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#3 : Game Changers { Part Two of Two }

San Pedro

Before we get into what San Pedro is, it's worth noting that things are a bit more loose in Peru when it comes to psychedelic substances. Most drugs that would fall under Schedule One status in the U.S. are perfectly legal, or at least available in small quantities within the Peruvian borders. Cocaine is about the only drug you should be careful with during your visit. Which frankly, is a bit odd. The coca leaf is a massive source of revenue for the country on the whole. Just about every market sells coca tea, coca candy, and coca energy drinks. Yet the only company legally authorized to process and refine pure cocaine from Peruvian coca leaf is Coca-Cola. I know, shocking.

Ok! San Pedro {also known as Huachuma} is a sacred cactus that has been taken ceremonially in most parts of South America for thousands of years. While the Spanish conquistadors didn't think much of it upon colonizing, Huachuma ended up being woven into the local Catholic rituals as a sacrament, after Christianity had been forced down the throats of the indigenous peoples. Thus, it was given the name San Pedro {Saint Peter}, but is also colloquially referred to as Pacha Papa {Father Earth} by the locals. It's perhaps one of the lesser known of the sacred hallucinogens in Peru, coming in at a close second to Ayahuasca {Pacha Mama}.

Ayahuasca is believed to send the spirit reeling from the body, blasting out into the cosmos, while San Pedro has a rather grounding effect. Sending its user inward, and creating an unspeakable connection between them and the earth. This effect lasts between ten and twelve hours, and one can peak for up to five hours during this time, give or take. So it goes, with all things mescaline. Compared to other psychedelics, it's simply a long, slow burn. Personally, the best analogy that I can give is that it feels similar to “hippie flipping” {a combination of MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms}, but casts a much lengthier and loving shadow.

The Compound

Upon entering the compound, we met with Kaya, the older South African woman that runs the property. She was tall and slender, with long silverfish hair and an overall patient disposition about her. The kind of energy that you might look for in a trip sitter of any ilk. After our introduction, each of us was given a document to sign. It basically stated in legalese that the site couldn't be held liable if any of the participants experienced any impairment throughout the course of the day. Since this was the first time I had been asked to sign a waiver before partaking in a drug, I'd be lying if I said it didn't add a strange charm to the experience. I skimmed over the forms and signed off. My body began to feel heavy. That sort of feeling you get when you're on a roller coaster slowly clicking up the tracks at a ninety-degree angle, right before it catapults you into chaos. Other psychedelics can give you a similar sense of anxiety right after you kick off, but at this point I hadn't even set eyes on a glass of San Pedro.

The facility itself was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also very well thought out in terms of functionality. The main house, where Kyla and her two sons lived, was located in the center of two larger outdoor areas. Both were open air, filled with lush greenery and spiritual embellishments. To the right of the main house, was the Garden of Silence. For those familiar with tripping on a psychedelic, the idea behind this may seem self-explanatory. Since there was no means of knowing who might be taking part in the ceremony, having a special area for silence was a stroke of genius. The area on the left hand side of the main house was set up specifically for congregating. If you felt the need to socialize or work anything out noisily, this was the place to do it. Brilliantly drawing a line in the sand, creating two safe spaces for whichever direction a participant’s trip may lead that day.

The night before each ceremony, the Pacos {local shamans from the Q’ero tribe} boiled the San Pedro for about twenty hours, turning it into a bitter mescaline tonic. We had been instructed to fast for three days, leading up to the ritual. Specifically, this meant no cheese, no chocolate, and no caffeine. Apparently, ingesting any of these three in combination with the sacred cactus can cause severe nausea. Trenches had been dug on site {about a foot wide} that extended around the entire outer perimeter of both the garden of silence and the social area. Despite fasting, it is normal for folks to vomit at some point during the long trip. This is considered to be a purging of toxins or impurities from the body. We were encouraged to use the trenches if we needed to return any impurities back to the earth.

The Ceremony

We sat patiently on soft mats where the plant medicine rituals would typically take place on the property. There were roughly ten of us in total, taking part in the ceremony. Kaya sat facing the group. A barrage of crystals and relics intentionally placed within her arm’s reach. The space that surrounded us somehow found a middle ground between sensory overload and spiritual awakening. Ethereal paintings stretched across the circular walls, while Hindu gods and goddesses gazed upon us in soft poses. An overwhelming wave of bizarre positivity washed over me. The room was seasoned with an energy that I didn’t recognize, but I couldn’t deny the hooks it already had in me.

Kaya explained how we would begin the session. Raising a divination wand, adorned with a translucent crystal at the end, she maintained that we had all chosen this ceremony for a reason. That we all had a looming question or needed an answer of some kind. First the Paco would perform a sacred Icaros chant, perhaps to thank Pacha Papa for his allowance in our consumption of the cactus. The divination wand would then be passed from one person to another. Each person would profess to the room (as well as the spirit realm ) the specific intentions they had for taking the sacrament. A wide variety of life circumstances were shared among the group. A mother who had recently lost her son was looking for closure. A young man who was searching for a new path after years in prison. In my case, I was simply lost. After wiping the slate clean back in Kentucky, I was unsure of how to move forward. My time in Peru had been unimaginable, but my visa would soon expire. I was solely asking a plant for some semblance of direction.

A tall glass filled to the brim with psychedelic tonic was gently placed in front of each person's mat. Its color took on an opaque, slime green hue. We raised our glasses, and it was bottoms up. In terms of consistency, it could be likened to a thick mucus, with a flavor profile of bitter mescaline and earth. The best medicine tends to taste like complete shit, and after taking a big gulp, I thought to myself "ohhhh baby." After finishing the entire glass, she told us to hang onto it. We were led to an outside area where she would give each of us a garden mattress for the day. It was about as long and wide as a twin mattress, but only about two inches thick. Each mattress had a different animal design, and it seemed like she was sizing up each person before handing them off.

We were released onto the grounds and the day began. Each of us chose a spot for our mat in one of the two wings of the property. This would be our personal space for the day. I found a gazebo in the Garden of Silence that was not yet occupied. My only belongings were a sketchbook and a pen in case I felt any creative inspiration hit. In roughly forty-five minutes, the San Pedro began to kick in. The initial onset felt similar to mushrooms in that it had a euphoric body buzz. The weather was perfect that morning. Laying on my back, I watched a few playful clouds in an otherwise unbothered sky. After a while, the clouds began to shape-shift into objectively hilarious and strange abstractions. The feeling that washed over me was not much different from the warm embrace that opium gives you under its care. Colors grew more and more vibrant as the trip progressed {another shared mushroom trait}. I closed my eyes and let the sun illuminate my eyelids. As I gazed at the warm, pink screen, a strange plant began to unfold. From a seedling it developed in rapid succession, blossomed, then died and began to decay. Then it was reborn. I watched this a few times on a loop and decided to get out my sketchbook to draw the plant.

As per usual with hallucinogens, time happens to be a slippery matter. At this point I was not sure how much time had passed, but I felt safe and content in my trip at the time. Kaya appeared, gently hovering over me with a large pitcher of San Pedro. She told me I was welcome to top up if I felt the need. Let us get one thing straight. It was not necessary at all. However, if you happen to find yourself in a similar situation, go ahead and accept the gift. The key to hallucinogens is letting go. The sooner you just let go in the midst of a heavy trip, the better. I finished the second glass and gave my body some time to process it. Thus far, I felt no need to make a trip to the purging trenches. As the second serving kicked in, it was clear that the gears had shifted up a few notches. My motor skills began to have more in common with that of a jellyfish, at best. So that was neat.

Then, out of nowhere, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning around, I saw the Paco standing over me. He was wearing a light brown shawl and a traditional hat, which I assumed was purely a shaman thing? He motioned toward me. Pointing upward, he helped me to stand upright. As he brought each of my arms into an outstretched posture (a sort of capital T formation), it felt as if I was readying myself to take off into the sky. I held my arms out as he stood in front of me taking inhumanly long breaths. Leaning into my left ear, he began to whisper. As he repeated the chant into my right ear, the hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention. I should note that while Spanish is widely spoken in Peru, Quechua is one of the pre-colonial languages that is still commonly spoken. Needless to say, I didn’t understand any of the Quechuan that he was whispering.

From his shawl, he pulled a massive condor feather. It was blackish gray, and bled into white at the edges. It had to be around four feet in length. He placed the feather between my neck and my right shoulder as he continued chanting quietly. Then in a flash, he ran it across my outstretched arm. At that moment, I felt as though a dam had burst open, and as the water rushed out it immediately evaporated into the atmosphere. Still holding my arms out awkwardly, he rested the condor feather on my left shoulder, running it across once more. I know it was a mental weight that was being lifted, but it felt heavy in a physical sense. I began to well up with tears as he lowered my arms back down. With a calm smile, he continued on the grounds to work with the other participants.

I went back to my mattress and attempted to process what had just happened. A laughably impossible thing to process, but I had to at least sit down and collect myself. The peak on San Pedro proved to be more protracted than anything I had experienced before in terms of other psychedelics. San Pedro lacks the tide-like rhythm of a mushroom trip, instead resembling more of a steady flowing river. I was beginning to grow a bit restless. At that moment, one of Kaya's twin sons, Glen, appeared in the garden. He invited anyone who was interested to join for a hike to the Templo de Luna (Temple of the Moon).

Templo de Luna

I sought out Kat to see if she was interested in the hike. She had been to this particular ceremony on a previous Cusco visit, and had already experienced the group hike. She decided to opt out this time around, but told me that I should definitely make the trek. Two other guys from the group joined Glen and I for the journey. From my vantage point, this was ideal. A smaller group meant less problematic factors at play. We left the site and shoved off. Up until then, I hadn't spoken to Glen at all. He's the type of person that doesn't speak much, but when he does it comes off as profound. He spoke briefly about his time spent studying to become a Reiki Master and about how many years his family had been performing rituals on the compound. He was a heavy figure to be around in that moment and perfect for leading a few cosmically drenched lads on a day hike to Templo de Luna.

We traversed wide open valleys, and much like the rest of Cusco, it was uphill the entire way. The sun rested heavily above us at all times. At times it seemed like a wild animal, playfully luring us to the temple. All around us were large stones that had clearly been shaped and hewn for unknown purposes. Finally, we caught a glimpse of Templo de Luna in the distance. Down and to the left of it was Templo de la Rana {Temple of the Frog}. I can't speak much about this particular temple as I had never asked any follow ups in that moment. I can say that both temples were built during the Imperial Inca period, around the middle of the 15th century. Another surprising feature of this area is that it is not in any way a tourist destination. In fact, most visitors to Cusco don't even know of its existence. There are no staff or ticketing set up for this temple, as you would find in Sacsayhuaman or Machu Picchu.

We were approaching the entrance of the Templo de Luna. Climbing the stairs to the temple was a humbling experience. Especially when under the influence of a psychoactive cactus. The four of us seemed to me like newborn babies climbing a flight of stairs. An interesting mythology that the Incas hold with today's Peruvians is that they were giant humans. One reason for this is that all Inca staircases tend to have been built for extremely large individuals. This was obviously no exception. As we stood before the main entrance, Glen casually mentioned the entrance itself symbolized a stone vagina. This was not merely a hike to see the temple, but also to partake in a rebirthing ceremony.

Still in letting go mode, I thought “sure.” This entire trip was a rebirth of sorts, albeit I didn't realize it at the time. We ventured into the cold, vaginal monolith. The walls narrowed as we squeezed through. Above us, sunlight crept through deliberate cracks in the stone. Immediately to our left was an altar, normally used for full moon ceremonies. From under his shawl, Glen pulled fresh coca leaves and placed them onto the altar. He asked us to hold silence with him for a moment, and then went on to model a type of rebirthing breathwork that we then attempted for ourselves. A type of circular breathing that apparently facilitates various layers of unconscious patterns and inhibitions. I'm uncertain how much of it had to do with my state of mind at the time, but after a few minutes of this breathwork I felt like I was somehow extracting electricity from the cavernous air, into my pores. One by one, Glen propelled us through the stone birth canal. Drenched once again in sunlight and crisp mountain air, all three of us sat on the steps and wept. I can't put words to it, but something about an impromptu rebirthing ceremony leached out heavy emotions in each of us.

Glen gave us a few minutes to collect ourselves and then asked if we wanted to venture up to the surface of the temple. After climbing to the top of the temple, he began showing us portals that had been carved into the rock. Affixed to the hollowed portals were a series of various animal heads that held a special meaning to the Inca elders. The head of a condor stretched out from a stone, facing the sun. He spoke about the modern Pacos and how they sat, meditating for hours within the portals. Essentially time traveling back to their ancestors. Glen coaxed us to sit and meditate within the carvings before returning to the compound, so we did.

Upon reaching the compound walls, we were greeted with an array of fruit. I reconnected with Kat, who was well aware of what I had just undergone with the hike. We enjoyed the fresh fruit and spent another hour or so on the grounds of the compound. There was an option to stay overnight for a modest upcharge, but my place was not that far of a walk. We both opted to leave the grounds on the high note that it was.

The Answer

Heading back down the mountain, we found a quiet area with a bench and sat for a while. Reflecting on our experiences of the day, I thanked her again for the invite. Although we were certainly still tripping, we weren't by any means peaking at that point. We continued down into the city center and agreed on an Indian restaurant, that we passed for a long-awaited dinner. During the meal, something quite unexpected happened.

A woman came to our table and sat down with us. Neither of us knew her. She looked directly into me and said, "Listen, I don't know if you all are teachers or not. I've been looking at a teaching position in Vietnam, and found a school that seems really nice. Do you know anything about this school?" I told her that we had both recently completed our TEFL certification, but neither of us had been employed at a school yet. I thanked her for the info regarding the school in Hanoi and wished her luck. The girl then stood up and left the restaurant. It didn't even appear that she had come from another table.

After she left, I mentioned to Kat that maybe I should look into this school in Vietnam. She agreed. The next morning, I found the exact school in question and applied right then. Having no official teaching experience and being freshly TEFL certified, I didn't have high hopes. Kat and I met at a cafe a couple days later. She was planning on heading back to California, and I showed her some photos/info regarding the school in Vietnam. That same evening, the school had contacted me to set up an interview. By the end of the month, I was on a flight leaving Peru and heading to Asia for the very first time.

Let me preface this first with, yes of course. This may have very well been nothing more than a strange coincidence. However, is it possible that it could have been Pacha Papa answering my question posed earlier that day, like some sort of cosmic boomerang?



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1 Comment

Feb 08, 2023

At times, the world has a strange way of pushing you in the direction that you need to go. It sounds like this experience really gave you a new direction. Thank you for sharing.

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