The most important thing to take on this trip, more than warm clothes and ample cash, is the precious Dramamine. It’s only two hours, but the road is brutal. My friend Nick and I are planning to spend a day in San Jose del Pacifico, and I make no secret of how much I hate this ride. Nick doesn’t sympathize with me very much, as he has a much longer and equally unpleasant ride from Oaxaca City. He’s got a strong stomach and can handle the ride better than me, but he’s been covered in used tacos more than once on this run.
The Oaxacan Coast is such a popular vacation spot that most people barely notice the intricate network of towns and villages in the misty foothills just a few hours south of the capital city. The small vans that run passengers between Oaxaca City and the big seaside towns of Puerto Escondido or Huatulco pass quietly through these cities that barely make a dot on the map. My road takes me away from the coast as opposed to towards it.
This part of Oaxaca was the realm of Maria Sabina, a powerful curandera1, and an expert in psychedelic plants. She also enjoyed cannabis, and you’ll frequently see photos and depictions of her behind a thick puff of smoke. Her uncle and father also practiced the sacred art. It was Maria Sabina who first extended the privileged of participating in la velada2 to foreigners.
San Jose is one of many popular spots in the region for “drug tourism.” I hesitate to use the word because the most popular drugs here are plants, usually taken while guided by a more experienced user. Cannabis and hongos3 are by far the most prominent treats on the scene, but as the community is also known for drugs like MDMA and hash, so I guess the name is apt. San Jose is also on the main road and easily accessible, making it more convenient for visitors.
Some things you have to earn. It’s a rough trip, but I’m not the first to take it. Many others, some with famous names, have left a path for me to follow.
Eulogy for an Owl
Walter was seven years old, and he was sitting in his father’s orchard enjoying the quiet of a late summer afternoon. That’s when he saw an owl asleep in one of the apple trees.
It was dozing on a lower branch. Walter got it in his head that he could easily catch the owl and make it his pet. How cool would be to have a real owl as a pet! So he crept up to the tree, carefully reached out, and grabbed it’s legs.
Walter was just a kid, so he was naturally terrified at what happened next. The owl woke with a screech, flapping it’s wings and flexing it’s talons, and the frightened child reacted as one might expect. The fight or flight response took hold. He threw the owl down and stomped it to death.
Walter was just as horrified by this as you are. He ran from the orchard and returned with a shovel to bury the owl. And to his credit, he learned his lesson. Walter vowed never to harm a living animal again, and he also never tried to catch or cage any other animal. It turns out Walter had a talent. He liked to draw. From then on, he captured the animals he saw in his drawings.
It turns out Walter did pretty well. The animals he drew led him to a lucrative animation job that eventually grew into a massive media empire that included movies, amusement parks, even a cruise ship line.
Can you guess who little Walt grew up to be?
A more prominent question in your mind might be, what does this have to do with San Jose, Maria Sabina or psychedelic mushrooms?
To Shepherd the Immense
Walt Disney was one of many artists, journalists and philosophers that sought out the wisdom and healing of magic mushrooms right here in Oaxaca. It’s likely he came not only to nourish his creativity but to heal from trauma or stress. It is said that your greatest achievement will come from your greatest pain. Perhaps this was true of Walt as well.
Maria Sabina guided other famous people through their spiritual journeys, including other big names like Aldus Huxley and John Lennon. She passed away in 1985, but her legend lives on in many of the other small towns of the Sierra Mazateca south of Oaxaca City.
I take the same bus to San Antonio, the junction of Zipolite, but this time I ride to the end of the line in Pochutla. There’s a minivan that goes to San Jose every hour. No buses, only minivans. A bus can’t make some of these sharp turns or handle the steep, sometimes rough roads. That should give you an idea of where we’re going. This isn’t a trip for the faint of heart. Apparently, it was even a bit much for Walt Disney. Local legend states that the landing strip near Huatulco, that would eventually become an international airport, was his idea. I know how he must have felt. Coming down from Oaxaca City would be too much for me.
If you can keep your mind off your stomach doing back-flips, it’s a really nice ride. The road winds up into the mountains, and soon we’re in a completely different ecosystem than the one on the coast. The tall trees and misty valleys remind me of British Columbia and I actually feel a twinge of homesickness.
We reach San Jose in just under two hours and the ride was mercifully without incident. The wooden architecture is in stark contrast to the concrete that dominates the coast. Nick has already arrived in the hostel. It’s perched on the edge of a steep mountainside like everything else here. He’s waiting for me on the long balcony, a nice spread of roasted garlic peanuts, mezcal, hash and weed already laid out for us.
“Oh, sweet,” my eyes fall on the pile of leafy goodness first, especially since the ride up still has me feeling a bit queasy. I’m looking forward to a huge plate of pasta at that rustic Italian place down the road. We settle in with a game of cards and I ask Nick if he’s up for pizza in a few hours.
“Sure,” He likes that place as much as I do, even though it’s a sign that this place is turning into a tourist trap. There’s another small city nearby, off the main road, that’s becoming the new hotspot for savvy travelers. And there’s no way I’m naming it. I nod, glad to leave San Jose the way it is to attract the flippant tourists, similar to the Mazunte and Zipolite dichotomy.
The owner of the hostel is a friend of Nick’s, we met the last time I was here. He knows that this is only my second trip and I haven’t done the hongos yet. I return this time only as an observer, but I’d really like a bag of weed. Of course he says he’ll get me some promptly.
It’s not the mushroom season anyway, and the ones available are preserved from the last rainy season. In the meantime I’m happy to share Nick’s stash. The hash is exceptional, purchased from yet another small town nearby. Nick’s got a guy. If we had more time, we’d take that nice hike along the river valley and visit him personally. Maybe next time.
The sun sets into the clouds that obscure part of the valley I just drove up from. Part of San Jose’s draw is the ethereal, otherworldly feeling here. The clouds always obscure the green, rolling hills below, giving the impression the town is somehow floating through the air. At night, the stars seem to be even closer. It reminds me of how crisp and clear they would look on a winter night in Canada. It really is the perfect place for a psychedelic trip.
By the time we come back from dinner, it’s dark and windy, and I’m freezing my ass off. The temperature change between the coast and the mountains is a dramatic one. Nick, who has come from an even higher elevation, snickers and calls me a ponce4. I’ll be fine once we get back to the hostel and a roaring bonfire, but for now can we just walk a bit faster?
It’s pitch dark. There are few streetlights here and we stumble back up the hill. Our smart phones are more useful as flashlights anyway, with few internet signals penetrating the heavy forest and cloud cover.
The sound of soft, steady chanting guides us to the hostel. A roaring fire is already going out front. Around the fair side, there’s an open garden space for those that are taking the scared journey. They’ve formed a circle in the cool darkness. The ancient song has been translated into English but the droning hum makes it hard to understand.
“Damn, I’m going to sleep well,” I mutter, poking at the fire and squinting up at the stars.
“Nice to get away from the heat once in a while,” Nick nods and takes a healthy pull of the thick joint before passing it to me. Nick visits the coast frequently so he knows what it’s like. I haven’t worn pajamas or used a blanket in months, so this is a nice change.
We chat a bit, but quietly and sparingly, listening to the chanting. At times it fades, replaced by silence, whispers, and the constant wind. I’ve done mushrooms before, just not here. The first time was in the the temperate rain forest of Vancouver, an environment similar to this one. The second time was the Arizona desert. I’ve determined the third will be here, but I’m still waiting.
For what, I’m not sure.
Nick leaves early the next morning. He wants to get back to Oaxaca before it gets too late and he wants to make a few stops on the way. I’m a dedicated coastie, but Nick loves exploring the Valley of Oaxaca.
It’s just not possible to be in a rush. I tarry a bit with a relaxed breakfast and a joint before the ride home. Nobody even looks at me funny as I sit on the edge of the outdoor cafe, puffing down on a nice fatty as I wait for the camionetta5 to take me south. Of course, the drivers don’t mind. This is a million times more effective than Dramamine and they know it. Some vans are crowded with folks heading for the Huatulco airport or the surfing in Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido. I see more than a few surfboards. A few minivans leave before I grab one that’s only carrying few other passengers.
San Jose fades into the background as I drift to a gentle doze. The chants of the previous night echo in my head like the memory of a dream.
Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch woman
Because I am the sacred opposum
Because I am the Lord opposum
I am the woman Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the woman of the populous town, says
I am the shepherdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the woman who shepherds the immense, says
I am a shepherdess and I come with my shepherd, says
Because everything has its origin
And I come going from place to place from the origin…6
 A healer, shaman or holy woman.
 A healing or spiritual vigil guided by a shaman.
 Locally, psychedelic mushrooms are “hongos” while regular edible ones are “champignones.”
 A British expression. A close North American equivalent might be “wimp” or “pussy.”
 A minivan or small truck used for public transit.
 Estrada, Maria Sabina, Her Life and Chants. Translated from the original.