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Dear Savvy Traveller: I am phobic about snakes. Is it safe for me to travel in the Yucatan Peninsula?

-Carolyn Strauss

Dear Carolyn,

Many people have concerns and worries that inhibit their desires to travel and I nearly always advise them to go anyway. In most cases, simply taking the trip is often enough to show someone that the worries were either unfounded or, at least, surmountable. Similar to the ways exposure therapy helps with fears, I strongly believe that travel is the cure to overcoming most travel concerns. But your case is different.

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A phobia is more than a nagging worry or small fear of “what if.” Phobias elicit intense reactions, sometimes debilitating, and while some phobias are well treated with exposure therapy, travel is not the venue for this. While travelling, your mind is already in overdrive with extra considerations it doesn’t have in daily life (when and where to eat, how to get back to the hotel, where to find toothpaste), which means added stress, regardless of whether or not you’re conscious of it. Phobias are, by definition, irrational, so a time of greater-than-usual stress and mental exertion is no time to address an already irrational situation.

But you can still go to the Yucatan Peninsula.

I have a phobia of sharks that becomes more irrational and intense every year. I can’t even look at a picture of a shark anymore without getting instant chills and feeling my muscles tense. If I think about a shark while I’m lying in bed, I grab my phone and read an article about something random so that I don’t fall asleep thinking about sharks and have a terrifying dream about one.

But I just returned from a spectacular visit to South Africa, including Cape Town, where the great white shark population is considerable. Guess what I didn’t do: go shark diving.

You can visit the Yucatan, swim in its spectacular cenotes, and explore the temple ruins of the Ancient Maya. Of course you can also relax on its white-sand beaches and listen to the lapping waves of turquoise waters, but I suspect from your question that you’re more focused on exploring the natural environment than sampling the resorts, so I specifically encourage you to do that.

What I don’t suggest is that you go to the cave of hanging snakes in Kantemo. I know that sounds obvious, but my point is that you don’t have to avoid a region you’re interested in just because snakes are plentiful there, the same way I didn’t have to avoid South Africa just because it’s surrounded by sharks. Just avoid situations that are designed to expose you to things that mentally paralyze you.

With snakes in particular, you’re also a bit lucky in your phobia. The vast majority of them will take every opportunity to hide from you and if you do happen to encounter one, it will do its best to disappear from your presence as quickly as it can. I’m sure you’ve heard this before but it’s still true: the snake is more afraid of you than you are of it.

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Yes, even you, Carolyn. And if you’re particularly concerned about venomous snakes, then arm yourself with information because, cliché as this truism is, knowledge is power. You are very unlikely to encounter one of the few species of venomous snakes in the region during touristic activities, but learn to identify them before you go so that, if you happen to see a snake, you will know immediately if it is not venomous.

I understand you’re still afraid of snakes and this will not calm you down completely, but it will be nice to know you’re not in physical danger.

I know that right now you’re screaming “but what if I do encounter a venomous snake?!” So I’m going to answer that, as unlikely as this possibility is. Don’t make sudden movements, always adventure with your phone at hand so you can access help if you need it, and remember that there are anti-venoms.

Let me reiterate that the odds of you being bitten by a venomous snake (or even approached by any snake) are incredibly poor, but have this important tidbit at hand anyway: if you were exposed to venom, call ahead to a hospital before heading there to be sure they have the appropriate anti-venom for you. If they don’t, you’ll be redirected to one that does and you won’t have wasted time.

But, truly, this is a nearly inconceivable scenario for a traveller not intentionally seeking out snakes or lying down in the jungle for a nap.

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I can’t guarantee you that you will never see a snake in the Yucatan. But I can assure you that the odds are slim, that an encounter would likely be extremely fleeting, and that you can still explore the jungles and other natural environments without living in fear through the entire experience.

And listen, it never hurts to have the emotional support of a friend in a potentially nerve-wracking situation. If you’re travelling alone, explore with a guide or make a friend at your hotel and explore together. The subconscious security of safety in numbers will keep you calmer in general, and you’ll have more fun sharing this time with someone anyway!

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