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Trichocereus pachanoi - San Pedro Cactus
- Cactaceae - Temperate and warm zones of South America

The San Pedro Cactus, or Trichocereus pachanoi, was in use at the very beginning of Andean civilization when it was highly prized as the “materia prima” (raw material) of the shamans of that era. In the central Andes district of Peru, as well as in the surrounding desert regions, the cactus has been an important ritual plant for thousands of years. The oldest archeological proof of its ritual use was found in the layers of the formative period of the Chavin culture, when the San Pedro cactus was used both as a shamanic medicine and as a sacral inebriant. The cactus has been cultivated on the Peruvian coast since the Early Intermediate Period, 200 B.C.E. to 600 C.E.  Its history dates back to at least 1300 B.C.E., and ceramics and textiles suggest it was well known during the Chavín, Chimú, Nasca, Salinar, and Moche periods. Its present day use by curanderos in healing ceremonies in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador has become altered by the integration of Catholic themes with long standing indigenous beliefs.

There is very little documentation of Indian use of the San Pedro cactus dating to  the colonial period. The Inquisition did not persecute Indian use of the cactus (although it reportedly did know of its existence). Speculation has it that the name San Pedro, the Spanish variation on the name of the Catholic saint, Saint Peter, was in part bestowed on this cactus as an attempt to save it from the pharmacologic Inquisition. San Pedro is the patron saint of rain, so one can infer a direct link to the origin of its name in association with various sacramental rain cults and pagan rain gods. In addition, Saint Peter is the keeper of the keys to heaven.

There are numerous pre-Columbian artifacts from Nazca and from the Moche-Chimu period that depict columnar cacti which look exactly like Trichocereus pachanoi. An engraved image found on an ancient stele showing the oracle god of Chavin holding this exact cactus in his hand is particularly telling.  The cactus while in full bloom was found cryptically depicted on two thousand year old shamanic textiles of the Chavin culture, albeit in its idealized form, with only four ribs. It is still believed by Peruvian shamans to this day that the four ribbed San Pedro cactus is the most potent, however no actual, modern-day specimens have ever been documented in nature.

Many Mohican stirrup vessels are embellished with column shaped cacti representations, either in three dimensional relief carvings or with drawings; both types of examples are clearly indicative of shamanic associations. An ancient ceramic vessel displays an image of the magical cactus growing out of a deer – an early example of the connection made between a corvine and a plant containing mescaline. A similar connection between deer and the sacred San Pedro cactus is made in the Huichol peyote cult. A Mohican vessel with an image of an erotic scene shows a woman on her back having intercourse in the missionary position with a man who is holding a San Pedro cactus in one hand.


Trichocereus bridgesii, T. macrogonus, T. pachanoi, and T. peruvianus are all closely related, some even believing they are variations of a single species. Some might even include a number of other Trichocereus in this "sliding scale." Flower and fruit similarities suggest to some that T. pachanoi and T. peruvianus are mere variations of a single species, but there is still disagreement on the subject. It has even been suggested that T. pachanoi is a cultivar of either T. bridgesii or T. peruvianus, but it continues to be the general belief that all are their own independent species even though apparent intermediary plants exist. It seems likely that such intermediary plants are the result of the importation of T. pachanoi into other areas due to its long standing enthnopharmacological value. T. pachanoi is most likely a selectively propagated species and not a selected strain of T. bridgesii or T. peruvianus.

Today, Trichocereus pachanoi is found abundantly in California, planted primarily for its enthogenic properties, although it’s a popular ornamental cactus as well. It thrives in the Californian climate and grows rapidly when watered daily. It is not a desert inhabitant; the San Pedro cactus is indigenous to the warm, humid, rain-rich areas of the Andes where it gets plenty of water. Simultaneously, it can survive months without water. Pieces cut from the cactus can survive for months, even years, and often develop lateral shoots, all without food or water.

T. pachanoi is by far one of the best grafting stocks and is often the base stock seen in photographs within numerous publications. Rib number is quite variable, usually ranging from 5 to 8. Occasionally the sacred 4 ribbed "Cactus of the Four Winds" can be observed, but 4 ribbed growth is an anomaly as the addition and subtraction of ribs during growth is quite common. The standard diameter of the species is 4," and though 8" specimens have been observed this is probably only in regard to old base material supporting large, multi-branching, plants. T. pachanoi is considered largely self-sterile and therefore it appears necessary to use different genetic stock for seed production. Much of the stock available in the US market is of a single clone introduced by Curt Backeberg, but T. pachanoi "North Peru" and "Ecuador" have been introduced into the United States market, and it will be interesting to see their variation from the Backeberg clone. Presently these two variations appear to be much more similar to T. peruvianus.

T. pachanoi can form crested plants with an elongated "fan-like" apex or monstrose specimens that have irregular growth due to the fasciation or fusing of tissue. There also appears to be a "minima/prolifera" form of T. pachanoi that has smaller growth while tillering profusely. It is my personal belief that all of these irregular forms might be more properly classified as "short spined" T. peruvianus, a plant often confused with T.pachanoi, but which may be an undescribed species. As with most cacti, variegated T.pachanoi seem to be quite rare. Recently a number of interesting T. pachanoi hybrids have been developed, particularly by Sacred Succulents.

The use of T. pachanoi as a replacement sacrament, or in grafting, by members of the Native American Church (NAC) could help preserve the natural populations of L.williamsii in the United States, but such propagation techniques are not presently accepted by the NAC.

San Pedro typically contains the following alkaloids:

Mescaline (over 25 mg per 100 grams of fresh plant)



The San Pedro cactus played significant ritualistic roles in oracles, sexual magic ceremonies and shamanism during pre-Hispanic times. Although no specific pre-Columbian rituals have been documented, ceremonial use of the San Pedro cactus appears to date back to very ancient times. Early earth drawings on the Nazca plain may represent consecrated cartography that Moche shamans used for their transcendent journeys into other worlds. 

The sacred cactus concoction taken by the shaman was done so largely in order to heighten their senses and enable them to recognize an illness in a patient during the ritual. The drink was sometimes given to the patient, and less frequently to others who were present. Prior to partaking the elixir, laymen would need to prime themselves by “drinking” a decoction of alcohol with tobacco extract through their nasal cavity via a snail shell or other seashell. The snail is known to be a symbol of the San Pedro cactus. This ritual would facilitate the laymen’s purification and protect them from harmful powers as they embarked on their crossing.

Modern day Peruvian shaman still ingest the sacred cactus drink during their nocturnal mesa rituals; they also may impart the sacrament onto the others who are present at these ceremonies. The “mesa,” which in Spanish simply means table, is an altar which holds numerous, significant objects such as ceramics, images of saints, shells, sticks, etc. The mesa’s structure dates back to pre-Hispanic times and lays out a visionary diagram of where the shaman will need to journey.

When taken in substantial doses, shamans use the San Pedro cactus primarily for psychedelic rituals. However, use of the San Pedro cactus elixir among Peruvian folk healers today is no longer truly shamanic. Preparations of the cactus flesh are often used as aphrodisiacs and tonics by these Peruvian medicine folk, and the drink itself has taken on a more symbolic importance to them than that of pure shamanism. At modern day mesa ceremonies, the dosage used is not large enough to elicit psychoactive effects. However, no matter its potency, the drink is said to inherently heighten visionary and diagnostic perception so that one becomes aware of the mesa objects as they begin to animate; most importantly, it allows the soul of patient to flourish.

T. pachanoi is reputedly made into the hallucinogenic beverage "cimora" in Huancabamba, Peru, and is used by curanderos for divination, the diagnosis of disease, and to "make oneself owner of another's identity." Cimora may include the cactus Neoraimondia macrostibas,Iresine spp., Brugmansia spp., Datura spp., Pedilanthus tithymaloides, and Isotoma longiflora. Though the San Pedro ceremony usually contains other plants, cimora should not immediately be assumed to contain T. pachanoi. The most recognized additives to San Pedro and/or cimora include the tropane containing Brugmansia and Datura species, but these appear to be used only for especially difficult cases needing further divination, and are usually taken only by the curandero.

An additional aspect of the ceremonies of Huancabamba is the use of "hornamo," a purgative herb. Hornamo is said to purify the participants, possibly through vomiting. Though most affiliated with Valeriana species, there exists a lengthy list of plants with some form of hornamo used in their vernacular titles. All such herbs are reputedly prepared separate from T. pachanoi, but this may not always be the case.

Nicotiana species are also commonly included within the San Pedro ceremonies, often as a liquid extract that is nasally ingested prior to the drinking of the San Pedro tea. There has been some suggestion that San Pedro is also used through nasal ingestion, but this route of administration may have its source in the Arts & Entertainment Television broadcast of the program, Ancient Mysteries: Ancient Altered States. During this program the ingestion of San Pedro was discussed alongside video of participants nasally ingesting a liquid. It appears the narration mistakenly represented this liquid as San Pedro while failing to discuss the standard oral ingestion of T. pachanoi and the well known nasal use of Nicotiana. If San Pedro is used at all by this method, then most likely it is only a ritualistic act. The volume of mescaline in such a tea would not be concentrated enough so as to prevent the participant from having to nasally ingest a truly prohibitive amount. But of course if one considers the San Pedro ceremony as a purely ritualistic act, as often appears to be the case, then the nasal ingestion of a light concentration of San Pedro tea would not be out of the question.

Generally, westerners who have participated in the San Pedro ceremonies of Huancabamba, Peru, rarely feel the full psychoactive potential of the mescaline present in T. pachanoi. This is often a simple matter of dosage, something the curandero holds sway over as much as the Roman Catholic priest does of the Eucharist (Wade 1983). And like the taking of the Eucharist, the ingestion of San Pedro has largely become a ceremonial act in which the ritual performed plays a larger part in the healing than does direct access to the spiritual otherworld.

Due to such ceremonial and ritualistic use of the species, it may be possible that Armatocereus laetus and Espostoa lanata, other cacti reputedly used by similar means as T. pachanoi in Huancabamba, Peru, may not have psychopharmacological effect.


The San Pedro drink is made using fresh cactus stalks or pieces. You boil the chopped cactus for a few hours in plenty of water. Often other plants are added to this mixture, such as misha, hornamo or condorillo. The decoction is then poured off and boiled again for several hours until only about half of the original volume remains. Some folk healers use the recipe of boiling four thin stalks in approximately five gallons of water for seven hours. Usually one piece of cactus, roughly two to three inches thick and ten inches long is a sufficient dose for each person who will be imbibing the drink. It is sliced into sections and then boiled. Adding lime or lemon juice to the brew helps to dissolve the mescaline, assisting it in leeching into the liquid.

To harvest, the stalks are cut off some four inches or so above the ground. The remaining stumps will sprout shoots again in no time. The stalks should be cut into manageable pieces, about ten to fifteen inches in length, and then the ribs are cut away. The outer rind is sliced from the flesh where the green color of the flesh stops. The fresh skin is laid in the sun to dry for a few hours, then as it starts to curl up, it should be flipped so that the fresh skin is exposed. The drying process needs to be repeated, which in total can take from two to six days.

After thoroughly drying the cactus skins, one grinds them to a fine powder by using a mortar and pestle, a grinding stone, a coffee grinder or a professional device from a pharmacy made for pulverizing the raw material. The important thing to remember is that the finer the powder, the more effective the absorption of the mescaline. Since the cactus powder is unpalatably bitter, many people put the powder into gelatin capsules that hold one gram each. This practice makes it easier to digest and enables the dosage to be as exact as possible.

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