The Great Magic Mushroom Hunt in Oaxaca

articles Travel & Destinations

Gareth Mason

Giovanni strode across the courtyard of the hostel with a glint of excitement flashing in eyes that until then had only gazed placidly. Onto the table at which I had been lazily drinking another coffee, he unfolded a large detailed map of Mexico. It was a much larger and more detailed map than the ones we had fruitlessly scanned earlier.

Giovanni was a tall, dark Roman in his mid-thirties. He wrote no postcards home and spoke no more of it beyond once tersely admitting to its existence. He had come to Mexico to dive, but was open to other experiences. Idly chatting over breakfast, I’d stated my plan to find San José del Pacífico on the advice given by Melissa, the beautiful Mexican in Costa Rica. She had enthused about Aztec rituals and Zapotec texts, Olmec priests and Toltec rednecks. Hallucinogenic truth-yielding drugs had their place in her vision of the past and present. She had drawn a giant mushroom on the map in my guidebook. Covering roughly 10,000 square kilometers, it delineated a fungus the size of Denmark. 

Further grist was given by a grizzled citizen of Zipolite – a coastal town close to Oaxaca – who was passing through the hostel. He sought hallucinogenic mushrooms to erase the memory of visiting his family. With the fervor of a zealot, he stressed the spiritual dimension of the authentic ceremony, which involved chanting candles and burning children, or possibly the opposite. Giovanni had listened in silence, before heading off wordlessly with a look of steely determination. When he returned with his map half an hour later, he announced that he had cancelled all his other travel plans.

The only written words pertaining to the village were gleaned in one of several well-thumbed guidebooks. Buried in the small print was a brief underwhelming reference to ‘San José del Pacífico – a pleasant stop on the way to ‘–’ [somewhere considered significant] with good restaurant’. Clearly, its legend was only communicated to the blessed by word of mouth. Our only clue to its geographical existence came in the how to get there section of another travel-book. It was mentioned in one short sentence otherwise referring to a slightly larger village that wasn’t really recommended much. Neither auspicious, nor much to go on, but it was the closest thing to a map reference.   

Giovanni studied the unfurled map with furious concentration, his squinting eyes close to the finger that traced a meandering path through the mountains separating us from the Pacific Ocean. As mentioned, it was a large map, and highly detailed too. Giovanni’s finger drew to an abrupt halt somewhere half-way up a range of mountains. 

It was written in especially fine print. San José del Pacífico.

The following afternoon

Late the next afternoon, we took a bus. After half a dozen hours straining up bumpy winding mountain roads, it was close to midnight when it shuddered painfully to another weary halt. We were the only passengers to disembark. Stoical figures slumbering in ponchos barely registered the egress of two foreigners so far from their respective homes. San José was wreathed in the ankle-high fog of a Hammer House of Horror film. 

San José delPacífico (Creative Commons -CC BY-SA 2.0)
San José del Pacífico (Creative Commons -CC BY-SA 2.0)

By the roadside, I glimpsed a waist-high sculpture resembling a giant mushroom. The gentle ebb and flow of the fog revealed similar structures. The village was failing to win its battle with nature – held in the cloying grip of churned up clay and encroaching mountain meadows. The road was the capillary to which the village clung. It connected with Mexico proper – the trickle of lifeblood that gave it existence. Simple wooden bungalows littered patches of the street randomly, few signs of human activity beckoned. But when we rounded a bend, a curious sight befell us.

‘Find the Italian woman in the house on the hill,’ Giovanni had been told by a compatriot he met buying weed in Oaxaca. This tip had supported the myth and reality of the village’s existence. Reality often disappoints for being more prosaic than the infinite horizons of the imagination. In this respect, the hill we found was unusual – resembling a perfectly formed pimple of magma erupted from an adolescent volcano. To complete the cartoon picture, its earthy whole needed a black Hitchcockian house etched against the night sky. And funnily enough, there it was. Its slanting wooden silhouette burned with the blaze of human life from windows gazing down at the two grinning figures at its foot. The summit of such a hill undoubtedly holds an Italian woman.   

House of Horrors. Illustration: Gareth Mason.
House of Horrors. Illustration: Gareth Mason.

The cramped interior of the House on the Hill glowed with the warmth of humanity-at-leisure. The occupants of its half-dozen tables were bathed in the gentle light of guttering candles; smirks and giggles breaking out of wearily contented faces. The detritus of sweet cakes and hearty stews was partnered by drained wine glasses and coffee cups. Giovanni was reunited with his compatriot from Oaxaca. He loomed out of the shadows towards us with a cry of cheerful recognition before almost falling off his stool. He must have found his own map though he looked well past orienteering. His glazed puppyish expression suggested his mushroom quest had progressed beyond the induction.

Behind the bar stood a woman who may well have been Italian, but not for some time. Manuela had forgotten how to speak her language with fluency. The Mexican Spanish that replaced it spilled over the now unfamiliar sentences of her past. By her side stood a wiry man clothed tightly in black, his aquiline features flanked with raven tresses that stretched to his waist. … Macario looked far more at ease with his surroundings – surveying all about him with paternal affection. In an earlier life, he explained, he had flown jumbo jets, but had now turned in his aviation license to fly the fungal flag of a metaphorically higher cause. As I was soon flying home, I felt relieved by the chronology of his career. The enthusiastic whirlwind of words which our inquiries provoked suggested the mushrooms were currently in the ascendancy.

But for all his talk of magic mushrooms, Macario had none to sell, not till the morning anyway…

The next morning  

The House on the Hill was deserted, save for Macario, bowing and gesticulating and picking up where he left off – or perhaps just stuck in fungal autopilot for the duration of the ten hours we’d been away. (If unheard, does the euphoric Mexican rant through the night?) He dosed us with some mushrooms and, with somewhere to go, we left him more easily than the night before. It wasn’t the fullest of doses as he was worried about the dangers of their potency. Large and spongy, the mushrooms were more Alice in Wonderland than the stringy English variety. We gobbled them down with some sweet hot potion and sat down on the side of a hill to wait.   

It wasn’t long before not very much happened. Minutes turned to hours. But then slowly, barely perceptively, the seed of some dimly remembered, elusively familiar feeling grew in my breast. Or, to be more precise, my stomach. Spreading from its source, it wormed its way around the complex channels of my outstretched limbs, through the rivers and tributaries of my blood, sparking off the sleeping circuitry of my nervous system. Until the source of the feeling came flooding back in a flash of stomach-rumbling clarity.

‘What do you mean you’re hungry?!’ exclaimed the incredulous Manuela when we turned up demanding brunch.

‘We mean, well, we’re hungry. We want your largest breakfast, and coffee.’

‘Yes, lots of coffee,’ rejoined Giovanni.

She left to re-fry our beans uncomprehendingly. Macario entered soon after, but was lost for words. We bought a much larger dose of mushrooms and caught a bus to the coast.

~ ~ ~

This is an excerpt from Gareth Mason’s Rum ‘n’ Coca: Cautionary Tales from Latin America. Further details are available from the author’s website at www.garethmason.com/contact

Published or Updated on: 8 July 2021 by Gareth Mason  © 2021

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