San Pedro Cactus At a Glance
The San Pedro cactus (also known as huachuma) is a cactus found in the Andes mountains in south America, which is an entheogen and psychedelic used for over 3,000 years by indigenous peoples .
The purported benefits include:
- Greater interpersonal bonding (empathogenic qualities unique to San Pedro)
- Added creativity and problem solving 
- Therapeutic healing and ceremony
- Deeper spiritual connection (or relationship to God)
A few things separate San Pedro cactus from other entheogenic plants. For one, the main psychoactive alkaloid in San Pedro is mescaline (similar to peyote).
San Pedro cactus is considered empathogenic similar to MDMA, which creates a deeper sense of bonding and connection among users.
History of San Pedro Cactus
The Andean region of South America was one of the most advanced in the new world.
Cultures like the Moche and Chavin were technologically more advanced than many (if not all) in present day Europe and Middle East at the time.
Within these cultures, numerous native plants were used and recorded for the purposes of medicine and health. From the Moche there were 510 species and San Pedro was one .
According to Don Howard, a medicine healer, practitioner, and researcher, the people who first found huachuma traveled to the Andes highlands from the Amazon basin .
These civilizations found nomadic inhabitants of the Andes who did not cultivate or use San Pedro cactus for any purpose (or at least did so in isolation).
In the pre-Chavin era when these Amazonian civilizations moved into the Andes, they brought with them knowledge of ayahuasca (another entheogenic plant).
Early use of San Pedro cactus would have been consumed directly from the fruit itself, but admixtures and teas were probably the result of Amazonian cultures with experience of ayahuasca.
Within the past few hundred years, Spanish conquistadors tried to ban the use of San Pedro similar to peyote. The former was far less successful than the latter.
Luckily, the ceremonies used in Chavin for San Pedro cactus were maintained over thousands of years due to intricate carvings and explanations. They’re still used today despite the Spanish.
Ceremonial Use of San Pedro Today
The use of San Pedro did not die and is very much alive today throughout the Andes.
Some practitioners use traditional Chavin-based rituals and ceremony to serve San Pedro cactus. This results from research into the ancient texts and scriptures.
Other practitioners focus more on the healing aspects, which maintain less tradition with a focus on practicality and helping people to heal.
One of these practitioners, shaman Cipriano Zurita Neira, was the subject of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia (Viceland) episode here:
Scientific Benefits of San Pedro Cactus
Unlike LSD or psilocybin, there is not much research on San Pedro cactus. What scientists have studied suggests San Pedro can be a powerful (and unique) experience.
Mescaline alone has plenty of research. This isolated molecule has been implicated in support for a number of cognitive processes:
- Improved verbal and mental fluency
- Heightened creativity
- Support mental state by reducing depression and anxiety
- Deepened sense of empathy
The use of mescaline within a scientific context is well defined. In fact, one of the most oft-cited studies on microdosing from Dr. James Fadiman was done using mescaline 
Many of these benefits are assumed with San Pedro cactus as well as isolated mescaline. However, there may be even more benefits given the variety of alkaloids.
The other alkaloids include anhalonidine, anhalinine, hordenine, and tyramine , which may come with a host of benefits.
Similar to how coffee has polyphenols that aid in health whereas caffeine does not, using the full San Pedro cactus may have benefits that mescaline alone does not.
This is clearly the case with ayahuasca. The alkaloids harmine and harmaline are in the ayahuasca vine alone (no DMT and therefore no “trip”), which aid in numerous cognitive functions including neuroprotection .
Entheogenic and Empathogenic Properties of San Pedro
Some of the alkaloids in San Pedro cactus may be related to the entheogenic (related to a relationship to a higher power) and empathogenic (deep feeling of empathy) properties.
Entheogens like psilocybin and ayahuasca often create sensations akin to closeness with “God” or a higher power. San Pedro seems to fall into this category considering the name alone.
San Pedro is the Spanish for Saint Peter who is believed to hold the keys to heaven. Users of this cactus believe the effects allow one to reach heaven on Earth.
This suggests that native cultures combined their ceremonial practices with the Catholicism that prevailed in the Andean region after the Spanish arrived.
The entheogenic properties are similar to numerous other psychedelics and thus not entirely novel. Their name and usage probably owe more to geography and historical legacy than anything.
Many people feel more sober when using San Pedro cactus than other psychedelics. They feel more “in control”, which can be valuable for some people to know.
The San Pedro feels like MDMA to many users in the strong sense of empathy and connectedness that they feel towards others.
Common Effects of San Pedro
Experiences of San Pedro will vary from person to person, but commonly include sensations like psilocybin and LSD.
These include visual hallucinations, kaleidoscopic patterns, and synesthesia whereby sensations (feeling, smelling, and seeing) are mixed together.
Similar to other psychedelics, it’s important to pay attention to set and setting. This ensures a lower likelihood of having a “bad trip”.
Is San Pedro Cactus Legal?
San Pedro is currently legal to grow and makes a beautiful indoor or outdoor plant. Unlike some plants, this is very robust and relatively easy to grow.
Once a cactus is grown, it becomes illegal to harvest and use it for the purposes of making a brew or consumption.
For many cultures, especially in South America, there are religious exemptions if not complete legality for substances like San Pedro cactus.
In the previously mentioned video from Viceland, the shaman discusses numerous politicians who attended his ceremonies for healing or support.
What Are the Risks of San Pedro?
Deriving small doses of any substance from plant matter is challenging because of the variation of each plant.
A San Pedro cactus can grow with more or less mescaline depending on a number of variables and it is risky to take doses without knowing for sure. Just 1150 mg (just over a gram) can be an overdose so there is little margin for error.
Of course, standard risks apply to all psychedelics including the mental state of participants. Anyone with a history of mental illness can experience significant side effects.
Ensure to create a positive and safe environment for San Pedro users. A consistent supply of water can prevent dehydration, a bucket or toilet nearby may be useful, and a sitter (or shaman / healer) for first timers.
Getting Started with San Pedro Cactus
San Pedro cactus is prolific and grows readily at home. This has prompted a popular do it yourself movement.
According to one man who has lived in Ecuador for over a decade, harvesting and using San Pedro can be relatively easy and straightforward .
In his post, Jerry Toth recommends doing San Pedro once every five years, “I don’t feel the need to do it any more frequently than that…once you have spent a day with San Pedro all the power of it never really leaves you.”
This “do it yourself” mentality doesn’t necessarily require you to visit Ecuador, but as both him and I have suggested, cultivating it at home can produce varying doses of mescaline.
Outside of the DIY method, there are numerous shamans and healers that use traditional methods and modern comforts to create a transformative experience.
The facilitated route is the one that we recommend. If you are looking for a good facilitator of huachuma specifically, we recommend Don Howard at Spiritquest Sanctuary.
For those who are interested in doing other psychedelics in a comfortable retreat setting, we have developed Schema with trusted partners to facilitate ayahuasca and psilocybin-based retreats for individuals.
- Bigwood, Jeremy; Stafford, Peter J. (1992). Pg 118-119.