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Seeking authentic in Mexican town that introduced world to magic mushrooms

Mazatec curandera María Sabina put Huautla de Jiménez on the map when she shared her ceremonial psychedelic mushroom practice with outsiders in the 1950s, but the misty mountain town has retained its sense of authenticity amid the world-changing events that followed.

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. 

Clouds fill the valley below Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, where Mazatec curandera María Sabina shared her shamanic psychedelic mushroom ceremonies with outsiders in the mid-20th century. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

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 now dilapidated Puente de Fierro (Iron Bridge) hangs over the river where hippies set up camp about five miles down the mountain from Huautla de Jiménez in the 1960s. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

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. 

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“Many people thought María Sabina was giving tourists mushrooms, giving people bad trips, but it wasn’t her, it was other people in town,” García said. “In her day, there were people offering tourists mushrooms, and there wasn’t any orientation or discussion, because the people spoke Mazatec and the tourists English, and so lots of people used mushrooms incorrectly and had bad trips.”

This language barrier and difference in lifestyles likely caused the hippies in large part to find the authenticity they looked for, not in the Mazatec people, but rather in each other in the form of gurus that became popular in the movement.

“It was important for the hippies to go and take mushrooms, but the great majority of them weren’t particularly interested in the actual people, who were much more a backdrop for their kind of modern, transgressive, spiritual, utopian community that they found living in Huautla,” said anthropologist Ben Feinberg, who has traveled to and conducted research in Huautla de Jiménez for over three decades. 

Feinberg added the caveat that not every outsider who went to Huautla in the ‘60s had this view of the locals and that some forged close relationships with Mazatec people. And while the modern reader may look back on how hippies acted in Huautla as insensitive or detrimental to the authenticity of the very practice they came to experience, locals themselves may not necessarily share that opinion. 

"When foreigners were found naked in people's cornfields in the middle of the day or something, that was seen as scandalous," said Feinberg. "But on the other hand, a lot of particularly young people from Huautla found it just kind of interesting and entertaining to have these foreigners to talk to and interact with. They were seen as having both positive and negative effects."

A mural of María Sabina and Huautla de Jiménez adorns the home of the curandera's descendants, who now operate a small museum to honor her legacy. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Neither would people from Huautla say that this influence of the outside world tainted something that had been untouched up to then. Although there is not much tourism infrastructure here, visitors seeking psychedelic experiences are welcomed warmly today by people who carry on María Sabina's legacy of sharing her culture.

“People in the Sierra Mazateca have their own notions of authenticity that are not based on being unchanged,” said Feinberg, adding that articles like Wasson’s tend to place misguided stereotypes on people like María Sabina, depicting them as “fossilized elements of an earlier time” that were changed only in response to the presence of outsiders. 

“Nobody’s outside of history,” Feinberg continued. “And people in the Sierra Mazateca certainly don’t see themselves as isolated or in the past.”

Mushroom use is not ubiquitous among Mazatecs, and not everyone who uses them does so ceremonially. Feinberg knows people in Huautla who take them alone, some who use them for extended periods of time, “almost like chemo,” and others who, like hippies, take them for fun.

“People are continually innovating,” he said. “It’s not a custom or tradition that is static, but something that continually evolves.”

In the 21st century, with magic mushrooms easily accessible in the United States — and decriminalized in Oregon and Colorado, with others following their footsteps — that evolution has turned back to embrace its recent history. 

“It’s important that people relearn the culture of the past, the crazy culture of María Sabina,” the curandera’s 42-year-old great-grandson Pablo García Ortega told Courthouse News. 

He, Andrés and other descendants live and run a small museum to her life and work at her home on a ridge about a 15-minute drive from downtown Huautla. They warned of others in town taking advantage of tourists’ ideas of authenticity.

“People in town tell tourists that they are from our family,” García said. “It’s like a business for some people, passing themselves off as us to attract tourists. But none of María Sabina’s relatives live in town.”

A sign posted on the trail to a local religious site near the home of María Sabina reads in Mazatec and Spanish: "You are in a sanctuary of spiritual love." (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Although mushrooms and the hippies they attracted put Huautla on the map, the uproar the foreigners caused may have ironically saved the town from the fate of other hotspots of countercultural tourism, such as Goa, India. 

“That hiatus between 1969 and 1976 meant that Huautla didn’t become like one of these places in Southeast Asia that’s just a bunch of bars and houses of prostitution and landlords who are usually not from the area,” said Feinberg, the anthropologist. 

Much of Huautla’s history since the publication of “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” may include unsubstantiated countercultural lore. Rock stars like Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and The Beatles are said to have made pilgrimages to see María Sabina, something Andrés García tells visitors to the museum, though no journalistic evidence exists to corroborate the claims, and the list of stars tends to change depending on the teller.

The veracity of such anecdotes, however, is ultimately moot, for in the center of all the narratives, imagery and symbolism surrounding Huautla today, its true authenticity remains: the Mazatecs’ unique relationship with the curious little toadstools. It is something that Feinberg said is at odds with the American biomedical approach, which focuses strictly on the substance itself and its chemical effects on the body.

“Within Mazatec discourse the mushrooms aren’t just a substance, they have agency, they’re alive,” said Feinberg. “One of the ways they work is through a kind of special language that the person who takes them has access to, and that language is what has a major role in discovering the cure, discovering the root of the problem.”

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