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The Place for Trips of the Mind-Bending Kind


HUAUTLA DE JIMÉNEZ, Mexico, May 4 — This is the place that launched a million trips. Back of beyond in the


Aurelia Aurora Catarina, a curandera, or shaman, held a handful of Salvia divinorum while talking about the trancelike state it induces.

mountains of northern Oaxaca, Huautla has had a far bigger impact on Western civilization than vice versa. Its valleys are a cornucopia of rare flora and fungi with strange powers, and its “magic mushrooms” ignited the psychedelic culture of the 1960’s.

The town has 35,000 people, two restaurants, one bar, called the Cup of Forgetfulness, and not a single Lava lamp. But without Huautla (pronounced WOW-tla), a generation of Americans might never have turned on, dropped out or played a Beatles record backward.

Now a second wave of trips to Huautla’s high hills is being set off by a mind-bending mint called Salvia divinorum, a little-understood plant unique to these parts.

After the price of local coffee beans collapsed from the forces of free trade, farmers here turned to cultivating the salvia for a global market. Its leaves are sold, legally, on Internet sites in the United States and Europe, at prices ranging from $40 to $120 an ounce. Foreign tourists are coming to Huautla to experience it on their own — to the dismay of the tribal priestesses who know it, and other hallucinogens, intimately.

For centuries, the Mazatec Indians who live here have used psilocybin mushrooms in ceremonies combining Catholic and indigenous rituals, conducted only at night, before homemade altars adorned with 13 flickering candles and the images of saints. They call the mushrooms “God’s flesh.”

“They have the power to cure, to heal, to deliver understanding,” said Aurelia Aurora Catarino, 56, one of Huautla’s leading curanderas, or shamans. “They are not a drug. They are a sacrament.”

In 1955, after decades of searching, a somewhat obsessed mushroom hunter named R. Gordon Wasson, a New York banker, flew here in a private plane. He talked his way into a few mouthfuls of the mushrooms, and soon was seeing “resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones.”

Unknown to Mr. Wasson, the Central Intelligence Agency was hot on his heels. The agency had a secret program to discover and develop drugs that could be used as mind-control weapons. Its spies heard about Mr. Wasson’s trip and sent an operative to infiltrate his group.

In 1957, Life magazine published a 17-page spread written by Mr. Wasson about his voyages up to Huautla and into inner space. Millions read the piece, including a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary.

Dr. Leary raced down to Mexico and soon set up the Harvard Psilocybin Project, turning on colleagues, students and friends like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. By the time the United States outlawed psychedelic drugs like psilocybin in 1966, scholars say, more than one million people had taken them.

In the 1960’s, thousands of Americans on psilocybin pilgrimages made their way up the newly built road to Huautla, a glorified goat path that climbs 45 miles and 378 hairpin turns from the two-lane highway below. There were Beatles songs playing in the streets, remembers Henry Munn, an anthroplogist who first visited in 1965.

But “some of these foreigners came here without any respect for the sacraments,” Ms. Catarino said. They still tell the tale in Huautla of the marijuana-smoking, mescal-swigging, mushroom-addled hippie who chased a live turkey down the street trying to eat it whole.

The Mexican Army set up a blockade on the road to Huautla from 1969 to 1976. But recently the flow of foreigners has revived, with hundreds of outsiders, mostly well-heeled Europeans, seeking permission to take part in psilocybin ceremonies each year.

Now salvia-seeking tourists and marketers are also on the road to Huautla. Once again Mr. Wasson, a vice president of J. P. Morgan & Company who died in 1986, was the first to describe the powers of salvia (a cousin of the sage grown in the United States), 40 years ago in a little-read monograph.

The plant, which grows naturally only around Huautla, has an active ingredient, salvinorum, whose effects on the mind are not understood in the slightest by scientists.

“The leaves are much more powerful than the mushrooms,” said Ms. Catarino, who uses salvia outside mushroom season. She strongly disapproves of taking salvia anywhere but in the strictly controlled ceremonies she conducts, which require prior abstinence from sex

salvia mexico

Salvia divinorum grows naturally only around Huautla in Mexico.

, alcohol and other temptations.

Those who have sampled salvia report experiences both mystical and terrifying.

Kathleen Harrison, a California ethnobotanist who ate salvia leaves in a traditional ceremony near Huautla, described being transported into “the presence of a great female being, a 20-foot-high woman,” and feeling like a plant in this spirit’s garden.

Daniel Siebert, another California ethnobotanist, had a different reaction to a concentrated extract of salvinorum. Reporting on a scholarly Web site he maintains on the plant, www.sagewisdom.org, he said it plunged him into “a confused, fast-moving state of consciousness with absolutely no idea where my body or for that matter my universe had gone.”

“It is tearing apart the fabric of existence,” he wrote under its influence. “It is madness.” His Web site recommends using salvia only with a sober companion so as not to “physically injure yourself” while intoxicated.

Ms. Catarino said: “Foreigners come here without thinking, looking for a cure from reality. The purpose of these sacraments is to purify, and to open the road. When it opens, it’s as clear as the blue sky, and the stars at night are as bright as suns.”

“But in the wrong hands, it can be a disaster,” she said. “It can send people to hell.”


Specific to Salvia divinorum (Diviner’s Sage):

Additional information:

Relevant organizations:

  • The Drug Policy Alliance – Alternatives to the war on drugs based on science, compassion, and human rights.
  • The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE). Working in the public interest to foster freedom of thought.
  • MAPS (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). Supporting psychedelic research since 1986.
  • The Council on Spiritual Practices. Making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.
  • The Media Awareness Project. A worldwide network dedicated to drug policy reform.
  • The Drug Reform Coordination Network. A national network of more than 21,000 activists and concerned citizens including parents, educators, students, lawyers, health care professionals, academics, and others working for drug policy reform. DRCNet supports rational policies consistent with the principles of peace, justice, freedom, compassion and truth. Each of these has been compromised in the name of the Drug War.
  • Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Students for Sensible Drug Policy is committed to providing education on harms caused by the War on Drugs working to involve youth in the political process, and promoting an open, honest, and rational discussion of alternative solutions to our nation’s drug problems.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union. Useful drug policy links.