San Pedro cactus, also known as huachuma, is a powerful entheogenic plant that hails from the Andes region and has been used ceremonially for centuries in the Americas. A fairly large, spiny, and typical-looking columnar cactus, it would be easy to overlook in the rugged but beautiful Andean mountain landscape, but this plant has played a central role in the religions of that region for at least 2000 years. These days, San Pedro is enjoying a recent wave of popularity as psychedelic healing centers are beginning to provide huachuma ceremonies in conjunction with their other offerings.
The Peruvian retreat center Munay Medicine is one of these places, offering both ayahuasca and huachuma ceremonies in the Sacred Valley. We wanted to learn more about the lesser-known psychedelic San Pedro cactus, so we spoke with Maxwell Wieland, the head huachuma ceremonial facilitator, or wachumero, at Munay Medicine.
To Lose Your Head or Enter Heaven
The word huachuma translates to “removing the head” (wach- meaning “remove” and -uma meaning “head”) which metaphorically might mean the death of the ego. The word comes from Quechua, the language of the indigenous culture of the same name in the central Andes. As Maxwell told us, “The name San Pedro was an adaptation that came as a result of Catholic contact via Spanish conquistadors.” This is fascinatingly similar to the Bwiti tribe in Gabon who use ibogaine in a syncretic Christian-tribal tradition; it seems that part of the Andean adaptation to missionary influence was to rename this sacred plant after Saint Peter, implying that the entheogenic cactus holds the keys to the gates of heaven just as its new namesake, Saint Peter, is said to do.
The chemistry underlying this cactus is intriguing as well. The central psychoactive element in San Pedro is mescaline, an entheogenic compound found in another, much smaller psychedelic cactus, peyote. Maxwell described the chemical effects of mescaline as a slower experience than what you find with other psychedelic substances:
“Mescaline is a serotonin and dopamine-binding psychedelic with a slow metabolism compared to many other psychedelic compounds. The experience begins roughly 30 minutes after ingestion and is found to have highest concentrations in the blood between 2 and 4 hours after ingestion.”
The San Pedro Experience
Like all psychedelic experiences, the effects of ingesting San Pedro are difficult if not impossible to describe. Words always fail to encapsulate the transcendent, but Maxwell shared with us one description he wrote about a particularly large dose of San Pedro, which will sound familiar to any who have had a profound psychedelic experience before.
“I felt like I [had] discovered a forgotten magic and was the first to experience it in centuries. I tested my body and flexed my arms, legs, and core. It felt amazing, I felt like no one alive had known how powerful they could be with this medicine in them. I started to see how I was exactly where I should be, I saw meaning and reason to my struggles thus far, I saw how I was functioning, and I felt appreciated by the universe itself…”
Of course, when it comes to any psychedelic, safety and due diligence is of the utmost importance. “As far as I know, no one has had any negative long term issues from using San Pedro,” Maxwell shared with us. “However, like all psychoactives, it’s important to be safe during the experience. Even though it’s pharmacologically safe and an enriching experience, a person under the influence of any substance can cause harm to themselves or others so it’s paramount to use [San Pedro] with respect.”
Scientific Studies and Therapeutic Applications
Unlike more popular psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms, which have seen more and more research in recent years, San Pedro has not been given much attention in the scientific world. Although there are very few studies on San Pedro, there has been research on the chemically similar peyote cactus. “Peyote is a small cacti native to Central America and Mexico that contains mescaline and other phenethylamines,” Maxwell explained. “Many of the compounds in peyote are found in San Pedro, including mescaline.” Maxwell pointed us to a 2005 study funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse which found that people who took peyote regularly throughout their lifetime (dozens to thousands of times) as part of their Native American Church tradition. The study participants were found to score just as well on an array of mental health tests as a non-peyote-taking control group did, with even significantly better scores in certain scales that measure positivity and psychological well-being.[1.”Psychological and cognitive effects of long-term peyote use among Native Americans,” Biol Psychiatry, October 15, 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16271313.]
With the pharmacological safety of mescaline-based plant medicines looking positive, we were curious as to how they might be used therapeutically. It turns out the Native American Church is also known to encourage peyote ceremonies for treating substance abuse,[2.”Peyote Use in the Treatment of Alcoholism in the Native American Church,” https://www.neurosoup.com/peyote-use-in-the-treatment-of-alcoholism-in-the-native-american-church-2/.] and since San Pedro is such a similar entheogenic relative of peyote, there may be a bright future for huachuma in addiction recovery as well.
We’re grateful to Maxwell and the people at Munay Medicine for taking the time to speak with us about San Pedro to give us an inside perspective into this powerful visionary plant. The more attention and research behind this fascinating psychedelic cactus, the better we can understand the healing gifts it may have to offer to the larger world.