Friday, 8 August 2014

San Pedro and Ayahuasca: Recreational Drug or Spiritual Revival?

A dimly lit environment is ideal for San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies. In the bowl with the spoon are raw pieces of the San Pedro cactus, ready for consumption for a small-scale ceremony in Buenos Aires.

     When I arrived in Cusco, Peru as a Canadian tourist, I was immediately intrigued by the abundance of promotion exhibited by tourist agencies regarding “San Pedro ceremony” or “Ayahuasca ceremony or even “San Pedro ceremony – without vomiting!".
Along with excursions to Macchu Pichu, Choquequirao, or to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca (see my previous article), San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies seemed to place in the front line among the major tourist attractions in Cusco.

Instead of wondering what this was all about, I decided to try it.

At the time, I was couch surfing at Hermoneges’s place, a young father of two who worked in tourism.  When I expressed interest in Ayahuasca and San Pedro -what was the difference anyway?- he said he would arrange for me to go to Caicai (an hour away from Cusco), where a renowned Shaman, Sampi, would lead me through my first experience of Ayahuasca.

I’m still not sure if it was my mistake, Hermogenes’s mistake, or Sampi’s mistake, but I ended up taking San Pedro instead of Ayahuasca.

So what is the difference between the two? Are they plants or drugs?  What risks accompany their consumption?

  •          A few important specifications

A giant San Pedro cactus grows in the yards of many
homes in Arequipa, Peru. People know it there as cure.
San Pedro (otherwise known as Cure in the Peruvian South, Huachuma in the indigenous language of Quechua, or Echinopsis Pachanoi in scientific terms), is a cactus native to the Andes. It grows in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and is legal in all these countries (or, to be more precise, it has not been declared illegal).

Archeological finds suggest that the use of San Pedro dates back to the ChavĂ­n culture, which existed from 1500 B.C to 500 B.C.  This people consumed the cactus in ceremonial settings and religious festivities, exploiting its hallucinogenic properties in order to enhance spiritual awareness and revelations.

San Pedro can be consumed in various forms: it can be eaten raw after having voided it of its spines and outer skin, and cut it into bite-size pieces (the green part is what should be consumed, the white part being extremely concentrated in mescaline, the hallucinogenic component); those same pieces can be dried in order to form a powder; or they an be boiled in water for various hours until a thick dark green liquid is obtained.
The effects – or the ‘trip’- of San Pedro will generally last 5-10 hours, depending on the quantity consumed.  
“For a first time user, I usually give one cup 20 cm in height full of liquid San Pedro that has previously been boiled for eight hours”, says Sampi, who has been leading San Pedro ceremonies for over twenty years.

Ayahuasca is quite different.  It is a brown liquid made from the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi, alone or combined with DMT-containing plants such as ‘chacruna’ (Psychotria Viridis); or with the non-DMT-containing leaves of Justicia Pectoralis. These three plants can only be found in the Amazon.

Ayahuasca is considered an integral part of certain religious groups in Brazil, such as the Church of Santo Daime. This congregation integrates Christian beliefs with indigenous practices, including the consumption of Ayahuasca at any major ritual.
In a house in Catamarca (Argentina), I am preparing a piece of the
San Pedro cactus, ridding it of its spines

Having led several Ayahuasca ceremonies, Sampi recommends first time users to ingest the quantity of Ayahuasca that would fill a shot glass; to wait 15 minutes, and to consume another glass equal to the first. The Ayahuasca trip will generally last between 4 and 8 hours.

One must be aware that when taking Ayahuasca, all senses –especially hearing- are extremely accentuated. It is therefore important to be in a setting where no irritating sounds or lights will perturb the user (any alarm, cellphone ring, headlights of a car, unpleasant music, etc.).

Strangely enough, although the taste of Ayahuasca is considered by most people better than that of San Pedro’s (some even find it enjoyable), “it is much more common to vomit after taking Ayahuasca than it is when consuming San Pedro”, says Sampi (that was my case).

  •        What does one feel when ingesting these substances?   Similarities and differences

 “Much of it depends on the person’s objective coming into the ceremony”, says Sampi. “Some look for something more medicinal, others for something spiritual, others simply want to hallucinate”. 

On the organic front, both San Pedro and Ayahuasca are known to provoke a cleansing of the stomach. In either case, it is strongly recommended to fast for approximately 8 hours beforehand, and especially to avoid meat and alcohol.

“Nearly every sickness we get comes from bad alimentation”, says Sampi. “San Pedro and Ayahuasca clean up the grease, meat, or alcohol-related excesses that are stuck in our stomach and intestines, and send them downwards”.

San Pedro and Ayahuasca also purify the body through emotional release.

“Our emotions and mental states obviously affect our health in innumerous ways”, says Sampi. “These substances allow for the release of those emotions that are toxic to our body – whether they be from a memory buried in the past or from a situation the person is going through at the moment”.

Sampi is preparing a fire pit in Buenos Aires, preceding a group ceremony
where six of us took San Pedro

 According to Sampi, both substances are meant  to “bring peace and harmony to  one’s affairs”.

 “Peace to better understand our  surroundings, and harmony to clear  up doubts we may have about our  relationships, our goals, our  understanding of certain concepts…  love for instance. What is love? How  does it differ from passion? Love  includes passion. But passion does  not always include love.  San Pedro  can orient you by allowing you to  understand that certain things like  love do not have a definition: they are innate. Passion is not, it is  fleeting. It allows you to better distinguish the truth.”


Spiritually, San Pedro and Ayahuasca tend to diverge.

“The most basic way I can describe it is this: San Pedro is like smoking marijuana but at a million revolutions stronger; and Ayahuasca is like having a glass of Pisco but at a thousand revolutions stronger”, says Sampi.

 From my personal experiences (although I must say I know San Pedro much better than Ayahuasca, and still have much to learn about both), as well as interviews I gathered over the last few months, I came to the tentative deduction that Ayahuasca is a much more sensory and individual experience, more prone to hallucinations. San Pedro, on the other hand, provokes thought, which people choose to share or not with others during the ceremony. It generally incites conversation among attendants, but is also conducive to silence among others. It makes people reconsider their beliefs, doubts, feelings, worries, and life philosophies.

  • Nature’s revival…or accepting “God”
An inspiring landscape on the walk towards Choquequirao, a set of ruins from the Inca period

“A common trend among those who try San Pedro is a sense of increased proximity to Nature”, says Sampi.
“It isn’t rare to see someone go look closely at a flower, start touching it, even talking to it.”
“I always recommended taking San Pedro in a natural setting. Ayahuasca is probably best to take indoors, because even the sounds of the outdoors can frighten some people”.

An enlarged awareness of the power of Nature and our dependency on it is indeed one of the elements that struck me the most and had a lasting effect on me from my experiences with San Pedro. 

I remember crying the first time I took San Pedro. I could not believe -and thought it such a disgrace- that I had let myself become so distant from Nature over the last 20 years; and completely underestimated its importance in my life, and in the well-being of all living things on Earth.

This is something I already knew deep inside; but with San Pedro, this awareness rushed to the surface of my thoughts and emotions, stronger than ever, making up for all the years of my unconscious denial of this reality.  I realized that verbally praising nature and enjoying it on the odd camping trip was not enough: I needed to get closer to it, to learn its secrets, its remedies. I needed to protect it, in any way I could, from those who are destroying it with waste, pesticides, seesaws, and nuclear radiation.

The statue of San Pedro (Saint Peter) in the parish of San Pedro Gonzalez Telmo in Buenos Aires -
it is said that the cactus San Pedro was named as such because when he betrayed Jesus, Simon received a crown of spines, similar to those of the cactus. He then became Saint Peter, who supposedly holds the keys to Paradise.
Another commonality among San Pedro users is the unprecedented acceptance of “God”. 

I put it into quotes because when I mention this word in public, it almost inevitably has a religious connotation to it, and is so often associated with the Church.  Instead, when I mention “God”, I am referring to a higher being, whatever he/she/it may be,  -He knows me, I do not know Him- one who takes on differing names from one culture to the next, but who always remains one and the same; omnipresent and all-powerful.

I started my trip to South America as a stubborn Atheist. I came back convinced of the existence of God –while keeping a safe distance from any form of organized religion. I am not sure to which extent, but I do attribute a big part of this transition to San Pedro.

“I have seen many people who didn’t believe in God –or the universe, Allah, call it what you want– take San Pedro and, usually several times later, alter their own beliefs and gradually come to believe in God”, admits Sampi.

Senses refined

Bruna has had various experiences with Ayahuasca in Brazil

Ayahuasca also had a lasting effect on Bruna.

“I have a lot of respect for Ayahuasca. It can be a tool for a better understanding of the truth. We come to realize that we see and feel everything through our own senses - and sometimes take this for the truth, which is a problem.  Ayahuasca incites us to give more value to other perspectives than our own”.

“It was like an awakening of my senses; I was much more in touch with my own body. I could also better distinguish my thoughts from my emotions. As a person who thinks a lot, it allowed to put my thoughts aside, and to focus on my feelings instead of running away from them”.

  •       Drug or entheogen? The risks of taking San Pedro or Ayahuasca
Drug or entheogen?

“I don’t like to call it a drug”, says Bruna.  It is an entheogen: it is something that we already have in our body, and these substances just accentuates our receptors”.   
“It also depends on your definition of ‘drug’.  Ayahuasca and San Pedro are practices that have been going on for thousands of years.”

Indeed, we should take a closer look at the definition of ‘drug’.  The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ‘an illegal and often harmful substance (such as cocaine, LSD, heroine) that people take for pleasure’. 

Above is the 'baby' form of the San Pedro cactus
 I personally don’t see either San Pedro or Ayahuasca as fitting this definition. When  consumed in controlled quantities (hence the need for a guide or at least very clear written directions for first-time users), these substances in themselves are not harmful in anyway way. The worst that can happen is vomiting, which is unpleasant, but not dangerous.

Moreover, while many tourists will try San Pedro or Ayahuasca for recreational purposes (recall what Sampi said about those who 'just want to hallucinate'), we must remind ourselves that indigenous cultures consider these plants as an integral part of their long-standing traditions and spiritual rituals - not for simple 'pleasure'.
Like Bruna, I see these plants as entheogens. According to the online Oxford dictionary, an entheogen is “a chemical substance, typically of plant origin, that is ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes”.
In my view, this definition perfectly describes the true nature of San Pedro and Ayahuasca.

In terms of addiction, San Pedro -and Ayahuasca to a lesser extent- are so absolutely repulsing to the taste that I highly doubt anyone could ever become addicted to this substance. One has to really want to experience the effects of San Pedro in order to endure the taste of it. (Some mix it with bread, chocolate, anything to mask its taste, but this method is not recommendable because it increases the risk of indigestion, which is otherwise minimal in the case of San Pedro).

Furthermore, there are numerous cases of drug addicts who were cured of their addiction through several sessions of San Pedro.
In Buenos Aires in 2013-2014, the Peruvian agency Pachamama Ayni organized with the help of Sampi San Pedro ceremonies that were specifically targeted at the ‘Paco’ (cocaine) addicts of Buenos Aires, in a country where 10 weekly deaths are associated to cocaine.

The risks

Similarly to marijuana, consuming San Pedro or Ayahuasca can lead to unpleasant, even dangerous situations if taken in the wrong circumstances. Consuming them in a noisy, public, overly dark environment with complete strangers are obviously conditions anyone should avoid.  In Cusco, following the spiked interest in spiritual ceremonies among tourists, many local Peruvians have decided to learn a few words of Quechua and the next day declare themselves a Shaman capable of leading group ceremonies.  At 100$ a head, these false guides are making enviable profits, especially when cramming thirty people into one ceremony.

Sampi with a San Pedro cactus. Sampi outspokenly criticizes Peruvians who
declare themselves 'Shamen' from one day to the next.
Western tourist should never have to pay more than the equivalent of 125$. If the agency charges you more than this amount, go to another one. Be aware that they already charge South American tourists only a third of that price.

Incidents have even happened when “Shamen” have tried to abuse women during ceremonies, or to steal money from attendants – the jail in Cusco holds a few of them.

Do not be seduced by advertisements for “San Pedro & Ayahuasca ceremony without vomits!”.
This suggests that the Shaman is mixing the plant with other substances that are likely not to be trusted.  Moreover, nausea is sometimes an inevitable part of the experience, and goes away very quickly.

I am not attempting to discourage tourists from signing up for San Pedro or Ayahuasca ceremonies. To the contrary, I strongly recommend it: done in the right circumstances, these experiences are extremely valuable for personal growth and will likely have a positive, long-term impact on your life views, or even lifestyle.

 This is simply a warning to all foreigners to be extremely careful when selecting the tourist agency, as well as the Shaman– the majority will do you no harm; but the good ones are rare. 

Women should be especially careful to enter a ceremony with at least one male friend; and try to look for a Shaman previously recommended by trusted others (you can even do this through Internet reviews).

I have known Sampi for about a year now, and have assisted in several San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies he has led both in Cusco and Buenos Aires. He travels to Arequipa a few times a year to handpick San Pedro and bring it back to Cusco where he currently leads ceremonies.

To arrange a San Pedro or Ayahuasca ceremony with Sampi, you may contact him directly at .

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, very interesting article.

    I've also heard that those types of cacti can make one recall their genetic memories. I guess like refracting invisible light waves into the visible spectrum.

    Chalk up another growth experience!