San Jose del Pacifico: A Weekend in the Clouds
Where do I even begin?
Have you ever been inside of a cloud? Not in an airplane, but physically standing in the middle of a cloud in all its chilly, misty, wispy glory? It's magical.
Welcome to San Jose del Pacifico, a tiny town at the tippy top of the Sierra Sur mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico. Formerly known as San Jose del Flores, the town was renamed because the towering height of 8000+ feet above sea level means that the Pacific Ocean can be seen from here.
San Jose del Pacifico is home to less than 400 full-time residents, all of whom make their living from the constant stream of tourists that trickle in year round. The main attraction? Mushrooms. Yep, the magic kind.
Residents here have used the psilocybin mushrooms for well over a hundred years to aid in healing and ceremonial practices and rituals. Although shrooms are illegal in Mexico, the Mexican government allows them to exist in peace for this reason.
Need to Know
The journey from Oaxaca City to San Jose del Pacifico takes about 3 1/2 - 4 hours
You can take a collectivo for $110 pesos each way from Eclipse or Lineas Unidas. Vans run every 30 minutes and there's no need to book in advance
Accommodations are limited. For a private cabin, choose Puesta del Sol or Rancho Viejo
Befriend a local who will tell you where to buy mushrooms. Ours was our AirBnb host. In my case, mushrooms were much more expensive than I'd found reported elsewhere online. Prepare to pay at least $300 pesos per trip
Try a temezcal for the full experience! I recommend Temezcal Cuatro Elementos. They are held daily at 10am and require no reservation. Bring a swimsuit and towel
Besides a few blog articles scattered throughout Google (thanks Ungraceful Guide!), it's not easy to find much information on the Mushroom Capital of Mexico or how to get there, further adding to the mystique surrounding it.
There are two transportation companies in Oaxaca City that'll get you to San Jose del Pacifico: Eclipse and Lineas Unidas. We opted for Eclipse on the way to the city and Lineas Unidas on the way back. Both offer air conditioned, 14-passenger vans that are reminiscent of Greyhound buses. When we arrived the station early Friday afternoon (not really a station, more like a little garage tucked into a side street in centro) we were greeted by a group of barkers: "San Jose? San Jose?," assuring us that we'd arrived in the right place. They took our bags out of the taxi (this will be important later) and ushered us into a small office where we picked our seats and paid our fare of $110 pesos each (about $10 USD) for the one way trip. There's no need to make reservations in advanced, although you can if that makes you more comfortable. Since the vans run every 30 minutes, after a short 15 minute wait, we loaded into ours and were on our way.
We'd picked two seats in the very back row and were pleasantly surprised that the whole back row was empty. Sweet! Now we didn't have to fight over the window seat, and there was extra space to stretch our legs. I popped 2 Dramamines and prepared for the 4 hour journey ahead. Note: if you are prone to motion sickness of any kind, load up on the Dramamine. Your future self will thank you.
After about 15 minutes on the road, we pull over and two more people shuffle into the van, lock eyes with me, and beeline their way to the back row. This is when I learned that, in addition to their designated stops, collectivos will stop pretty much anywhere and pick up anyone who needs a ride. As we sat cramped — now 4 across in the back row — my dreams of a perfect road trip were shattered.
My spirits were briefly lifted by the panoramic mountain views that the drive had to offer. (Pro-tip: sit on the right side of the van for the best views!) Mexico is beautiful, ya'll. The landscapes are so diverse. As we continued to ascend through the winding mountainous roads, the temperature dropped steadily, and my enthusiasm dwindled as the Dramamine began to wear off. Imagine being on a roller coaster composed entirely of curves with no seat belt. Now imagine that said roller coaster was constructed on the side of a cliff with no guardrails. Oh, and there's another roller coaster going in the opposite direction that threatens to collide with yours head on at any moment. That's kind of what the ride was like, except worse because there's the actual possibility of falling off the side of the cliff.
A brief refuge was offered when we reached a small town called Mihuatlan, about 45 minutes outside of San Jose. Here, you can grab snacks, use the restroom or just shake off that numb-ass syndrome that's inevitably kicked in by now. I did none of these things, as I didn't want to risk losing my seat. I was honestly just grateful for a break from the road. Mihuatlan is also the closest city with an ATM, so make sure to bring enough cash with you from Oaxaca City, or you run the risk of having to brave the snaking roads yet again to grab some later. We learned this the hard way.
The final leg of the journey was the worst part. While the views were still lovely as ever, the roads were worse. I buried my head in Sol's shoulder for the remainder of the ride with flashes of signs for alebrijes, Coca-Cola and local plants in my peripheral. With each bend in the road I thought to myself, "There's no way that we can get any higher than this." Yet, each time I was wrong. We somehow kept climbing, higher and higher, until we were literally driving through the clouds. At this point, little mushroom carvings and statues lined the roads, signaling that we were close to our destination. Finally, the van came to a full stop and I lifted my head to see a bright blue sign beaming above: BIENVENIDOS SN JOSE DEL PACIFICO.
I was so happy to be on solid ground again. As I stumbled out of the van, the cool, damp air kissed my skin, offering instant relief from the stuffiness of the collectivo. We walked around to the back of the van to gather our bags, only to find that they weren't there. Remember when I mentioned earlier that the guys at the station had collected our bags directly from the taxi? Yeah, apparently they hadn't actually loaded them into the vehicle. So, pro-tip #2: MAKE SURE THAT YOUR BAGS MAKE IT INTO THE VAN WITH YOU. After a quick call to the station, the driver confirmed that our bags had, in fact, been left behind, but that they'd send them with the next scheduled van. This put a slight damper on my mood, but I remained hopeful that our belongings would arrive safely, albeit a bit late.
We took the extra time to grab a bite to eat and explore the city, which didn't take very long. The entire "town" consists of a stretch of road about half a kilometer long, flanked on either side by a handful of restaurants, convenience stores, tourist shops, a bakery, a butcher and and two tattoo parlors. Bright colors and psychedelic artwork adorn most of the walls. The constant fog definitely gives the place a mystical air, enveloping the packs of stray dogs and women knitting scarves and dolls from locally spun yarn. La Morenita, a tiny lime green restaurant, stuck out to us among the fog and we happily scarfed down our huevos y frijoles, ravenous after the long trip.
On our way out of the restaurant, we noticed a bucket full of mushrooms on a table outside. I knew that this town was known for mushrooms, but could it really be that easy to find them? Sol asked the owner, who was also our waitress, if those were...you know...hallucinogenic mushrooms. She quickly shook her head no, indicating that those were just plain ol' champiñónes. When we asked if she knew where we could find the other type of mushrooms, she wasn't very forthcoming, simply shrugging and saying that we could “probably find them somewhere around here.” A little taken aback, I chalked it up to her being older and maybe disapproving of the recreational use of a substance that, for her people, was sacred.
So to answer my earlier question, no, they weren't that easy to find.
Rancho Viejo and Caesar
Book your stay at Rancho Viejo through AirBnb.
With a few hours remaining before our bags were supposed to arrive, we decided to head to our cabin to rest up and wait it out. Located at the end of a long dirt road about 10 minutes outside of the center of town, Rancho Viejo is a group of 7 cabins tucked into a quiet clearing in the forest on the side of a mountain. We were greeted by Marta, a sweet woman with golden eyes, who checked us into our cabin and made sure that we settled in okay. Almost immediately, we asked -- somewhat skeptically after our earlier experiences -- if she knew where we could find magic mushrooms. She said that she wasn't sure, but she'd check with her husband and get back to us. At this point, I started to feel like the entire town was conspiring against us and that maybe we wouldn't be able to experience the magic of San Jose del Pacifico after all. About 10 minutes later, there was a knock at the door that turned our whole trip around. Enter Caesar.
At 5'2, Caesar is a guy small in stature, but big in spirit. A rare native of San Jose del Pacifico, he was eager to tell us all about his hometown and his experiences here. And yes, he knew exactly where we could find what we are looking for. He offered to walk us there, giving us a tour of the beautiful Rancho Viejo in the process. The seven cabins on the property surround garden beds full of fresh vegetables, and Caesar beams as he walks us through each of his crops: carrots, lettuce, habanero peppers, lavender. We're introduced to his rabbit, Santa, and dog, Misty, before continuing down the red dirt road. Sol and Caesar got to talking and, since my Spanish isn't that great, I kind of zoned out and took in the incredible scenery around me.
When I came to, we'd arrived at what looked like a metal shack on the side of the road. Caesar introduced us to Lourdes, a heavyset lady, who informed us that we were in luck, as the mushroom season had just ended, but she had a final batch of fresh ones in the back. She emerged from the building with a Tupperware container full of hongos that looked like they'd been scooped up from a swamp earlier that morning (this isn't the case, as they actually grow on the side of mountains).
"Cuanto viajes?" she asked us. Which is Spanish for "How many trips?" We purchased two "trips" and watched as she counted out fourteen mushrooms and placed seven into each leaf, charging us $300 pesos (about $15 USD) for each trip. I smiled, thanked her and and tucked them into my backpack, eager for the day that lay ahead.
We continued on our walk with Caesar, who wanted to introduce us to his friend Navarro, owner and shaman at Tezmecal Cuatro Elementos. We briefly met Navarro as he was hiking with another group of people who were staying at his place for the weekend. Although our meeting was brief, I felt good energy from Navarro, so we decided to book a temezcal with him that Sunday (more on that experience later). Navarro left us with, "My home is your home," so we continued down the many stone steps that led to his stunning property.
Deep in the foliage of Temezcal Cuatro Elementos, lies a large cliff with beautiful 360 views. Seriously, it's something straight out of a movie: a hundred shades of green everywhere that you look, mountains in the distance, hummingbirds (!!!) flitting through the trees, all encapsulated by the coolness of the clouds. We plopped down on the rock, enjoying the weather, while Caesar shared the details of his first (and only) shroom trip with us. I'd prefer not to share the details of his experience, but he did let us know that his trip inspired him to give back to the earth. He now has a ranch full of mango and avocado trees and breeds squirrels that he plans on releasing into the wild once they're fully grown. He also showed us photos of all of the friends that he's made working at Rancho Viejo, grinning all the while. After what felt like too short a time, we got up and made our way back into town where our bags had arrived, as promised. Caesar asked if he could take a photo of us and I smiled, happy that we'd made it into his album of friends.
Let me just let ya'll know that I've never tripped before. I rarely smoke and only drink on occasion, so my tolerance for substances are relatively low. Psychedelics have always appealed to me, but I've never trusted a "dealer" enough to buy from them. However, since San Jose del Pacifico is known worldwide for the mushrooms that naturally grow here, I figured that now was the best chance that I'd ever get.
After extensive research, I decided that shroom tea was the best option for me. It supposedly cuts down on nausea and allowed the psycocibin to absorb into your bloodstream faster. After the roller coaster of a ride up the mountains, I was terrified of being nauseous again. We took the forty minute walk into town early Saturday morning to buy tea bags and a jar of honey. I'd read that it was better to trip on an empty stomach, but I can never resist a good plate of food, so we also grabbed breakfast at one of the restaurants before catching a mototaxi back to the ranch. Since our cabin didn't have a stove, we made a pit stop at Lourdes' place to see if she'd be willing spare a cup of hot water to make the tea. She took it a step further and actually made the tea for me! I thanked her, bought a burger for later and began the trek back to the cabin, tea in hand.
To begin, the day was not what I expected it to be. I'd hoped for a sunny day, but, with being in the clouds and all, it didn't look like that was going to happen. Back at the cabin, I finished my tea and ate the mushrooms themselves as well, as Lourdes had suggested. Then began the waiting game.
Forty-five minutes in, I didn't feel nauseous, which I was grateful for, but I didn't feel much else either. I started to feel like maybe I'd messed up by eating breakfast beforehand, or maybe we'd been ripped off like the stupid tourists that we were and paid $15 for regular degular mushrooms. I went outside to think on this more deeply and plopped down on the wooden deck overlooking the sky. I sat there for a while, entranced by my braids for some reason. Sol came out to keep an eye on me. Still nothing. I was convinced that these things just weren't working for me. When I looked up, the sky had become an iridescent soccer ball, holographic hexagons as far as I could see. Huh.
I looked down at my hands: breathing. purple, orange and yellow as henna-like patterns swirled through them. Suddenly, I was overcome with paranoia that my fingers were 10 small people with tiny minds of their own who could and would turn on me at any moment. I kept telling Sol that my hands were turning into "old people hands," as they seemed to shrivel up as they "breathed." So entranced with my hands, I'd hardly noticed that the deck had seemingly quadrupled in size and that the wooden boards beneath me had begun to vibrate ever so slightly. Petrified that the deck was bound to detach from the mountainside, I headed back to the cabin, trying my best not to draw any attention from the neighbors who were playing chess on the porch. Inside, the wood grains in the walls began swirling. I was fascinated that this was happening to me, but at the same time, wanted it to be over. I crawled into bed next to Sol and stared out of the window, where the needles of a neighboring pine tree had morphed to peacock feathers.
Breathing was a central theme in my trip. Everything was breathing: my hands, the ceiling, the tree outside. My own breath also felt super heavy, and I watched my body deconstruct and reconstruct with each exhale. I started to feel like I was hogging all the air in the area, that I was killing the tree outside because I was sucking the air from it. A red and yellow squirrel jetted up the same tree. I heard what I called mermaids, singing me to sleep, but resisted the urge to listen because of the stories I'd read of sirens luring seamen to their deaths. Sounds that were not voices somehow translated to voices in my head. I reminded myself that none of this was real, but something argued with me that my life wasn't real. My brain felt like it was divided into 100 branches, with each branch functioning at full capacity simultaneously. Overwhelmed, I sat up, attempting to gather my thoughts. I felt very robotic and aware of my body, almost like buttons were being pushed inside of me, commanding that I do certain things: lift arm, chew, chew, swallow. I randomly blurted out "Super Mario Brothers!" and I'm pretty sure that it's because I felt like I was being controlled as if I was in a video game. Sol was asking me to explain what was happening, but I couldn't remember any words.
Suddenly, all I wanted to do was eat. Remember that hamburger that I bought earlier? Yeah, it was ice cold at this point, but I devoured it anyway. We'd also stocked up on snacks earlier that day so we didn't have to go back into town. Ruffles, chocolate muffins, latte bars -- demolished them all. After eating, I felt strangely calm and fell asleep to the crackle of the fireplace.
If you'd asked me a year ago if I thought I'd be sitting half naked in a mud hut in the middle of the Sierra Sur with 5 strangers while we sang "I Will Survive" in unison, the answer would be a resounding hell no. But that's exactly what happened.
We'd met Navarro, owner and shaman of Temezcal Cuatro Elementos on our first night in San Jose del Pacifico. He's a tall, older man with kind eyes from Yucutan who moved to San Jose sixteen years ago. There's something about him that made me trust him immediately. He speaks Spanish and some English, and made a point to translate what he could so that I'd understand the gist of what was going on.
I touched upon this briefly earlier, but the land that Temezcal Cuatro Elementos is build on is truly breathtaking. Seriously, this place could easily serve as a stand-in for the Shire. This is one of those cases where photos will do more justice than my words ever could.
See what I mean?
If you've never been to a temezcal, here's a technical description of what it is, as defined by Navarro:
The temezcal, which in Nahuatl means steam house; is a native steam bath with herbal tea and preheated rocks in heavy fire.
The temezcal debugs the respiratory and digestive systems, tones the nervous system, stimulates the regeneration of skin, soothes muscle problems in women through the heat of the steam bath and the healing properties of various medical plants used.
The practice is one of the oldest and simplest curative benefits that shape our culture.
We arrived Sunday morning for the daily 10am temezcal, about an hour early. Going in, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. I'd seen a couple of videos on YouTube, but they were all fancy bath houses at spas in super touristic parts of Mexico (think Cancun). We'd arrived to find what was, quite literally, a mud hut in the middle of the forest. Navarro took his time heating rocks from the nearby mountain and brewing a tea of herbs over an open fire for the ceremony. Sol and I thought we'd be doing the temezcal alone, but around 9:45, a group of 5 women came to the compound to join us.
At 10 on the dot, Navarro began explaining what the temezcal was, what the benefits were, and what was coming next. Then, he ushered us into the nearby cabin to take our clothes off. That actually sounds a lot worse than it is! Because the temezcal is similar to a sauna, it's best not to go in fully clothed. Some brave people opt to go fully nude, but most people wear swimsuits or something similar. Since I didn’t have a swimsuit on hand, I wore a sports bra and shorts. We then stepped out into the frigid mountain air and made our way into the little hut.
Initially, it's freezing inside. It's about 50 degrees outside and a little colder inside. There's a bit of light coming in through the tiny opening. Navarro began shoveling in the hot rocks, a few at a time. He instructed one of the women on how to create the steam bath inside, by dipping a large leaf into the bucket of tea that he'd brewed earlier and splashing it on the rocks. Then, he closed us inside and the tiny hut was pitch black.
I was a little bit annoyed at the process, but mainly because I'd expected something a bit different based upon his description and others that I'd read. Instead of being led in a chant, we were instructed to create our own chant, which didn't go over well. The women that were with us were very loud and giggly and kind of ruined the mental clarity that I was anticipating. Physically though, the temezcal did exactly what it was supposed to do. The heat inside was a welcomed relief from the chilly air outside. My entire body was drenched in sweat, but it's almost as if I wasn't aware of it until afterwards. By the time I really got into my zone, Navarro lifted the blanket up and the light beamed in, exposing our sweaty bodies.
I was the first to emerge from the hut. Navarro instructed me to step into an outdoor shower, spewing freezing cold water straight from the mountain. Let me reiterate the fact that it was in the 50s and I was in my underwear! The final step was to pour a few bowls of the warm tea that we'd used in the temezcal over my head to complete the cleansing process. That part was wonderful. Afterwards, I grabbed a towel ran back to the cabin to get changed. Pro tip: bring a full change of clothes! My clothes themselves were dry, but my undergarments were not, which made for a shivering walk home.
Navarro hugged us, letting us know that he enjoys hugging because pieces of your soul are exchanged in the process. He thanked us for trusting him enough to lead us on this journey and sent us on our way. We left feeling relaxed, refreshed, and ready for the day.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in San Jose del Pacifico, winding roads and all. The best experiences are those that are unplanned, and this trip (pun fully intended) definitely falls into that category.