The Poisonous Plants of Puerto Rico

Carrasco in Foreground

It takes thousands of years for a rainforest to grow a proper canopy. A canopy with leaves so thick, not a single ray of light can penetrate to the forest floor. There is very little bushwacking when walking through primary rainforest, as there is not enough light to support vegetative growth below. 

One mile an hour. That’s how fast a person can travel through primary jungle with a healthy canopy. That may sound slow but it’s actually quite fast. Most hikers would have a hard time traveling at two mph on a maintained trail in Colorado. 

Puerto Rico’s rainforest got annihilated during Hurricane Maria and the leaves from the jungle canopy were ripped away by winds exceeding 150mph. Suddenly, the understory was exposed to sunlight for the first time in possibly hundreds of years. The foliage underneath began to grow in unison, exponentially, each species competing with another, growing taller, faster, taking up every available inch of real estate. Suddenly, walking through the jungle became a very real challenge. You’d better have a machete and you’d better know your plants––because some of them are quite sinister. 

When I first started jungle-bashing (primarily looking for caves) I thought it might be a good idea to see if there was poison ivy in Puerto Rico as I am highly allergic to it. A quick internet search simply produced a ‘No.’ But I wasn’t asking the right questions, you see. I should have asked: What plants in Puerto Rico are worse than poison ivy? Well, I found out the hard way. Here is a list of the worst.

Carrasco (Guao)– This is the worst poisonous plant you will find in Puerto Rico. Its related to poison sumac but its effects are much worse to those who are affected. If you have had reactions to poison ivy or its relatives, beware of this plant! The leaves look like holly– albeit, less festive.

Carrasco. New Growth
Mature Carrasco

The oil on the leaf is powerful and will react to the skin causing large blisters after 2-3 days of exposure. It can resemble a chemical burn and is extremely itchy.

Blisters from Carrasco Exposure

Making this plant especially nasty are the barbs on the leaf, which can pierce through clothing and inject the skin. If exposed to this plant, be sure to wash thoroughly with soap and water. I have been told that applying rubbing alcohol to the affected areas will neutralize the urushiol in the plant’s sap, although this has not seemed to help me.

Carrasco ‘trees’

Extremely hot showers will intensify the itching but provide some relief once the affected areas are scalded. An over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl or Claritin can help reduce the reaction. A steroid shot (like Solu-Medrol) is a last resort although extremely effective. Most doctors on the island will have no knowledge of Carrasco. Apparently jungle-bashing isn’t a popular pastime here. Your best defense against this plant are long sleeves and pants, gloves, thick socks or gaiters. I double layer––which is almost unbearable in the heat––but preferable to three weeks of itching.

Chicharrón (Christmas-Bush, Cocks Spur, Poison Ash)


Often confused with Carrasco, Chicharrón is another poisonous plant similar in appearance to Carrasco, although the leaves are smaller, cupped, and often reddish in color.

The word chicharrón is used for a type of Puerto Rican street food of deep fried pork skin which resembles the wound this plant can inflict. It grows well in dry areas and is common in Guanica State Forest.

Treatment is the same as Carrasco.

Stinging Nettles (Ortiga Brava)

This native plant can grow to 15-feet tall but rarely grows higher than 4-feet. Its broad, green leaves are serrated and warty. Yes, warty. Anything with warts should be avoided––let this be a life lesson. The stinging hairs can be observed on the underside of the leaf. Once they are touched, the pain feels like fire-ant bites. The sting is immediate but doesn’t last more then a few hours. Fortunately, this plant is easily identified and avoided––especially after touching it for the first time.

Sawgrass (Twig-sedge)


This isn’t a poisonous plant but it will kick the crap out of anyone who walks through it. I thought it appropriate to add to the list. As the name implies, it looks like grass yet can be 10-feet tall and is common along river banks. Its leaves are serrated and sharp as a razor. As a kid in Florida, my friend and I were playing in sawgrass of the same species and he cut his leg so badly I could see the subcutaneous fat beneath. Stitches were required.

Pica Pica (Cowhage, Oyo de Venado, Devil Bean)

Pica Pica

The Spanish word ‘picar’ or ‘pica’ roughly translates to the word ‘itch’. During the winter months this hearty vine produces seed pods, or beans, which grow a coat of fine, velvet-like hairs. Should you be unfortunate enough to get these hairs on your skin, or are downwind of the plant when it is shedding, the all encompassing ‘itch itch’ will commence. It would be the equivalent of getting fiberglass insulation on your skin. The itching won’t stop until the hairs are removed. This can be down with soap and water. Remember to wash your clothes too.

O’Brady’s “Impossible First”

Free Solo Across Antarctica. I noticed the article with the odd title in National Geographic. Having spent a good deal of my life working at research stations around Antarctica, and being a fan of polar exploration in general–the story caught my eye.

Endurance athlete Colin O’Brady was describing his upcoming ‘Impossible First’ expedition-–to be the first person to ski across the continent of Antarctica, alone, unsupported, and unaided. I was a little surprised the story was being covered by such a prestigious magazine considering a famed Norwegian, I believed, had already claimed that prize some years back.

I checked my facts and recollection. Indeed, in 1997, Børge Ousland made an incredible 1,864-mile traverse of Antarctica, solo, and unsupported. His achievement put an end to one of the last great polar challenges the likes of which Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackelton, couldn’t have imagined–let alone accomplished.

Børge Ousland arrives in McMurdo after crossing Antarctica

Ousland had skied for 65-days, from sea-level up to 11,000-feet, via the South Pole, withstanding hurricane-force storms and temperatures dropping to minus 68 degrees fahrenheit. In the 400-pound sled he dragged, he had everything required for the entire journey–food, fuel–everything. He was ‘unsupported’ as they say; meaning, he had no resupply of any kind.

To put this monumental feat in perspective, the first trans-antarctic crossing accomplished in 1958, led and co-led by Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary (of Mt. Everest fame), required tractors, Snow-Cats, dog-teams, air-support, fuel caches and two separate teams traveling on opposite sides of the continent–one to lay fuel depots for the other.

Ousland wasn’t the last one either. Another Norwegian, Rune Gjeldnes, in 2006 skied 2,988-miles across the continent to set a distance record for ‘solo and unsupported’. And again in 2017, Mike Horn set another ‘solo and unsupported’ distance record of 3,169-miles.

Was I missing something? How was O’Brady able to claim the prize that Ousland and two others had already achieved?

It was the word ‘unaided’ I had overlooked. The crafty soloists had employed kites– small, lightweight paragliders used to harness the wind, which propelled them over the surface of the snow. It appeared the word ‘unaided’ simply meant: not aided by the wind.


In Ousland’s own estimation, he used his kite for about ⅓ of the entire distance. And it is true, the skillful use of a kite can greatly increase a skier’s daily mileage. For example, the distance world record for kite-skiing (set in Greenland) is an outrageous 370-miles covered in one 24- hour period.

So the question is: if you can’t use kites, what about skis? Or satellite phones–which provide a huge psychological benefit to the soloist? Or GPS devices–which make navigation nearly dummy-proof? But fair enough. A challenge is a challenge and there aren’t many ‘firsts’ left in the world. So, O’Brady was attempting to cross Antarctica solo, unsupported, without using the wind to his advantage. It would be muscle-power alone. The equivalent of paddling across an ocean instead of sailing across. O’Brady is obviously a purist and that we should appreciate.

And then I promptly forgot about the man who doesn’t like wind. That is, until I saw an article in the New York Times a couple months later. Colin O’Brady Completes Crossing of Antarctica With Final 32-Hour Push. They go on to describe his efforts as one of the “most remarkable feats in polar history”.

To add to the mystique of O’Brady’s accomplishment, just the year before, Henry Worsley, a retired British Army officer, had perished while attempting what O’Brady had managed handily. Worsley was on day-71, a respectable 900-miles into his journey when he used a satellite phone to call for rescue. He was suffering from severe exhaustion and dehydration and was subsequently evacuated to Punta Arenas, Chili where he was diagnosed with bacterial peritonitis. He died of organ failure soon thereafter.

The New York Times states O’Brady had completed the crossing by skiing 932-miles. But wait a minute. 932-miles is half the distance Børge Ousland skied in ‘97. How was O’Brady able to do this? Did he know some secret shortcut? No. He simply did not include the Ice Shelves on his map. He expects the public will believe they are not part of the continent.


Technically speaking, the Ronne and Ross Ice Shelves are floating sheets of ice hundreds of feet thick and thousands of years old. The Ross Ice Shelf alone is the size of Texas and is connected to the greater land mass by hundreds, possibly thousands of glaciers and ice streams.

In my opinion, it wasn’t very sporting of Mr. O’Brady to pluck from the map the very place that claimed the lives of the explorers who came before him. Robert Falcon Scott and his team, overcome by the elements and sheer exhaustion, perished on the Ross Ice Shelf during their return journey from the Pole in 1912. Their bodies are still there.   

Scott in center, and the other four men who died on return journey

Okay, so perhaps O’Brady isn’t the purist he says he is. But still, he was alone–right?

Actually, no.

British Army Captain, Lou Rudd, was also attempting the first solo, unsupported, no wind crossing of Antarctica at the same time. They even shared a plane to their mutual starting point. Upon landing, O’Brady unloaded his gear and said goodbye. The plane taxied about a mile away (but still in earshot) and dropped Rudd off. They skied separately from there, Rudd in the lead at first but then leapfrogged by his competitor. Early in the race they camped within eyesight of each other, often no more that a kilometer apart. Can this really be considered alone? Seeing another person in that wasteland, regardless of whether you are communicating or not, is a psychological benefit that Ousland didn’t have.

And then there’s the South Pole Traverse road. Both O’Brady and Rudd used it while traveling the 350-miles from the Pole to the bottom of the Leverett Glacier–their self-imposed finish line. The South Pole Traverse (SPoT) is a tractor train convoy that hauls fuel from McMurdo Station over a thousand miles to resupply Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The trail took four seasons to complete and must be reflagged, packed, bladed, and scanned for crevasses every year. This is a great deal of work. Labor I’m familiar with, as I worked on SPoT for four seasons.

Over the years I’ve seen more and more expeditioners use our trail. Before 2009, you never saw anyone out there, not even airplanes flew out that way. But since then, more and more people are coming. They hear there is a crevasse-free route across Antarctica and that’s the only place they want to go. Personally, I’ve always wondered why you’d want to come all the way to the bottom of the earth just to ski on a road. The simple and obvious reason is: the chance of success is much greater. But where is the adventure in that?!

The SPoT road is safer too. An expeditioner no longer has to worry about navigation because they can simply follow our flags and tracks even in a whiteout. On our road, expeditioners don’t have to worry about crevasses–gaping, often hidden chasms that can swallow a person or vehicle–because we use Ground Penetrating Radar to locate and avoid them. We also blade the trail, knocking down the six-foot high snow-hummocks known as sastrugi. On the polar plateau we mow down about 100-miles of these frozen, fin-like obstructions. This greatly lessens the burden on a skier, who, without our trail, would have to pull their heavy sleds up and over each one of these icy hills or triple their distance finding a path around them. Had Worsley used our road (which he didn’t–opting to forgo the flagged route for an untrammeled one on the Shackleton Glacier) his daily physical exertion would have been substantially reduced. Perhaps he might still be alive today.


First pass with a blade. SPoT road.

Once on the SPoT road, both O’Brady and Rudd’s daily mileage increased dramatically. This is because they were ‘aided’ by the SPoT teams and their hard work. During the last two days of O’Brady’s expedition, he was able to ski for a total of 79-miles, nearly four times his usual daily mileage. When asked in a telephone interview how he was able to accomplish this, he said, “I don’t know, something overcame me.” He never once mentioned the trail, the flags, or how he is able to avoid the many crevasses with ease.

Photo taken by Colin O’Brady. Picture clearly shows he is skiing on SPoT road

Skiing 900-miles across Antarctica is a genuine achievement that should be admired. However, in my opinion, it is a personal accomplishment and not a legitimate ‘first’.

In Rudd’s own words, he says, “…doing an unsupported crossing starting on the edge of the floating ice shelves by the water’s edge without the use of kites or resupply is nigh on impossible, although I’m sure one day someone will crack it.”

So, for all you purists out there with lofty, Antarctic aspirations: Does Rudd’s statement suggest an opportunity? Does the first true solo, unsupported, ‘unaided’ crossing of Antarctica remain?

I believe it does.

In the Footsteps of Chris McCandless

The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and changing sun.
 Christopher McCandless

The Teklanika River is bigger and far more intimidating then I remember.

The frigid water is opaque with glacial silt, swollen, and careening down valley with surprising force. It was this very same river, 24 years before, which prevented a young idealist, Christopher McCandless, from returning to the itinerant society from which he came. Instead, Chris returned to his wilderness shelter, the ‘Magic Bus’, where he eventually starved to death. His short life was documented in the bestselling book- Into the Wild, later adapted for the silver screen.
Like many young men, I too was affected by Chris’ story. In 1998, while working as a dishwasher in Denali National Park, my friend Dan Musick and I decided to follow in Chris’ footsteps. I was an impressionable 19 year old kid, and at that point, the trip to the bus was the greatest adventure of my young life. Nearly two decades later, I decided to make the journey again, to see how the place, and my views, had changed over time.
Unlike McCandless, I carry with me a small inflatable raft. The Tek rushes down valley at about 15mph, large standing waves between me and the far bank. If I flip or miss the eddy, I’ll be pushed down river into a canyon. Afraid of losing my nerve, I inflate the packraft quickly, and push into the hissing current. I paddle across and pull into the eddy uneventfully.
While eating a congratulatory PB&J, a dark-haired young man materializes on the opposite shore. He sees me and waves excitedly. I return the gesture but the roar of the river drowns out our attempts at conversation. He pulls a raft out of his pack and begins inflating. “OK,” I think, “This guy’s prepared.” As I wait, I find a clear flowing stream and begin filling my water bottle. Unexpectedly, the young man puts his oversize backpack on his shoulders and jumps into the packraft, facing it in the wrong direction. “Oh shit,” I say aloud. He paddles into the current as fast as he can, the backpack threatening to flip him backwards. In a split second he’s out of view. I sprint to the shore but when I get to the eddy he isn’t there. I run up and down the bank but there’s no sign of either him or the raft. I’m certain he’s been pushed into the canyon and I freeze with indecision.
Suddenly he appears, pushing through the alders. He’s soaking wet and breathing hard.
“You alright?!” I ask, my heart thumping. “Yeah,” he says, in a thick Spanish accent. “I grabbed the branches on shore and flipped but I’m OK. My raft went down the river. Forget it; I’ll worry about it later. You’re going to the bus, right?”
His name is Tomas. He’s in his early twenties, a banker from Uruguay. He doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the raft or how he’s going to get back across the river.
In 1992, the summer McCandless made his fateful journey, the chances of meeting another-person on the Stampede Trail were slim to none. Back then, it was only used seasonally by moose hunters and dog mushers from the nearby town of Healy. No one in their right mind went out there in the height of summer when the rivers are raging and the mosquitoes abundant. Since the popularity of the movie, however, hundreds of tourists from all over the world are making the pilgrimage. They call themselves ‘Supertramps’ in honor of Chris’ alias- Alexander Supertramp.  As many as 30 people, most of them German, visit the bus in a single day.  Many are woefully unprepared, and like my foolish younger self, willing to take great risk.
Every summer, several people are rescued. In August of 2010, Claire Ackermann, a 29 year old woman from Switzerland, died while trying to cross the Teklanika. Claire and her companion decided to tie themselves to a rope someone had left spanning the river. Halfway across, they were swept off their feet. The rope, which was supposed to add an element of safety, now held them firmly, face-first into the current. The man was able to cut himself free- but Claire ultimately drowned.
On the front of Tomas’ T-shirt is the face of a pirate with an eye patch. It’s still drenched and nearly see-though as we resume the hike. Fortunately for him- it’s a warm day. Unbelievably, he’s wearing shorts and the mosquitos are destroying his legs. Even with repellent on, he swats at them every few seconds. Hanging from his hip is a huge machete which extends all the way to his ankle. It acts as a third leg and prevents him from walking with a normal gait.
When we find the trail, we discover a message written on a log:
6/25: The Tek is far too deep to cross by foot. This delay may have the park officials searching. We are okay + good on supplies. Should ABSOLUTLY be out by the 29th… before then, our plan is to head straight south towards Mt. Wright + the Park Rd.
Ted + Michael
The message is dated a week ago. There’s no sign of Ted or Mike, so we continue up the trail as if nothing’s amiss.
At first I’m annoyed with Tomas. He’s a liability and I know it. I’ll probably have to babysit him for the next three days. I wonder if I’ll have to share my food and tent. After we talk for a while I start to change my mind. He tells me about his family in Uruguay, learning english in Ireland, and how the story of Chris McCandless changed his life. Exactly how Chris’ story changed his life I never understood precisely, but evidently it did make a lasting impression. It’s his first time in the United States and the one thing he wants to do is fly to Alaska and hike to the bus. He exudes this irrepressible passion for life seemingly fueled by a come-what-may optimism bordering on naivety. In the end, Tomas begins to remind me- of a younger me.
We wander up the trail onto a ridge with sweeping vistas of the tundra below. The tracts in the mud show us where a grizzly bear has been chasing a moose.
IMG_4929 (1)
Descending back down to the valley floor, we crest a small knoll and suddenly it’s there. Fairbanks City Transit System #142. The place McCandless drew his last breath. 
Tomas whoops and gives me a high-five, though his enthusiasm is short-lived. He drops his pack and is abruptly silent. The gravity of the place is suddenly realized. Bus 142 is a direct connection between a story and a real person. For those who have felt a kinship with Chris, seeing the bus first-hand can be an unexpectedly moving experience.
The ‘Magic Bus’ has seen better days. Most of the windows are shattered or missing completely and a shoddy patchwork of old tarps does little to keep the weather out. The green and white exterior is fading away to reveal its former, school-bus-yellow undercoat. The numbers 142, which once sat prominently above the first-row window, have been shot off- in an act of blatant vandalism. I count well over a hundred large-caliber bullet holes. Whoever did this was trying to make a point.
On entering the derelict shelter we are surprised to find a person. Martin- from Czech Republic is in his mid-twenties, bespectacled, with a scraggly beard and a tall, wiry build. He explains in broken english about his week-long tour of the area, sleeping, every night, on the very bed Chris expired on. He’s been supplementing his supply of rice by ‘living off the land’, eating wild mushrooms, blueberries, and even mice, which he lures with food, and then darts with a blowgun. On top of the woodstove I see a tiny mouse pelt, which has been meticulously fleshed, stretched, and dried.  Martin appears to have gone “Full Supertramp”.
 As I scan the room, I spot a flier with the heading- “Overdue Party”. Below are the pictures of Ted and Michael. The Park Service is looking for them. I turn to Martin and ask, “How did you get across the river?” And he says, “I wait three days, then I swim. Very, very dangerous.”
During my first visit to the bus nearly two decades ago, many of Chris’ possessions remained. His backpack and sleeping pad were there, glasses, a frayed toothbrush. Near the back door, the door Chris used, was a long stick with a red sock attached to the end (possibly to flag down aircraft for rescue?), a water purifier, leather boots, a garbage bag full of goose feathers, a heavily patched pair of sodden pants. The place felt eerie, as if Chris had just stepped out and would be back shortly. Now his things are gone, either hauled out as garbage or taken as souvenirs. Even the steering wheel is missing. The dashboard- plucked and sold on EBay a few years back.
However, despite the vandalism, the place is surprisingly homier than it used to be. Flags from various countries decorate the interior. Quotes and signatures adorn the ceiling and walls. “The best trip of my life”, “Chris, I was so happy to spend a little time with you”, “Happiness only real when shared”.  Martin starts a fire in the barrel stove and begins brewing some coffee as Tomas and I read aloud from a guestbook which has hundreds of entries.
“…My most complete respect to Chris, thank you for following your dream, you were a true artist. And my regards to the McCandless Family. Keep love in your hearts and actions.” 
 “Broken windows and bullet holes decorate this landmark but do not overshadow the remembrance of Alex.”
“Our Mom lived in this here bus in 1961. Our Grandpa built this Stampede Trail that summer… finally made it to see a bit of our family history. Take care of our bus. Thanks Chris for showing it to so many appreciative people.”
“Chris’ story may be inspirational to some people and idiotic to others. Personally, I always admire a person’s quest for adventure, no matter how well it is planned. It’s great to be here, Chris! I can see why you stayed.”
Near the backdoor, hidden behind the bed, is a brass plaque installed by Chris’ parents when they came to honor his memory. It reads:
2/68 – 8/92
They also left a suitcase full of food, first aid kit, guestbook, and a bible. The original guestbook included the McCandless’ home address and every person who wrote them (I’ve heard) received a letter in return- including me. Dan and I were the 6thand 7th people to sign the old guestbook. But it’s gone now, having been replaced by the newer one, sans address. The bible was Chris’ as a little boy. It is the last of his possessions remaining at the bus.
Never in my life have I visited a place so loved by some, and so hated by others. There are those like Tomas and Martin, who treat the bus with an element of reverence, as if walking on hallowed ground. Others, Alaskans in particular, see the bus as a symbol of Chris’ arrogance- a shrine to a false idol that should be burnt to the ground.
Craig Medred, one of McCandless’ more vocal and virulent critics, writes:  “…the poacher McCandless was transformed in his afterlife into some sort of poor, admirable romantic soul lost in the wilds of Alaska, and now appears on the verge of becoming some sort of beloved vampire. Given the way things are going, the dead McCandless is sure to live on longer than the live McCandless, who starved to death in Interior Alaska because he wasn’t quite successful enough as a poacher.” Later in the same article, Medred admits, “…I’d have to plead guilty to some of this myself. Just to stay alive, I did a little poaching when I first arrived in Alaska in 1973, though I never wasted anything in my life.” According to Medred’s code-of-ethics, it’s apparently okay to be a poacher, as long as you’re really good at it.
Martin leads us down the trail.  He’s showing Tomas and me how to identify wild edible mushrooms. There are three kinds he says, “For eat, for no eat, and, uh… for die.” He quickly finds one with a brown cap and a spongy, yellow underbelly. He brings it to his nostrils and sniffs it slowly and intently. Then he proclaims, “Classic Alaska!”
Most of these Classic Alaska’s are sludgy or riddled with maggots, so it takes a couple hours to collect 20 fit for consumption. Martin is ecstatic about our haul and decrees, “We have mushroom party!” Tomas and I are a little hesitant about eating these shrooms since McCandless himself was supposedly poisoned by what he considered a wild edible plant. Tomas and I converse around the fire as “Full Supertramp” cooks up a big pot of Classic Alaska risotto. It occurs to me that there are two types of people in this world: Those that would eat the mushroom mixture because they want to have a unique wilderness experience and those that would refuse full stop. As a young man I would have eaten those mushrooms, no questions asked. Now, I make Martin eat them first.
IMG_5294*The author as a young man
Morning comes and no diarrhea. I’m thrilled. Tomas slowly packs his gear and I follow Martin on a hunt. He carries with him a blowgun, a compound bow, arrows, a knife, and several wire snares. He is looking for grouse and squirrels but the Shushana riverbed looks barren and lifeless.
We find a small rise above the riverbed and hike to the top. It’s a perfect vantage point to glass the area. I notice an old fire-ring with a layer of moss growing over the top. McCandless must have spent a lot of time here. 
As we return to the bus we hear the loud thwap thwap thwap of a helicopter. I rush ahead to see what’s going on. The copter roars as it hovers and lands nearby. A pilot jumps out along with two Brits who are dressed like mountaineers. I talk to the pilot who says they fly tourists out here about four times a season. It’s a 14 minute flight from Healy. I find it unbelievable that 14 minutes is all that separated the starving McCandless from a hotdog.
They stay for about twenty minutes and Martin is happy when they leave. It’s time for Tomas and me to go too. We have a long hike ahead of us. We try to talk Martin in to coming along but he wants to spend another week at the bus. This is his big adventure and he doesn’t want to cut it short. I give him my map which shows the route to the Park Rd. “If the Tek is too high, don’t swim, just head south, OK?”
As we say our goodbyes, I take one last look at the pretty little clearing above the Shushana. It’s hard to imagine a place so serene, could be the site of an event so tragic. But I am reminded that the wilderness, although beautiful, suffers no fools. It didn’t care when McCandless came into the country, and it cared less when he was gone. All that’s left is a story and the ghost of a dream. The old derelict bus isn’t about Alexander Supertramp anymore. It’s about people, love, and living life to its fullest. I leave there humbled and genuinely happy. Most people do.