Around Cuzco, the continent holds a richness of plants that produce altered states. Though in traditional, highland, Cuzco they do not seem to have been used, they are key for grasping shamanism on Peru’s north coast and ordinary life among indigenous people of the jungle lowlands. Nevertheless, today they are at the center of a tourist and local spirituality in Cuzco. Among them the San Pedro cactus, also called wachuma, that grows throughout the city of Cuzco is important.
One sees the thick spikes of the spiny, ribbed cactus rise in gardens and in pots on patios and porches throughout the city. Many people keep the cactus, far more than consume it for its mescaline, a psycho-active ingredient similar to that found in the peyote of North America. The cactus is important and seen as having power. People keep it to keep evil and bad luck away all the while it can transform and bring good. At the same time they fear its effects.
Though the altomisayoq, the high priests of traditional Indian communities in the region of Cuzco did not rely on wachuma for their divination and healing practices, San Pedro does seem to have been important in great civilizations of the past. For example, the archeologist Alan Kolata who performed important excavations at the great center of Tiwanaku on Lake Titicaca, a place from which the Inca nobility came to claim descent, argues that its relied on hallucinogens such as the San Pedro cactus.
In any case, the cactus is more than a mere plant, whether people consume it or simply keep it in their yards. The way people discuss it gives one the impression it is a being that can protect or give. Those who take tend to see it doing both, and especially bringing clarity and knowledge as it enables people to communicate with the earth and earth shrines.
With the development of New Age and spiritual or mystical tours to Peru, wachuma became an important focus of the tourist experience. Tour groups would come to Cuzco because of the energy they found in this former imperial capital and, among other activities, would consume wachuma under the direction of both their tour guide and a local specialist who increasingly came to adopt the name of shaman.
Since then a sector of Cuzco has dedicated it to mystical tourism and to offering tourists a session with San Pedro cactus. Most if not all agencies offer mystical tourism as part of their packages and many of them have the ingestion of San Pedro Cactus and a lowland vine, ayahuasca, as part of their offerings for tourists. Tour guides are trained in mystical tourism as part of the process of becoming professional guides at universities and institutes today.
Besides the agencies, healers from indigenous communities have come to the city and learned to provide what the market demands, whether reading coca leaves, preparing and burning an offering, or even guiding people in the use of entheogens such as wachuma. These include shamans from the lowland north coast where there is a strong and enduring tradition of using San Pedro to heal patients.
The specialists learn from each other. Today they are often called indigenous priests, altomisayoqs, papachos, or simply shamans.
Since many tourists choose not to work through agencies, an entire industry of spiritual guides has grown up in Cuzco to provide services to independent travelers. Some guides are well trained masters and some are simply people who know how to administer a dosis of the cactus.
The areas where one finds mystical tourist agencies, such as parts of San Blas fill with a range of backpacking foreigners seeking wachuma. Some are intrigued by the spiritual possibilities of its use under the guidance of a master and some are interested in it as a different kind of drug to add to their list of hallucinogenic experiences.
In fact a bar cafe named Wachuma has opened in a hybrid of the culture of Reggae and an openness to experiences such those brought by wachuma.
Besides the tourists, many people from Cuzco have become interested in this cactus which is part of their country`s ancient heritage. While for some it is merely one of various altered states sought especially by youth, for others it is part of a spiritual devotion to the plant and the guidance and insight they feel wachuma gives them.
In fact the guides who help tourists and others with wachuma generally take the preparation of San Pedro along with their clients. Once engaged with the plant they take their passengers to the various archeological sites, which they call temples, so that both can have a more mystical experience of them. It is also to cleanse themselves to be able to enter into these holy sites with purity and prepared to encounter the holy. In this way, both passengers and guides say they are better connected with the sites themselves.
Pieces of San Pedro are sold in the market with the same name. People can process it and use it, or they can buy it in powdered form and mix it with various beverages.
The cactus is a cleanser, a purgative, and a producer of heightened awareness. Many people prepare for some time to be ready to undergo their engagement with wachuma and get the most advantage out of it. Others simply take it as they would any other hallucinogen.
Nevertheless, wachuma which has an ancient history in the Andes, tied to the development of ancient history is coming back from the shadows and margins and once again claiming an open space in the city of Cuzco.