A Beginner's Guide to Psychedelic Mushrooms:

The ‘Niños Santos’ (Holy children) of Oaxaca

If you’ve stumbled across this article or have found yourself feeling called to learn more about the origin uses of psilocybin and the mushrooms that contain this medicine, consider this an invitation to delve deeper into the world of Mexico’s ancestral relationship with these sacred mushrooms. As the saying goes in Oaxaca, it’s no coincidence that you find yourself here.

Across Mesoamerican cultures, these entheogens have held deep significance and played an essential role in their cosmology, rituals, and medicinal practices. Over generations, these highly advanced cultures accumulated a vast body of indigenous knowledge and science, rooted in their unique bio-cultural context. Psilocybe mushrooms were integrated into the day-to-day reality of Mesoamerican cultures in a variety of ways, including healing, divination, mystical-religious encounters, soul healing, and more.

In this article, we’ll journey through the cultural history and presence of psilocybe mushrooms in some indigenous cultures of Oaxaca, and aim to shed light on the communities that have become centres of “mushroom tourism” and trade. By exploring and honouring indigenous wisdom and the complex interplay of culture, spirituality, colonization, and ecology, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the enduring legacy of these sacred entheogenic mushrooms while cultivating right relationship with them and those who have safeguarded these medicines for millenia.

Throughout this article, the terms “entheogenic mushrooms”, “sacred mushrooms”, and “Psilocybe mushrooms” will be used interchangeably.

The Cultural History of Sacred Entheogenic Mushrooms in Oaxaca

Mesoamerican cultures were initially known to have used Amanita Muscaria as sacred entheogenic mushrooms but later transitioned to Psilocybe mushrooms due to its abundance and non-toxicity. Known as “teonanácatl” (meaning “Meat of the Gods” in Nahuatl), Psilocybe mushrooms became an integral part of Aztec, Mazatec, and Zapotec culture. With 53 known psychoactive species in Mexico containing psilocybin, it represents the most significant and diverse group of sacred mushrooms used by the ancestors.

Several codices provide insights into the pre-Hispanic use of sacred mushrooms and other entheogens, including the Magliabechiano Codex, Codex 27, Lienzo de Zacatepec 1, and Vindobonensis Codex. Archaeological evidence also indicates the widespread use of Psilocybe mushrooms across Mesoamerica and civilizations of South America.

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Folio 90r of the Codex Magliabechiano, depiction of Psilocybin Mushroom usage in the bottom right, with the user being visited by a spirit of some kind.
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Ceremony of Sacred mushroom chaired by the gods 9 Viento (9 Wind, top left) and 7 Flor (7 Flower, top right).
9 Wind sings and plays a ludicrous idiophone over a skull that acts as a resonator.

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Glyph named “Nanacatepec” is related to another
codex, the Lienzo de Zacatepec No. 1 from the Mixtec culture

Archaeological Evidence

There are several pieces of archaeological evidence indicating the pre-Hispanic use of Psilocybe as sacred mushrooms, not only in Mexico but also in Mesoamerica and South America. Early information can be found in the cultures of Purépecha and Capacha in western Mexico, Maya culture in southeastern Mexico, and Nahuatl culture in central Mexico.

Mushroom stones, medium-sized sculptures carved from basalt, sandstone, or other volcanic rocks. They are frequently found in southern Mesoamerica, from the Chiapas Highlands in Mexico to the Pacific coast of El Salvador.
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Small sculptures carved from volcanic rock found in the regions of the Maya civilization.
One particularly intriguing discovery is the 18th-century sculpture of Xochipilli, the Lord of Flowers. Found near Tlalmanalco in the State of Mexico, the sculpture features various plants and flowers on its knees and pedestal. For many years, the meaning behind these decorations remained a mystery. However, with the growing interest in entheogenic plant medicines in the 1960s and 1970s, researchers were able to identify the expressions adorning the sculpture, revealing them to be entheogenic plants. Among these was Psilocybe Aztecorum, highlighting the significance of sacred mushrooms in ancient Mesoamerican societies.
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Statue of Xochipilli, From the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Although archaeological studies dedicated to the use of sacred entheogenic mushrooms in Mesoamerican culture are limited due to the ephemeral nature of mushrooms, it’s important to note that the lack of archaeological context must not underscore their profound importance in shaping ancient Mesoamerican society and culture.

The Impacts of Colonization

The Spanish conquest and following colonial period had a devastating impact on indigenous practices surrounding sacred mushrooms, nearly eradicating them. It was not only the gold, natural resources, and Mesoamerican art and culture that captivated the Spanish conquistadors and religious leaders upon their arrival in the 16th century, but also the indigenous medicines of these lands—including a remarkable collection of plants, and medicinal and entheogenic substances. Indigenous knowledge caught the attention of Western writers, early botanists, and doctors, leading to its study and eventual condemnation during the colonial period in Mexico.

Several colonial chronicles from various regions of ‘La Nueva España’ (“New Spain”) mention sacred mushrooms, providing insights into their significance and use:

  • Fernando de Alvarado Tezozómoc’s ‘Crónica Mexicana’ describes the use of mushrooms in sacrificial rituals during Moctezuma II’s ascension to power and how the Spanish gave mushrooms to Moctezuma II upon his capture (1598).
  • In 1537, Cortés held a trial against Mixcóatl for practicing the old religion by consuming demonic ‘nanácatl.’
  • An appendix of the Códice de Yanhuitlán recounts a case where an indigenous person was accused of invoking the devil using ‘nanacates’ (1544).
  • “The ‘Indios’ drink hongos that make them drunk” (1574). A reference to “intoxicating mushrooms” consumed by indigenous peoples.
  • ‘Historias de las Indias de la Nueva España e islas de Tierra Firme’ describes the use of mushrooms in ritual sacrifices and the invocation of the devil.
  • A Holy Inquisition file in the national archives accuses a young woman of consuming demonic mushrooms (1628).
  • In his accounts from the early 17th century, Francisco Hernández referred that despite efforts to eradicate the consumption of entheogenic mushrooms, this practice had not disappeared.
fig7 santa inquisicion
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, The Holy Inquisition was an institution dedicated to investigating, condemning,
and punishing heresy, which was linked to the Catholic Church.
These excerpts illustrate the persistent efforts to suppress and eradicate indigenous practices involving entheogenic mushrooms. Despite these attempts, however, some practices endured in secrecy, forcing indigenous medicine practitioners to keep their rituals hidden from the watchful eye of the conquistadors and the Church. As Western culture advanced, the narrative surrounding these “demonic” practices have gradually faded from the public sphere.

Indigenous and Bio-cultural Resilience

Despite the challenges posed by colonization, the resilience of indigenous peoples like the Mazatec, Nahua, and Zapotec, and their relationship with the biology and ecology of these mushrooms, has played a vital role in preserving a significant part of Mexico’s bio-cultural knowledge and diversity to this day.

Two towns in separate regions of Oaxaca have gained particular recognition for their connection to sacred mushrooms and their entheogenic powers; Huautla de Jiménez and San José del Pacífico.

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Huautla de Jiménez, en la Sierra Mazateca. 2023
María Sabina frente a su altar al interior de su domicilio en Huautla de Jiménez.

Huautla de Jiménez

Located in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca at an elevation of 1,713 meters, Huautla de Jiménez was founded between 1120 and 1375 by Mazatec tribes. In this region, researchers have discovered clear evidence of indigenous practices in which Psilocybe mushrooms endemic to the region hold the power to cure ailments and provide mystical strength that elevates the esoteric language of healers known as ‘curanderas’, ‘sabias’, and ‘chamanas’.

The ritual use of entheogenic mushrooms gained widespread attention around 1960 due to María Sabina Magdalena García, a local healer who became the focus and fascination of researchers such as Gordon Wasson, Gutierre Tibón, Fernando Benítez, and Salvador Roquet. Their work introduced these practices to the attention of the Western public by exhibiting the ancestral rituals they experienced with Maria Sabina in various articles, and as a consequence, unexpectedly boosting national and international tourism to the region in search of the healer and sacred mushrooms.

San José del Pacífico

Located in the southern Sierra of Oaxaca at an elevation of 2,350 meters, San José del Pacífico is a relatively recent town founded in 1875. The town gained recognition in 1970 due to a total eclipse that drew attention from local and international media. While not directly associated with a specific indigenous group, the town’s inhabitants are primarily descendants of the Zapotec people.

Psilocybin mushrooms thrive in the dark, cool ravines of these forested mountains and can be found in abundance during the rainy season. The locals of San Miguel Suchixtepec, San Mateo Río Hondo, San Sebastián Río Hondo, and San José del Pacífico have maintained a relationship with sacred mushrooms since their earliest settlements. Very little research has been done on the healing properties of sacred mushrooms in southern Oaxaca but, definitely the exploration in the Sierra Mazateca gave way to the study of fungy in other regions of Oaxaca such as the South Sierra and the Coast.

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Sierra Sur desde San José del Pacífico, Terraza de la Tierra. 2024.
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Pueblo de San José del Pacífico. 2024.

Sacred Mushroom Rituals and Ceremonies

Mexico’s indigenous rituals are a vast topic. Despite extensive exploration, there is still much to uncover and understand about these practices.

Huautla de Jiménez

One prime example is the Mazatec people in Oaxaca, who ingest sacred mushrooms, or psilocybe, during nighttime therapeutic rituals known as “veladas” to address personal and collective conflicts that relate to medical, social, physical and spiritual manifestations. These rituals are intended for individuals seeking conflict resolution.

Before participating in a ceremony, one must undergo a preparation process that includes:
Meditation to reflect on one’s life experiences and practicing sexual abstinence as a fundamental requirement for ingesting sacred mushrooms. Adhering to a diet that avoids animal products, processed foods, fats, irritants, alcohol, and drugs to ensure purity is also essential.

Participants then attend the Mazatec ‘velada’, where they receive a ‘limpia’ (ritual cleansing) involving copal, herbs, and local soil. The ceremony takes place in the home of the ‘curandera’ facing an altar that showcases the syncretism in this ancient ritual. Images and figures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary intermingle with ancestral ritual elements such as copaleros, cacao seeds, maize offerings, clay vessels, and more. Fresh mushrooms are consumed, followed by a series of petitions to God, nature beings, Catholic saints, and deceased family members in both Spanish and the indigenous Mazatec language. These prayers serve to establish a personal connection with God and to set intentions and objectives for the ceremony. The “curandera” acts as an intermediary for participants who consume the sacred mushrooms to present themselves before God. Typically, all participants in the ceremony – a maximum of four or five people – share the mushroom experience.

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Velada Mazateca by Jazmín Casimiro, Huautla de Jiménez. 2022.

San José del Pacífico

Research carried out in the Southern Sierra on the use of the Zapotec ritual calendar and the agricultural calendar revealed the usage of different ‘enteogenic plants’ in guessing processes among Zapotecs in the region. Wasson himself talks about the ‘Maestro ritual’ (‘ritual master’), that is, the person who possesses knowledge about fungi and nature: wise old woman and wise old man.

The elders mention to offerings to the deity of the lightning that are made after the collection of sacred mushrooms; it is a thanksgiving that is given to three beings or entities: the Earth, the Great Lightning and the Sacred mushrooms. The inhabitants refer to the sexual union between the beam that carries the sperm and Mother Earth that is filled with vitality and strength with this act, so that the holy children are the miraculous product of such encounter.

In this region, disease is conceived as an imbalance of the person with his natural, social and/or cultural environment, so that the individual can become sick by the forces of nature, by spells and other violations of the norms of his traditions. This is where traditional doctors, healers, witches or shamans come into action, because unlike a Western doctor, they diagnose the evil in relation not only to the social and cultural natural environment but to the world overnatural and often remedy it with the help of fungi.

Likewise, the beings of nature, plants, animals, minerals, mountains, are conceived as body and spirit, so they are spoken, asked for permission and given thanks; well-being is the balance between the “human nature” and the “environmental nature”, so that the traditional physician usually evokes the “higher forces” since the disease is conceived like the rupture of that balance; its diagnosis is based on conceiving the person not only as an infected body, but as a being connected to nature and to a “supernatural world”

A local story passed down by grandparents and residents recounts how a total solar eclipse in 1970 drew the attention of nationals and foreigners visiting the town of Miahuatlán and its surroundings. The visitors were captivated by the beauty of the landscape and its sites, marking the beginning of tourism in the town of San Jose del Pacifico. The area is home to majestic pine and oak forests as well as psilocybe mushrooms.

Locals here report having consumed sacred mushrooms as children, some innocently and others at the encouragement of their parents and grandparents. The ritual here is simply described as “walking in the forest”, “getting lost until you find yourself”, or “walking down the mountain”. This connection to the mountain and its wisdom remains strong.

portada mushroom mobile
Terraza de la Tierra, San José del Pacífico.
Since the 1960s, following Gordon Wasson’s first visit to Maria Sabina, two seemingly disconnected worlds – tourism and shamanism – have converged through information flows and movements. This fusion has resulted in the phenomenon known as “neo-shamanism” and subsequent cultural appropriation by individuals with business and other interests amidst the boom in mainstream psychedelic interest and the current modern renaissance. Within this area of convergence, certain cultural manifestations that once seemed unrelated have been reconfigured in space and time, creating an interplay between local and global forces. This has blurred the image of the idealised shaman guide, giving rise to Western “neo-shamanism”. Over the past 20 years, the presence of various rituals and spiritual modalities have emerged in San José del Pacífico, with locals and foreigners offering ceremonies in temazcales (Mesoamerican structures similar to a sweatlodge) and beyond, including activities such as guided mushroom walks, yoga, Vipassana meditation, cacao rituals, sound healing, and other practices recently imported from around the world.

Considering visiting Huautla de Jiménez or San Jose del Pacifico?

It’s important to listen to your intuition, consider your physical, mental and spiritual health, time, and personal interests and motivations. Huautla de Jiménez is located 395 km from Mexico City, a 7-hour drive, while San José del Pacífico is 3 hours from Oaxaca City, but 9 hours from Mexico City. There are no airports in Huautla de Jiménez, and traveling by public transportation will add at least 2 hours to your journey.

Choosing between Huautla de Jiménez and San José del Pacífico for a mushroom retreat ultimately depends on your personal preferences, priorities, and what you hope to gain from the experience. Here’s a brief overview of what each community has to offer:

Visiting a Curandera in Huautla for a Mazatec Velada:

Don’t base your decision on reviews or followers; instead, do it the old way and ask locals for recommendations and introductions. You may find people to speak with in the market, municipality, or María Sabina Museum. Be kind and humble, present yourself, chat, and feel into the exchange of energies before making a decision. Don’t be pushy and respect the boundaries and potential resistances of locals. It’s also important to listen to your own intuition. These may be signs of realignment from the universe that this experience may not be meant for you, at this time. A Mazatec evening with sacred mushrooms is an intimate, sensory experience in communion with Spirit that requires the utmost credibility,trust, and alignment

This trip is ideal for people with a deep interest in Mesoamerican and Mazatec culture and their preservation, curious individuals who appreciate different ways of thinking and living, and those seeking self-discovery and healing of the mind, body, heart and soul.

How to prepare for a Mazatec velada

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Julieta Casimiro haciendo una limpia.
Be ready to face discomfort during the journey, as the destination lacks luxury or comfort in accommodations and food. It’s essential that you speak Spanish or can communicate fluently, as most people in Huautla speak Mazatec and not English or other languages. Conversations with wise elders will take place in Spanish.

Before or after your psychedelic experience, explore the mountain’s scenic trails, enjoy stunning views of the Sierra Mazateca, clouds, and landscapes. You can immerse yourself in the mountains and discover rivers and waterfalls that will create an unforgettable experience of communion with nature.

Connecting to the Medicine of the Mountain in San José del Pacífico

This option is closer to Oaxaca City (3 hours) but further from Mexico City (9 hours). San José del Pacífico offers a variety of accommodations, from rustic cabins to luxurious hotels. Simply take a stroll through the local shops, galleries, and restaurants to feel the atmosphere and openness to the topic. You can respectfully ask locals for recommendations at your chosen accommodation or chat with fellow travelers who arrived before you.

The power of sacred mushrooms doesn’t depend on reviews or likes; be curious of the spirit of sacred entheogens like Psilocybe mushrooms, ask questions, suggest that they teach you about the mushrooms, inspect their condition and freshness, feel, and decide if they’re right for you. A good option to connect to your present inner landscape is to participate in a traditional temazcal ceremony before ingesting entheogenic mushrooms.

How to prepare for a personal mushroom ceremony

Prepare your set and settings for your own ritual, whether it’s in your cabin or in the forest. Present your intention, create your own altar, and prepare your space for physical and creative freedom- It can also be helpful to prepare fruits and tea, a notebook, and finally, a comfortable resting spot.

This trip is perfect for solo travelers, friends, or family members who want an intimate experience where the land guides each individual with its visible and subtle wisdom. Take a stroll through the mountain trails that are allowed, enjoy streams and waterfalls. Mother Nature will embrace you. Feel her breath and unconditional love.

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Retreat at the Mushroom forest by Coyote Aventuras