HUAUTLA DE JIMÉNEZ, Mexico — Old-school hippies and latter-day psychonauts alike may spurn one ironic fun fact in the history of consciousness expansion: the term “magic mushrooms” was coined by a banker from New York City.
Nearly 65 years have passed since the world outside of Huautla de Jiménez, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, became aware of the hallucinogenic effects of certain fungi thanks to a pair of magazine articles in 1957 written by amateur mycologist and J.P. Morgan executive R. Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina.
In May of that year, Gordon Wasson published an account of his psychedelic experiences with the Mazatec shaman María Sabina in “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in Life Magazine. A few days later, Valentina Wasson, herself an actual scientist, published her experience in the newspaper insert magazine This Week under the title “I Ate the Sacred Mushroom.”
While subsequent academic literature fell into the predictable trap of focusing largely on the male researcher as the “discoverer” of psychedelic fungi, both articles played a major role in the mushrooms' introduction to the world outside of Huautla.
The following decade saw a wave of North American hippies flock to Huautla de Jiménez in search of a “natural” way to trip, as well as an idyllic escape from the strictures of U.S. drug laws.
Perched almost perilously on the steep, verdant slopes of the Sierra Mazateca (named for the people who inhabit these cloud-covered peaks), Huautla de Jiménez has long been a regional gateway community to the outside world. A different psychoactive substance brought outsiders here in the 19th century: caffeine.
Oaxaca’s most renowned coffee-producing region is in the Sierra Madre del Sur, which runs along the Pacific Coast, but the Sierra Mazateca has also provided the world with the fuel it needs to get through the workday for more than a century. Huautla’s popularity on the countercultural tourism circuit of the 1960s began another chapter in its history with outsiders.
Foreign hippies set up camp near a waterfall a few miles down the mountain from Huautla and proceeded to be hippies: skinny-dipping, free love, day tripping. But their infamous brand of drug use differed greatly from the Mazatecs’ ceremonial applications of what Sabina and other shamans called the “holy children.”
For curanderas (medicine women) like María Sabina, a traditional mushroom ceremony is performed at night, inside and mostly in the dark. Sexual abstinence for four days both before and after the rite is part of the procedure. Not exactly a hippie’s preferred experience.
“There were many young people, mainly non-Mexicans there, all naked, swimming in a pool below the falls,” recalled Alvin Starkman, a Canadian who visited Huautla in the summer of 1969. Although he was drawn by the mushrooms, Starkman ended up falling in love with mezcal over the years, and now runs tours to local producers of the spirit in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys.
“I recall a young woman, late teens or early 20s I suppose, saying, ‘Hey, take off your clothes. This is Huautla.’ So we did,” Starkman said in an email interview.
The presence of the hippies in the Sierra Mazateca was a thorn in the side of the federal government, which, pressured by the Nixon administration to crackdown on the improvised commune, closed off the road to Huautla to outsiders in 1969. It was finally reopened in 1976.
Huautla entered a brief period of turmoil, with some residents resenting María Sabina and other curanderas who shared their traditions with outsiders. Sabina’s son was murdered, and she claimed in an autobiography that a rival family burned her house down — though her descendants today may be trying to change that narrative. Her great-great-grandson Andrés García Martínez, 25, told Courthouse News that the fire was caused by a wayward spark from a firework.