It was 2 a.m. I was huddled in the middle of my bed at Chaa Creek, a luxury jungle resort in Belize, trembling and staring at the blanket I just chucked to the floor in a fit of fear. I’d been in the jungle for three days.
Everything up to this point had been great. I trekked through the jungle to nearly the Guatemala border searching for Mayan ruins. I helped stir some drying painted sand locals in a small village use to create elaborate murals on the ground for the Easter season. I snorkeled with sharks and stingrays. But at this moment, none of that mattered.
There were two beds in my room and I was using the one closest to the door. I turned off all the lights except the main room light and the bedside table. Then, something in the dark shadows at the foot of the next bed moved. Years of monsters-under-the-bed nightmares had trained me well, and I quickly pulled my legs up onto my bed. And then the monster crawled out of the darkness: a lightly fuzzed and largely segmented black spider as big as my hand. It slowly advanced toward my bed, staring at me with its soulless eyes the entire time.
I’m legit terrified of spiders. My husband once tossed a plastic tarantula at me and I cried for a half-hour. But, I’m in no way exaggerating on the size. It was huge. The biggest spider I’ve ever seen.
Belize as a whole has a wide selection available for (crazily brave) arachnid fanatics—everything from tarantulas to black widows and scorpions to brown recluses. The country is about 50 percent jungle. It’s basically a requirement.
I was shivering in fear, considering my options. I could try to kill it, but what if it jumped at me? I could leave it alone, but what if it crawled onto my bed and poisoned me with a venomous bite? I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I knew the spider was there. I bundled up the blanket from my bed and threw it on the ground over the spider with a little shriek. If I had to move around the room, I at least wanted it contained.
Photo courtesy of Chris Jackson/Getty
So there I was, sitting on the bed at 2 a.m., holding back frightened tears. And then I remembered—I had bug spray in my purse. It wasn’t a requirement to bring to Belize, but highly suggested; the mosquitoes are out of control. I would get the bug spray, lift up the blanket, spray the monster and immobilize it, then kill it with my hiking boot. Of course, my purse was on the other side of the room.
I carefully rose to standing on the bed and vaulted across the room, jumping as far as I could over the blanket and to the table. Now that I was on the floor, I had to move quickly. I grabbed the bug spray out of my purse, picked up the corner of the blanket with two fingers, and shot the spider with four or five bursts. I threw the bug spray back onto the couch, reached down to grab a boot, and stopped. The spider was unfazed by the spray. It moved around smoothly. It looked at me and laughed. It was most definitely not immobilized. The situation had become more complicated.
I held tight onto my boot and advanced on the spider, still holding the blanket. As I drew my hand back to smash it, I could feel fear-induced vomit rising from my stomach. I tried to swing my arm down and hit the spider at the same time I heaved, but let out a tiny scared scream instead of throwing up. I couldn’t do it. Maybe it was the jungle lover in me … deep deep down inside.
I dropped the blanket, dropped my boot, and leapt onto the bed, where I curled up in a ball and sat staring at the blanket for the next hour.
At about 3 a.m., I realized I was being ridiculous. I needed to go to bed. That spider wanted nothing to do with me anyway, otherwise it would have bitten my face off already. Plus—I was in the jungle. I wanted to be in the jungle, to experience something outside my comfort zone, and that’s exactly what I was doing. I had to appreciate the whole situation for that at least. The next day was a full itinerary of zip lining through the jungle canopy, hiking through waterfalls, and heading to the beach for drum lessons and a candlelit dinner. I wanted to be rested.
So I compromised. I decided I would face my spider fear by going to sleep, but make it easier on myself by keeping only the bedside light on and not using the bug-sprayed blanket that I’d have to pick up from it’s strategic arachnid-cover placement. I steeled my nerves and looked at the main light switch by the door on the other side of the room, preparing to nimbly hop across, hit it from afar, and get back in bed as soon as possible.
And then I saw it. The spider had crawled out from under the blanket to stand by the door. I turned to grab my camera (traveler habit). When I looked back, there was another surprise. A tiny green gecko had crawled out from behind the armoire and was now face-to-face with the spider. Geckos and lizards are all over the country, walking along the road, crossing the sidewalk, staring at you from a concealed spot in the trees—but I didn’t expect one in my room. I froze. The two stared intensely into each others faces, sizing one another up. From my angle I could see the gecko was in a losing position. The spider was three times bigger than her, at least. But this was the jungle, and if you want to survive, you need to be ready for anything. So the gecko would not back down.
The spider moved one of its legs almost imperceptibly, and the gecko seized her chance. Within milliseconds, she struck, opening her mouth wide and biting the spider square on the face. She backed up to watch the reaction as the spider recoiled in fear and pain (I swear I heard a shrill banshee-like spider scream emerge from the beast’s mouth) and then bolted out through a crack between the door and the wall.
I was still frozen in place, camera in hand, with my mouth hanging open in shocked surprise. The gecko glanced at me as if to say “you’re welcome,” then walked backward to her place hidden behind the armoire. When my heart stopped pounding enough for me to move again, I thanked my valiant gecko friend, put down the camera, and crawled under the sheet to finally get some sleep.
To me, that gecko may have saved my life from death by spider—which is a little bit of an overreaction, I know—but the epic showdown between the two creatures solidified what I already knew to be the best part of Belize. It’s not about the beaches or the cabanas or the sunsets (though those are great, too). It’s the pure wildness of the country. A trip to inland Belize is like stepping off the grid into a world where only you and the jungle exist. The forest hasn’t been destroyed; it’s not overwhelmed with tourists; and the plants, animals, and bugs are free to live as they like, at home in the heart of the jungle, where you are still just a single passerby through the wild world at large.
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author, and editor, focusing on culinary travel. She has written for The New York Times, Yahoo Travel, National Geographic Traveler, Porthole Cruiser, Midwest Living, and Taste of Home Magazine.