For the magic-mushroom towns of Mexico, the discovery of the fungus’s indigenous wisdom by outsiders has been a blessing and a curse, as a new hallucinogenic-medicinal tourist industry evolves in the Oaxacan sierra.
Clouds settle over the Mexican town of Huautla de Jiménez, nestled deep in the sierra of Oaxaca State; the summer rainy season has arrived. For the inhabitants of the town, rain means many things, but most of all it means that its famous mushrooms will begin sprouting up in the surrounding hills.
“The first time I tried mushrooms I was 7 years old,” Andrés García says. His grandfather allowed him to join a nighttime purification ritual in a special location a short hike outside of town called the cerro de la adoración—worship hill. It was a coming-of-age moment for a member of a clan that has lived in the region for generations.
“And each time after that was different; each time there were messages and messages. Communication with the earth, the universe, the moon, especially the energy of the moon,” García says. “The mushroom shows you everything—about your errors, your problems, all the good you’ve done, all the bad you’ve done. It’s something personal.”
García sounds wiser than his 20 years, walking around his family’s small property on the outskirts of Huautla de Jiménez. From the outside, the few scattered shacks don’t display any evidence of the famous visitors who once frequented the property to experience firsthand the sensations that García quietly describes. But one of the small buildings contains photos, clothes and artifacts from García’s famous great-great-grandmother, María Sabina, considered by psychedelic scholars as the matriarch of modern mushroom culture.
When Sabina and the indigenous wisdom of mushrooms became known by outsiders, it was a blessing and a curse, as Huautla de Jiménez and other communities across Oaxaca saw their way of life change dramatically. In the nearly 70 years since then, an increase in tourism and economic prosperity has also brought a wide range of other problems to the mushroom towns of Mexico.
The documented use of mushrooms in indigenous Mexican ceremonies goes back to early texts from Catholic friars who accompanied Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Appalled by what they saw, the conquistadors attempted to suppress the rituals, forcing the communities to operate in secret for hundreds of years. Eventually, scholars incorrectly identified the indigenous word teonanácatl as peyote (another indigenous Mexican psychotropic), until in 1936 a Mexican ethnobotanist, Blas Pablo Reko, uncovered the possible existence of mind-altering mushrooms. He published a paper identifying teonanácatl as a specific mushroom, but it remained largely ignored for nearly 20 years.
The turning point came in 1955, when an American, Gordon Wasson, along with photographer Allan Richardson, participated in a velada—a nighttime mushroom purification ritual. Wasson had spent several years visiting Huautla de Jiménez after reading Reko’s paper, attending several veladas—but he was never allowed to participate.
However, Wasson eventually met a prominent local family who brought him to the home of María Sabina, and he finally was able to take the mushrooms. Although Wasson agreed not to reveal the identity of Sabina or the location of the town, he did both two years later in a book on mycology and a widely read article in Life magazine, detailing the sacred velada. Shortly thereafter, there was frequent knocking on Sabina’s door.
In the following years, celebrities like John Lennon and Bob Dylan participated in veladas with Sabina, as did Albert Hoffman, the famed LSD scientist, who would later identify and synthesize the mushroom’s psychoactive principles as psilocin and psilocybin.
But as the fame of Sabina and Huautla de Jiménez spread throughout the West, and hippies traveled to the isolated region in the 1960s, the attention remained unwanted for much of the community. Neighbors ostracized Sabina for sharing the town’s secrets, culminating in her home being burned down by unhappy locals. It’s said that by the end of her life, Sabina regretted her role in introducing Westerners to the velada, who she thought had corrupted it.
After her death at the age of 91 in 1985, the fame of María Sabina and Huautla de Jiménez continued to grow. Throughout Mexico, Sabina’s image is plastered on T-shirts and posters sold side by side with those of other Mexican icons like the revolutionary Pancho Villa and the masked wrestler El Santo.
Today, the town of Huautla de Jiménez has fully embraced its reputation as the home of mushroom shamans. The industry is blatant: A taxi company named María Sabina has its cars roam the streets, mushrooms painted on their door panels. Market stalls sell posters with Sabina’s likeness alongside a wide variety of mushroom-themed knickknacks. Stores and restaurants bear her name.
The local municipal government has commissioned numerous murals depicting the fungus and its spiritual effects in the main plaza, and even more noticeably on the wall of the main government building, where an elderly woman’s face stares down a stormy path of mushrooms and skulls to a serene doorway.
“The mushrooms have helped the municipality, because tourism comes and it advances the economy,” says Clotilde Jiménez Figueroa, the municipality’s treasurer. “The main reason we’re a Pueblo Mágico is because of the mushrooms and rituals.”