This happened to me 15 years ago while backpacking in Peru with a friend. There were a lot of backpackers in the region, and we quickly discovered a lot of them came with the sole intention of doing lots of drugs. We were both straight edge at the time so we generally avoided befriending these types. I think they were lured by the legends of ayahuasca and other ancient psychedelic rituals, but it’s widely known these experiences are not readily available to tourists.

We were in Cusco, which is the ancient high-altitude Inca city where you head off on the Inca trail from, and were staying in a youth hostel in a mixed dorm. We befriended a guy about our age- I think his name was Nick. He was American, and immediately recognizable as the shady tweaker archetype. He had a scabby shaved head and those really unhealthy, almost transparent teeth. But he was friendly so we chatted with him when our paths crossed. He was always in his bunk, on his laptop. He said he was just resting until he was healthy enough to get on a plane back home as he had partied too hard recently.

At this particular hostel, power went on and off on a schedule. There was always electricity via generator but there were only hot showers in the early morning and late night (like after one am). I had pretty terrible altitude sickness since we arrived and decided to stay up late to shower hoping it would help me feel better. Altitude sickness is kind of like mild nausea and being slightly stoned at the same time. While I was showering I heard Nick come in and ask “Who’s there?” I answered and we bantered for a minute. I heard him enter a shower as I finished up.

I had forgotten to bring underwear so I got dressed from the waist up and donned a towel for the walk back to the dorm room. The hostel was an adapted colonial courtyard building, pretty typical for Cuzco but it means you have to use exterior terrace walkways to move between rooms. It’s really cold in Cusco at night and I remember immediately after leaving the shower room feeling dizzy. I had to close my eyes and grip the doorway for a second so I wouldn’t fall over. Right when I was starting to feel okay enough to move again I felt a giant whooshing around me. I opened my eyes and realized all the power, including the generator had shut off. It was pitch black and absolutely silent all around me except for bright flashes of light. Like lightning bright even though I could see the stars and there were no clouds in the sky. I called to Nick if he was okay but there was no answer and no shower running so I assumed he’d left before me.

I started feeling my way down the walkway, carefully holding my towel in place. The lightning or whatever it was, stopped. When I got to the dorm door and began to unlock it with my key, I heard a body hit the tile walkway floor behind me with force. I looked back and made out the figure of what I assumed was Nick, apparently having a seizure and writhing on the ground. He was making a gurgling sound and by the time I got to him his mouth was oozing vomit. He was completely naked and soaking wet and I started yelling for help. I still couldn’t see much in the pitch black but I will never forget his eyes- it was the first and last time I had seen the eyes of someone who is alive but not really there. I rolled him on his side but he kept choking. I was petrified but he kept grabbing my hands and trying to talk to me through clenched teeth and the vomit. He was saying something but it was really fast and not any recognizable language I knew. I looked around and kept calling for help but on instinct started trying to clear his throat with my hands. I had to pry his teeth apart to reach into his mouth (I couldn’t tell if he was biting me deliberately or still seizing) and found that aside from the vomit, something was very wrong with his tongue. It was too sinewy and moving insanely fast. And then it wrapped around my fingers and GRIPPED THEM TIGHTLY. I could feel it tightening until it hurt. I screamed and jerked away, and started sobbing. He was still looking at me (but still not there) and I could just make out his tongue lashing around outside his mouth, thin and long like a... snake’s tail. My brain clicked that he must have somehow swallowed a small but very much alive snake. I was so confused by it but that was the only logic in the moment that I could have arrived at.

At that point some hostel staff came running with a flashlight and a phone and started yelling in Spanish to whoever was on the other end. He yelled at me “What did you take? Injections? Pills?” He rattled off names of drugs I had never heard of before. I said I don’t know, I just found him like that. I think they see their fair share of overdoses and he seemed more annoyed than shocked. When I looked back at Nick in the new light of the flashlight I realized his mouth was empty, save for some foamy vomit. There was literally no sign of the snake. I told the hostel staff man that there was a snake in there and pointed to Nick’s mouth. He looked at Nick’s mouth and saw absolutely nothing. He seemed extremely angry at me for being what he assumed was high and unhelpful. I realized then that my towel had fallen off and was semi-exposed. I think the hostel guy felt bad for me and just told me to go back to my room without any other exchange. I got into my bed still wet but put my headphones on and shivered until I passed out.

The next morning, I woke up late and alone in the dorm. Nick’s stuff was still there and when I made my way to the dining room people were talking about what happened to him. It was mostly just gossip but when everyone started speculating what he took I just froze. My friend noticed I was turning white so we excused ourselves and left. She tried to grill me on what I knew and I told her I had found him, that he was seizing and vomiting, but I could not for the life of me tell her about the snake. I still have not told her to this day because as time passes I feel less inclined to even believe myself. I don’t know if I’m afraid she’d call me a liar... it’s just so unfathomable. But I will never forget the feeling of a snake wrapping around my fingers and tightening until it hurt. Maybe this stupid gringo was tricked into thinking he could have some psychedelic transcendent trip by swallowing a live snake?

We left the next day for our week long Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu as planned. We didn’t see Nick around and assumed he was still at the hospital. When we returned from our trek to pick up our packs we stored there, I saw Nick’s laptop in the storage room on top of a bag. I asked the attendant what happened to the guy those belong to and the receptionist said “he not coming back.”