My Experience With the Shamanic Mushrooms of Oaxaca, Mexico


The fractals started within 15 minutes of my drinking the tea, geometries spinning within the pines that covered the slopes of the valley. I stood up, overwhelmed. This was too much. Something felt wrong inside me. I hoped this was not a bad trip coming on. I breathed, then tried stretching, bending at the waist over my toes, but it didn’t help. “Hmmmm,” I murmured to Illich, who was seated in a rocking chair on the porch a few feet away. “This is… a lot.”

Maybe if I went inside our cozy cabin and layed down? I walked inside, and then vomited on the tile floor. Ah, so that is what was wrong inside of me.

This wasn’t the giggly morning I had anticipated.

On a Mushroom Pilgrimage

When we arrived to San Jose del Pacifico the day before, a tiny village clinging to the alpine mountainside 8,000 feet above sea level, it was the golden hour before sunset. Out of the window of the rental car, I watched cumulus clouds pour into the valley below us. We were just a two hour’s drive south of the dry scrub brush outside of Oaxaca City, but it seemed like we were on a different continent. The air was laden with a cool mist that dewed the pines and ferns. Instead of adobe homes or tiled colonials, we passed small buildings of brick, stone, and dark wood. Murals and signs made frequent references to elves, fairies, and mushrooms. Illich commented that he felt like we had arrived inside The Legend of Zelda.

(PS. Here’s what to pack if you’re traveling to Oaxaca.)

In fact, San Jose del Pacifico does have some of its magic, but it’s not exactly elven. It’s the hallucinogenic mushrooms, which locals forage from the woods here during rainy season.

Shrooms, or magic mushrooms, are simply mushrooms with the naturally-occurring, mind-altering substance psilocybin, which causes hallucinations and feelings of oneness with the universe. While many people (and teenagers) just eat them for fun at festivals, researchers are studying psilocybin with the hopes of legalizing it for therapeutic purposes. In the presence of a trained therapist, it has been shown to yield remarkable, lasting improvements to your psyche. Because of this, psilocybin has leapt from hippie territory into the broader culture of self-improvement-through-psychedelics, with entrepreneurs microdosing to improve creativity and performance. (If you want to learn more about psychedelics, their benefits, and their risk of addiction and overdose, I suggest reading Ayalet Waldman’s A Really Good Day.)

I’ve eaten mushrooms more than a dozen times since college. And to be honest, I actually prefer LSD, or “acid,” simply because LSD tends to let you guide your own experience a bit more. To put it another way, mushrooms take you where they want to take you, and sometimes that can be to a dark place. (Yes, that is some foreshadowing, right there.) To be clear, LSD still has the possibility for a bad trip, especially if you are with untrustworthy people with bad vibes, in an uncomfortable or scary location. But overall, if you start to feel uneasy on LSD, you can easily decide to dismiss those thoughts, and go right back to the happy giggles again. That’s not always the case with mushrooms. They make you work a little harder. They require more focus on your breath, more meditation techniques to soothe the mind, and more preparation to ensure you’ll be comfortable and feel safe during your journey.

When it comes to ethics and sustainability, however, mushrooms are my favorite. According to an exhaustively researched story at the Huffington Post (which I am trusting in this case because it was co-written by two senior staff members instead of a random, unpaid contributor) shrooms are endemic to every continent except for Antarctica, and can easily be grown indoors as well with little space and inputs, using waste products. Plus, a recent report says in the footnotes that – unlike cocaine and molly/ecstacy – shrooms are not commonly adulterated. And because they are so easy to grow by amateurs anywhere on the planet, they’re not trafficked through cartels, a concern especially relevant as we were in Mexico. All this makes them the perfect drug for the conscious consumer.

(For more on which illegal drugs are sustainable and ethical, read my guide.)

Most importantly, mind-altering mushrooms have been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by indigenous groups for religious and cultural rituals and medicinal purposes.This was something I knew about mushrooms, and certainly added to my enjoyment of them, but now I was about to get a chance to experience them in their terroir, like a wine enthusiast visiting Bordeaux, or more appropriately, a mezcal lover sipping a shooter of the stuff with locals at a palenque outside of Oaxaca City. Yes, mushrooms are illegal in Mexico, and that includes in San Jose del Pacifico. But as they are a tradition here, and they bring in tourist money to what otherwise would be a completely impoverished town, authorities look the other way.

That hasn’t always been the case. Mexicans had to hide their use of mushrooms from the white Spanish Catholics starting in the 1500s. According to High Times, in 1936 a Mexican ethnobotanist published a paper about the possible existence of mind-altering mushrooms. Twenty years later, an American named Gordon Wasson traveled to the tiny mountain town named in the paper, Huautla de Jiménez, which is located in the mountains five hours north of Oaxaca City. When he was finally allowed to participate in a nighttime purification ritual, he broke his promise of secrecy and published a book and article on the experience, sparking hippie tourism (including Bob Dylan and John Lennon) to Huautla throughout the sixties. It is said that Maria Sabina, the shaman who reluctantly let Americans in on this secret, came to regret her role in corrupting what had been a highly religious plant.

I did not know any of this history, however, when we decided to go to San Jose del Pacifico. All I knew was that some acquaintances had stopped over in the town during their drive from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast, and had discreetly sent over some tips for how to score some mushrooms. When we told some of our American and Mexican friends in Oaxaca about our plans, it quickly became apparent that visiting San Jose and partaking in the ritual is a common excursion for the creative set there. This fact, that San Jose is not just for hippie backpacking tourists but for locals, made me even more excited for our experience.

Authenticity was what I was after. And authenticity doesn’t always play nice.

Planning our San Jose Trip

Ideally, we would have just stopped in San Jose on our way to Puerto Escondido, but we didn’t have time to spend another week on the coast (and our Playa Viva experience could hardly be improved upon), so we decided to rent a car, drive to San Jose, spend the night, and then drive back to Oaxaca City. We booked a rental car for 9 am at the Oaxaca airport, hoping to get to San Jose by noon and have six solid hours of beautiful tripping in the daylight.

Unfortunately, renting a car in Mexico is never a pleasant experience. Even the recognizable American rental car companies are actually just local franchises that buy the name…and then do whatever they want. Especially if you are a guero (white person), they will try every which way to extract more money from you, including tacking on insane fees, requiring
you to buy $20-a-day insurance, or overbooking the affordable cars and offering you the option of either waiting for hours, or paying more for an upgrade. That is what happened to us in Oaxaca, despite the fact that Illich is a brown-skinned Venezuelan who speak native Spanish. We waited for more than four hours for our car to finally show up, so we didn’t leave Oaxaca until 1 pm.

There is an alternative, which is to pay less than $10 for a van ride through the mountains (you can get information on that locally in Oaxaca or Puerto Escondido) and they’ll drop you off in San Jose del Pacifico. The drawback is that you’re more likely to get motion sick in a van than in your own rental car – the switchbacks are notorious. On balance, I think I’m glad we got the rental car, for the privacy and the fact that we could arrive and leave when we pleased. But you might prefer the van for price reasons or so you don’t have to fight in Spanglish with the rental company.

In any case, we arrived to San Jose del Pacifico with only a couple hours left until sunset. The upside is that we had reserved a cabin at Puesta del Sol, a tiny resort that is quite friendly to those seeking a psychedelic experience, where the cabins go for only $30 a night. I believe we had another reason we needed to be back in Oaxaca, or else we would have booked two nights, so that we would have had a full day. That is something I recommend you do, so you can relax and take in more nature while you are there.

After checking in, we walked down a winding stone path lined with wildflowers and succulents of all sizes, from tiny pups sprouting from hanging pots, up to agaves that were twice my size. We were happy to see that our cabin was at the very end of the path and very private – sitting on our front porch, we could see just one other cabin 50 feet away. Though we nodded to several Mexican people wearing matching sweatshirts denoting that they were there for some sort of retreat (or perhaps they were in a cult? We didn’t investigate), down in our little space of nature, everything was silent, except for the wind through the trees and bird song.

Inside the cabin, we found two beds covered in thick, cozy blankets, a clean bathroom with a hot shower, and a wood-burning fireplace. Best of all, our front porch had a sweeping view of the valley, the only sign of civilization was a cell phone tower on a far ridge, beaming us a perfect signal. It was the perfect setting for some soul-searching aided by psilocybin.

Darkness Falls

Not everything was perfect, however. We were having our first big fight of our travels, over budgeting and balancing our work hours. We brought this bickering to our dinner at La Taberna de Los Duendes (the Elf Tavern) in the main part of the town, which had been recommended to us by a friend. They serve heaping portions of Italian pastas, craft beer, and wine. We asked for the upstairs room, which is quite romantic from what we hear, but it was already occupied. We proceeded to spend most of the dinner hissing at each other in a way that we hoped other diners wouldn’t notice (they probably did). We were interrupted in this by a young woman dressed like a hippie who walked over to say she recognized Illich from one of his DJ gigs in NYC. We put on our bright smiles and chatted for a bit, then went back to eating silently as soon as she figured out we wouldn’t invite her to sit down.

Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

By the end of dinner, we had talked it out, but we still felt pretty heavy. We asked the German restaurant owner about mushrooms, but he shook his head. No wonder, I wouldn’t give us mushrooms either having witnessed our bad vibes. We walked out of the restaurant and down to another hotel/restaurant that a friend told us sells mushrooms. Mushrooms were out of season at the time, and I’m sure they are best fresh. But when we got there and Illich asked at the counter about mushroom tea, the little old Mexican lady running the kitchen told him, sure, but we would have to wait until she had finished cooking for the other diners. So we sat down to wait, and a fluffy white street cat jumped into our laps in turn and burrowed her face in our jackets. Finally, a good sign.

While we waited, we discussed and decided that perhaps we shouldn’t drink the mushroom tea that night. After all, we had an amazing view from our cabin that we didn’t want to waste, and we could probably use a little more space between our fight and the upcoming experience, to clear our minds of negativity. After a half hour of waiting, the Mexican lady brought two steaming cups of tea. Illich decided to ask to buy another two doses for the road, so she brought us two packet of dried mushrooms. We paid and took our cups back to the cabin. We asked to have the fire lit for us. I poured the two cups of mushroom tea in my thermos, set my alarm for a half hour before sunrise, and we went to sleep listening to the crackling fire.

The next morning, we woke up at first light. The tea, which was still warm, had been steeping for eight hours. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the best idea. It was some strong tea, as we quickly discovered.

Illich drank his tea first, while I did an Instagram Live story talking about what we were about to do. When I walked out to the porch, his eyes were already wide. I got the bright idea that we should eat some breakfast (mushrooms often give me the munchies) so I drank my tea and then dragged us up to the dining room. I poured myself cereal and grabbed a banana and started eating it. And then I realized that I was already high and we needed to leave. Immediately. So I dragged Illich back down the long stone path to our cabin and plopped myself down on the bench to look at the view.

The fractals were swirling with a vengeance. I went inside. I threw up.

Illich came in to check on me and saw the vomit on the floor, and found my in the bathroom. He held my hair while I moaned, “I’m so sorry, baby. I’ll clean it up.”

“No, no, you go get in bed. I’ll take care of it,” he said. So I crawled into bed under the blankets. Meanwhile, Illich was trying to clean up my vomit, as he recounted later, but the fractals were spinning inside of it, and he was moved by just how beautiful it was. This was inside my wife, he marveled. He shook himself out of it and got the vomit cleaned up. Then he came and sat next to the bed and held my hand while I cried.

I want to clarify that this was not a bad trip. I’ve had a bad trip, which was brought on by taking strong mushrooms at a cold warehouse party where we didn’t know many people. At that time, I was physically uncomfortable, cold, with three different stages of music bleeding into each other, and no place to go that felt private and safe. This was different. I was in a cozy bed, with a view out of the window onto pure nature, my wonderful husband holding my hand and talking to me, his meditation set playing in the background.

It was a good cry. We had been traveling and planning, t
raveling and planning for about a month at that point, and we hadn’t yet figured out how to live that lifestyle and find balance. Everything always felt up in the air and unsettled. We moved from place to place every few days, and I was constantly anxious about researching, planning, and fitting everything into our itinerary.

But the mushrooms wanted me to let go, to relax, to not be in charge for a little bit. So that’s what I did.

Illich was having a grand ol’ time, by the way, just enjoying the mushroom trip and being his goofy self, taking care of me like my own wise shaman. We talked and I thought about all the ways in which he is so wonderful and caring, so trustworthy. And I articulated those thoughts to him. I think it came out like, “You’re such a good man. I love you. Wow, you’re so wonderful.”

Eventually, as the trip mellowed, I crawled out of bed and went back out onto the porch. Things were wavy, but the fractals had faded away. I smelled the air and watched the sun dapple the ground. I listened to bird calls and wrapped my serape around my knees with gratitude.

The powerful trip was not what I wanted, but it’s what I needed.

Other Things to Do in San Jose del Pacifico

It was 11 am, and we were pretty much sober. We packed our things and checked out, and drove back to the main area of town to have tlayudas at the restaurant that had sold us the mushroom tea. (Tip: bring plenty of cash for your time in San Jose del Pacifico. We ran out of cash, and it was a whole thing to run our card at the Duende restaurant in order to get cash for our bill at the other restaurant.)

Shopping. Afterwards we wandered around, and found the cutest shop selling framed prints, organic skincare, local honey, herbal teas, and Mexican fashion. It’s a project by the Oaxaca visual and tattoo artist Carlos Bautistab and the woman behind the Oaxaca beauty brand Relative Nativo. It was a completely unexpected delight to find a store of such thoughtful design in such a miniscule village! There’s also a few little shops selling hand-carved wooden mushrooms, which are actually quite elegant, and other trinkets and things.

Hiking and birdwatching. If we had more time, we would have done a little hike in the area. There are plenty of paths to follow, from easy to difficult. Ask around and you’ll be sure to get some excellent recommendations.

Temazcal. A temazcal ceremony is a traditional purifying steam bath involving aromatic herbs and scrubs. You can find this all over Mexico, from outside Mexico City to Tulum, but doing a ceremony before or after experiencing a mushroom trip would be absolutely amazing. Again, you can ask your hotel or at a local restaurant and you’ll probably find an excellent local practitioner.

Would We Recommend San Jose del Pacifico?

You might think that since I threw up and cried on my mushroom trip, I would warn you away from this magical town. But there were several factors at work here. One was the eight hours of steeping the mushrooms in hot water, which yielded an incredibly strong tea. The second was the lingering dark feelings from our fight. And the third was, I think, the nature of the mushrooms themselves and the setting, both of which resist casual use. It’s a serious place to do mushrooms, steeped in religious tradition. If you’re going to go to San Jose del Pacifico, be prepared that it might not be a day in the park. Or maybe your experience will actually be beautiful. It’s hard to say. No matter what, it will be valuable.

As we drove back to Oaxaca, Illich texted Elliot Coon, co-founder of the mezcal brand Gem & Bolt. She’s lived in Oaxaca for years and had been a wise guide to the city while we were there. She asked how it was, and Illich told her about our experience and how I had struggled.

“Plant medicine,” she texted back. “It makes you work.” True.

By the way, we still have one dose of those mushrooms. We’ve been saving them to use in the right place, a place that has natural beauty, where indigenous wisdom is respected, and there is a powerful energy embodied. We’re in Cusco this week, so I think we might have found our place…

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