In the fall of 2012, I set off from my apartment in Mexico City and traveled nine hours through rough terrain to the Chihuahuan Desert to illegally dig up and take peyote.
Growing up in Connecticut, I'd heard of the hallucinogen but not of anyone actually doing it. Back then, I wasn't even sure what it was. Though like many teens I'd explored most other psychedelics before graduating high school, peyote was the only one that still held an element of wonder in my mind.
So when my friend Luis mentioned he'd heard of a remote place in Mexico where people went to dig up the psychedelic cactus and trip in the desert, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Peyote's scientific name is Lophophora williamsii. It grows underground, and only its crown is visible at the surface. Its strong, bitter taste keeps most animals from eating it, but the Huichol, an indigenous Mexican tribe, uses it as a sacrament and to induce hallucinations during religious rites.
The Huichol believe the cactus helps them gain healing skills and communicate with their gods, a ccording to Dr. Jay Fikes, a retired professor of anthropology at Yeditepe University, in Istanbul. As animists, they believe that all living things have a soul, so the peyote plant itself has a spirit and wisdom to impart.
But why does it get you high? Dr. John Halpern, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and probably the most notable doctor researching peyote today, said that the cactus "contains mescaline, which is a classical psychedelic ethylamine hallucinogen."
Peyote was first identified and studied by Western doctors in the late 1890s, but it was made illegal in the US in 1970 with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which concluded that it serves no medicinal purpose. Under Mexican law, it's illegal for anyone other than the Huichol to dig up or possess it. But that hasn't stopped a tourist trade from springing up around the plant.
Real de Catorce, which has long been the site of Huichol peyote rituals, has become the center of the psychedelic cactus trade and a pilgrimage destination for would-be psychonauts. Once a nearly abandoned silver mining town, Real de Catorce (usually just called "Real" and pronounced "ray- ahl") sits on a 9,000-foot plateau in northern San Luis Potosí state. Its population plummeted from 40,000 in the late 1800s (when silver mining was in its heyday) to fewer than 1,000 full-time residents after the silver crash of 1893.
The town offers never-ending desert views and Old West–style buildings both restored and abandoned. But few people come to Real to enjoy the scenery. They're here to trip balls on the local cactus. In recent years Real's unique tourism industry has been written up everywhere from NPR to National Geographic, and trade from the cactus eaters helps support the local cafés, hotels, and bars.
Real and peyote first began to gain worldwide recognition among druggie experimentalists after the publication of anthropologist, author, and New Age teacher Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge in 1968.
In the book, Castaneda claims he studied with a Yaqui indian shaman who showed him how to use peyote to explore "a separate reality" and uncover truths about modern society and unhappiness. Included in his writings are fantastical tales about talking to coyotes, becoming a crow, and learning to fly. These fantastical stories have caused many mainstream scholars to dismiss his work, but they understandably piqued a lot of interest among people who really want to become crows and soar over the desert.
Luis and I had our hearts set on checking it out. So a few days after he told me about all this, we hopped into his ten-year-old shitty white hatchback and hit the road to Real.
The last two hours of the trip required driving along the world's bumpiest, dustiest 17-mile-long cobblestone road at ten miles an hour to avoid fucking up the bottom of our car. So much dust rose from the road that we could barely see.
After that spine-jarring hell, we lined up and waited outside of a mile-and-a-half-long tunnel that can only accommodate one car at a time. That tunnel, called "Ogarrio," passes through a mountain and is the only way into Real by car.
Real's main drag boasts a set of varied subcultures mixing and mingling on the dusty street. Old guys with gray beards and psychedelic theories rub shoulders with Mexican teenagers from the city on party weekends who take mescal shots with bros who got bored with the beach in Tulum. The visitors rent guesthouses in Real for a few days or take apartments and stay for months, trekking in and out of the desert to eat peyote with notions of being on a spiritual journey.
You can buy cactus from someone in town or try all sorts of peyote jellies, drinks, and salves that may or may not get you high. But the real point of a trip to Real is to go out into the desert and dig it up yourself.
The desert surrounding the town, especially in the Station 14 area, is where most of the peyote grows. It takes an hour by vehicle but is too steep of a descent for a normal car.
For $10, we caught a ride on a "willy," which looks like a Range Rover but functions like a bus. Eight passengers can fit inside and another eight on the roof. It's safer inside, but the view and breeze are better from the top. We rode on top and ooh'ed and ah'ed at the panoramic views and dead burros along the side of the dirt road.
On the trip, I talked to people who had been planning to visit this desert for years and had encyclopedic knowledge of peyote and the Huichol. There were also others (like me) who were in Mexico traveling, heard about the peyote in the desert, and thought they'd check it out.
The willy dropped us off and everyone scattered. So there we were, Luis and I alone in the Mexican desert, when we realized we didn't know what we were looking for. We thought it would be obvious what to do once we got there, but that wasn't the case. We had no tools, no supplies, and no clue.
"Uh, do you know what peyote looks like?" I said.
"No, do you?" he replied.
"Nope," I said. "Is your phone working?"
"No. Shiiit," said Luis.
Since it's illegal for visitors to dig up peyote, the drivers won't give you any information—in fact, they pretend they have no idea why you might be schlepping out into the desert.
We wandered around for a while feeling stupid. Then we saw a big guy wearing mirrored sunglasses who was brushing the ground with some sticks. His name was Leon, and he owned a hostel in Monterrey. He came out to the Chihuahuan Desert regularly to dig up peyote to sell to his guests. Like a true drug buddy, he gave us a tutorial on unearthing natural hallucinogens.
The young ones are about the size of a golf ball and may be five to ten years old. Mature ones are about the size of a baseball and may be up to 20 years old. The bigger cacti are easier to find, but the locals say that the smaller ones are more potent.
At first, Leon was pointing peyote out everywhere while simply scanning the ground with his eyes. Luis and I were on our hands and knees and still didn't see anything. Once we found a crown, he showed us how to sweep away the dirt and loosen the cactus gently with a small knife. It isn't possible to dig these up with your hands since the ground is really hard and dry. Peyote is buried between one and three inches deep. When Leon lifted the cactus out of the dirt, he kept it in one piece and left the root intact so that the plant could regenerate. Once he removed the cactus, he recovered the root with soil. This was important because these cacti in Real are being harvested far faster than they can grow.
Leon told us not to peel it and clean it until we were ready to eat it because it dries out quickly. Once you peel it, the inside looks green, shiny, and wet with a color and texture similar to a green bell pepper.
After we removed the hard skin and rinsed the flesh with water, Leon prepared us by saying the taste was "way worse than shrooms." But after eating the first one, I didn't think it was that bad. Unlike magic mushrooms, it didn't smell or taste like shit. It just tasted bitter. However, it did give me the driest mouth of my life.
I ate the peyote on an empty stomach since I wanted to have the strongest experience possible. Leon said that, to have a great trip, you need to eat eight to a dozen "buttons." After choking back my dozen, I felt completely stuffed.
I knew I was tripping when I heard Luis or Leon speak and I had to think deeply about what they were saying and what to say back. Luckily, we weren't talking much. But everything was amplified. I was thirstier, the desert was hotter, and the ground was harder. It was easy for me to imagine how peyote could enhance a religious experience.
Dr. Halpern told me that the cactus "probably works similar to other hallucinogens. It is thought to affect a serotonin receptor called 5-HT2A, which is a partial agonist. That particular serotonin receptor has three switches: off, on, and on-with-psychedelic-effects. We believe that functionality is the necessary component for psychedelic experience. The half-life of that effect will last eight to 12 hours at a full dose, which is 400 milligrams of peyote that has a one to three percent mescaline content."
"On peyote, your emotions are raw," Dr. Fikes said. He recalled seeing a bull sacrificed during a religious ritual while on peyote and found himself actually unable to breathe.
For six hours, the peyote came over me in waves.
At times I felt mildly sick but that could have been due to heat or dehydration as much as the peyote. When the feelings were strongest, I had the familiar mind-twitch I often associate with psychedelics. I thought I could hear the emptiness of the desert.
The first few hours took on a dreamy quality and I was unable to focus fully on anything. The later hours were more lucid and the the experience had no sharply defined start, peak, or end. I still felt the dreamy, drifting effects of it the next day.
The willy back to Real was nearly empty, so we laid down on the roof and stared at the sky while holding onto the rack. My body was super relaxed and I had no interest in talking. I felt like I was getting sunburned, but I didn't care to do anything about it. It was hard to focus on any one topic for more than a few minutes.
I hated when we got back to town and had to leave the good, chilled-out vibes we had on top of the truck. We exchanged info with Leon and he invited us to come stay at his hostel sometime soon. It sounded cool, but I knew we would never see him again.
After several hours of wandering around the ruins of Real, we decided we had come down to head back to Mexico City. We had dug up some extra peyote to bring back with us but, at some point, Luis—whose idea it was to come out to the desert and eat peyote in the first place—became concerned that we might get pulled over by the cops.
So he made me toss my last few buttons out the window. Religious experience or not, I guess peyote can make you a little bit paranoid too.
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