A Cultural History
Huachuma (San Pedro) has a special symbolism in Peruvian curanderismo (traditional folk healing) for a reason. “San Pedro is always in tune with the powers of animals, of strong personages or serious beings, of beings that have supernatural power…”
The Huachuma (San Pedro) cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi, T. peruvianus and other species) represents perhaps longest-used of the sacred holistic healing plants of South America. The ceremonial use of Huachuma (San Pedro) for healing, magical and divining purposes has been a continuous tradition in Peru for well over 3,000 years and continues today, largely in syncretic post-colonial “San Pedro” mesa modalities. The oldest archaeological evidence, the classic Chavín stone carving of the huachumero shaman in the Old Temple of Universal Consciousness at Chavín de Huantar in northern Perú, goes back to 1500 b.c. if not older. Old Chavín textiles depict the cactus with jaguar and hummingbird figures. Peruvian ceramics made between 1000 and 700 B.C. show the plant in association with the deer.
Moche ceramics several hundred years later depict the cactus with the jaguar and stylized spirals depicting ‘remolinos’, the visionary cosmic whirlwind or whirlpool revealed by the sacred plant.
Trichocereus pachanoi and T. peruvianus are tall columnar cacti sometimes reaching over 8 meters in height. Over thirty species are described although the taxonomy is confusing and there is disagreement concerning the identity of somel species. The species most commonly associated with medicinal use are Trichocereus pachanoi, T. peruvianus which are native to Perú, and T. bridgesii which is native to Bolivia.
Principal active biochemicals: the phenelthylamine alkaloid mescaline is present, primarily concentrated in the green outer skin of the cactus.
Over thirty other alkaloids have been isolated including: tyramine, hordenine, 3-methoxytyramine, anhalaninine, anhalonidine, 3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine, 3,4-dimethoxy-4-hydroxy-B-phenethylamine, and ,5-dimethoxy-4-hydroxy-B-phenethylamine. Some of these are known sympathomimetics. Others have no apparent effects when ingested by themselves. The combination with the mescaline and other active compounds has a synergistic relationship which greatly influences the qualitative aspects of the experience. It is also possible that some compounds in the plant may act as a mild MAO inhibitor thus rendering a person vulnerable to some of the aforementioned amines which would ordinarily be metabolized before they could take effect.
At least one of these alkaloids is an effective antibiotic and others may possess medicinal and/or psychoactive properties. The Huachuma experience is certainly greater than the sum of it’s parts, and it is gross misunderstanding to simply charactize it as a “mescaline” experience. The plant has a powerful and benevolent spirit and is MUCH more.
The medicine prepared from the cactus is called ‘El Remedio’ (the remedy) in contemporary Peru. The typical local preparation techniques include soaking slices of the cactus in cold water or boiling it for several hours. These are actually crude methods and the ancient techniques of preparation have been largely lost in the transition to “San Pedro” practice where the objective is usually to heighten suggestibility in the client rather than truly open the “visto”.
There are many secrets in preparing the medicine properly for it is not just one medicine. In the mystical world of the archaic Huachuma Mesa, the apprentice learns the secrets of preparing the medicine properly in one of two ways, from a human maestro, or from the plant itself. The plant teaches a step at a time to those who have proven themselves worthy, and it is considered disrespectful to reveal these secrets by word of mouth.
In the shamanic sense, the supremely conscious spirit of the plant guides and instructs those who have undertaken an apprenticeship of humility and sincerity and who is willing to submit to a series of shamanic tests and challenges of courage and integrity. The Grandfather Huachuma (San Pedro) is a wise and intelligent teacher who does not treat lightly those with frivolous or bad intentions.
“One may come to play, but without good intentions, sooner or later, one must pay.” Far better to come respectfully with good intentions.
In Peru, other plants, such as coca, tobacco, misha (Brugmansia arborea, B. sanguinea) or villca (Anadenanthera peregrina) may be added for their medicinal or visionary properties. When other plants are combined with San Pedro, the drink is called ‘Cimora.’
Cactus of the Four Winds
Grandfather Huachuma (San Pedro)
A Supreme Teacher and Healer
“The plant first produces drowsiness or a dreamy state and a feeling of lethargy, a slight dizziness, then a great ‘vision’, a clearing of all the faculties. It produces a light numbness in the body and afterward a tranquility. And then comes detachment, a type of visual force, inclusive of all the senses including the sixth sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter … like a kind of removal of one’s thought to a distant dimension.”
Huachuma is the catalyst that activates all the complex forces at work in a curanderismo healing ceremony, especially the visionary and divinatory powers of the shaman, who can make himself the owner of another’s identity. Ecstatic magical flight is characteristic of the Huachuma experience. “One is transported across time, matter, and distance in a rapid and safe fashion…”
The goal of the maestro curandero is to make his patient “bloom” during the ceremony, to make his subconscious “open like a flower,” even like the night-blooming Huachuma itself.
The traditional entheogenic status of the cactus in Peru remains strong today, centered in the legendary town of Huancabamba, in the northern Andes, at the threshhold of the sacred lagoons of Las Huaringas. Hundreds of Peruvian pilgims and a few foreign esoteric tourists make the pilgrimage to Huancabamba and the sacred lagoons of Las Huaringas every year to bathe in the magical waters of the sacred lagoons and achieve their “florescimiento” or “blooming”, to change their luck, find love, or seek healing.
Not only is San Pedro still used in shamanic trances and healing sessions throughout the northern coast and Andes but it is also used increasingly to combat contemporary problems such as alcoholism and other addictions. Like the peyote cactus used widely in some parts of Mexico and North America, mainly by native people, huachuma is also a holistic medicine which can cure alcoholism and other addictive or behavioral problems. This parallel is noteworthy because since both cacti contain mescaline which is known to be a highy revelatory and transformative agent of higher consciousness. Both are good medicine indeed, and are here for everyone who needs them and is called to them.