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Cactus if ya Can…

´About twenty percent of people throw up after drinking the medicine´ the Shaman told us as we sat in the garden of a Peruvian mountain house, having slugged the contents from our stainless steel cups. A New Zealander named Rob, two young Americans Tim and Jon, an intrepid English girl named Stacey and I, sat and waited unknowingly. The juice had a bitter taste to it and we’d been advised to drink it quickly. It was fairly good advice. After ten minutes the young lad Tim looking ashen-faced, moved to the other side of the garden,

´There goes your twenty percent´ Stacey chirped.

Miguel pours the Pedro

Miguel pours the Pedro

San Pedro is a type of cactus that contains the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline and has been used traditionally in Andean culture for over 3,000 years. Mainly acquainted with Shamanistic healing and medicinal rituals, it grows in the Andes throughout Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Now, being a bit of a sceptic I wasn’t sold on the emotional healing blurb. Even reading of Lesley, owner of Casa de la Gringa hostel in Cusco who offers experiential days with this ‘healing plant’ kept me in this nonchalant state. A sacred medicine in this region, its history and usage is interesting but the thought of attending group therapy sessions to channel my energy, mind and body to ´find myself´ is a bit wishy-washy for me. Although Stacey was keen to meet Lesley having previously hung about in the Lotus position herself; so we booked an overnight stay at Lesley’s mountain retreat.

Casa de la Gringa is situated in the San Blas area of Cusco and has a good relaxed vibe about it. By the time we’d rolled up around 10am, people were up and about sipping herbal tea and chatting. I perched on a chair feeling slightly edgy. The thought in my head it’d be some airy-fairy affair with a load of carpet-huggers was still running strong, so, opting for a chamomile tea to get in the mood I sat back and let the surroundings soak in.

Lesley arrived to speak with us about San Pedro and the day ahead.

Lasting eight to ten hours the experience would ‘peak’ around halfway, simulating a nice slow rise and fall. We’d have hundreds of thoughts all at once as San Pedro unlocked our minds. We could ask San Pedro anything. I asked Lesley if we’d be hallucinating:

‘Your surroundings will become more vibrant, more colourful´ she gushed.

Right, that’ll be hallucinating then will it?

Lesley then introduced us to Miguel, our Shaman for the day. I reached out to shake his hand, and the warmth and calmness he emanated lifted me from my paranoid funk. I suddenly gained new meaning to the day ahead, not least of all because I realized we’d be tripping with a Lenny Kravitz doppelgänger.

The rest of the group turned up, along with a guide named Rob from the Netherlands. Sporting a nice porn moustache he’d be looking after us if we felt like taking a walk around the mountains, which would be comically reassuring.

mountain gardenArriving at her house after a short drive from Cusco, we sat around in the back garden as Miguel made preparations. It’s a beautiful place and as the sun beat down on our backs, I kicked back a bit. It didn’t look like we going to be prancing around the garden like Patsy Stone and Eddy Monsoon, not just yet anyway. Across the garden relaxing in the shade lay a mountain wolf. Having been rescued by Lesley as a pup, he seemed unperturbed that a group of strangers had just rolled into his manor. I turned my gaze to catch Miguel pouring the last of the juice. It was Pedro time.

Within an hour after Tim the Sacrificial One had decorated the flowers, things started picking up. The mescaline had started to manifest and as I lay there I had a strange feeling of being able to sense the liquid coursing through my veins. Feeling very in tune with the surroundings my eyes followed the path of a bee as it lazily droned past me on the way to a nearby flowerbed. As I looked down, the grass was looking lush and slightly greener, my senses becoming very alert. A flash of grey in the corner of my eye involuntarily turned my head skyward again. My vision was fur-filled as the wolf, looming over me with tongue lolling from the side of his mouth, regarded me with passive eyes. Giving him a playful tussle as he loped over to the rest of the group, I saw what looked like a slight grin appear from the corner of his mouth.

We were relaxing indolently like this with no concern for time when Rob decided we should all go for a walk, and motioned for us to get our jackets. Well he was the guide, although it took us a fair duration to get our things together. San Pedro isn’t really the type of thing to be administering if you need to get anything done relatively quickly or have to go operate any heavy machinery.

herdStepping out from the garden to the dirt track we’d been dropped at earlier was (without sounding too airy-fairy…of course), like stepping into a new dimension. I didn’t recognize any of it, and was sure we’d left via a different gate. The grass I was walking on felt like double-quilted astro-turf. Those cheap trainers of mine that I purchased at ShoeBiz in Clapham, London were feeling like Nike Airmax. As we walked I passed through a herd of feeding goats frantically ripping at the astro-tufts. The noise was intense. Everything was taking on a surreal vibrancy. As we walked, colours became more prominent and pulsed as awareness heightened. Trees rustled in the wind, whispering and swaying. Clouds moved silently overhead, floating, separating and reforming. We were off our tits.

Now…this is where the story can go one of two ways. You see, as we stumbled around the countryside comments from the group were on a rapidly descending slope towards the nonsensical: Rob now had the disturbing look of a 70’s porn star out for a Sunday ramble, reasons were being sleuthed out about the amount of rocks in the area, some peasant folk at a stream provoked the question ‘Do they live there?’ and I was sure my voice had taken on the effect of being in an anechoic chamber. Any venture at a serious question bought fits of giggles, which immediately set the stage for the next jocular attempt. We pushed on up through the hills.

When experiencing mind expanding substances, try not to fall off any mountains.

When experiencing mind expanding substances, try not to fall off any mountains.

Cusco is at an elevation of over 3300m above sea level and is not to be taken lightly. It was dawning on us that we’d all wandered into the mountains with just one bottle of water that Tim was gingerly sipping, and nobody really fancied a swig of what potentially could be back-washed vomit. For the next five hours we walked the hills stopping occasionally to admire the view and ask odd questions to Rob who was alternately chewing a stalk of straw or smoking off his pack of full-flavoured Long Beach 100´s. We passed herders, small portly old ladies who looked unfazed as we meandered through their world. Donkeys would come into view as we rounded another hillock or dogs, appearing from nowhere would bark aimlessly at us. Occasionally sprawling out when we reached any summit, we’d breathe in the mountain air and feel so ingrained, soaking up our surroundings. The peacefulness of the wind blowing through the forests, birds singing anonymously from them. Then breaking that spell, a noise from somebody in the group who’d sauntered off would bring fits of giggles from the rest of us.

Maybe three hours had passed and there was still no spiritual enlightenment happening for me. Rob took us down into a cave for analysis of an egg-shaped stone. Analysis completed I thought a ´Boys Own´ moment was in order so proceeded to climb out through a hole and up a sheer rock-wall dotted with moss, and hearing a noise behind me I saw Rob had decided to follow me. All good fun and not covered on the travel insurance I suspect. The realisation of the day was slowly dawning.

Spot the baboon face!

Spot the baboon face!

Roughly five hours later give or take as many minutes for being on Pedro-time, the house came into view again from across the valley. In the distance we could see Miguel and the wolf standing silhouetted on a ledge, probably wondering where the hell we’d got to. As we neared them everyone was looking a bit spent and the visual aspect of the cactus was wearing off considerably. As conformation the dog ran up and started gnawing at my hand but my mind was on a higher plane: my Fruit & Nut bar that needed demolishing back at the house. After Miguel cooked us all a good cup of spearmint tea from the garden I grabbed Stacey and some supplies to go for another walk, just locally this time.

Sitting atop the Temple of the Moon, a sacred and spiritual hill nearby to the house we pieced the day together. Neither of us had any spiritual or emotional awakening; it had been more of a stomp around the Peruvian hills led by a straw-chewing Dutchman for five hours. We’d enjoyed it as a group, with some very comical moments. Stacey came to the conclusion that she felt naturally relaxed and ‘spiritual’ from other methods…some people may say San Pedro helped her come to that answer. Whatever is gained from San Pedro is how a person perceives it. Focusing the mind with healing or personal issues or knowing why to take the medicine may tune the day in differently; there’s no disputing that it’s a major and valuable part of life here. Only our trip fell into the ‘Carry on up the Cactus´ category during a good walk.

As we watched the sun fade behind the mountain peaks, a man bowled into view sporting shorts, yellow cagoule and knee-high Llama socks wedged into sandals. He spoke English and as we struck up conversation, I asked where he came from, ‘Parramatta mate, west of Sydney´ he drawled. Jesus. Just how small is this world when a fellow Sydney-sider can stand beside you in locally woven apparel over 8,000 miles from home?

´So…what you guys doing here?’ he enquired.



´We’ve been on San Pedro´ I replied.

´Oh yeah? Is that near here? ´

Case closed….

This article was written by writingrusty, a freelance travel journalist and photographer. All of his pictures can be obtained at much higher quality and resolution (there may be a small fee). Visit his website for more of his excellent work.

He is basically some guy my bass player’s girlfriend’s cousin met one time so we’ll let him tell you more about himself:

“Well ye good ‘ole English pint-sized hospitality was starting to make my midriff go south, so I took good note of it as a sign….and did the same. After traipsing through Russia, Mongolia and parts of Asia I soon hit the Land of Opportunity and, waving my British passport as I got off the plane, they turned me loose into the vast unforgiving lands of Australia with just a packet of two minute noodles and a grin. That was six years ago. Alas, moss don’t grow under these plates and its not uncommon for me to head into the wild, more recently in Nepal where the lure of drop-toilets and eating with the right and wiping with the left, kept me grounded.”

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