Back of beyond in the 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,
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
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, 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."