Ritual Use of the Sacred San Pedro Cactus (Echinopsis Pachanoi)

Exploring the ritual use of San Pedro cactus: A culturally crucial shamanic medicine from the Andean slopes of South America.

Ethnographic reports since the mid-twentieth century have documented the prehistoric ritual use of San Pedro cactus in South America, northern Peru in particular, as a tool to facilitate the shaman’s ‘‘journey’’ for healing purposes. Throughout this period, the visionary cactus has been known by many names, including huachuma or achuma. 

Since prehistory, San Pedro has been instrumental to Peruvian cultural traditions. Later depictions of the cactus, according to Canadian shamanism scholar Douglas Sharon in his Shamanism & the Sacred Cactus: Ethnoarchaeological Evidence for San Pedro Use in Northern Peru, suggest an association with the “propitiation of the ancestors, communion with the realm of the dead, abundant water, and agricultural fertility.” 

Contemporary curanderos (shamanic healers) in South America believe San Pedro to be a “planta viva” (life-filled plant) that facilitates shamanic journeys to unseen, sacred realms. Like the Christian Apostle, St. Peter, San Pedro is believed to hold the metaphorical keys to the kingdom of heaven. 

In Peru, San Pedro can be found growing in the homes of people of diverse sociocultural backgrounds, many of whom are unaware of its psychoactive properties, great antiquity, and cultural significance. Rather than as a source of the classic psychedelic compound mescaline, the plant’s function is instead to endow the family home with good fortune and protection. 

In more recent times, the use of San Pedro by those seeking access to alternate states of consciousness for spiritual enlightenment, or, less commonly, as a means of escape from societal stresses, has been gaining increasing popularity throughout South and Central America, as well as in the United States and Western Europe. 

What is San Pedro Cactus?

San Pedro (also known as Echinopsis pachanoi or Trichocereus pachanoi) is a fast-growing (San Pedro grows up to 10-20 ft. tall and 5-6 ft. wide), multi-stemmed cactus native to the South American countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.

The cactus contains several alkaloids, the well-studied yet seemingly forgotten psychedelic substance, mescaline (3,4,5-Trimethoxyphenethylamine), principal among them.

The chemical constituents of the green-bluish psychedelic cactus are consumed by curanderos to facilitate the divine journey required for the diagnosing and healing of ‘‘magical’’ illnesses, including ‘‘soul loss’’ and ‘‘sorcery’’ from which ritual participants are believed to suffer.

By weight, San Pedro is approximately 93.5% water, with mescaline concentrations varying greatly, ranging from 0.025% to 4.7% of dry cactus weight. Mescaline is mostly concentrated immediately underneath the outermost, somewhat translucent layer of the magical cactus — in its damp, green flesh. 

Marginal concentrations of mescaline are also found in other parts of the plant, including the cream-colored pulp below the flesh. However, it is often advised to refrain from indulging in the nausea-inducing pulp. 

An artistic rendition of San Pedro cactus with iconic white flowers.

San Pedro also contains the following alkaloids in trace amounts: 

  • 3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine (DMPEA) 
  • 3-Methoxytyramine
  • 4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenethylamine
  • 4-hydroxy-3,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine
  • Anhalonidine
  • Anhalinine
  • Hordenine
  • Tyramine
  • Lophophine 
  • Lobivine

The amount of San Pedro needed to induce a psychedelic experience can vary considerably. For mescaline, a common beginner dose is around 200-300 milligrams, which roughly corresponds to 200-300 grams of fresh San Pedro.

The Antiquity of San Pedro Use 

According to anthropology professor and expert in Peruvian shamanism, Bonnie Glass-Coffin, the importance of San Pedro in the coastal Sechura Desert and the country’s central highlands, precedes the dawn of written history in the region.

The earliest archaeological evidence for the use of the sacred plant medicine comes from the Guitarrero Cave in the north-central sierra, dating back to 8200–6800 BC, where remnants of Echinopsis pachanoi were discovered in accompaniment with ceremonial artifacts. The Guitarrero cave is so old that its earliest artifacts are classified as part of the Lithic period — the earliest period of human occupation in the Americas. 

The extensive history of San Pedro use is also evidenced by ancient depictions of the cactus on pottery, textiles, and prehistoric petroglyphs dating long before the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire. 

San Pedro is also depicted on 2,200-year-old pottery on the southern coast near Nazca, and 3,000-year-old stone sculptures in the central highlands of Ancash. Extraordinarily, there is also evidence of San Pedro usage in Andean preceramic times on the northern coast of Peru 4,000 years ago. 

Reverence for San Pedro’s remarkable mind-manifesting properties is heavily portrayed in the pottery of the Cupisnique, a pre-Columbian indigenous culture that flourished from 1500 - 500 BC high in the Andes and on the northern coast of modern-day Lambayeque, where, presently, the church of San Pedro peacefully resides. 

However, the most famous of ancient representations is the famous Chavín stone carving from 1300 BC located in Chavín de Huántar, an archaeological site in northern Peru, which shows an anthropomorphic, fanged serpent-deity holding a “staff” of San Pedro cactus. 

Religious Divination in Traditional Cultures 

San Pedro has been used to facilitate communication between the masculine spirits of the Andes and the feminine spirits of the mountain-backed, medicinal lagoons, collectively known as “Las Huaringas”, embedded deeply above the northern “town of sorcerers” — Huancabamba. 

The magical qualities of Echinopsis pachanoi are traditionally associated with healers’ attempts to communicate with the unseen powers of the universe for the benefit of the community. Several Spanish conquistadors documented consumption of the sacred plant as a crucial element of ‘‘idolatrous’’ rituals, which, unsurprisingly, were widely condemned by conquest-era Christian theologians.

For example, in 1632, Jesuit priest and historian Father Anello Oliva reported that “they [indigenous peoples] drank it [San Pedro] with great ceremonies and songs, and as it is very strong, after they drink it they remain without judgment and deprived of their senses, and they see visions that the Devil represents to them, and consistent with them, they judge their suspicions and the intentions of others.”

San Pedro: Spirit and Vision

In contemporary times, healers symbolically associate the spirit of San Pedro with the spirits of the winds. It is, however, the invocation of the spirit of San Pedro that healers depend on as the primary source of their visionary “vista” or sight with which they identify the etiology of illness.

Artistic rendition of a shaman who has the Sight.

In 1988, Italian anthropologist Mario Polía Meconi shared with us the thoughts of a curandero from the mysterious, energy-filled village of sorcerers concerning the plant’s power: “It is the plant’s power or virtue that permits one to see. The power is a spirit that is in the plant, if it were not there, it would not be possible to see.”

Some healers believe it is the Holy Spirit — the Lord and giver of life — that gains mastery over the San Pedro cactus to facilitate the healing vision and make possible the protection of one’s patients from evil sorcerers who curse them. While others have described the arrival of the plant’s spirit in the form of a non-native person, as an Incan prince or princess, and as a feline. 

Often during healing ceremonies, San Pedro shamans make use of the naturally occurring sights and sounds that participants may be exposed to in the Andean foothills. Healers report that the San Pedro-induced vision illuminates these natural phenomena, whether it be the bawl of a bull or the twinkling of a star, with a special meaning that is deeply resonating with participants. 

In Peru, little seems to have changed over the thousands of years that this sacred plant has catalyzed the shaman’s harnessing of spiritual power to heal patients of the “magical” illnesses from which they are believed to suffer. 

Hopefully, knowledge of San Pedro’s historical and cultural importance can serve to discourage shortsighted individuals from dismissing the sacred plant’s profound healing power. 

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