Two days ago, I climbed on the back of a motorcycle and set off with Julian to Real de Catorce to eat a hallucinogenic cactus called peyote. Julian is French and I met him in a hostel in Zacatecas. Conversation around the dining room table became an invitation, “You go with me to Real de Catorce? We eat peyote.” “Uh, yea sure.” I replied not knowing, or bothering to ask, what peyote is. The next morning we loaded his bike, one silver metal pannier each, and we set off for the village.
Real de Catorce is an old mining town located 270 km northeast of Zacatecas in one of the highest mesas in Mexico. The village is small, only 1,000 local residents, but supported a much larger population when the silver mine was active in the 18th and 19th century. It is also a pilgrimage site for indigenous peoples. They walk here from as far away as Nayarit to gather and consume the magical cactus peyote for its insightful and introspective effects.
There are only two ways to enter Real de Catorce: through a 2.4km long tunnel of only one lane (they use radios to direct traffic) or a dangerously steep, windy mountain pass up a ravine. We entered through the tunnel. After finding a place to camp (for free) next to the bull fighting ring, we entered the “downtown” area and soon learned peyote cannot be purchased. Nor can it be found in the village. We would need to descend the mountain pass into the desert on horseback to find the mystical plant.
Riding a horse down a mountain is an exercise in trust. My horse, eight years old and named Dominik, was not very surefooted on the slick stone road. She slipped and she stumbled. Often. She also liked to walk along the edge of the cliff. Scary yes, but I loved every minute of it. I trusted her. She wants to die no more than I do. And the view this provided of crumbled settlements below was unimaginable.
Our ride down lasted over two hours and covered fourteen kilometers. The horses took their time on the descent, but when we reached the flats below our guide sent our steeds galloping. Suddenly, without warning, we were thumping along at top speed. With one hand I shook the reins encouraging my horse. With the other I held on for dear life. Wow.
We soon reached the desert and began our search. It did not take long. Lurking below a shrub were small green buttons barely above dirt. Our guide, using my knife for whatever reason, harvested the cactus and began to clean it. He first stripped away the woody exterior of the root. Then, he cut out the fuzzy interior. This completed, he rinsed the cactus and cut it into sections. He pretended to chew and swallow saying yes. He pretended to chew and spit saying no. We must chew and swallow the cactus.
It tastes AWFUL. Bitter; the cactus was hard to swallow, but we managed to choke down half each. The first was not so bad, but Jose made us eat another. And then another. By the time I finished my second cactus I was ready to vomit. I threw aside the last small piece. I could not stomach it.
Now, ready to puke with a stomach full of peyote and nothing else (we were told we must fast for a day prior to consumption) our guide left. He went further into the desert without us. On the ride back up, watching him nod off in the saddle, we realized what had happened. He went off to eat some himself.
The effects began less than an hour into our ride back up the mountain. I was not high. I was aware. Like meditation on steroids. I focused on the horse. On her movements and how I moved in sync with her. On her breath. As true as it is cliché, I become one with the horse. This enhanced awareness also allowed me to see how I interact with the outside world. With people and objects. I learned more than I can comprehend causing me to lie awake late into the night processing this amazing experience.
After dismounting for the final time we walked the village for hours in search of chicken to sate our ravenous hunger. Chicken to roast in the fire. It was not easy to find and our search had us interact with many locals. This was very fun and very surprising to them. We were told where to find chicken; however, when we arrived the woman laughed saying she doesn’t have any. We left returning later to try again. This time, I made my desire clear. We need chicken to cook. From her surprise, I doubt any tourist ever asked for raw chicken before. Wood was even more difficult. Asking locals, we learned we needed to knock on closed doors. They would still sell to us.
With arms full of wood and food we returned to our camp to get to work. We lit the fire in the corner of an old wall. I cut onions and potatoes placing them on aluminum foil. On top I added the half-chicken then squeezed lemon over all. When the fire was nice and hot we inserted the now neatly bundled chicken into the coals. And we waited. Forty-five minutes later we removed the chicken parcel and we feasted devouring every last morsel. After dinner our desert was marshmallows cooked over remaining coals.
This morning we returned to the hostel in Zacatecas tired and sore. The horse ride removed skin from my butt and riding on the back of a motorcycle is much more painful than riding a bicycle. My but hurt more than I thought possible – due to pressure and vibration not missing skin. The last thirty minutes felt like torture. I look forward to resuming my travels on a bicycle.
My view for 270km. Traveling over 100km per hour in the open cockpit of a motorcycle felt like being in a time warp. It takes me an entire day to cover the distance of one hour on the motor.
Fires raging alongside the road is a common occurrence here in Mexico.
As are heavily armed police and military. Luckily, they only smile and wave.
The final road to Real De Catorce.
It is rough and very bumpy. Probably much of the reason my butt hurt so much.
The first picture is Jervas. He is made from old machine parts. The other two are of the 2.4km tunnel used to access the village.
Almost daily people parade through the streets here. Have they too eaten peyote? Probably.
The city center.
A restaurant named for the famous cactus.
My horse, Dominik.
We have arrived in the desert. Dismount and let the search begin! In the last picture, Jose prepares the cactus.
Chew and swallow.
Time to fly!
After thirty minutes our guide returns soon to be high on peyote as well. As we ascend the mountain he removes his feet from the stirrups. They dangle as does his head.
Be one with the horse.
This is Jose’s mule. It is much more sure-footed than our lumbering horses.
We return to the village and snap a farewell photo. And then Julian’s horse pees on our guide. Notice the raised tail.
He runs away as the horse finishes its business.
This is our campsite for the night. Quiet and free it came equipped with a fireplace. The corner of these walls acted as a chimney and radiated warmth back to us.
This dog wanted to snuggle. Julian had to push him out of his tent.
Dinner time. We had to fast all day so we are ravenous. We devour the chicken like a pack of wolves. The potatoes did not turn out so well. The aluminum foil is super thin allowing the fire to turn our food to charcoal. A few morsels were still edible.
Marshmallows for desert.
Like our coat hooks?
Fun with photography. I experiment with circles and figure eights before drawing a car. Julian is not so reserved. Did I mention he’s from France?