Until about a year ago, I couldn’t even do an image search for the word “snake” without being afraid of the results I’d find: fanged rattlesnakes, coiling anacondas, hooded cobras. I let my fears affect not only my personal life but my travel and leisure, as well.
I avoided outdoor activities, zoos and trips to the desert or the tropics.
This cautious existence seemed to serve me well until I moved to Peru. The Amazon jungle comprises about half of Peru’s landmass, and friends who had visited the jungle city of Iquitos before me had touted it as “an experience like no other.”
Reluctantly, I decided to book a trip to Iquitos.
Here’s how I dealt with—and eventually overcame—my fear of snakes while I was there.
1) I learned more about my fear
Ophidiophobia, (fear of snakes), is one of the most common human phobias. Knowing I wasn’t alone in my fear was the first step to conquering it.
Fear of snakes isn’t totally irrational. In fact, it’s evolutionary. At a time when humans and snakes occupied the same habitat, we learned to detect and avoid snakes because being bitten by the wrong kind could kill us.
Of course, not all snakes are dangerous. Most data suggest that of the roughly 3,400 known snake species, only 400 are venomous. This meant my chances of encountering a venomous snake on my trip to Iquitos were small and being bitten by one, even smaller.
Fear of snakes is evolutionary. Even the Bible attempts to rationalize our fear by personifying the serpent as a trickster figure. Photo by jaci XIII.
2) I desensitized
While I knew snakes wouldn’t be dangling from every tree branch, I might spot one around the lodge grounds or during my group’s jungle hike. I started preparing by working up what is known as a “fear ladder,” exposing myself to snakes in non-threatening contexts.
First, I looked at pictures and watched movies with cartoon snakes in them. Then I moved to real pictures of small, harmless snakes and finally to those that scared me the most: coral snakes, bushmasters and giant anacondas.
A not-so-threatening exposure to snakes, this girl is all smiles! Photo by Chris and Jenni.
3) I found a way to feel invincible
One of the first activities planned for my stay in Iquitos was a jungle hike. It was the activity that worried me most, as I feared snakes might be slithering close to me or hiding camouflaged in the jungle flora. There’d be nothing to separate or protect me from them.
My fears were eased when my guide handed me a pair of rubber boots for the hike. Silly as it may sound, putting on those boots made me feel invincible.
I knew that in the event I did see a fanged serpent on my hike it’d have a pretty hard time biting through my boots.
Rubber boots made me feel invincible to snake bites on my jungle hike, like the girl on the far right. Photo by ksbuehler.
4) I went with a guide—and a machete
Of course, rubber boots wouldn’t be much help in say, an anaconda encounter. That’s where hiking with a guide became important. It was comforting to know he had experience with the region and averting dangerous situations with wildlife.
Plus, he carried a machete—not only to cut a path through the lush jungle flora, but also for protection in case we encountered something aggressive along the way.
Machetes aren’t just for clearing lush fauna on a jungle hike. Photo by pierre pouliquin.
5) When the time came, I looked fear in the face
It wasn’t until a few days after the jungle hike that my snake encounter actually occurred. It came during a visit to Quistococha Lake and Park in Iquitos, which similar to a zoo, houses most of its exotic wildlife species in cages or behind fences.
Except for one.
As I rounded the corner toward the lake, I spotted a man wearing a huge black anaconda with orange spots around his neck. I tensed, but I didn’t look away.
Instead, I watched as the snake coiled its strong, muscular body every few seconds, showing its power, but never harming its handler.
Looking fear in the face—anaconda at Quistococha Lake in Iquitos. Photo by Caneles.
6) And finally…I embraced my fear
I thought my snake-watching experience was enough progress for one day, but my guide and my travel companion both had different ideas. They thought I should hold it.
I wasn’t sure I was ready to take it that far. I knew the anaconda was domesticated and that probably hundreds of other tourists had held it before me, but was too scared to hold it alone.
Finally, my friend offered to hold the fanged serpent with me, and I reluctantly agreed.
The handler transferred the giant anaconda from his shoulders to ours, and within seconds, it was just the three of us: my friend, the anaconda and me.
I took a deep breath, mostly noting the weight of the reptile above anything else. It could suffocate me in a matter of minutes, but this one barely coiled. It hardly seemed to notice my friend and me.
We took a few photos with the anaconda before the handler unloaded it from our shoulders. I breathed a sigh of relief when it was over, proud that I had finally unloaded the burden of my fear.
Anaconda for a necklace, I’m skeptical, but smiling. Photo by yakalita.
Have you embraced your fear of snakes or another animal? Let me know in the comments below how you did it!
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Main photo by trzarocks.