Updated February 7th, 2021.
Disclaimer: San Pedro is a powerful hallucinogenic drug with potent long and short term effects. Consumption of the drug should not be taken lightly and is in no way endorsed by South America Backpacker.
For millennia, Andean populations have whispered of the miracle of Huachuma, a powerful hallucinogenic cactus that allows shamans to commune with the spirits. When European explorers arrived on the continent, they named the plant San Pedro, after Saint Peter who is said to guard the entry to heaven.
San Pedro, much like Ayahuasca, has been used as a plant medicine by indigenous communities for thousands of years. Originally, plant medicines were reserved solely for shamans seeking spiritual insights and were reviled by European travellers. However, as the world opened its eyes to the apparent wonders of South America’s hallucinogenic natural treatments, backpackers have been flocking to Andean nations to experience the magic for themselves.
What Is San Pedro?
In its raw form, San Pedro is a massive cactus that can reach up to six metres tall. It naturally grows in the Andean Mountains, thriving between 2000-3000 metres above sea level and looks a lot like your stereotypical cactus!
What makes the San Pedro cactus popular among healers and shamans, is the large quantity of mescaline found within its flesh. Mescaline is a naturally occurring hallucinogenic compound that is found in many species, including Peyote, as well as the Peruvian and Bolivian Torch Cacti. San Pedro is thought to be the world’s first hallucinogenic to be used by humans, as evidence of its consumption dates back thousands of years.
History of San Pedro
Used for healing, spiritual awakenings and religious divination, San Pedro has been consumed by Andean cultures for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of its use by humans dates back to around 1300BCE.
In a temple belonging to the ancient Chavin civilisation in Northern Peru, there is a stone carving of a supernatural being wielding San Pedro Cacti. This alone would be a tenuous, albeit interesting link to the Chavin people consuming San Pedro. However, the discovery of 3000-year-old cigars made from San Pedro at the same site provides enough evidence for scientists to confirm its use.
From the 1500s onwards, European settlers began to colonise South America and after arriving in Brazil, spread slowly west to the Andean nations. As their march across the continent continued, they spread religion and Western-style education wherever they went.
Often by force, this ‘education’ involved the eradication of traditional language and culture, including the sacred use of plant medicine. While the knowledge of most plant medicines was almost completely wiped out, somehow San Pedro managed to fly under the radar and practitioners were almost left to their own devices.
And this was how San Pedro remained for centuries. Only a few shamans and spiritual individuals knew or understood what the cactus could do but as the popularity of plant medicine has grown in Europe and the USA, San Pedro’s worldwide fame and use as a hallucinogenic drug has exploded.
Effects Of San Pedro
The San Pedro Cactus produces a strong psychedelic experience but it’s reportedly much less intense than other natural hallucinogens such as Psilocybin, Peyote and Ayahuasca. Users say that after an initial bout of nausea, the trip begins gently, in an almost imperceptible fashion. One minute you’re concerned that you may be revisited by breakfast and the next thing you know, you’ve been staring at the shimmering trees for half an hour with no realisation that the experience has started.
During the actual trip, users report having heightened senses. Colours are more vivid, patterns are easier to spot, sounds become more obvious but less intrusive and some participants even report seeing auras around people, plants and animals.
San Pedro and its use as a legitimate plant medicine has not been as widely studied as Ayahuasca. However, there are several studies revolving around mescaline, the main psychoactive compound within San Pedro. They often show its use is associated with lower rates of mental health problems and that psychedelics as a whole, show great promise in treating drug and alcohol dependencies.
Practitioners of plant medicine and San Pedro treatments claim the experience can be a great healer of many things from mental trauma to physical disabilities. While past studies have indicated a level of efficacy when it comes to psychedelic drugs treating mental health issues, the evidence for them treating physical conditions is 100% anecdotal at best and at worst, completely made up.
It is safe to say that San Pedro’s use in a clinical setting needs to be much more thoroughly studied before modern medicine will advocate for its use.
How Is San Pedro Taken?
The San Pedro cactus is usually made into a brew and drunk. Shamans often encourage users to drink it quickly as the incredibly bitter flavour can make you feel rather queasy!
Turning the cactus into the brew takes time and should only be performed by those who know what they are doing. The skin and flesh are removed from the woody centre of the cactus before being boiled for at least a day. Some shamans will add extra ingredients but this is not required.
Rather than making the brew straight away, some people prefer to dry their cactus out and turn it into a powder. This can later be added to water and drunk.
San Pedro Ceremony
When we hear the word ‘ceremony’ we expect a very structured, ritualised process to take place. One that can be easily explained. However, San Pedro ceremonies are not like that at all.
Each ceremony differs depending on many factors. The location of the ceremony, the shaman, the brew and what the user is looking for can all drastically alter the event.
Sometimes participants will be asked to abstain from meat, drugs (both recreational and pharmaceutical), smoking, sugar and caffeine for a few days before the ceremony starts. However, unlike with Ayahuasca, there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s dangerous to consume any of these prior to taking San Pedro. Some shamans believe that having these in your system can negatively affect the trip though.
Before the ceremony can begin, participants may be involved in producing the actual San Pedro brew. This will often take place the day before consumption because the process can take more than twenty-four hours.
Producing the brew from raw ingredients yourself is said to make the experience more profound as you have personally guided the plant through its transformative process in the same way it will guide you through yours.
As a general rule, San Pedro ceremonies will start early, usually at around 8-9 am. At this time, a blessing will occur and participants will be asked to shape their intentions. To get the most out of San Pedro, it is said you must know why you are taking it and what you want to get out of the experience. Once this has taken place, the San Pedro brew will be drunk. Ceremonies vary from this point.
Some shamans will be on hand to guide you through the process, to help direct the thoughts and feelings of the user as they start to ride the peak of their experience. Other shamans are happy to leave users to their own devices, allowing them to explore both their environment and their mind with little interaction.
After the bulk of the trip is over, most shamans will bring participants back to a central point, where they’ll close the ceremony and thank San Pedro for the day. This doesn’t mean the end of the experience, just the end of the ceremony. Many users report still feeling the medicine long into the night.
Legality Of San Pedro
Across much of the world, the legality of San Pedro is a bit of a grey area. The cactus is not illegal to grow or display. You are even allowed to sell it, provided this is for ornamental purposes. However, if you are intending to use the cactus to get at the mescaline, then you’re going to have a problem. Mescaline is a controlled substance in most countries.
In the Andean Nations, things are a little different. Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia all allow the use and sale of San Pedro as plant medicine and San Pedro ceremonies are openly advertised in many backpacker hotspots. You can even buy the ‘just add water’ powdered version of San Pedro, at most markets!
How does San Pedro Differ From Ayahuasca?
As the popularity of plant medicine has grown, travellers are finding themselves drawn to South America. Hunting for healing, enlightenment or just to see what all the fuss is about, dorm rooms across the continent are full of backpackers extolling the virtues of Ayahuasca. Yet very few travellers talk about San Pedro with the same misty-eyed expressions.
Those that do say that San Pedro is a ‘more gentle’ alternative to Ayahuasca, one that is filled with light and joy as opposed to the fear and dread that can come along with taking Ayahuasca. It’s not hard to see why San Pedro is gaining so much popularity among backpackers.
Shamans will say that San Pedro and Ayahuasca are used in different ways to treat different patients. Often it’s when participants are forced by Ayahuasca to face their demons that they’ll get the most out of the experience.
The hallucinogenic properties of both Ayahuasca and San Pedro differ on a molecular level, with Ayahuasca containing high levels of DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) and San Pedro containing large amounts of Mescaline. Both compounds are well known for their strong psychedelic effects and can be synthesised in a lab, as well as occurring naturally.
After taking Ayahuasca, purging is very common and often actively encouraged by the shaman. This purging can be in the form of violent vomiting, severe diarrhoea, hot and cold flushes or any combination of these symptoms. With San Pedro, mild nausea is normal but full-on purging is far less likely to occur and is rarely encouraged.
- To learn more about an Ayahuasca experience, read this personal story.
San Pedro users tend to report having an element of control of their trip. They can guide the trip in a way that Ayahuasca users cannot. It is reportedly an awe and wonder-filled experience that can open creative pathways and allow users to think differently. Before the encounter with San Pedro is over, it is said that participants enter a contemplative phase, where they can look back on what they’ve discovered about themselves and the world, before making decisions on how to act on the knowledge they’ve gained.
Overall, a San Pedro trip usually lasts between 10-16 hours and users will often take a second dose midway through to extend the peak. By comparison, Ayahuasca usually lasts 4-6 hours but can be longer or shorter depending on the dose.
San Pedro FAQs
Is San Pedro Cactus Hallucinogenic?
Yes but that doesn’t mean that it has similar effects to any other hallucinogenic drug. Every psychedelic substance is different and should be treated with respect.
How long does a San Pedro trip last?
A San Pedro trip will generally last between 10-16 hours.
Is San Pedro Dangerous?
Generally no, aside from getting a cactus spine in your hand, San Pedro is very safe but the San Pedro brew can be very dangerous if other ingredients are introduced. Each shaman has their own way of doing things. Some will add further psychoactive ingredients to alter the experience and others will include high levels of nicotine to induce purging. It can be very easy to overdose on nicotine so it’s recommended to avoid this wherever possible!
If you are going to see a shaman for a San Pedro experience, make sure you can communicate with them. This enables you to ask exactly what is the brew and be aware of what you are consuming.
There is a very slim possibility of overdosing on mescaline. For this to be possible, you’d need to ingest a huge amount of San Pedro before getting anywhere near the lethal dose.
The real danger of San Pedro, which is also true of any mind-altering substance, is your environment. Know your area well and avoid places that could increase your risk levels. Roads, rivers and dense jungles can be dangerous places at the best of times so be sensible with your choice of location and remember that while tripping, your inhibitions will be significantly reduced.
Where Should I Try San Pedro?
Peru is the most popular South American country to try San Pedro and the Sacred Valley is where most backpackers will go for their experience. You’ll see signs lining the streets of Cusco advertising San Pedro ceremonies but the small hippy town of Pisac is where the majority of folks will head in search of their shaman. There are several shops and cafes in Pisac that cater to a backpacker crowd and you should find most of the information you need in them.
Do Thorough Research: Many San Pedro retreats will be well documented on TripAdvisor!
One Backpacker’s San Pedro Experience
While travelling in Ecuador, my girlfriend and I visited a small but popular jungle town. It was here we first learnt of San Pedro. Just two weeks later, we sat in a small hut waiting for our shaman to arrive. Sage smoke hung in the air as it cleaned the spiritual energy and the only noise was that of the river and surrounding jungle.
After our shaman entered the hut, he sat my girlfriend and I, as well as our friend Ashley down in a circle and asked us to shape our intentions.
He explained that this was an important part of the Huachuma experience. To get the most out of San Pedro, we should come to the ceremony with an intention in mind. This could be particular issues we wanted addressing or questions we wanted answering. By focusing our minds on what we wanted to achieve through San Pedro, we were much more likely to have a profound and beneficial experience.
I awkwardly looked across at Ashley and my girlfriend. The two girls had completely contrasting looks on their faces. Ashley had allowed the sage smoke to wash over her, wiping away all feelings of apprehension with a silent serenity. My girlfriend on the other hand looked like she was about to pass out with nerves.
To be honest, I didn’t know how to feel. I’d consumed hallucinogenic drugs before but never a ‘plant medicine’. Would it be different? I guess I was about to find out.
Inwardly, I spoke to the plant and in turn, with Pachamama. I laid myself bare, told them that I wanted to understand the difference between a drug and a medicine and admitted that I didn’t ‘need’ to be there. You could say, I was along for the ride. I wasn’t getting over a trauma or seeking a path to enlightenment. Honestly, I was just looking for a bit of a high. So this is what I told the plant.
Our shaman walked around the group, giving us one more dash of sage smoke before handing out three glasses of thick green cactus shake. It was time.
We knocked back the San Pedro brew. It was vile. The bitter green concoction was hard to keep down but as people kept explaining, plant medicine isn’t supposed to be easy. So we waited. I headed out into the jungle with my book and my girlfriend returned to bed. We knew it would be a couple of hours before anything happened.
As I sat, surrounded by the loud yet calming forest, I struggled to focus on what I was reading. The nervous anticipation of what was to come kept my mind off the task at hand. I couldn’t tell you how long I sat under the trees waiting but it must have been a while.
Instead of pouring my attention into my book, I stared into the never-ending wall of green that surrounded me but of course, it wasn’t only green. Pinks, blues, reds and yellows all stood out to me. They were an intrinsic part of the jungle but somehow stood apart from it. While I had noticed flowers growing around the hut, I hadn’t spotted this many earlier in the day. It made me realise how beautiful our surroundings are when we just open our eyes.
I was getting impatient and wanted the trip to start so instead of just thinking about the flowers, I got up and walked around a little, taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Had it always been this fresh or was last night’s rainfall creating new scents that I hadn’t noticed before?
Still, I waited for the trip to start. I’d been told, San Pedro takes a long time to kick in.
I made my way back to the hut where we were staying, walking past the river on the way. The water was so blue. Much bluer than I had ever seen it and the heavy rain had caused the white water to look much more extreme than usual.
Still, I waited.
The clouds rushed by overhead, creating elegant patterns in the sky. It was while staring at the faces in the clouds that I realised I wasn’t waiting at all. The San Pedro had kicked in a long time ago but the gentle progression into a full-blown trip meant I hadn’t even noticed it happening.
I wandered back to the hut and found the others. My girlfriend was staring out into the jungle and Ashley was dancing around the trees – She would later tell me she was dancing with the trees.
My girlfriend and I sat together in silence. While I cannot speak for how she felt in that moment, I felt closer to her than I ever had. Our auras were intertwined in a way that can only be described as a set of invisible tendrils tangled together. No, tangled is the wrong word as tangled implies a lack of control. We had total control of our tendrils, they were so tightly bound because we wanted them to be. I felt in that moment that it didn’t matter how far apart we were, we would always be connected.
Trying to get more comfortable in our hut, we lay down and stared at the wooden walls. I’m so glad we were in a wooden hut and not in a concrete building. It felt like we were essentially inside nature. The trees had literally given themselves up so we could shelter inside them, it was beautiful.
The walls showed us a dazzling array of ideas, past and present. Although we could see faces, it wasn’t like a film playing out in front of our eyes, the faces barely moved. They appeared to be in deep thought, perhaps mirroring our own expressions and showed us not only our place in the universe but our place in each other’s lives.
Both my girlfriend and I laid still for hours, lost in our own heads but enjoying each other’s company, quietly letting the love that surrounded us be absorbed through our skin and into our very beings.
As night fell and with the peak of the trip long behind us, we lit candles and marvelled at the way the shadows danced through the jungle. Although the height of the visual hallucinations had stopped, colours were still more intense, sounds much clearer and our thought processes were still different. We could see connections that just half a day earlier would’ve been impossible to understand.
This wasn’t an experience like LSD or Magic Mushrooms, where you manage to solve all life’s issues but never remember quite how you’d done it. San Pedro shared with me ways to challenge my own thinking, taught me how to see problems and how to effectively solve them. It never gave me the answers, it gave me the skill set I would need to solve the questions as they arose.
I went to bed, my brain feeling like jelly. It had been worked hard but I knew that when I awoke in the morning, I would have a new appreciation for life and would forever be changed by the experience.