My Wondrous San Pedro Experience: Drinking Mystical Cactus In The Sacred Valley Of The Incas

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sacred valley pisac peru

It’s eight o’clock in the morning and the panorama of a bend in the Peruvian sacred valley of the Incas is majestic under the days early rays. From the patch of grass outside our mountainside room I can see Pisac off in the distance down below, a Peruvian village an hour or so from Cusco and situated on the Willkanuta river, now something of a draw for spiritual seekers due to the local plant medicine scene. The thick bitty lime green liquid I’m choking down for breakfast is bitter as hell, but then I’m not drinking it for the taste. The mixture has two ingredients; water and powdered San Pedro – a hallucinogenic cactus native to the Andes and the chemical key to my adventure today.

I force down the mix in the company of two friends; Chris, an old school buddy with me for the Peru leg of my American tour, and our host, Vik, a Danish friend who I’d met in Buenos Aires a couple months earlier who’d introduced himself by telling me he was in the continent to drink ayahuasca- we subsequently hit it off and became good friends, exploring Argentina’s cultured capital together amidst discussions of all things psychedelic.

My mix contains 33g of the mescaline containing cactus, one full dose, and I’ll take that again in an hour or so once I reach the eucalyptus trees down below. Vik seems to obtain a perverse pleasure from watching me struggle to get it down – he’s had his share in the weeks prior and despite being a huge fan of the cactus’ psychoactive effects and therapeutic qualities, knew just how bitter and stomach wrenching it was. So much is his aversion to the taste he’s actually trying to figure out a different way of ingesting the substance for future journeys.

san pedro wachuma cactus powder
Three bagged doses

My venture today is a solo one, so after finally getting the mix down as fast as my gag reflex will allow- a good 15 minutes of interspersed gulps- I say adios to the boys, heading down the rugged mountainside on a jagged path to the base of the valley, across a small road, away from town and into nature, through a field towards the river and the woods of eucalyptus trees.

pisac

As I make my way upstream I pass an old gringo with a white whispy beard in full Bolivian patterned wear. He merely looks grumpy in response to my cheery greeting and it throws me off, his bad vibes make me feel a little uneasy. I second guess my decision and consider that it is perhaps not the perfect situation and surrounding for me to be undertaking this journey. But then I also think that if you are waiting for the ‘perfect’ opportunity to do something, it may never come, sometimes you have to take the chance and go for it. Today will be a good judge. Anyway, I’ve already choked down a full dose, so its a bit late for second guesses now.

Settling In

After a few minutes of walking through the woods I veer off the path and settle down in what seems to be a good spot; a flat area just set back from where the river is noisily crashing over rocks in a mini-waterfall. I set down my stuff, unroll my sleeping mat, and pull out another 33g bagged dose of the powdered cactus, mixing it in a bottle of water and getting it down.

Within ten minutes the nausea starts setting in. I’m prepared for this and pull out the joint I’ve pre-rolled that morning. It works a treat and the nausea disappears as I slip into a more dazed feeling. I lie on my mat and begin writing in my pad which eases my nerves and soon I feel pretty good – I’m in the Sacred Valley! Feeling settled by writing, I set a timer for a 5 minute meditation, and lie back, closing my eyes.

Visual Distortions

The meditation relaxes me further and I roll on to my front, gazing up at the mountain across the river. The rocky surface is luminescent orange under the sun’s unchecked rays, and as I’m gazing up, the whole thing gently shimmers. It’s as if the image of the mountain is being projected onto a huge sheet and something has just shaken the top, making the the whole thing and all its details ripple. ‘It’s starting’ I think to myself excitedly, and lie back, enjoying the view.

About an hour and a half after the joint the nausea creeps back. I can’t believe I don’t have another J ready to go – by now I should know to have a handful pre-rolled and ready for my convenience during a trip but due to slack preparation have failed to show up with any more. So, mustering focus and steady hands, I craft another. It works wonders and the nausea disappears again, this time for the remainder of the trip, as if giving me the all clear to strap myself in for the ride to come.

The Spirit Arrives

Lying on my back, gazing up at the trees and sky, I slip into a more contemplative state and start questioning why I am actually there, drinking ground up hallucinogenic cactus on my own in the woods of a third world country… what am I searching for?! Thoughts begin to build steam and I feel like a receiver rather than originator of thoughts appearing in my mind.

The contemplation leads to me thinking about my life, I see it as if it were complete in that moment with nothing more to add. Thoughts of death appear, about dying there that day, that very spot in the valley where I lie. The morbid thoughts become dark and intensify and I feel increasingly fearful. I sense this episode as what I can only describe as a kind of game of thoughts; I perceive it as a playful action from somewhere outside of me – as if some demonic spirit is messing with me and sending me these thoughts to spook me(!). I consider that perhaps this is what others have called the spirit of Wachuma and in that very moment I see it in the top reaches of the tree growing up beside me, in the faintest but seemingly deliberate movements of the uppermost leaves and branches. They twinkle lightly, playfully, as they are delicately tickled by the breeze. My sense of gravity has subtly flipped and its as if I’m staring down rather than up, the trees and plants around me hanging by their roots, the top branches reaching as if out and down to a sky below. Feeling loosened and open, I’m struck by the beauty of what I see before me, my attention particularly drawn to the top of the tree which has its roots closest to me.

trees woods pisac

Ineffable Beauty

The scene is rich in texture and colour, layer upon layer of detail is revealed in the magnificent tree and its surroundings. I observe in awe as the tree bobs and weaves with the breeze, gently making circles in my view. I become aware of the most utterly minuscule movements – of every pore of every leaf of every branch – of an unspeakable and intense subtlety.

Utterly majestic. The movements of the tree are the epitome of effortless grace, the embodiment of the Taoist principle of wu-wei – what we admire in world class performers, whether musicians, sportsmen, or ballerinas; in the zone with zero contrivance, totally tuned in and lost in the moment. Overcome by awesome beauty, euphoria sweeps over me. A simple reflection comes to me; nature is incredible. When you simply watch it as it is, not just seeing, but actually watching – just pure simple nature is magic.

The scene subtly begins to transform, the details merging and forming intricate patterns within a vast multitude of colours above. I lie spellbound, I can hardly believe that I’m looking at a tree. Inside the patterns are small shifting movements that appear like alien insects crawling around a fluorescent ants nest. The subtly shifts in the scene are fluid and smooth, but also, like an ants nest, mechanical in some way. The colourful movements are slow and continuous ant the whole thing appears otherworldly. The range of what I’ve seen within the tree so ridiculous that I begin to wonder if its going to show me my life.

Writing Resistance

I’m compelled to roll over and write some notes in an attempt to document and bring some of this magic back with me. This proves to be fairly challenging as the act of holding the pen steady requires a serious effort of concentration and composure but, though a little tricky, I’m able to hold the experience at arm’s length sufficiently to get some words down. It’s like when trying to stay awake despite being so tired that you could fall asleep in a second- you can resist, but only for so long before the inevitable pulls you under – the inevitable here not being sleep but as altered and surreal as the land of dreams. I feel the action of mental resistance mirrored within my body, a tense tightness throughout, as if every cell is waiting and willing me to release myself back into the experience – the cactus gently tugging at me, pulling me back in. With some notes scribbled, I drop the pen with relief and roll back over onto my back.

Surrendering myself to the experience, my consciousness continues to shift and I fall deeper into an increasingly immersive trip, continually spellbound, rolling through ever novel experience and landscape perceptions.

From time to time I’m struck by the incredulity of what I’m experiencing and decide I must make more notes – it seems crucial that I document such an experience. Each time I do this however, the physical feeling of my body synchronises with my mental action; resistance – heavy and burdensome, or surrender – light and relaxed. Each time I roll over and pick up the pen, I feel like that same heaviness pulling me back, as if telling me that I’m not allowed to leave mescaline land for too long.

Falling deeper, time increasingly dilates and experience is fairly intense throughout, even when I ‘pull myself out’ to make notes. Anticipating how much deeper I’m going to be pulled under, I wonder whether that double dose was a good idea – I might be in for more than I bargained for! I take it in good spirits and smile to myself, relishing the adventure that I’ve undertaken. I know the best thing to do is to relax, and again I consciously surrender, once more losing myself in the utter beauty of the trees and the clouds and the sky. I’m falling, falling, just floating in endless beauty.

Dropping Physical Worries

A high pitched whistling sound pulls me out of my beatific awe, it’s some cheery trekker in the vicinity making a tune with their lips. It triggers a touch of paranoia and some niggling worries resurface. Who is it? What if they come over and start speaking to me? What will they think of me here sprawled on my back? I catch myself worrying, made aware of it by the accompanying physical discomfort. This constant mirroring of the physical and mental is making a point – the two are inextricably intertwined. Science has proven this, but now I’m not reading about some research study, I’m comprehending the truth through direct experience and see that expressions like ‘just drop it’ and ‘mental baggage’ aren’t simply metaphorical. Resistance, clinging, craving, worrying – all can be understood as physical sickness too.

I realise there is no use in me carrying the worry about the stranger and compose myself to willingly drop it. But even with the knowledge that it doesn’t serve me, I feel a reluctance to let go – a strange resistance to let go of resistance – now aware of the usually subconscious urge to cling to what I know, feeling it as physical weight. If I can just stop worrying I can be totally light, but I hesitate. It’s like so many things in life – ending an amicable but ultimately unsuitable relationship, or jumping into water on a hot day – the transition is what unnerves us even when we know the change needs to be made.

Telling myself to let go, it’s like I’m hanging on to the edge of a cliff, bracing myself to drop into the unknown. I forcefully peel my fingers off the ridge, finally dropping myself off to fall…

Lightness… I’m falling, falling, falling, and then… still falling. There is no thud at the bottom, no crush, no death or oblivion – the experience is just continuous falling, ever unfolding experience without grasping. I sense a wondrous liberation. I’ve dropped myself off only to find that I’m still there. That weight, those worries and stress – I carry it all in an unconscious effort to retain my sense of self, out of fear of losing myself – but it’s not who I am, and when it’s all dropped, the awareness continues, without the physical weight. Perpetual, changing, naked existence.

What I’ve released was a part of the sense of a separate self – ego, role, identity – all a great trick. Both science and Buddhism are right – it’s no more than illusion and hallucination. I am the universe. ‘I’ is consciousness. I think how strange a physical sense of self is, how bizarre bodies are! I feel as if I’m undergoing purification, floating weightless with the excess parts stripped away.

Humbling

Feelings of humility arrive to fill the void I’ve opened up, and I lie awed and humbled to my very core. I see myself from above, my body lying there on the ground, and then I float up and away from myself, up over the valley. As I go up into the clouds I lose sight of myself beneath the trees. My vision of myself shrinks, I see myself and place as the trees and river. It’s a visual representation to what I’m feeling – my ego and self-importance shrinking away as I see the bigger picture and my place in the universe. I understand that the significance of my existence is nothing, and I experience a deep and unstirring peace.

Waves Of Gratitude

The calm humility morphs, and I feel sweeping waves of energy flowing and crashing through me, somehow rinsing my insides with an essence of gratitude. I see detailed kaleidoscopic close-eyed visuals, but they are only a symptom and sideshow of the experience; the significance is in the the sense of total and utter gratitude, in the deep and resonant waves reverberating throughout my being. The waves are blissful and euphoric, the antithesis to every feeling of heaviness or worry. I am truly, profoundly, and utterly grateful.

There’s nothing in particular that I feel grateful for; I don’t think about family, friends, my health or anything else. It’s a bizarre sense of gratitude, gratitude with no object, just for it’s own sake. I am not a receiver of it; simply, I am gratitude.

Be grateful. This is the teaching of today, learnt from experience, direct from the source. I’m again reminded why psychedelic experiences are so esoteric, words could never explain this.

I lie, bathing in feelings of gratitude, euphoria and bliss, coated and entirely submerged in them, soaking them in.

Return To Reality

Some time later, my alarm rings. Its signifying that I should be making my return trip out of the woods. I’ve set the alarm for roughly an hour before sunset to give myself a decent amount of time to make it back in daylight and avoid a tricky and likely very confusing walk back through the woods in darkness. The problem is that I’m still exceptionally high and hardly feel in my body. Of course euphoria and beauty wouldn’t typically be considered a problem, but I’m still conscious of the real world responsibility to look after myself and get back to town, and this is hardly the ideal frame of mind to be organising my stuff and figuring out the route. I know I’m inappropriately high to be making the journey, but compose myself – one step at a time, I tell myself. Easily, gently, one step at a time.

Rising to my feet, I stagger around as I gather my things, pack my bag, and roll up my sleeping mat. Everything stuffed inside and ready, the zip decides to break in that moment. Perfect, I laugh to myself at the timing of this. I sling it round on to my front and hold it closed with my hand, looking up to assess my surroundings and figure my way back out the woods. As I look around, every damned direction looks exactly the same, of course it does – it’s the woods! My flights through consciousness have done nothing for my sense of direction, I don’t recognise anything and a few steps in any direction makes me worry I’m going the wrong way and I’ll only have to backtrack later, losing what are now precious minutes of daylight.

I remember something Vik said to me on the mountainside that morning: ‘Stay by the river’. Now I know exactly why. Following the sound of running water, I find my way back to the mini-water fall and regain my sense of direction. I can’t walk alongside the river as there is no path and the terrain is clustered rocks and trees, so I head away, but with an idea of the direction I should be going and aim to stay as close as I can whilst still heading downstream.

Nothing looks familiar, of course, even though I must’ve come this way in the morning. ‘Trust your gut’ – a nice expression but right now my gut doesn’t trust anything. In every direction, it tells me ‘this doesn’t seem familiar, it can’t be the right way’. I stick to logic, a trusty friend that’s gotten me out of a few tight spots in altered states, and cling to the knowledge of where I’ve just seen the river, and steadily push on on the basis of that. I come upon some houses, half expecting some local to come out yelling something to the tune of ‘get out of my garden’ in Quechua, and walk quickly on, heading back towards where I calculate the river should be.

Sure enough, I see running water and recognize where I am from my walk in the morning. I’m less than five minutes from the road. I have just enough time to breathe a sigh of relief before I hear a faint call, just about audible over the gushing water. I turn around and recognize Vik and his friend Kelsey a way back up the path. It’s a welcome and charming surprise, and they head over, having been meditating in the woods. ‘I am really high’ I confess, and they take me under their wing and back into town where we spend the remainder of the evening. Though lingering effects from the San Pedro are with me late into the evening – experiencing Pisac lit by night as a world of wonder – the real trip and adventure ended as I left the woods, and no more stark revelations or powerful sensations will come. At least until the next time.

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