I love Central America, but unfortunately I need to share it with the tarantulas — which happen to be my greatest irrational fear. When you stay in the rainforest at night, you can bet things will get hairy.
The charms of backpacking
When backpacking in foreign countries, no matter how prepared you are, there will be times when you are confronted by your fears, and find yourself in uncomfortable situations. Whether it’s because of cultural misunderstandings, disputes with your traveling companions, or phobias, you are bound to have unfavorable experiences at some point — it can’t all be salsa and majitos.
When things go pear-shaped, the usual means of getting yourself back to safety and comfort may not apply — you may need to get creative, and even use some mental strategies to get you through. This is why backpacking is so wonderful; you open up to the unexpected, have genuine adventures, and grow as a person.
I have retold my tarantula story many times; the impact of the tale is made by the fact that my paranoia level of arachnophobia is common knowledge among my friends and family, and the backdrop happens to be the most beautiful, natural attraction in Guatemala, Semuc Champey.
Nowhere to escape
I knew that sooner or later I would need to confront my fear of spiders — in this country of rainforest and cloud — there’s really no getting around it. We could have stayed in fancy hotels far from the forests, and never have seen them, but that was not our style. My husband and I were traveling on a tight budget, and enjoyed the social aspect of staying in the cheapest accommodation, as rustic as they were.
I began my journey avoiding all possible encounters of 8-legged creatures, studying the Lonely Planet guide to decipher the accommodation descriptions for possible hints. I inquired with every hotel manager: “Tarantula Aqui?” I also thought about buying a mosquito net, but my backpack was already close to bursting.
“C’mon,“ I told myself, “you’re an Australian, you’re used to big spiders, time to woman-up.” But in my mind, tarantulas were not in the same category as the common huntsman spider I was familiar with; they were more like a small, fury mammal — far too chunky to be classified as spiders!
But when you come across a place like Semac Champey in the highlands of Guatemala, you will risk all fears for beauty. The sheer magic and wonder of this unspoiled paradise was beyond belief! I wanted to stay and breathe the spirit of this scared place into my soul.
“They mostly come out at night, mostly…”
Once darkness fell, however, the location’s luster lost its sparkle as my worst fears were realized. Firstly, a fellow traveler found a big black tarantula on her bed. Then, as we were eating supper, the hotel’s manager approached us with a tarantula in his hands like a “gringo” show-and-tell. Even curiosity did not win me over for a tiny peep at it.
Later that night, as my husband and I retreated to our room, we discovered that the generator is routinely switched off each night — you know what that means? No lights. “Just go to sleep and don’t think about them,” was my husband’s advice. Sleep? I had a feeling there was going to be little of that!
At 11 pm, I needed to find a toilet, so I woke my husband and asked him to come with me — we were in the Guatemalan Highlands after all. He found the torch, but guess what? It was starting to dim as the batteries were low. I got dressed and flicked the torch around the room. My husband stopped me: “If you look for them, you’re gonna find them!” he warned. I couldn’t stop myself, I needed reassurance that our room was spider-free.
Over in the far corner above my bed was a large round knot in the wood. Yet as I moved closer with the flickering torch, I could see that it was not a feature of the wall, but a moving part — 8 moving parts.
The fear seemed to jump from my back to my husband’s. We both exited the room so fast, but where to exactly? Our only light source was about to go out, and there was no safe haven from tarantulas here — apart from the river, but even then I didn’t know if they could swim.
Stumbling down the path through the forest I thought I might break into panic. I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go until morning. My husband confessed later that he had spotted a few more tarantulas, but was wise enough not to point them out to me. He told me after the event that they were literally “coming out of the walls” like the film Aliens, staring Sigourney Weaver.
Instead of adding insult to injury, this man — my hero — calmly lead me to a clearing where we happened to stumble upon two hammocks auspiciously hanging side-by-side. He told me that I would be safe here as tarantulas are too big and clumsy to walk down such thin ropes. I knew this was untrue — I’m not an idiot — but I had no intention of calling him on his bluff as it was the only thought keeping me sane in this terrifying situation.
Needless to say, I made it through the night, and even let my husband convince me to stay another two nights as the location was absolutely spectacular.
Rules for surviving tarantula-city
- Don’t look for tarantulas unless you “want” to find them.
- Limit water intake, and make your final trip to the toilet before bed.
- Sleep in a hammock to limit contact with tarantulas; they prefer warm and sheltered huts.
- Spray the hammock ropes with bug spray, perfume, deodorant, or anything unappealing to spiders — they can taste through their feet.
- Convince yourself that you have made a safe place, and hold onto that thought even if you are unconvinced.
- Try not to talk too much about tarantulas with fellow travelers, as it only fuels the fear.
- Don’t kill tarantulas. It’s NOT okay to kill native wildlife as a tourist, and plus, it’s bad karma to kill a living creature that has no intention of hurting you.
- Invest in a small mosquito net if it helps you to make a safe place.
- Spray a personal bug spray on your exposed skin; the smell might deter a spider from walking on you. The extra barrier will also make you feel a little calmer.
- In your mind, decide to deal with a tarantula encounter like a bridge — you will cross it when, and if, you come to it.
In hindsight, I’m so glad that I decided to risk sleeping among tarantulas so that I could experience this magical place. After all, I could have stayed at a hotel in a nearby village, but it didn’t seem right as there was decent accommodation right on the riverbank.