Some viewers of the movie Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus may notice a suspiciously authentic-looking glint in actress Gaby Hoffmann’s eye during certain key scenes. This is no accident: while those scenes were being shot, Hoffmann, who portrayed the film’s namesake, was actually under the influence of tea made from the “magical cactus” to which the title refers: huachuma (Trichocereus pachanoi).
While the stereotypically spacey character of Crystal Fairy is no poster child for the huachuma community at large, the benefits that she reaps from this medicine in the film — improved communication and closeness with one’s peers, greater compassion for oneself and others, and the courage to address unresolved issues that are having a negative impact on one’s life — are commonly reported by real-life huachuma users.
Better known as San Pedro cactus, huachuma is native to the Andes Mountains and can be found in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Here in the United States, it is legal to cultivate the cactus for gardening and ornamental purposes, but the ingestion of the brew is prohibited.
The main active ingredient in huachuma is mescaline, the alkaloid also largely responsible for peyote’s psychoactive effects. However, since there are significant differences between the other psychoactive compounds found in huachuma and peyote, each of these two plants has its own distinct character. Huachuma is often described as the gentler of the two, yet its effects last slightly longer than those of peyote: about 12 to 14 hours, as opposed to peyote’s approximate 10 to 12 hours.
According to archaeological records, the ritual use of huachuma goes back at least 3,500 years. The earliest evidence of the ceremonial use of this medicine is a stone carving of a huachumero (male huachuma shaman) in Northern Peru’s Temple of Chavín de Huántar, a remnant of an ancient Andean civilization called Chavín.
Don Howard Lawler, a curandero (healer) based in the Peruvian Amazon, is one of just a few shamans in the world currently conducting huachuma rituals in the original Chavín style. In an interview with Reset, he explains that the defining characteristics of early Andean society — socioeconomic diversity, sharing of resources, reduced competition, increased cooperation, and opening of contact and communication between cultures from diverse regions — all stemmed from the Chavín culture, which was driven and inspired by “the masterful orchestration of this huachuma ritual of initiation for masses of pilgrims who came from far and wide to this one place in the Central Andes.”
At the time of the Spanish conquest, after remaining in its purest form for more than a thousand years, the huachuma ritual began to take on elements of the Catholic mass. The common word for the huachuma ceremony — mesa (or mesada), which is connected to missa, the Latin word for mass — hints at this synthesis of Catholic and Peruvian ritual.
In post-colonial times, huachuma came to be known as San Pedro, a reference to a Christian saint said to hold the keys to Heaven’s gates. The name reflects the introduction of Catholic iconography to Andean culture, and also indicates that the Spanish colonists recognized the plant as an access point to a sacred realm.
Lawler, who has been healing with plant medicines for nearly 50 years, conducts ayahuasca rituals as well as huachuma ceremonies. “You could consider these two plants to be the spirit teacher plant embodiments of the fundamentally feminine energy of the Amazon [ayahuasca] and the fundamentally masculine energy of the Andes and Peruvian coast [huachuma],” he offers.
While he believes ayahuasca to be the more effective of these two medicines in the realm of physical healing, Lawler feels that huachuma is the superior spiritual healer and teacher. “That, of course, often has a direct relationship to the physical condition of the individual as well,” he explains.
The 67-year-old shaman notes that many people have described the mesa as the most profound spiritual practice ever conceived. “Those who experience it realize that the essence of the experience is this indescribable opening of consciousness and connection to the oneness that is all around us and of which we are a part,” he says. “That is really what facilitates the healing on all levels, including physical healing.”
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.
Advocates of this medicine also frequently cite its ability to cure drug addiction and alcoholism. By Lawler’s description, 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 “things [that ritual participants] haven’t thought about in years, in some cases since early childhood — often things that have had a profound influence on their adult lives without their being aware of it.” In confronting these unresolved issues, one can find closure and cleansing.
Lawler notes, “There are thousands and thousands of people who are stuck in patterns of behavior or situations that they’ve been in for sometimes a long time and have grown accustomed to, but they know it’s not good for them, and they want to change. And there are many people that won’t make the change, because they’re not strong enough to do it.” He adds that through the use of huachuma, one can gain the personal empowerment needed to take charge of life and move beyond these negative influences.
According to Lawler, most of the deep healing work occurs in the weeks and months following the ceremony. During this integrative period, one “simply digests the flow of life at a deeper life. 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. “This is not just [while one is] under the direct influence of the plant — this is a transformation that brings about [long-term] change,” Lawler claims. “Most people will never quite be the same after this experience.”
In the aftermath of the 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, etc. “This is a process that gives people 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 get rid of things, to purge those things from their lives,” Lawler says.
The curandero warns, however, that in the absence of careful planning and good guidance, huachuma can be dangerous. “If one does not bring respect to it — if one treats it as a drug, for example, and takes it too frequently and in unwise circumstances — then that can cause a shift 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, sometimes that creates a shock factor that can be very unnerving and unsettling to some people.”
“These sacred plant modalities are difficult paths that are lined with tests,” he adds. “The tests go specifically to your very weaknesses. The whole point is to help you strengthen your weaknesses and grow from that point on. What this results in is an exceptionally fast pace of personal development and evolution of consciousness. That process is facilitated as much by how you do it, where you do it, and why you do it as by the plant itself.”