Surrounded by the dwarfing Sierra de Catorce mountain range, Rough Guides writer Alasdair Baverstock indulges in some hallucinogenic Mexican cactus for an eye-opening experience.
The cactus beside me was quite audibly breathing. Its expansions and contractions were sure signs of its survival in this desert. In fact, looking around at the abandoned silver mine everything was breathing. The creeper vines clinging to the dilapidated furnace chimney, the rock on which I was sitting, the very ground itself was sucking deeply and greedily on the air. Or so the hallucinogen coursing through my system was telling me.
Five hours north of Mexico City, Real de Catorce is an abandoned silver mining town nestled in an eighty mile-long massif in San Luis Potosí state. The industry has all gone. Mexico’s largest silver deposits were exhausted fifty years ago. Now the town survives on peyote tourism, which sees travellers come to experience a plant with hallucinogenic properties, grown in the desert nearby.
After five miles of cobbled mountain road and a two kilometre tunnel, we arrived in the town. Alpine in its constitution, Real de Catorce’s whitewashed houses, soaring church spire and cobbled streets are a world apart from the Spanish imperialism which built the state capital, San Luis Potosí.
The guides were immediately upon us, asking, “you’re after the medicine?” as soon as we arrived. Local touts charge £10 (US$16) a head. “We go in my jeep, collect the medicine and then go to a safe place for the effects,” one promised. Ten minutes later we were doing just that, perched precariously on the 4x4’s roof as we tackled the terrifying road down out of the mountains.
Peyote is a cactus which grows around the roots of other desert shrubs. It is a squat and fleshy plant, soft enough to be harvested with a credit card, its texture that of broccoli stem. Its sale for consumption is illegal, although the Mexican authorities tend to look the other way if one has come to the source to experience it. Visitors can walk away from the desert with whatever they can hold in their stomachs.
Sitting in a circle on the desert floor, each with two plants (a decent dose we were informed), we raised a stumbling toast to a new experience and began the arduous process of swallowing the peyote. Extremely bitter and acrid, the plant should be cleaned of the cotton-like strands that sprout from its centre, as well as any sand particles that may still be hanging on. Ten minutes and twenty mouth rinsings later, we were on our way.
“You guys taken the medicine?”, the petrol station attendant grinned knowingly at me.
“Yes. Have you?”
“Not today, but sometimes I’ll eat a little bit. Makes you feel nice”.
The hallucinogen takes perhaps an hour to kick in, during which time we made our way back up towards the mountain town, stopping at its abandoned mine for a tour.
Entering the area I could feel my mind begin to trip. Sounds were more intense; the rustle of the trees was fizzing in at me from all directions. The eagles hunting the vast skies were heart-racingly beautiful; the bridge across the gorge was an astonishing feat of engineering; the shared benevolence of all living things in the region had soaked me in its light.
Suddenly the simple fact of the world’s existence and my own within it was an amazing fact. Perhaps the only fact. That’s the sort of hallucinogen peyote is. It’s possible to see life’s panorama more widely.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in Real de Catorce, shopping for dulce de leche desserts and silver jewellery mined and made in the mountains around us.
Sitting down with the group – a civil engineer with his girlfriend, my friend Tim and I – we talked about what we were feeling. “It comes in waves”, said the girlfriend, “you think you’re coming down but then a wave breaks in your mind. It washes over you and you’re in deep again.”
“You feel very connected to things”, said Tim, “part of something bigger”. We all agreed.
Lunch was delicious: pozole, a long-stewed Mexican pork soup filled with corn, juices and local vegetables. It felt like enough food for the entire day, let alone lunch. By this time we had entered the second part of a peyote trip: an unshakable inner peace; a calm appreciation of everything around you. This lasts the majority of the trip, a delightful further eight hours.
I offered to give the couple a ride back into town on our way back to Mexico City. We sat in the car and enjoyed the drive as the mountains changed into desert, the skies turned from blue to rosy pink and the cobbled track turned into tarmac motorway. We were content, happy and relaxed.
Saying our farewells at the bus station, we watched the setting sun cast multi-coloured shadows over the mountain range in the distance. They melded into the crowd shoving around the bus terminal. I looked at the humanity and I looked at myself and I looked at the bare earth. Part of something bigger.