No doubt you will have heard stories of people going to far-away destinations to experience taking psychoactive or entheogenic brews, to undergo a plant medicine ceremony assisted by a shaman or a facilitator. Amongst the most popular plants used are Huachuma or Peyote cactus, Ayahuasca or Psilocybin mushrooms gatherings
Typically, these tales tend to focus on the spectacular or dramatic immediate effects of a ‘trip’, some of which are illuminating, while others are downright ghastly. However the latest reports from more scientifically minded authorities have rallied around these ancient times practices and attest of their immediate or long term health benefits.
This article reviews more particularly one of these ancient teaching plant medicines, Huachuma or the San Pedro cactus, and explores its positive or adverse effects on health.
What is Huachuma?
Huachuma — also known as the San Pedro cactus — is a brew made from a variety of cacti mostly found in the Peruvian and Andeans highlands. The three most commonly used cacti are Trichocereus Pachanoi, or the Peruvian and Bolivian torch, respectively Echinopsis peruviana and Echinopsis lageniformis. A thick layer of the skin is used in the preparation, though other plants or ingredients can be added as well.
This drink has been used for healing, spiritual and religious purposes by ancient cultures in the northern part of South America for over 5700 years(1) and is still used in sacred drinking ceremonies by many spiritual communities in this part of the world.
Traditionally, a shaman also called curandero or laika — an experienced medicine man who leads Huachuma ceremonies — prepares the brew by boiling the skin and parts of the flesh of the cactus in water over long periods of time. The brew or medicine is then shared in ceremonial circles, mostly during day-long ceremonies. Less commonly it can also be served at night.
The San Pedro cactus is peeled and cut before being boiled. Interestingly, during the preparation the shaman uses constant prayers and shamanic rituals. They are just as important, if not more, than the 12-20 hours boiling process to extract it’s medicinal compounds. The preparation is itself a sacred ceremony.
The brew reduced to the right thickness and spiritual potency is then cooled to be shared in healing ceremonial gatherings.
Because it is a bit gentler than many of the other plant teachers, Huachuma has earned the nickname “The Grandfather” around the medicine community. Mescaline itself is nontoxic and non-addictive. And, while there are few studies done on huachuma itself, a Harvard Medical School study that investigated the long-term effects of regular peyote use among members of the Native American Church found “no evidence of psychological or cognitive deficits”.
Make no mistake though, San Pedro can produce as deep visions as any other entheogenic, Ayahuasca, Buffo Alvarius or Psilocybin mushrooms. However it is overall less scary, less jarring and more loving than many other plant teachers.
How does it work? Huachuma’s 4 pillars
As mentioned above, the consumption of the cactus is done natively in spiritual ceremony, a special ritual gathering with a specific intention, usually therapeutic or spiritual. The four pillars or main components of a Huachuma ceremony are the plant itself, the ceremony, the shaman or facilitator and the intention. Each component is crucial to the outcome as they each contribute a specific and vital aspect in the revelation of the Plant’s Spirit, it’s personality, it’s messages and its healing powers. When successfully combined, these four components form the essential tapestry of the shamanic world, more recently paralleled to the quantum approach to reality that modern science is only starting to unravel.
Discarding only one of the four components, for example, consuming the plant by itself in ceremony but without intention, or with intention but without guidance, will usually result in milder effects, possible confusion, visions without meaning, and the integration of the process may be rendered difficult, if it ever happens. Somehow, an ‘incomplete’ ceremony may miss the full scope and range of this powerful process.
N.B: The scientific approach to understanding the world —based on measurement, repeatability and falsification as its sole operating principles and goals— must also, by definition, discount the ceremonial, shamanic, spiritual and psychic (emotional, individual and psychological) experience of anyone partaking in a San Pedro ceremony. In fact, a spiritual or personal experience cannot be effectively measured as it is subjective and anecdotal only. Consequently, what scientists really measure, is a notion of “what is really happening” at a structural or chemical level. From a scientific perspective, the reality of the experience for millions of people who have used ancestral plants for spiritual, emotional, or physical healing for thousands of years must be fatally ignored.
The main psychoactive component of Huachuma is mescaline. However, as well as its mescaline content, San Pedro contains a range of compounds that have effects of their own. By focusing only on mescaline, adepts and scientists may tend to miss or devalue their contribution to the experience as a whole. Some of these compounds are sympathomimetics, or substances that mimic the effects of adrenalin and noradrenaline, the so-called fight or flight chemicals that are released naturally by our bodies when we feel uncertain or anxious. These additional compounds combined with mescaline may also contribute greatly to the sense of awe and awareness that you are in the presence of something mysterious and greater than ourselves, which are common feelings under the influence of San Pedro. The assumption made by the scientific approach that mescaline is the sole active compound of San Pedro may well be one a leading error—although it is all too common in plant medicine research.
The Shaman or facilitator
The Shaman is a trained individual, medicine man or woman, either indigenous and native or a person with a more western understanding of shamanic perspectives. The shamanic realm is intricate and it’s knowledge requires the ability to navigate different realities. More specifically in a Huachuma ceremony, the sham or facilitator will create and sustain a particular space propitious to the safe unfolding of a ceremony. She will also loo after each individual and support them when help is required. The tools of an authentic and developed shaman are varied and the presence of an experienced facilitator is invaluable for participants to make the most of a unique process.
Each ceremony follows a very specific orchestration of the day-long process. It is led by the shaman. The use of different ancestral medicine wheels [structured shamanic cosmovisions specific to different lineages, traditions or origins] is common in Huachuma ceremonies. For a day-long Huachuma experience the ceremony is the container, the rituals within that container can vary greatly depending on the shaman and their own tradition. A ceremony offers a framework easily and safely accessible by participants; it contributes and deepens the experience through the use of sound, music and various shamanic healing skills processes offered by the shaman. Interestingly, some shamans may also decide to ignore any traditional framework and let the person be with the experience for hours on end. Their presence, the quality of their holding space and their personal intention are however the glue that makes the experience viable.
Like all other great teaching plants of Peru, San Pedro is always taken as part of a shamanic ceremony with the intention of healing—never lightly and never as a “recreational drug.” Healing in a ceremony like this is defined more broadly than a Western doctor might understand the term, and means an ultimately beneficial or positive change in the mental, emotional, or spiritual aspects of one’s life as well, often, as a physical cure or change.
The energy of intent is a very powerful force, and all healers must master it because the plants respond to it in their own language.
Correspondingly as important is the participant’s intention. In the process of achieving the desired goal and to enlist the help of a Plant spirit as well as to invite the teachings to come forth, the participant has a crucial role to play. In all traditional ceremonies and even more so in modern gatherings, a participant will be asked to prepare, in stillness, an intention to bring to the process. During the ceremony, she will also be invited to ritually share her intention into the fire. Intention is one of the most important keys to achieving success on this highly transformative path.
Summary Huachuma is a brew made from the San Pedro cactus of the Echinopsis or Trichocereus variety. Taking Huachuma is offered in sacred ceremonies and leads to an altered level of consciousness due to entheogenic and psychoactive substances in the ingredients. The brew is shared in ceremonial circles led by trained shamans or facilitators for the purpose of healing. Each component of the ritual, Plant, shaman, intention and ceremony container are instrumental to the quality and depth of the experience.
How is Huachuma used?
Though Huachuma was traditionally used for spiritual purposes by specific tribes, it has become popular worldwide among those who seek a way to open their minds, heal from past traumas, experience deeply the divine and a connection to nature, or simply experience a Huachuma journey.
It’s highly recommended that Huachuma only be taken when supervised by an experienced facilitator or shaman, as those who take it need to be looked after carefully, as a Huachuma experience leads to an altered state of consciousness that lasts for many hours.
Many people travel to countries like Peru, Colombia or Ecuador where multi-day Huachuma retreats are offered. They’re led by experienced facilitators, who prepare the brew and monitor participants for safety.
Before partaking in a Huachuma ceremony, it’s often suggested that participants follow a regimen diet of light, mostly vegetarian meals, at least one-week prior to the experience and abstain from drugs, alcohol and sex. This is recommended in order to cleanse the body of toxins and maximise the effects of the experience.
Huachuma ceremony and experience
Huachuma ceremonies are commonly held during the day although night ceremonies are also offered. They seem to each offer a different quality to the work with the plant. After the space is prepared and sacralised with shamanic rituals by the shaman of facilitator leading the ceremony, Huachuma is offered to participants, sometimes split into several doses.
After ingesting Huachuma, most people will start to feel its effects within 1-2 hours, sometimes a lot faster. The effects are dose-dependent, and the journey can last 8–12 hours
Those who take Huachuma can experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, various human feelings at various depths, strong visions, mind-altering psychedelic effects, and extremely rarely fear.
It should be noted that some of the adverse effects, such as vomiting and diarrhoea, are considered a normal part of the cleansing experience.
People react to Huachuma differently. Some experience euphoria and a feeling of enlightenment, while others go through an increase of anxiety and panic. It’s not uncommon for those taking Huachuma to experience both positive and negative effects from the brew.
The shamans or facilitators who are experienced in Huachuma offer help and guidance to participants throughout the Huachuma experience and monitor participants for safety.
These ceremonies are sometimes conducted consecutively, with participants consuming Huachuma a few consecutive alternative days or mixed with a night ceremony. Every time you take Huachuma, it results in a different experience.
Summary Huachuma ceremonies are typically led by experienced shamans or facilitators. Huachuma takes between 20 minutes up to 2 hours to kick in, and its effects can last up to 12-14 hours. Typical effects may include strong visions, deep feelings, euphoria and vomiting.
What is the experience like?
All teacher plants require some ritual preparations. It not only refers to eating or drinking moderations but also to other behaviours so the participant enters a ceremony with a clearer frame of mind and a pure intention as well as a cleansed body.
The cactus San Pedro does not ask for changes as stringent as for other teaching plants but, nevertheless, food prior to the day of ceremony should be bland and contain no alcohol, meat, oils or fats, spices, citrus fruits, or juices and there should be no sex. No food for about twelve hours before the ceremony, means a day of fasting if you are drinking San Pedro at night, or no food from about 8 p.m. on the night before if you are drinking it the next day. A few hours before the ritual you are invited to enter a period of quiet reflection so you can prepare your intention, what you want to heal in your life or learn about yourself. There are also some specific conditions where a consultation with your facilitator and medical doctor is recommended in advance of drinking San Pedro. These include conditions with the colon, high blood pressure, heart conditions, diabetes, or mental illness. None of these will necessarily prevent you from drinking since the condition itself may be the very thing that you want San Pedro to cure, but your shaman and doctor must be made aware.
The experience itself
After drinking Huachuma, the time it takes to start feeling the effects varies greatly. Some people will start feeling the effects within 5 minutes, and for others it may take up to 2 hours. When it starts it’s usually gradual and will peak at around 4 hours after ingestion. Be open to a longer ride than with others entheogens as the ride may last 8 to 14 hours. When drinking Huachuma in ceremonial space, each step of the ceremony will invite different phases in the experience. The sounds, chants, icaros [channelled songs] and music are an important component of the process and the shaman or facilitator will usually provide a vocal and musical soundscape to guide you through the realm of spirits.
The induced state of heightened consciousness is as if you’re traveling in different worlds and realities. Very rarely reported are moments where you do not feel completely in control of your movements, your thoughts or your personal will.
Huachuma unlikely many of the plant teachers requires a free-will act of surrender, to engage deeply with it. You may feel like you don’t want to move much during a ceremony,, and while you can still go to the bathroom, you will not feel as if you want to do so.
Nausea is an expected but not systematic effect and it doesn’t usually last for very long. After the nausea wanes, huachuma enters and moves through your consciousness. You enter a lucid but dream-like state.
Once the opening of your physical body to non-ordinary states of awareness happens, you will be introduced to a whole new dimension that you’ve never experienced before. Visions, feelings, a symbolic language and direct knowings are very familiar to the Huachuma language. You may also be introduced to your spiritual guides, and they will connect you through to the endless inner depths of direct knowing. The brain or mental activity is bypassed, or dulled to the benefit of another way of knowing. These are the hallmarks of the Huachuma journey.
Some have reported feeling extreme sadness, aversion throughout entire journeys, while others may experience nothing but bliss and joy. It depends on your psychological state, the intention you brought to the journey and the parts of you that need healing. The more opened or attuned you are to your experience as a whole, the more positive your experience will be.
As the non-ordinary awareness grows, you feel like your soul is voyaging beyond your body. As worldly objects glow with ethereal colour, you perceive a significant underlying energy to all things, and the world and yourself in it seem to click together in one huge, expansive understanding.
The above is typical of an experience with Huachuma. While huachuma has been used by indigenous cultures of South America for thousands of years — making it the oldest recorded entheogenic medicine — it hasn’t enjoyed the popularity of the more famed master plant like Ayahuasca or psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. However, those who have experienced this powerful plant agree that it is strong medicine for whatever ails you.
When it wears off
When the effect wears off, your ordinary physical senses start to come back to you. And you can rest knowing that you have connected your mind with the spirits. Modern integration processes are usually offered to various degrees with the most elaborate ones being bridged by western-trained shaman or facilitators. These integration processes are usually offered the day after a ceremony.
Potential benefits of Huachuma
Many people who have taken Huachuma claim that the experience led to positive, long-term, life-altering changes.
Recent research has shown that Huachuma may benefit health — particularly brain, gut, immune and neurologic health — in a number of ways.
May benefit overall health
The main active ingredients in Huachuma — Mescaline and other sympathomimetics compounds mimicking the effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline — have been shown to exhibit neuro-protective and neuro-restorative qualities in some studies. Huachuma is also highly alkaline and as such offers the benefits of boosting immunity, neutralising the acidity in your body caused by poor diet, stress or environmental toxins.
Various patients have claimed that this physical healing can include relief from such disparate conditions as diabetes, hepatitis, cancer, paralysis, joint problems, fever, high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and burning in the kidneys and bladder. Huachuma is also said to be an antimicrobial agent that can inhibit at least 18 different kinds of penicillin-resistant bacteria.
May improve psychological well-being
In our world, there are literally millions of people stuck in behavioural, cognitive, emotional patterns that no longer serve their wellbeing, connection and relationships. We all grow accustomed to these and when they fail us we develop coping mechanisms. A vast proportion of humanity is however willing to grow, change, transform these deeply limited behaviours and patterns so they can feel free from their burden. Through the use of all entheogenic medicine and in this case of the plant teacher Huachuma, one can gain the personal empowerment needed to take charge of life and move beyond our own negative influences or limitations.
Following a Huachuma ceremony, negative patterns in one’s life will often come to light: old habits, bad habits, bad company, bad environment, a tendency to linger unhappily in a bad relationship, a desire to repair a relationship without knowing how, the inability to say ‘no’, etc. This is a process opening people to not only deeper wisdom, but also a certain inner spiritual strength to accept and acknowledge the negative things that exist in their lives and to let them go or, to eradicate those limitations from their lives.
However, in the absence of careful planning and good guidance, huachuma can be anti-productive. Absence of respect — if one treats it as a drug, for example, or takes it too frequently and in unwise circumstances — then a shift can occur in the way the plant works with the individual. Or if one fails to follow the guidance and lets the energy build up or bottle up, it may also engender disturbances or frustration that can be very unnerving or unsettling to some people.
Working with Sacred plants can also be a difficult path paved with hurdles and tests. The plant seems to specifically go to your very weaknesses. The whole point of the experience is to help you strengthen your weaknesses and grow from that point on. What this results in is an unmatched fast pace of personal development and evolution of consciousness. That process is enhanced as much by how you do it, where you do it, and why you do it as by the plant itself.
Most of the deep healing work usually occurs in the days, weeks or months following the ceremony. During this integrative period, one simply digests the flow of life at a deeper level. You begin to refine the composition of your own life in a wiser, more responsible way. This manifests in noticeable changes in the way people treat themselves and those around them. It is a transformation that brings about deep and long-lasting changes, not reduced to whilst under the influence of the plant in ceremony. Most people will never quite be the same after this experience.
Research has shown that taking Huachuma may increase mindfulness capacity of your brain and improve your overall psychological well-being.
A study in 20 people indicated that consuming Huachuma either in intensive retreats or on a regular basis, once weekly for 4 weeks was as effective as an 8-week mindfulness program at increasing acceptance — a component of mindfulness that plays a fundamental role in psychological health — and resilience.
Other studies have found similar results, noting that Huachuma may improve mindfulness, mood, and emotional regulation.
A study in 57 people demonstrated that ratings of depression and stress were significantly decreased immediately after the participants consumed Huachuma. These effects were still significant 4 weeks following the Huachuma consumption.
The experience of the author of this article attests of long-lasting therapeutic changes in a variety of conditions as depression, diabetes, sleep disorders, chronic pain, migraines, and immune related disorders.
May help treat addiction, anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, and PTSD
Advocates of this medicine also frequently cite its ability to cure drug addiction and alcoholism. Huachuma reveals the underlying causes of these addictions by bringing elements of the subconscious mind to the attention of the conscious mind. This can include life events participants haven’t thought about in years, in some cases early childhood memories— often things that have had a profound influence on their adult lives without their being aware of it. In discovering or unraveling these unresolved issues, one can find closure and integration.
Some research suggests that Huachuma may benefit those with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction disorders.
A study in 29 people with treatment-resistant depression showed that a single dose of Huachuma led to significant improvements in depression severity compared with a placebo. Other studies report rapid antidepressant effects of Huachuma as well.
Additionally, a review of six studies concluded that Huachuma showed beneficial effects in treating depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and drug dependence.
Several studies have focused on the effects of Huachuma on addiction disorders, including addictions to crack cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine — with promising results.
In one study, 12 people with severe psychological and behavioural issues related to substance abuse participated in a 4-day treatment program that included 2 Huachuma ceremonies. At a 6-month follow up, they demonstrated significant improvements in mindfulness, hopefulness, empowerment, and overall quality of life. Plus, self-reported use of tobacco, cocaine, and alcohol significantly declined .
Researchers hypothesise that Huachuma may help those with PTSD as well, though more research in this area is needed .
Summary According to current research, Huachuma may protect brain cells and stimulate neural cell growth and improve some severe known conditions. It may also boost mood, improve mindfulness, and treat depression and addiction disorders, though more research is needed to confirm these effects.
Considerations and potential side effects
Toxicity to Huachuma has not been studied enough to determine what quantities could be dangerous to ingest. However, thousands of years of shamanic use and no reported complication or even deaths linked to San Pedro speaks volumes.
Considering the human dose of mescaline is around 200-500mg orally means a fatal dose would be extremely difficult to ingest and very unlikely to happen accidentally.
Users experience very different sensory and perceptual experiences, such as time passing more slowly, colours appearing brighter, sounds seeming sharper, or even “seeing” sounds and “hearing” colors. Some users experience strong visions, or feeling a sense of almost tangible connectedness to objects and the world around them. They may feel weightless or extremely heavy to the point of immobility, or anything in between.
While taking part in an Huachuma ceremony is far from a well-documented process, consuming this entheogenic brew has never been documented to lead to any serious side effects.
Even though some side effects often experienced during a Huachuma trip, such as vomiting or diarrhoea, paranoia can be unpleasant they are considered normal and only temporary and do not occur with lasting impact.
Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal
There is no current research suggesting that mescaline use leads to physical dependence, psychological dependence, or addiction. Tolerance means that participants need to take more of the brew in order to achieve the same effects. Structured ceremonies invites participants to learn how to use less of the brew to obtain the same if not wider results.
How Long Does Mescaline Stay in Your System?
The amount of time mescaline stays in the system depends on factors such as an individual’s metabolism, hydration levels, body mass, and overall health. Mescaline can be detected in urine for between two to three days after ingestion but can be detected by hair follicle tests for up to 60 days.
Mescaline does not appear to be addictive or habit-forming, although further research is needed to determine if addiction is possible. That said, any substance that affects up the user’s mundane perception of reality comes with potential issues, as users can more easily misinterpret reality. In terms of toxicity, however, evidence may point to mescaline carrying a lower risk than many other recreational drugs.
There is no current research suggesting that mescaline use leads to physical dependence, psychological dependence, or addiction. Tolerance means that people need to take more of the drug in order to achieve the same effects.
Overall, there have been promising findings related to the health benefits of Huachuma, however, more research is still needed to determine the array of potential treatment for certain medical conditions in the future.
Summary Based on existing research, taking Huachuma has very little or no serious reported side effects. Interaction with any existing medication is unreported. Various serious medical conditions such as diabetes, immune system related conditions, depression and heart conditions have been shown to improve considerably. Huachuma is thought to be one of the safest entheogenic or psychoactive plants in existence.
The bottom line
Huachuma is prepared from parts of the Trichocereus or Echinoi cactus gender.
It has powerful entheogenic properties and may cause positive health and wellbeing effects.
More research is certainly needed to determine whether it can be used as a safe alternative treatment for certain health conditions.
If you’re interested in participating in an Huachuma experience, be sure to do your research and know that safety is reasonable however not guaranteed — the way to minimise risks and maximise the potential benefits is to work with experienced shaman or facilitators.