.

King’s Langley,
July, 1932.

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