SAN JOSE DEL PACIFICO, Mexico — When you step into the midday sun in this small Mexican town, you do so with the knowledge that anyone, at any time, could be tripping on shrooms.
It could be the middle-aged local walking down the town’s main drag, the grandmother quietly watching the street from a rocking chair on her small property, or one of the dozens of young backpackers mainly from Europe, South America and North America, descending on the town each day. But especially, the backpackers. Next to the reception at one of the many backpacker hostels in town is a hand painted sign that reads in English: “Here you can buy magic mushrooms.”
So Zaid, a 20-year-old backpacker from England, did. “I just think this town is really cool. I think it’s amazing,” he said, about ten minutes after eating the shrooms. “I wasn’t sure of how legal it was. But looking into it, it was just like a place that’s not really policed by the police. The normal laws don’t count.”
Zaid is more or less right. Because Mexico exempts the use and sale of certain sacred plants and fungi like peyote and psilocybin mushrooms when used in Indigenous practices, mushrooms are de facto legal. There are no cops, and the economy has adapted accordingly.
Conveniently located just a few hours in between the tourist hubs of Oaxaca City and famed-beaches like Zipolite and Puerto Escondido, San Jose del Pacifico has become a global epicentre of mushroom tourism. But not everyone is sure how long this can last.
It’s an odd sensation wandering through town. A constant stream of outsiders from around the world ascend to the tiny sierra town of roughly 700 people, where many of the locals happily sell shrooms to people who go to mushroom-themed shops, and go to sleep in mushroom-themed lodges.
San Jose del Pacifico has simply become a magic mushroom town, with the local government estimating that 50 percent of the town’s inhabitants work in tourism, and somewhere between 15-20,000 tourists annually. Tourists either go into the surrounding nature or stay in their accommodations to trip. Some congregate on the upper edge of town where a recently constructed mirador provides breathtaking views of the region, while others venture into the forest beyond to connect with nature, meditate, and explore.
Maria, a 28-year-old psychologist from Barcelona, and her German boyfriend who were picking dirt off their fresh mushrooms, described the vibe in San Jose del Pacifico as “awkward”. She admitted that she was having an internal struggle about whether she was participating in something that “remains authentic here, or that is overexploited for the tourist’s vision.”
Then, she ate the shrooms, and by the next day, Maria’s attitude had changed. She said that when she first arrived here, she had been “rejecting” everything. She’d gone into the trip with “an intention for the mushrooms. Literally, I want to take the stick out of my ass. I feel this need to control a lot of the time. Maybe it was the door to just start, stop judging, just be,” said Maria, who did not want to give her full name for fear of being identified back home.
Not everyone is pleased with the town’s ever increasing tourism. On the outskirts of San Jose del Pacifico, down a small hill from highway 175 that passes through town, lives Bufrano Pinacho, 73.
“I don’t trust tourism,” said Pinacho. “There’s no trust in the town, even with the same townspeople, there’s no trust. Everyone does what they want.” Pinacho hardly interacts with many of the townspeople, and only goes into San Jose del Pacifico occasionally “to buy stuff sometimes.”
But he seemed like an outlier. Of the dozen or so locals who spoke with VICE World News that didn’t work in tourism, Bufrano was the only one who was firmly against it. He said that’s because the locals “are spoiled” by the tourists and “money is their god.”
“If you want to see the town return to normal like it was before, you can’t do it, because they [locals making money off tourism] don’t allow it. And now, if you say otherwise, that what they are doing is bad, they’re all against you,” Pinacho said about his outcast status.
He spoke excitedly about the past, how “all the old people, everyone from back in my day, were people who cured themselves with the mushroom. All the people, in all the towns, were cured with the mushroom.”
“Now they just do it to get high. They no longer do it for a ritual that was before,” said Pinacho. “Before, the mushroom was sacred for people, they would come to be cured. But not anymore.”
The stretch of tourism in San Jose del Pacifico continues regardless of Pinacho’s nostalgia and opposition. Across the road, a group of new cabins recently opened up, with two shaped like actual mushrooms. Just above his home, Pinacho’s younger brother now runs a small restaurant named after the traditional Oaxacan folk art alebrijes. While Pinacho complained, his brother sold mushrooms to a backpacker from California, who ate them at the small restaurant, looking out on the Oaxacan sierra.
On her lawn beyond a private property sign, Catalina Garcia, 80, recalled without a doubt the moment the town changed: “When there was an eclipse one time that made everything dark.”
On the 7th of March, 1970, a record-lasting solar eclipse took place that isn’t set to be surpassed until 2024, and the best viewpoint in the world was declared to be in the sierra between the state’s eponymous capital and the coast, nearby to San Jose del Pacifico. Travellers from around the world congregated in the town with one of the most scenic views in the entire region.
Mushroom rituals had also been practised throughout the Oaxacan sierra for centuries. But after the eclipse, San Jose del Pacifico slowly gained a sort of legendary status on the backpacker trail as the perfect mountain pitstop between the rich cultural and culinary hub of Oaxaca City and the popular surfing spots like Mazunte and nudist beaches like Zipolite.
The octogenarian recalled how as a child San Jose del Pacifico consisted of just 10 to 12 houses, “only donkeys and horses,” she said. Even though her and her family don’t work in tourism, she thought it has helped “a lot of people sell things and have more. Before, all the people were poor.”
Israel Ramirez, 29, grew up as the mushroom industry in the town boomed. While he still gets by as a labourer doing construction, he also handcrafted a temazcal, a form of steam lodge, on his small family property nine years prior.
Like the majority of people in town, Ramirez also sells mushrooms. It is not hard to find people or businesses in San Jose del Pacifico selling bundles of a half dozen mushrooms or so, estimated at between four and five grams, for around $20-25 depending on which type you get.
Ramirez said there were three kinds: Pajaritos, San Isidro, and Derrumbe.
“The Pajaritos [little birds] are for nothing more than fun. Like a lot of colour, a lot of laughter. There is not much connection to the earth, to the natural, to the fungus,” he said. “San Isidro helps you a lot to heal.”
Ramirez claimed that the San Isidro mushrooms identify and heal illnesses within one’s body. “Don’t eat it as a game,” he said. The Derrumbe mushroom which perhaps best translates in this context to “therapy”, helps you to “behave well in life,” according to Ramirez. The large headed and more powerful Derrumbe mushrooms are often called “maestros” [teachers].
He said that beyond the occasional tourist behaving badly and having to be taken out of town, more often when there are disturbances in the town, it’s usually because people are “screaming”, not because they are being aggressive or drunk, but to release emotion while tripping. “That’s because they have behaved badly in life, that’s all, just the mushroom giving them therapy.”
He trained in setting up steam lodges with an elder temazcelero in San Jose del Pacifico and said the practice was particularly important to the mushroom experience because it “cleansed toxins” and helped people avoid a “bad trip when you eat them. So that the mushroom can better help guide you towards nature, to best connect.”
Just because the fungi grows wildly during the Oaxaca Sierra’s lush rainy season, that doesn’t mean what’s happening in San Jose del Pacifico is necessarily legal. Technically, psilocybin mushrooms are prohibited in Mexico, but with a large caveat. There is an article in the penal code that exempts “hallucinogenic mushrooms, when by the quantity and circumstances of the case, it can be presumed that they [the mushrooms] will be used in the ceremonies, uses and customs of Indigenous peoples and communities, as recognised by their own authorities.”
Esau Garcia Reyna, the town’s municipal secretary who represents San Jose del Pacifico regionally, said the selling of mushrooms in the largely Indigenous area to foreigners is “not regulated within Mexican laws.”
That leaves many communities throughout the Oaxacan Sierra in a sort of legal limbo, and especially San Jose del Pacifico, which has established itself as the principal mushroom destination in Mexico where many people openly sell bundles of shrooms to foreigners.
“That is why people come here to consume them,” Garcia Reyna told VICE World News. “But it is not like a chemical or synthetic drug, there is no trafficking in mushrooms. Hallucinogenic mushrooms don’t make you addicted.”
Garcia Reyna said the town has never had issues with state and federal authorities for selling mushrooms. And within San Jose del Pacifico, they handle problems internally. The closest local police force is located in a different town that serves as the municipal head about 40 minutes away. Instead, “we as a community take on that responsibility.”
The town’s small government office shares a large yellow building with the library, as well as holding cells used for the occasional unruly tourist. The town has a general rule that when an outsider gets out of hand, the locals of San Jose del Pacifico come together to remove the foreigner from town.
“Mushrooms help, mushrooms give guidance. Mushrooms give the necessary knowledge to be able to cope with all sorts of problems and be better people in our environment. However, not all tourists bring that vision,” said Garcia Reyna. “It is not that we are for or against [the use of mushrooms by foreigners], but we just try to keep the equilibrium.”
Indigenous ceremonial mushroom consumption in Mexico was first documented in the early 1500s by Catholic friars during the Spanish conquest. As with many Indigenous traditions throughout the Americas that perplexed the invaders, the Spanish suppressed the ritual consumption of magic mushrooms, what the Mazatec called “teonanácatl,” causing the ritual to go underground for centuries. For much of that time, scholars incorrectly identified teonanácatl as a different natural entheogen: peyote, a psychoactive cacti found further north in Mexico and the U.S.
Outsiders learned of the mushrooms capabilities in the 20th century mostly due to a US banking executive from JP.Morgan & Co. and amateur mycologist named Gordon Wasson, who spent years visiting the town of Huautla de Jimenez — located about 200 miles north of San Jose del Pacifico in a different part of the Oaxacan Sierra — learning about the nighttime rituals. Eventually, he convinced a shaman named Maria Sabina to allow him and a photographer, Allan Richardson, to participate after promising not to divulge her name or the location of the ceremony. That ended up being a bold faced lie and the pair did both two years later in a 1957 article for Life, one of the most important magazines of their day, as well as in a book on mycology. Soon, foreigners began flooding into the region.
But nearly 40 years after Sabina’s death in 1985, the majority of mushroom tourists now flock far from her hometown to a different part of the Sierra in search of teonanácatl.
Maximino Ramirez, 73, knows anything can happen on a Monday morning in San Jose del Pacifico during the August rainy season, when the influx of backpackers is especially high. He sauntered down the sloping driveway of his small property, passed the town’s shuttered church, and approached a backpacker from Vancouver who was using two cans of spraypaint to finish off a bomb on an abandoned shed. Ramirez shooed the outsider away like a pesky moth fascinated by a light.
“It’s not good that he’s painting,” Ramirez said calmly afterward on a small brown bench overlooking the street. “The town has changed a lot.”
Over Ramirez’s life San Jose del Pacifico went from being a nondescript town to a sort of mushroom amusement park for tourists from around the world. Beyond the annoyance of unwanted graffiti on the shed in the central square, the elderly local had no complaints about the constant stream of outsiders, even though he works as a farm labourer and doesn’t make money directly from the growing mushroom tourism.
He thought it was good that people from all over “take advantage of [the mushroom]’s knowledge.”
While San Jose del Pacifico, an incomparable place shaped by its past and present, has until now been able to tread a fine line between drug laws and commercialisation, it’s unclear how long that can last. Perhaps it will depend on the very glue that bonds these locals and foreigners, the mushrooms themselves.