San Pedro: The Divine Cactus of Peru
Photo by Forest & Kim Starr
In the last few years in the UK, and many other countries, there has been a growing and maturing interest in natural plant hallucinogens. This delicately transforming awareness has been helped by a more positive presentation in the media, from Bruce Parry’s excellent BBC series Tribe, to Channel 4’s Celebrity Detox which against my expectations managed to be both entertaining and present the Amazonian hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca intelligently and responsibly.
Ayahuasca, with DMT as one of its many active ingredients has led to an explosion of writing by explorers, anthropologists, journalists and scientists all providing tantalising accounts of the blockbuster visions, strange encounters in extremely alien worlds, and encounters with the spirits of plants, those sentient beings who work with the shaman in ceremonies healing those patients who come for healing and seeking cures that modern medicine and no western doctors could possibly provide, including protection and recovery from psychic attacks from brujos, those shaman who would use their skills to harm rather than heal.
But one hallucinogen so far has managed to escape the limelight, content to open up its mysteries to those who seek it out in the Andes of Peru. That teacher plant is the cactus San Pedro, used by indigenous people for at least 3000 years, but which only now is being discovered by westerners. I have been fortunate not only to have undertaken a shamanic apprenticeship with ayahuasca in the rainforests with my maestro teacher, Javier Arevalo, but I have also worked with San Pedro under the guidance of Lesley Myburgh, affectionately known as La Gringa, who has been running San Pedro ceremonies in her garden up in the mountains of Cusco for many years, beside the ancient Incan Temple of the Moon.
The San Pedro cactus botanically has been identified as the subgenus Trichocereus of the genus Echinopsis (Cactaceae). The most widely used species are Echinopsis pachanoi, Echinopsis peruviana and Echinopsis lageniformis. There is now scientific consensus that the active hallucinogenic agent in the cactus is mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenylethylamine). San Pedro also contains many other phenethylamine derivatives which have hallucinogenic properties. This can be contrasted with the tryptamine class of hallucinogens which include DMT, psilocybin, iboga and ayahuasca, although this is a quite simplistic account since shaman will often mix the basic medicines with additional active plants depending on what they are attempting to heal or deal with in a patient.
The ceremonies that I experienced with Lesley were all in the daytime, starting in the morning. The effects of the San Pedro, which when drunk feels like warm slime that you have to chug down in one fell swoop, begin to be felt after forty minutes or so, and for me lasted well into the evening, although perhaps peaking in the afternoon. Having experienced the dissolution of my physical self and breakdown of the boundaries of my ego in my journeys with ayahuasca, not only to alien realms, but also having been taken to the home of the plant spirits, always in the magical moonlight of the rainforest at night, San Pedro was an entirely different teacher to work with.
Perhaps because you tend to stay much more in your body than you do with tryptamines, the experiences may at first appear less interesting and less sensational. I was not seeking thrills or psychedelic adventures, I was working with San Pedro to help look at many emotional issues around being an absent father, one who had never met his daughter (as well as researching this plant for my masters degree dissertation). What I experienced with San Pedro was a revelation to me, achieving a level of consciousness that I would describe as being ultra present, my vision acute as an eagle, my attention focussed on the here and now, really feeling and sensing myself whole, at one with the trees, the mountains, the rocks, the air, the grass, the flowers, the sky and the clouds.
Oh my the clouds! How to describe what I saw when I lay down in Lesley’s garden, looking up to the glorious white clouds which I could connect with, feel the energy of, as they floated in an other worldly almost fractal like dance in the bright blue sky. This sense of connection was present in all my ceremonies, you are not journeying away from any part of yourself, you experience yourself more fully in the moment, while also feeling that you have a direct and psychic connection to the teacher plant, reviewing your issues, examining them from new perspectives, and, like ayahuasca, occasionally purging out negative psychic energies, your own energies blocking yourself from being healed.
San Pedro is not an easy path for those who may be looking for deep and profound healing. But there are many anecdotal stories of people who have managed to heal themselves, often from very physical illnesses and conditions, with this plant. There is no medical research to corroborate these cases, and I would love to see structured research in the future to support these very credible accounts. But one thing I thought I would do in this article is to share some of the many testimonies that I collated, with kind permission from Lesley, from the many hundreds of visitors who come to her to work with this sacred medicine.
This first testimony is interesting, as this participant did report on the reaction of their doctor after having returned to their country from ceremonies with Lesley:
“My experience was not a pleasant one. The physical reaction of my body was intense to say the least. But still there were lessons learnt and beauty found. I had a big check-up at the doctor on Wednesday last and had everything done, heart, blood, x-rays, the whole lot, and guess what the doctor said? Never in a million years when she met me did she ever think I would be well again. There is not a thing wrong with me. I told her about San Pedro and she said she would never discount my testimony as she had seen with her own eyes how well I am. So thank you sister for the gift you gave me. San Pedro saved my life.”
Many people, as is so often the case, felt unable to put their experiences into words. But it was clear that they had never had experienced anything close to what they had done with San Pedro, and this includes perhaps younger explorers who had been limited to more synthetic ‘drugs’ in their home countries. It is not uncommon for people to stop abusing ‘drugs’ and come to a more mature appreciation of the difference between these and teacher plants, the experience is that powerful.
Nature can really come alive, just as it did for me too:
“I found answers that I had been hiding from and many that I needed. San Pedro taught me what it means to be at one with nature and to trust myself more. Seeing the earth spirits and the earth breathing – wow! Love is the answer to any question.”
Many many participants report insights and breakthroughs in finding answers to problems they may have been living with for many years, this report being quite typical:
“I have experienced frightening, beautiful, enlightening and insightful things here. I feel as if I have learnt more about myself in the past month than I have in my entire school career. Retching out toxic thoughts and emotions is a new cleansing for me but I am closer to the source now. Learned a new patience for myself in someways that’s all I ask. It was a big deal for me because it’s so unlike anything I have ever experienced before, but it’s really opened my eyes to a new way of seeing the world and all it offers. I feel powerful right now.”
And finally, this testimony offers some insight into the great expansion of consciousness you can experience:
“San Pedro, not at all what was expected, feeling at one with the spirit of life, feeling myself be everything around me, seeing so many levels of energy and consciousness on a comparable scale. I am awed, humbled and blessed.”
Having written this short article, whenever I speak about teacher plants I feel a great responsibility in not glamourising them, or hiding any negative aspects or dangers. If you would like to find out more, I have written a book on both San Pedro and ayahuasca which also contains much advice on psychological and physical preparation, diet, medical aspects and dangers and personal safety (from rogue shaman etc) that must be taken into account before embarking on any work with natural plant hallucinogens.
I myself though feel so blessed in having had the opportunity to undertake such profound work in one of the most energising, inspiring and beautiful cities I have visited, under the guidance of such a caring and experienced teacher Lesley. I too resolved many issues which had plagued me for many years, releasing tensions and traumas, allowing me to walk far more lightly, with a new-found self-belief and sense of wonder and enchantment that I think I had lost many years ago. Thank you San Pedro, it really is a truly divine medicine and teacher.