So I did make it to Cusco. And I have to say, I’m not very fond of this place. It’s a beautiful city, with gorgeous colonial Spanish architecture and some of the most beautiful people I’ve seen. The skies are intensely vibrant this high up and the green hills are dotted with villages and lights at night – New Zealand is the only place I’ve been to that has scenery this nice.
But it’s also a pulsing cancer of tourism. Scammers, pushy locals who see you as a handful of Soles and line up to sell you stuff when you’re sitting with a book in the park, and a lung-bursting mixture of extremely high altitude (11,152 ft above sea level) and hilly streets.
Still, I had to come. I wanted to get access to a second plant medicine: San Pedro, Wachuma. I intended on avoiding the tours and “retreats” as there is a market here in Cusco where you can buy it for less than $2.
I ended up buying a few bags of the powder and…Kind stared at for a while, mildly intimidated. Supposedly San Pedro is ideally taken out in nature. However, I had no idea what to expect as my psychedelic experience is limited to Ayahuasca. I didn’t want to be disabled in the mountains somewhere, nor did I want to have a bad trip in my hotel room.
How right I was to follow gut instincts. Instead, I decided to sign up for an extremely overpriced but guided single-day experience. The next day, at 10 am, I met a local guide and an excitable Japanese fellow and we trekked up to a retreat center in the process of being built, in the hills above Cusco.
As we spoke, I was able to translate for my Japanese companion, who spoke no Spanish. Mi Espanol is only passable but it was nice to see my high school lessons never left and I could facilitate.
We had a nice thick sample of Wachuma powder stirred into water and were instructed to drink and then relax. It was..Disgusting. Not as bad as Ayahuasca but a gritty, bitter, leafy, vaguely nauseating drink. I knew that it would be a while as San Pedro has a long onset, so we buckled down in the retreat center’s yurt for a couple of hours.
While our shaman played the flute and lit tobacco and incense, my co-retreat companion started to feel it come on. He started feeling nauseous and spat into the bucket intermittently. I felt vague nausea but nothing suggesting things were happening. I am a big guy so I was offered a second half-dose. Gross but I might as well since I’m here.
We then stepped outside and left the retreat center, at which point I noticed that the colors were slightly more vibrant. The light was brighter but I didn’t need to squint. Around the corner from the little village at the very edge of Cusco was some incredible scenery and not just because the San Pedro was kicking in.
I later found out the area is called Sacsayhuaman. I wrote it down so I can take a taxi there tomorrow and just walk around. It’s this nearly primordial looking high grassland studded with rocky outcroppings and winding streams. Many of the rocks have stairs like Mesoamerican temples carved into them. My skeptical side wonders if this is just part of the touristic experience but my wonder-loving side is thrilled to be among ruins.
While there were several steps to the day retreat, I kind of want to write more about how I felt under the influence of San Pedro compared to Ayahuasca as that’s what most sticks in my mind.
Ayahuasca was educational, without a doubt. I felt like shit during my 4-day retreat but I also learned so much about my emotions, past pain, and Life in general. San Pedro was…Playful? Just generally beautiful? It’s hard to say as I’m integrating the experience still.
I tried some meditative practice and inquiry and while I was in an altered state that felt connected and grounded, I didn’t gain any insight into my mind. I felt the need to take my shoes off which I did, and just walk silently, smelling the green air, and looking, looking. I felt warm and everything was just really nice.
We came to the top of a hill and I found a peyote cactus growing in the ground. I’m not super knowledgeable about psychedelics but I recognized it instantly and the shaman confirmed it.
When I laid down on the ground, it was as if I was sinking into it. I could feel the mountain under me as if it were my own spine and I had fleeting visions of sweeping granite cliffs. I also had fleeting visions of several peyote cacti budding from a mountain, as the eyes of the world looking back at me. I also had…Visions?
Of serpents or something, almost like tentacles or sperm swimming in fractal-like patterns. Like little black holes rippling through some sort of space. There was also an auditory component, like they were buzzing. Really indescribable, though their fractal wakes reminded me of ayahuasca. After I stood up, I tried sinking into my heart and looking for an emotional connection to my companions but didn’t feel anything there.
The peak for me was when we came across a valley cut into those mountains. The sky was intensely blue and there were villagers herding llamas and a winding stream moving through the green grass. It was literally a divine beauty. I couldn’t even think. I just stared wide-eyed at everything. Everything was so beautiful, all of it. How could I not see this before? The sun, the clouds, the wind…So beautiful and full of intent?
As we came down the mountain, I saw a rocky outcropping and I felt some connection to it. I was certain it held something…Either a message or a willingness to commune. So I put a hand on a nearby rock. And then walked awhile and put my hand on another rock. I felt compelled to stop and if the others weren’t continuing to walk down the path, I probably would have stood there for hours with my hand on that damn rock.
From the hills we came across the Inca Trail, which led directly into Cusco. Funnily enough along the trail, I came across a couple of young Peruvians who were friendly yet were furtively trying to hide some manure in their hand. Sure enough, it was covered with psilocybin mushrooms. “HA!” I said, “Naughty!” They started laughing and let us get a better look. And then we continued our walk down the trail. I saw them again as we were further down the trail and I shouted up in so-so Spanish “Hey! What are you looking for?!” They acted caught and surprised and we all laughed again.
As we descended into the city things got…Sticky. I wouldn’t say it was a “bad trip,” but the vibe definitely shifted for me. Also I was worried because I could feel I was very much under the influence yet our tour was about over.
We eventually arrived at the mystic shop where we originally met and to my dismay, we all parted ways. I wanted to ask if someone could “trip sit” me because I was lucid enough to know that the mescaline had not worn off…But I decided to do my own thing anyway.
I wasn’t quite ready to go home so I went to a nearby park a few blocks up. It wasn’t pleasant. Everything I saw put me into a bad mood. I felt sad and started seeing beauty bricked up by builders. I saw a hotel called the ____ Monastery. It was clearly a ritzy place, with limousines parked in front and rich people coming in and out, which made my mescaline-mind irritable with the irony of a monastery dedicated to spending. There were several national flags as well, showcasing (to me) what sort of worship was going on.
A Peruano carrying a shoe polishing kit came up to me and asked if I needed a polish for 1 Sol. I said no and felt intensely sad. I thought “I could just give him the Sol. But I’m not going to, am I?” And he walked away, grubby and bent backed, and I felt even sadder because his ability to see beauty was equal to mine and how could he be forced into such a role?
Beyond the _____ Monastery, I could see a rainbow, as if the walls of the hotel, the flags, and the meandering people ignoring the rainbow were blocking it all.
Ahhh, so this is how bad trips start, a wider voice inside me said. Time to get back to the hotel.
I did make it back and weaved my way to my bed. I slept fitfully, as the mescaline still hadn’t worn off, 12 hours later. Each time I woke up, I’d see the ceiling seemingly breathing. It wasn’t scary, just weird and vaguely entertaining/unsettling.
After a few hours I felt the need to talk to someone and put an amusing if rather regretful message on Facebook. Unfortunately, people seemed more weirded out than anything, so I deleted it and decided to call my brother. I confessed I was “under the influence” but just wanted to talk and we had a great catching up session.
The next day, I was wrecked by my sleep schedule being thrown off and the lack of solid food. I’m also more than a little annoyed that my trip sitter/shaman actually let me leave. 6 hours later my pupils were still dilated and I was under the effect. He knew he gave me an additional half-dose, too. I really should not have been left to wander Cusco like that. But I guess I’m yet another hippie tourist.
Would I do it all again? Maybe?..I honestly don’t really feel much of a recreational pull towards psychedelics. I really want to just learn more about myself and how to live well. What sticks out to me during my San Pedro experience was that moment of intense beauty overlooking the valley. But the melding into the mountain and other bits I can easily dismiss as interesting but not especially relevant or useful.
While it was absolutely divine and I came out with a sense of “recognizing beauty is part of what makes Life worth living,” I don’t feel an intense urge to do it again. Which, from what I read, is common to psychedelic experiences.
I still have the powder I bought at the market but I really don’t care to be that nauseous and alone for the experience.
Then again, maybe just a little? I dunno.