Casey and I bounced up and down at the fountain in the Plaza de Armas doing jumping jacks in our toques and scarves while we waited for the taxi and the shaman to arrive. We were on our way to the Temple of the Moon for a ceremony. It was late, probably around 10:30 p.m. The full moon projected its luminous glow on us and stars sprinkled the clear, dark sky. Taryna and Cirby were cold, so they walked over to Starbucks to keep warm while we waited. Pauli, a Peruvian man we met that day, was on his phone trying to figure out what was taking his shaman friend and the taxi so long. It had been nearly an hour and a half since we arrived at the plaza and I was beginning to get suspicious. Why were they so delayed?
Casey, Taryna and I had met Pauli on a horseback riding excursion in the hills above Cusco that day. He was our guide and after a beautiful day of exploring the hills and the Temple of the Moon, he asked us if we would be interested in taking part in a San Pedro ceremony that night during the full moon. The offer piqued my interest. What was a San Pedro ceremony? A couple of the girls had previously taken part in one and insisted it would be a wonderful experience, so I decided why not, let’s do it. After all in my mind, how could I come to Peru and not take part in one of its sacred traditions? I was curious.
San Pedro is a plant medicine derived from the San Pedro cactus. It is brewed into a drink and typically consumed during a special ceremony. Before I came to Peru I had never heard of plant medicine, but it seems to be a huge attraction here. Many people I have met along my journey have taken part in these ceremonies and have reported incredible experiences of physical and emotional healing, spiritual realizations and insights into their life purpose combined with visions of breathing mountains and rocks, dancing trees and an overall insight into the connection between ourselves and the living earth and sky. The darker side is that it can bring the personal demons we bury deep inside us to the surface where they can’t be ignored.
Sounds a bit psychedelic doesn’t it, like a drug? In fact San Pedro does have psychedelic effects, but it is not considered a drug in the synthetic sense. There is nothing synthetic added to it. It is pure cactus juice, sometimes combined with other herbs, and is considered to be a powerful spiritual medicine and plant spirit which has been used for healing and held sacred by the indigenous people for hundreds of years. Ancient drawings etched into cave walls depicting gods holding the San Pedro cactus are said to exist here in Peru.
San Pedro ceremonies are typically conducted by shamans, who are trained to handle the plant in the most respectable way and to protect participants from lurking entities. Shamans also have a very important role in communities as healers or medicine people.
As incredible as the San Pedro experience sounded, with its claim to provide healing and insights into one’s life purpose, I was skeptical about consuming the juice. When I was a child, my father instilled the fear of drugs into my mind by showing me and my brother documentaries on the effects of psychedelics like LSD and Angel Dust. One story that sticks in my mind was of someone high on Angel Dust who, under the illusion they could fly, stepped off the top of a building and fell to their death. So, it worked, I have never taken drugs aside from the odd puff of a joint which I didn’t really like anyways.
Finally, the shaman and taxi arrived and we all headed over to Starbucks to retrieve the others. My suspicions rose even higher when I found out that the ceremony was prepared solely for us. Originally, we believed we were joining a ceremony already scheduled to take place, but that wasn’t the case. That would mean preparations for the ceremony would have begun late and it would also explain why the shaman was so delayed. He was probably scrambling around trying to throw something together at the last minute. I had heard that San Pedro has to be cooked for 48 hours previous to consumption. There wouldn’t have been enough time for that. It just seemed so sketchy to me.
Earlier, the four of us came up with a code word that we would use if we didn’t feel good about things. The word was cabbage. Yeah, I know, strange word to agree on, but it was a word that would stand out to everyone and it would be easy enough to use in a sentence. It was time to get into the taxi, but I couldn’t move my feet. They felt rooted to the ground and I said to the others, “Yeah, the cabbage in that coleslaw today is making my stomach feel a little off.” We all looked at each other, but Cirby and Casey still felt comfortable about going. Taryna and I stayed behind.
In the end it turned out to be a fascinating experience for the other two and part of me kicked myself for not going. They ended up crawling through caves at the Temple of the Moon and watching the sky and the mountains come alive in the full moonlight. I accepted that it just wasn’t my time and told myself that another opportunity would arise when I would feel comfortable. Actually, several other opportunities arose after that, but I continued to chicken out.
Each time a new group arrived back from a ceremony, I would quiz participants on their experience. I was especially interested in the experiences of the first-timers. They always raved about it saying what a wonderful time they had, so my fears began to fade and I decided that when the next opportunity arose, I would go. That was yesterday.
A dozen of us headed to Pisac in the Sacred Valley in the morning to a house where we would spend the night. The bedroom had four very comfy looking beds where Chelsea, Taryna and Casey and I would sleep. The place also had a big courtyard with a fire pit at its centre. From there we hiked for approximately an hour to a beautiful spot beside a small creek. Young eucalyptus trees stood along the banks spreading shade and a sweet, cool scent. Icy water rushed over rocks and around boulders and, across the creek, the stone terraces of the ancient Pisac ruins climbed the mountainside.
Joey was our guide. He is originally from Philadelphia, but he felt the calling to come to Peru five years ago to continue his study of plant spirit medicines in the jungle. Now he lives in Cusco and focuses mostly on San Pedro ceremonies in the Sacred Valley. He has long, brown hair and was wearing a Peruvian style cowboy hat and a bright coloured poncho. We sat around cross-legged in a semi-circle near the creek with me immediately to his left. My Healing House friends, who were sitting across from me, smiled and giggled. They told me that I would get to drink first. Great. I had no idea what to expect at all and I’m sure they were looking forward to seeing my reaction to the taste of the green liquid inside the two litre water bottle sitting next to me.
Joey began the ceremony with some Lakota songs while he shook his Peruvian rattle. Then beginning with me we each had a turn to recite our name and tell the group what our intention for taking part in the ceremony was. My intention was to figure out the blocks that stop me from moving forward with certain things in my life. Everyone had different intentions for taking part. One man wanted to connect his mind with his heart, another wanted to work on his self-confidence, a young woman wanted to figure out what she should do with her life and others just wanted to simply be with the beauty of nature and see it come alive in a different way.
It was time to drink, but first Joey lit a cigar and blew smoke into the ceramic cup that I would drink from. Then he poured the green, slimy liquid into a plastic measuring cup and transferred it into the ceramic one. He silently held the cup before him with his eyes closed and then passed it to me. I held the cup before me in my lap for a moment and then repeated silently to myself my intention for the day. I brought the cup to my lips. An unpleasant odor filled my nostrils and then all at once I tipped the cup back and gulped the liquid down. The ladies praised me for doing such a quick job of it. It was disgustingly bitter and had an aftertaste of tobacco, but in my mind there was no point sipping it and prolonging the agony.
When everyone had their turn to drink, Joey lit another cigar, stood up and approached me for the next part of the ceremony. He cupped his hands over the top of my head and blew smoke through his hands against my crown. He took another puff and blew more smoke inside the front and back of my shirt and then stood in front of me making triangular motions with his outstretched arms. When the ceremony was complete we were able to leave the circle. It was hot in the sun, so I found some shade and sat on a hill under some eucalyptus trees where I meditated for a while.
My stomach began to feel very unsettled and I could still taste the bitterness of the juice. Over the next few hours I waited for something to happen. Others silently moved off to various areas along the creek. One young man reminded me of Mogli from The Jungle Book as he hopped from rock to rock upstream. Casey sunned herself on a large boulder, her long golden-brown hair wild and just as untamed as she. In that moment she was an indigenous goddess being worshiped by the sun. Joey continued to shake his rattle and sing Lakota songs. Another young man stood with his arms open and his face tilted to the sky, the biggest smile spread across his face. He was clearly seeing something more than I was. Why wasn’t I reacting in the same way these other people were? After all I drank first, so shouldn’t I be seeing things differently by now?
The thought crossed my mind that maybe I see nature as a living, breathing entity already. Maybe this was it? Joey asked me if I wanted to drink a little more. The thought of gulping more of the slimy bitterness down, made my throat open and my stomach lurch. Ugh. I said no, but when he asked again a little while later, I decided that I would take a little more. Joey also mentioned to everyone that if they needed to purge that it was alright and pointed to where we could go. Purge? I thought that happened only during ayahuasca ceremonies.
Ayahuasca is another plant medicine extracted from the ayahuasca vine in the jungle. It’s considered a feminine plant spirit, whereas San Pedro is considered a masculine plant spirit. Ayahuasca is apparently ruthless compared to San Pedro and some really scary and dark realizations can arise. Purging is common with it and people who take part in ceremonies are supposed to bring their own purging bucket. Not my idea of a good time, but apparently purging is a good thing. It is supposed to rid the body of toxins and any negative stuff that we hang on to.
Even though I wasn’t seeing anything too unusual, my eyes felt sensitive after a while. Everything around me looked more defined. A clump of long, dry, yellow grass beside me moved lightly in the breeze, but it seemed like each strand of grass moved on its own accord like arms reaching out. The trees swayed in the wind and I imagined they could be dancing, but they still looked pretty normal to me. Maybe I was trying too hard to see something?
After a while I talked with Casey and then with Taryna and Chelsea. Some emotional subjects arose to the surface of my mind. Some were about agreements I had made with myself back when I was a child based on how people viewed and treated me during some impressionable years. Wow, I still hang on to that? It’s the basis of how I see myself. It’s the reason I will never have short hair and it’s likely the reason I feel naked without my veil of make-up. It’s nothing to do with vanity. I just feel differently about myself without it, not as acceptable to myself somehow. Strange. I didn’t like the way that felt at all. Do these views of myself subconsciously hold me back in certain areas of my life? Maybe. I know I can be hard on myself a lot. Sometimes my self-esteem can thrive, but at other times it can really plummet. My Healing House friends listened and encouraged me to let it all out which also meant purging. Ugh. I hate that feeling, but I was nauseated. Maybe I needed to try, so I left the group and found a spot along the creek where I sat on a rock and contemplated. I knew I should really just throw up, but I couldn’t. Why not? Did it mean that I wanted to hang on to all those agreements I made so long ago? I hope not. I don’t want to. I want to let it all go.
I sat for a long time holding the rock the Spanish man gave me on the Camino. Back then, he told me if I needed anything to ask the rock, so I rubbed the small brown rock between my fingers and thumb and asked what I needed to do. The one word that came to mind was “gentle”. Right, I need to be gentle with myself. I’ve always been told I’m hard on myself. It’s time to let that go. Casey had asked us the question earlier, “If you had a new born baby in your arms right now, you would love it and nurture it no matter what, wouldn’t you?” Well, of course was everyone’s answer. Then she asked, “Do you think you could treat yourself the same way?” Everyone sat quietly and contemplated her question. She is right; I should be treating myself the same way.
It wasn’t actually until we returned that I started to experience the visual effects of the San Pedro. As we stood on the road in front of the house I gazed at the mountains and could see facial profiles in them. Chelsea said she saw them too. She said that maybe they were the faces of our ancestors who lay asleep in the mountains. You could see closed eyes, mouths and noses protruding from various points along the mountain ridges. Now I understand even more why the Inca’s believe in the mountain spirits and why they also believe Pachamama lives under the mountains. The mountains seemed more alive than I have ever seen them.
Inside our dark bedroom, while the four of us shared stories of our lives, I began to see red energy sparkling around Taryna’s fist while she held it at her heart. Then I could see it around Casey and Chelsea. My eyes shifted to the window. The trees were different. They were like giant green gremlins with long noses waving their arms about. It was really strange, but I wasn’t afraid at all. I still had the mind to know it was all just an illusion.
My stomach still felt nauseated, so the girls continued to encourage me to purge. Taryna said to just hover over the toilet and pretend, which she believed would bring on the real thing. Then she got on all fours and demonstrated for me. It was quite hilarious, but even with all the encouragement I just couldn’t.
Later we all had a really amazing vegetarian dinner which I ate about half of regardless of my upset stomach. It actually helped. Then we sat around the campfire in the courtyard and continued to share stories until 1:00 a.m., each person’s story triggering something else for another. It was then that I realized just how important we all were for each other.
That night I had a good sleep, but woke in a quiet mood. The previous day was emotionally and physically draining. It wasn’t the wonderful, beautiful experience that everyone I interviewed had, but I suppose I got what I asked for. My intention was to figure out what it is that holds me back in some areas of my life. It seems I got my answer.