Mushrooms and Mist in San José del Pacífico
High up in the mountainous splendor of the Sierra Madre del Sur, nearly permanently enveloped in mist, lies the small town of San José del Pacífico. Located shortly after Miahuatlan, just as the air thins and the road begins to swirl in progressively emetic turns, the sleepy hamlet appears as a welcoming break to churning stomachs.
It’s merely a topographic blip halfway between the city of Oaxaca and the Pacific Ocean, picturesque but perhaps inconsequential to the outside world if not for its historical relation with psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known in Spanish as “hongos” and in other languages as magic mushrooms. This last tidbit explains how I came to see dragons spewing clouds across lavender skies, weightless and breathless, fallen prey to the kaleidoscopic lure of San José del Pacífico.
La Puesta del Sol – A Room with Pixelated Views
We met Don Rafael at La Puesta del Sol, the loveliest place to stay in San José del Pacífico. Standing close to the reception desk, where we discussed our booking arrangements with the charming Yvette, he was cordial and attentive, seemingly curious at the sight of two impish strangers willing to spend 4 nights amidst alpine solitude and freezing temperatures. As both our dispositions dictate, we were polite but cautious, offering only fleeting smiles and very little history. Only later, eased into his gentle demeanor, did we discover he was the owner of La Puesta del Sol.
Wishing to save some dwindling pesos, we had chosen to book a room (300 MXN [18 EUR] per night) instead of a cabin (500 MXN [30 EUR] per night), whose red roofs and rugged chimneys we could already glimpse dotting the lush hillside below. The room was small but cozy, equipped with a most comfortable bed inside and displaying stunning views of the vast mountainous range outside. It proved a resilient match to the inclement humidity permeating our bones, although strongly aided by steaming hot showers. Nonetheless, we longed for the fireplaces available in the cabins, and were envious of the dark billows of smoke seen soaring around us.
As the days went by, our paths continued to cross with Don Rafael’s. Curiosity soon bred familiarity, until the exchange of stories became unavoidable. We told him our tale of escape from a saltless life in Northern Europe, while he confided his origins in Tijuana and shared his knowledge of local lore, having been a recurring visitor to San José del Pacífico for the past 35 years.
Old Shamans and New Money
The actual village of San José del Pacífico stands 500 meters from La Puesta del Sol. It’s an easy walk by the side of a scarred road, sinuously separating the mountain peaks from the swelling expanse of green stretching into milky horizons. Although the quaint little town seems stuck in time, Don Rafael explained it was not so. According to him, much has changed since he began visiting. Not much in terms of population or even number of houses or shops selling trinkets, but in the ways of its people. They have become more businesslike in their dealings with foreigners and each other, assessing knowledge and new arrivals increasingly in terms of profit.
This newfound capitalist streak has much to do with the influx of tourists in search of magic mushrooms. They arrive from all nations, still in somewhat insignificant numbers if compared with other major tourist draws such as Oaxaca or the pyramids of Teotihuacán, but visible nonetheless. Their habitually bedraggled appearance mirrors the stereotypical image associated with drifters and potheads, and they are followed everywhere by the distinct fragrance of cannabis. Not many of them stay in San José del Pacífico, most preferring to quickly procure the “hongos” or whatever they came looking for and continue onwards to sunnier pastures.
The ones who do stay are hardly seen, remaining in hazy conclaves scattered around the hillside, far from sight until rumbling stomachs dictate a surreptitious dash to a mini-market, “tiendita” or small restaurant by the main road. The atmosphere still remains remarkably low-key though, with nothing of the traps and crowds of other druggie destinations. To the uninformed traveler, the only hint of any subculture would be a few psychedelic murals and the recurring display of sprightly fungi next to woolen hats and sweaters.
Psilocybin mushrooms can be found fresh during the rainy season – from around July until October. If out of season, they are available either dry or preserved in honey. They are also illegal and deemed a controlled substance by the Mexican authorities. However, the law is hardly ever enforced, since the mushrooms are deeply connected with ancient sacred practices performed by the native inhabitants of Mesoamerica.
Historically, the mushrooms were used to aid healing and to enlighten, habitually in a purifying ceremony called “velada”. They became known to Western culture mainly due to Maria Sabina (1894?-1985), a Mazatec shaman from Huautla de Jimenez who named the mushrooms “holy children” and whose life became entwined with the pitfalls of divulging traditional sacraments to hungry seekers of hedonistic deliverance. Nowadays, in San José del Pacífico, her mantle seems to have been taken by Doña Catalina, an elderly Spanish woman who, although no mystic, turned her house into a hostel of sorts and introduces passing visitors to the clarifying powers of the local mushrooms.
The cleansing properties of the psilocybin mushrooms are still applied by the indigenous community. In our conversations with Don Rafael, he mentioned most elders only ate mushrooms when acutely sick. This seems to stem not so much from the fungi’s mind-altering qualities but predominantly for its effects on the stomach, since they are known to sometimes induce cramping, nausea, diarrhea and/or vomiting. Even if dealing with disease has apparently taken precedence over divination and religious communion, “hongos” are still a cultural link to a Mesoamerican ancestry rich in folklore and ritual.
Magic Mushrooms in San José del Pacífico
Towering mountains, pervading mist, the possibility of an oceanic glint in the distance, silence amidst forested peaks, a break in a 7-hour drive from the valley of Oaxaca to the Pacific Ocean – all factors contributing to our selection of setting. We had not come to San José del Pacífico in search of magic mushrooms, so did not actively pursue any contacts or made any inquiries. We knew of their existence and discussed the possibility of a different type of travel. From the outset, our attitude veered towards almost apathy, and a decision was made to wait and see what happened once the mist parted.
By happenstance, luck, fate or what have you, the mushrooms came to us. The full details will not be shared, since it is an illegal substance and therefore tricky to address its provenance. It suffices to say we were taken somewhat aback by the flowing ease of a sudden opportunity, but promptly took it, steadfast and grateful.
The story thus begins as we are presented with a choice: “How many journeys?”
This was the first question posed by a kind face as it presented a collection of leaves adorned with dark-spored specks of fungi. We didn’t understand at first, foolishly looking at each other while trying to come up with figures and weights and other Google-assisted searches. Patiently the wizened figure repeated the question: “How many journeys?” Fingers then pointed at the huddled leaves, and when the question was uttered once more it was preceded by an explanation: “Each leaf contains a journey. How many journeys?”
We bought two journeys, one each, hopefully with a return ticket included. They cost us 150 MXN (9 EUR) each, and came with personalized advice and instructions. We were to take 4 dirt-smeared mushrooms on an empty stomach, then wait 20 minutes. If nothing happened, we should continue eating slowly, stopping when beginning to feel any effects.
The main advice, which had also been echoed in our discussions with Don Rafael, was to try and attune the body to the mushroom’s presence, confident that any reaction would be merely natural. To diminish anxiety, the setting should be relaxing and open, while the company wisely chosen. We left assuaged of any apprehension, a last sentence uttered in reassurance still ringing tender in our ears: “It will be a very beautiful journey.”
A Personal Account of a Chemically-Induced Journey
We rose at daybreak. Outside our room, the brisk morning and monumental landscape seemed perfectly suited to our needs. Spurning any non-hallucinogenic nourishment, we began our journeys as instructed. Following the slow, crunchy ingestion of 4 of the bigger mushrooms and 30 minutes of slight disgust and varying degrees of nausea, I couldn’t take it anymore and demanded breakfast. We ascended to reception, where I gorged on toast, fruit and yoghurt, eventually descending with a more energetic gait. We checked for early signs of action, noting Elle’s pupils had dilated to the size of raisins.
Approximately one hour after eating my psychedelic ticket, I felt a light tingling on my left knee, giving me pause to consider a journey’s delayed launch or the onset of osteoporosis. This symptom was briefly accompanied by a relaxation of the muscles and a general sense of soporific calmness, at which point I ambled to the wooden bench outside our room, sitting down in full view of a magnificent scenery.
My first taste of the mushrooms’ external influence appeared in the form of a geometrical shape, similar to a lozenge, hovering between sinuous branches below. It came imperceptibly, until I lost myself in its swirling glimmer and finally snapped back to a more immediate reality: Elle grinning at me, having witnessed my first foray into the fantastical realm of psilocybin.
Soon I became accustomed to the rules of the game. Surprisingly, the whole experience was permeated by an incredible lucidity, more akin to a waking dream than any lasting trip into the subconscious. Although my senses were now extraordinarily enhanced, particularly sound and vision, I never lost grasp of where I was or what I was doing. I turned into a merry spectator of a world in constant flux, leaning forward to focus on certain points in a faraway crevice or a petal on a red blooming flower, then straightening up to discuss with Elle what I had seen while remaining positively giddy throughout.
Time lingered indefinite, my excursions into hallucinatory shapeshifting seemingly lasting anything between mere minutes to long, hazy hours. The gathering clouds above slowed to a halt, only to suddenly speed up and blossom into mythical creatures undulating free of physical constraints. The world was sparkling with a new coat of paint, and I basked in its glorious minutiae.
The surrounding topography occasionally enmeshed into one, at turns unwinding and rearranging its features. Thus a mountain became an eagle, a monkey and a lion, while a tree was transformed into a gyroscope of serpentine streaks. All were part of an immense tableaux, vivid and vibrant. The patterns in the forest clearings were reminiscent of Mayan and Aztec iconography, perhaps an influence of our penchant for meandering through distinctly Mesoamerican structures such as Teotihuacán or Chichen Itza.
A remote crack of fireworks thundered across the landscape, like a cosmic shout, reverberating in my bones, leaving a hollow hum in its wake. My heart pumped blood in harmonious synchronicity with the rustling of the leaves, as I attuned my thrumming veins to the intricacy of their slender ribs. A dog’s faraway bark was nearly understood, as I brimmed with empathy for its careless yapping.
Unexpectedly, a stray dog did come by out of nowhere, briefly drawing us from our reverie. It sauntered through our legs, excited and curious. He stayed for a few moments, a stowaway in our travels, until he disappeared as resolute as he had arrived. We never saw him again.
As the day progressed and the light changed, so did my perception of things. At its peak, the power of the mushrooms allowed me to clearly see every single follicle populating my arms, while myriad microscopic beings heaved in my eyes. As the effects slowly subsided, our shared initial giddiness made way for a more introspective mood. Flowers began to lose their supernatural luster, until I could hardly see the thin wings of faeries. The mountains began to darken, silent shadows wiping away their previous luminescence and constant metamorphosis.
The skies were devoid of dragons, but the cloud formations now told a different story: one of beginnings and continuous fluidity. I was no longer seeing creatures rise from unspoiled earth or pixelated horizons, but the birth of solar systems and constellations. Watching enthralled as a molecule spiraled into a galaxy, my breathing appeared to dwindle to a soft murmur, as I attained a soothing awareness of symbiosis between this mortal coil and the unfathomable depths of the cosmos.
Not bad for the price of a few beers…
The Mist in San José del Pacífico
Everyday the mist would arrive to San José del Pacífico. Sometimes it stretched from above the mountains, descending gradually like tentacles of smoke, while on other occasions it rose like an ethereal army ready to wipe out everything in its way. Without fail, it would be a splendid sight.
The delicate haze reminded us of previous mountainous retreats, namely Ella in Sri Lanka and Mitakesan in Japan. There is something alluring and mysterious in being enveloped by a cloudy blanket, and we rejoiced in it once again. There were days when we would wake up to minimal visibility, hardly making out the contours of the cabins in front of us, only to see it swiftly clear away, leaving no trace of its presence.
Just as the mist appeared unannounced, our adventures in San José del Pacífico took a particularly unexpected quality. A peaceful retreat away from the bustle of cities lead to meeting Don Rafael, one of our most cherished encounters, and the discovery of a world within worlds which I doubt I will forget anytime soon. Catching our last glimpse of a hummingbird hurrying away, we departed towards the warmer embrace of the Pacific shore, hoping to one day return to our clouded castle in the sky.