Since ancient times, the indigenous people of Peru and much of the rest of South America have consumed a number of psychoactive plants. Not only are these part of our heritage in Cuzco, they are also drawing an increased number of tourists who come to our city to experience the effects of these ancestral plants.
The plants include the famous san pedro cactus that is also called wachuma or achuma, the villca, and ayahuasca. These are three of the common ones in a large repertoire of psychoactive substances important in South America. They are seen to have curing powers and well as shamanic value.
Among those who wrote about the Incas not long after the conquest, father Bernabé Cobo in his History of the New World writes:
Achuma is a kind of large cactus [. . .] it grows quite tall and is often as thick as a man’s leg. It is the color of fresh aloe and produces small and sweet fruit. This is the fruit that the demon used to deceive the Indians of Peru in their ignorance. It was used to create lies and superstitions. When the juice of it is drunk, it takes away sense such that those who drink it become as if dead. Some have even died because of the amount their brains have received. Transported by this drink the Indians would dream thousands of silly things and they believed them as true.
As another example, we can cite the chronicler Polo de Ondegardo who describes the villca in his work “Errors and Superstitions of the Indians”.
The sorcerers would use the herb villca (to get drunk). They would toss back a juice of it mixed in chicha or would drink it some other way.
In his book “El mundo vegetal de los antiguos peruanos” (The vegetable world of ancient Peruvians) E. Yacovleff provides a listing of the mentions of these plants in the chroniclers and he includes a story from Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui about the origin of the name Villca.
Inca Yupanqui had them bury captain Villca-quire, who was killed by the Chancas, next to a tree. He had them excavate into its wooden trunk to put his whole body in it. He said that the seeds of that tree would be medicine for them called Villca and it would drive away all of people’s evil humors and angers.
Despite the efforts of the Spanish to stamp out these customs, the use of psychoactive plants continues and is even claiming more adepts today.
Healers recommend wachuma and the seeds of villca. Today they are consumed in a variety of contexts. A tourist industry has even grown up around them among people who come to try the plants and to learn about them and their world. Generally tourism in Cusco focuses on taking san pedro, although some specialists will offer ayahuasca as well. They come for “astral travel by means of magical plants” or for “ancestral medicine”. These are offered by “spiritual guides” who is generally responsible for the session in which the plants are consumed . The spiritual guide is a person who has developed helping people with wachuma as a tourist specialty and gained much experience with the plants.
In the traditional Andean world the use of these plants should only happen under the direction of an altomisayoq (a specialist in the high-mass). He will administer them as part of a ceremony of thanksgiving to the earth and to the mountains (the Pachamama and the Apus) so that the experience will be a good one filled with learning and healing.
In this case payment is according to the will of the patients or those undergoing the ceremony. Traditional peoples rely on ayni, reciprocity. They do not charge for the ceremonies but expect the good will of those they help to do things for them or help them. This is very different than the travel agents that charge a fixed price in money for a session. Often the tourist agencies will obtain the help of a traditional member of a community since they have some experience with the cactus. In the case of ayahuasca, they bring people from the lowlands to be “spiritual guides”. Generally, though, instead of masters these are simply people who have some experience with the plants.
Nevertheless, the agencies prepare everything carefully. The generally cook the cactus, san pedro, the most common psychoactive in use in Cuzco, and then on a night of a full moon or early in the morning of a regular day, they start by going through some of the ruins near Cuzco, such as those in the sector of the Temple of the Moon.
The guides begin the ceremony with an offering of thanks to the earth. Then people drink the brew. For many people the taste is a bit repulsive and their bodies begin a revolution. They may experience stomach problems, nausea, stomachache, and so on. While not everyone experiences this, some people do.
Wachuma has an effect on people for some eight to twelve hours. Sometimes it lasts even longer.
The sensations once the wachuma kicks in are difficult to describe since they are very subjective. It is very pleasing some times. As they say “San Pedro opens the doors of heaven”. Many attribute hallucinations to the plant though others dispute this.
Today the practice in Cuzco has gone beyond the agencies, shamans, curers, and the guides. Some people take the cactus from time to time as a matter of spiritual need, even without a guide. This does not only include people from Cuzco, but also South Americans from all over who have some familiarity with the plant.
Besides its ingestion, the San Pedro cactus is often found in Cuzco’s gardens for ornamental value.
Without doubt psychoactive plants continue to be important in South America. While a matter of some controversy and out of the mainstream, nonetheless the practice exists and draws many tourists to our city.