What is San Pedro/ Huachuma?
Huachuma, more commonly known as San Pedro in the Western world or currently known as Echinopsis pachanoi in the scientific literature, is a tall (up to 20 ft), light green, night blooming, nearly spineless, columnar cactus native to the Andes Mountains. In its native habitat it grows at altitudes of 6,600 – 9,800 feet. This cactus is found in parts of Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, but is also cultivated in neighboring countries and many other parts of the world. It is considered the most ancient and revered plant teachers amongst the shamans of northern Peru.
In the US it is legal to cultivate San Pedro for landscaping purposes, however, this is a psychotropic plant. Like other psychotropic cacti, it contains several psychoactive alkaloids, the primary being mescaline. Although the cactus is legal for home gardening, extracting the active constituents is illegal. Mescaline in all of its extracted forms is a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Check your local laws and use only when it is lawful to do so. Otherwise, you can travel to Peru to experience an authentic huachuma (San Pedro) ceremony.
The fact that San Pedro grows vigorously in the wild or cultivated in a home garden makes it a better choice for consumption over its slow growing and endangered cousin peyote. Like peyote, San Pedro cactus has a rich history of traditional shamanic use. Despite the two sharing mescaline as their primary active alkaloid, there are substantial differences between the other psychoactive compounds found in each of them. This results in the two having very different characteristics. When ingested, huachuma is usually described as the gentler of the two, but its effects can be felt a little bit longer than that of peyote. The effects of peyote can be felt about 10 to 12 hours while Huachuma can last between 12 to 14 hours or more depending on dosage.
San Pedro cactus has been used ceremoniously for around 3500 years by indigenous groups in Peru. The earliest known use comes from a stone carving which dates back around 1300BC. It very clearly depicts a huachuma shaman holding a tall San Pedro cactus. The carving was found at the Jaguar temple at Chavín de Huantar in Northern Peru. This carving comes from the Chavín culture.
Another notable discovery made at the Chavín site by Peruvian archeologist Rosa Fung was cigar butts made from San Pedro cactus. This sacred cactus is seen later as a decorative motif on Peruvian ceramic traditions like the Salinar style of 400-200BC and the Nasca urns of c. 100 BC-AD 700.
Unsurprisingly, colonial oppression nearly led to the extinction of the sacred huachuma ceremonies, but as always, the tribes that used huachuma carried on in secret as directed by the plants themselves. Healing with huachuma is similar to healing with ayahuasca. It is usually facilitated by an indigenous shaman. Like ayahuasqueros, huachuma shamans utilize musical instruments such as shakers, flutes, drums and an indigenous version of a jaw harp that makes twangy or boingy sounds.
Effects of San Pedro
Scientific data regarding the use of E. pachanoi (San Pedro) has proved to be quite elusive or is virtually nonexistent. This is a tragedy because this plant has several real medicinal and psychotherapeutic uses. This plant like so many others deserves scientific investigation so that it can be properly integrated into our societies.
The most prominent information about the uses and effects of San Pedro comes from traditional or folk medicine people. Over thousands of years of first-hand experience, Peruvian shamans have developed a way to use San Pedro to diagnose and treat diseases.
“Cactus flesh are used in a limited degree as aphrodisiacs and tonics.” — Dobkin De Rios
The following alkaloids are generally found within E. pachanoi: Mescaline (25 or more mg per 100 grams of fresh cactus), 3,4-Dimethoxyphenethlamine, 3-Hydroxy-4,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine, 3-Methoxytyramine, 4-Hydroxy-3,5dimethoxyphenethtlamine, Anhalonidine, Hordenine, and Tyramine. The concentration of these alkaloids can vary widely for each plant.
50g of dried cactus can contain anything from 150mg to 1.2g of mescaline, ranging from a threshold dose to a potential overdose. A threshold dose of mescaline is about 100-150mg, but this quantity of mescaline could be present in anything from 5-50g of dried cactus. Therefore, you should start with a relatively low weight, such as 10g of dried cactus, and increase the dose next time if you want a more intense experience.
San Pedro has been used by indigenous shamans for thousands of years in healing ceremonies. Throughout that time, there have been innumerable accounts of “miracle cures” to a wide variety of illnesses which include beating addiction, cancer, paralysis, and diabetes to name a few. The plant medicine of San Pedro doesn’t stop there it is also used to treat emotional issues such as grief and psychological problems like depression. 1
History of San Pedro Use and Geographic Location
San Pedro/ Huachuma use as a sacrament has been used by shamans since the very beginning of the Andean civilization. The shamans of that time considered it “Materia prima” which is, “a formless primeval substance regarded as the original material of the universe.” (Ratsch/ Hoffman 505)
San Pedro use has been uninterrupted since the 1400s. Although the Chavín site may be from a time closer to 3500BC, San Pedro has been used traditionally for 2000 years or more. Primary use has been noted in Peru, the Central Andes and surrounding deserts. It’s no doubt that San Pedro use originated or was discovered by the ancient people of these areas.
Two highly developed coastal region cultures known as the Nazca people of 800 – 300BC and Paracas people of 750 – 100BC. used the San Pedro cactus to adorn both ceremonial and burial ceramic vessels. Mummies discovered in the Nazca region were buried with San Pedro cactus coming out of their shoulders. “Symbols that the deceased would be born again out of darkness, just as the cactus blossoms emerge in the early hours before dawn. (Davis 1998: 7)”
The Nazca lines are another interesting phenomenon to note. There are a lot of different opinions about the Nazca lines. “In order to understand the Nazca lines one should first understand the culture that preceded them” and I seem to have stumbled across one such source. Below is a link to a wonderful little article with lots of pictures of some of the ceramics mentioned above. Further evidence of the importance of the San Pedro cactus for the Nazca and Paracas cultures. 2
Traditional use is still ongoing even today by the descendants of these ancient huachuma shamans. The Lambayeque culture of 1200 – 800BC developed lunar rituals/ rites involving the use of the sacred huachuma cactus. Amazingly, yet not surprisingly, these lunar rites are still being honored today (Trout 2005: 106 & 110.).
It’s important to note that the Catholic “conquistadors” and their “priests” condemned the ritualistic use of San Pedro as being “devil worship.”
“Its perceived diabolical nature once again justified the “god-given” right of the oppressors to force Christianity on the natives, steal their land, and persecute any individual or group that did not conform.”
This again is not surprising because we see the same persecution against virtually all indigenous peoples that used plant based entheogens for medicine and spirituality. 3
Current Use of San Pedro and Huachuma Culture
Early shamans used San Pedro as a sacrament. They would consume it orally and part of the effects would allow them to be able to see an illness. This, in turn, would allow them to diagnose their patients. Identifying the illness has always been essential to finding a cure or proper treatment to begin the healing process.
Sometimes the patient would also take San Pedro with the shaman. The patient underwent a purification ritual that involves consuming a tobacco extract that was suspended in alcohol through their nose using a snail shell. This is believed to protect them from harmful powers.
This practice is not common today; however the nicotine-containing plants are still often times used in modern San Pedro ceremonies. Currently, in Peru, both the shaman and the patient ingest the San Pedro elixir after fasting for 24 hours. Today the shaman and patient might be accompanied by others as a support. These other people are not necessarily shamans or patients but they drink the elixir to strengthen the ritual.
These San Pedro rituals typically take place at night time. Usually, in front of a mesa (an altar), that is adorned with sacred objects such as, shells, feathers, ceramics or images of saints that hold significant meaning to the shaman or patient. The shamans also include the use of sacred tools such as incense and musical instruments.
The San Pedro ceremonies remained unadulterated for upwards of a thousand years. It was only after the Spanish conquest that the huachuma cactus took on the name, “San Pedro.” Saint Peter is the Christian saint who is said to hold the keys to Heaven’s gates. The name change was the very beginning of Catholic iconography within Andean culture. The fact that Spanish colonists renamed the huachuma cactus “San Pedro” is a clear indicator that they were aware of the plant’s ability to take one into the sacred realms. 4
Legality Of San Pedro
San Pedro and other similar cacti that contain mescaline are completely legal for landscaping purposes. The active constituents, however, are a controlled substance. Currently in the U.S. mescaline is a Schedule 1 substance. Despite the fact that it does not meet the criteria to be on the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances. For example, mescaline, when extracted from San Pedro, is non-toxic and a non-addictive substance. Most importantly, however, is the fact that it has several medicinal uses. This is quite the opposite of the Schedule 1 criteria. The cactus however persists and can be found everywhere. Most major nurseries and plant vendors carry one form or another of mescaline containing cacti.
The keys to Heaven’s gates then are readily available for those that are called to the sacred realms. If you are called to San Pedro and wish to do your own visionary journey please consider your local laws. Avoid sellers promoting the cactus as a source for getting high. Remember although the cactus is legal the mescaline within is not. It becomes illegal when you harvest or purchase with the intention to extract the mescaline for consumption. Extractions of any form are schedule 1 materials. 5
Healing with San Pedro (Huachuma)
San Pedro has a rich history of sacred shamanic use. It has been used to treat various ailments such as cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, fever, paralysis, problems with joints, high blood pressure, cardiac diseases, burning kidneys, and bladder to name a few. San Pedro is also a powerful antimicrobial that inhibits 18 or more penicillin-resistant bacteria.
These scared cacti like other indigenous entheogens are miracle plants. San Pedro has also been noted to cure drug addiction and alcoholism. Why then have these plants not been integrated into Western medicine? San Pedro at the very least deserves more attention from the scientific and psycho-medical communities. 6
How to Grow San Pedro
San Pedro grows naturally at high altitudes, which means it’s a hardy cactus that is relatively easy to grow at home. It’s also legal to do so as long as it’s clear that you’re only growing it for ornamental reasons.
Growing it from cuttings involves drying the cut end of the cactus (this takes a week or two), then planting the cutting in a soil/perlite mix. There is no need to water the cactus for the first few weeks, as roots will not yet have established. They need to be kept out of sunlight in a dry place until the roots have set.
You can also grow it from seeds, using a guide known as the “Takeaway Tek,” so-called because you can use plastic takeaway containers to start the process. It involves poking holes in your plastic container, filling it with a warmed and damp soil/perlite mix, and planting the seeds. Germination takes around six months, and after a year you will have baby cacti which you can grow in pretty much any environment.
Established cacti should be watered roughly once every one or two weeks, and their soil must have been dry for at least three days before a new watering. San Pedro plants should not be watered during colder months, so they can go dormant before the warmer growing months. They can be kept in direct sunlight, but should be in gentler, filtered sunlight during the early stages of growth.
There are several ways of extracting mescaline from San Pedro and other similar cacti. You can dry the cactus and grind it into a powder, you can brew a viscous tea or you can make a thick resin.
The following is strictly for educational and harm reduction purposes. We do not condone or encourage anyone to try this unless it is legal to do so in your area. Always check your local laws.
It is believed that most of the mescaline is found on the green outer layer. Dosing San Pedro is somewhat of a difficult task. No two cacti contain equal amounts of the active constituents. Theoretically speaking 9 – 12 inches of cacti should be enough for a single mid to high dosage depending on the amounts of mescaline found in the specimen.
The classic preparation involves harvesting a foot or so of cactus. Some people remove the spikes others leave them on. The cactus is then sliced down the ribs which range anywhere from four to nine, and four being considered one of the most sacred as the four ribs are said to represent the four winds or the four cardinal directions.
Some shamans believe the white interior or core of the cactus is toxic. They either discard it altogether or some use it for making soap. The green exterior and about one inch of the interior portion is cut into small cubes. The cubes are then boiled for 3-12 hours adding more water as needed. The result is a viscous dark green sludge that contains high amounts of mescaline.
Holding a San Pedro ceremony for yourself or a loved one is becoming a common practice around the world. There is definitely a traditional way of using the cactus but other modalities that focus on respect and healing also work. The key with this and all other entheogens is respect. A healthy respect for the plant teacher goes a long way. Growing your own San Pedro and using San Pedro that you’ve grown and harvested yourself will provide an unforgettable experience. If you are called to San Pedro and want an authentic San Pedro journey you can book San Pedro Journeys in several parts of Peru. Hopefully one day we will have retreat centers or healing centers in the states that offer San Pedro and other sacred plant medicines. 7
San Pedro Risks
Toxicity to mescaline has not been studied enough to determine what quantities could be dangerous to eat. However, Thousands of years of shamanic use and no reported deaths linked to San Pedro speaks volumes.
“Considering the human dose of mescaline is around 200-500mg orally, this means you would have to try very hard to take a fatal dose. It would be extremely unlikely to happen accidentally.” Ross Heaven
San Pedro is not as demanding as ayahuasca. There is no week-long dieta to follow. Just a few recommendations for the day or days before a ceremony such as cutting out fatty foods, meats and drugs or alcohol.
San Pedro is one of the safest psychoactive plants in existence. It has many healing benefits as discussed above, however, when traveling abroad the brew can become dangerous if it is brewed with additives by an inexperienced San Pedro enthusiast. Ratsch/ Hoffman noted some traditional additives like toé or angels trumpet (datura) can be fatal if used in excess. It is recommended to avoid ceremonies that involve the use of toé as an additive unless you know for certain that the practicing shaman has years of reputable experience.