REAL DE CATORCE, Mexico (eTN) – Pity the peyote, the legendary cactus whose hallucinogenic powers inspired gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and an entire generation of hippies.
This ground-hugging native of Mexico’s northern desert is in danger of disappearing, a victim of psychedelic tourism, silver mining and greenhouse tomatoes.
Its defenders come from an unlikely place – the state government of San Luis Potosi. The decline of the peyote, which takes up to 30 years to mature, is so critical that the state has stepped in and passed laws to protect it.
If peyote is the dream drug of the flower-power generation, it’s also a sacred plant for one of Mexico’s largest indigenous groups, the Huichol Indians. They’ve used peyote for hundreds, possibly even thousands of years, in ceremonies to communicate with their gods. They even introduced the powers of the cactus to the Hopis and other North American tribes.
Once a year, the Huichol Indians make a 300-mile pilgrimage from their villages in the mountains of Nayarit, Durango and Jalisco states to the high desert of San Luis Potosi, where the tiny cactus grows in the shade of thorny shrubs.
As they walk through the desert toward their holy mountain, towering above the mining town of Real de Catorce, they run into foreign tourists with stupefied smiles, sucking hallucinogenic juice from the revered plant.
Consuming peyote is legal in San Luis Potosi, a curious loophole that for decades has drawn thousands of druggies to the desert. As long as no one tries to take the cactus home – that would be trafficking and could lead to 10 years or more in prison – they’re free to make as many psychedelic trips as they want.
The Huichol Indians, who number 50,000, have traditionally been a closed society that shields its rituals from outsiders. But they’re so concerned about tourists uprooting peyote, and the toxic effects of mining and commercial agriculture, that they’ve turned to state officials for help.
The state turned to Pedro Medellín, a professor at the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi, who has been trying to save the peyote for more than a decade.
His first victory came in 1994, when he persuaded the state government to designate part of the Huichols’ route and their holy mountain, Cerro del Quemado, as ecological preserves. In 2000, the ecological zone was enlarged to 321,000 acres. Last month, Medellín and his team of researchers completed a conservation plan for the state’s environmental agency that calls for replanting peyote, paying Huichol Indians to patrol the preserve and placing limits on industries that are damaging the desert’s ecosystem.
In the ore-rich mountains dotting the desert, mining is the environmental villain. Toxic metals – lead, mercury and arsenic – from abandoned operations permeate the soil. And now some of those mines are being reopened in response to a surge in silver prices.
Outside Real de Catorce, a Canadian company, Minera Real Bonanza, is searching for new veins of silver. The mine closed in 1990, when silver prices fell to $2.50 an ounce. With prices at $13 an ounce, the company hopes to mine 1,000 tons of ore a day.
Then, too, there’s the invasion of the greenhouse tomatoes.
“It’s a massive destruction of the natural habitat,” Medellín said. “Big firms rent the land, they use it and they deplete it and they leave behind saline soil.”
At Rancho Las Vegas, a greenhouse operation that produces tomatoes for U.S. markets, manager Gabriel Villegas said agricultural companies have planted hundreds of acres in the past five years, a dramatic increase for the fragile desert ecosystem.
Most people blame peyote’s decline on tattered backpackers who show up in Real de Catorce, though Medelĺín says they’re not the real culprits.
The peyoteros, as they’re known in Spanish, have been flocking to Mexico’s high desert for nearly 40 years, ever since UCLA anthropology student Carlos Castaneda published a series of books about the magical powers of the cactus. Time magazine called Castaneda the “Godfather of the New Age” after millions of copies were sold all over the world.
In “The Teachings of Don Juan,” Castaneda described how an Indian sorcerer he met at a bus station on the U.S.-Mexico border introduced him to peyote. He said that when he ate the cactus, ranked by U.S. drug officials as one of the world’s most potent hallucinogens, he entered a “separate reality” where he talked to a bilingual coyote, turned into a crow and saw columns of singing light.
A quest for the singing light brought one woman all the way from Bulgaria last month. She heard about the desert cactus from two Greek women. Of course, they didn’t tell her that peyote is disappearing.
“This is an endangered species?”
She shook her long, brown hair and laughed.
“Well, I can understand why.”
Not your usual scene
Peyote necklaces, peyote ashtrays and peyote paperweights line the shelves of incense-filled stores in Real de Catorce. There’s psychedelic art as well, framed weavings and beaded animals rich with the florid colors the Huichols see during their mind-bending peyote encounters.
Tucked between two mountains, the 300-year-old town is a strange mix of drug culture and colonial Mexico. Local men wearing snug jeans and cowboy hats strut past skinny, tattooed youths with matted hair and nose rings. Ranchera music blasts from stone houses while a restaurant catering to backpacking tourists plays the song “Cocaine.”
Once inhabited by rugged miners, Real de Catorce turned to other economic sources as the gold and silver operations shut down. A picturesque town of steep, cobblestone streets that can be reached only by passing through an ancient, 1½ -mile tunnel, it has attracted the attention of Hollywood.
In 2000, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts filmed “The Mexican” there. Four years later, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek showed up to shoot “Bandidas.”
But once the moviemakers and their cash are gone, the townspeople turn again to the peyote seekers.
Every day, drug tourists climb aboard the town’s old Jeeps, built in the early 1960s and painted pink, yellow and blue like the psychedelic colors evoked by peyote. To heighten the thrill of the adventure, the Jeeps careen down a narrow, perilous mountain road to the desert floor.
There, the peyote seekers walk for hours – sometimes days – braving searing heat, thorny cactuses and even rattlesnakes to find peyote.
“Some people are desperate. They run around the desert looking for peyote because they’re in a hurry to get high,” said Jeep driver Emilio Hernández, 48, who makes his living taking peyoteros into the desert.
“Peyote isn’t easy to find. You have to walk calmly. Calmly.”
Hernández stopped at a small, green-gray disk tucked among small stones. “There it is,” he said.
Lizzy Sturt was lured from Newbury, England, by the siren song of the peyote. She promised her mother she’d go back home and study ecology one day. But for now, she’s studying peyote up close and personal.
Hitchhiking across Mexico with her dog in tow, Sturt, 21, showed up one October day in Real de Catorce. She met fellow traveler David Alcalá, 29, a Mexico City native, and together they went to the desert in search of the little cactus. They call it hicuri, the Huichol word for peyote, and perform ceremonies with tobacco and water before pulling it from the ground.
Alcalá took a bite of peyote, then shuddered from the sharp, bitter taste. He chewed the spineless cactus until his eyes glazed over and he could no longer focus.
“I’m going to forget everything now,” he said, leaning back against the trunk of a tree. “I’m going to fly.”
Some people in Real de Catorce welcome the peyoteros. But others resent them.
“These aren’t tourists. These are people who are addicted to a hallucinogenic plant,” said Jorge Quijano, who runs the one-room tourism office and is the town historian. “These hippies consume a lot of peyote. That is why it has been running out little by little. I wish they would realize that peyote is sacred.”
Preserving the old ways
Marciano de la Cruz stood at the top of Cerro del Quemado, gripping candles and a feather.
In his native Huichol language, he prayed to his gods – corn, deer and peyote. The son of a shaman chanted rhythmically as he stood amid offerings of gourds, colored ribbons and hand-woven religious symbols.
“This is what our fathers and grandfathers taught us,” said de la Cruz, 27, as he stood on the mountaintop and pointed to the heavens.
He’s troubled by outsiders who pull up peyote by its roots, and by people who harvest huge quantities to sell. At the very least, he wishes people would cut the cactus so the roots remain, allowing the peyote to restore itself.
De la Cruz brought his 22-month-old son, Sebastián, to the mountaintop to teach him the ways of his ancestors and show him how to preserve the peyote for future generations.
“When he is a little older, he is going to understand the things we are doing here,” de la Cruz said. “Peyote is our brother. We have to protect it.”