Huautla de Jiménez: in the footsteps of María Sabina and John Lennon

A couple of weeks ago, after a pleasant overnight stop in Tehuacán in the state of Puebla, I set off for Huautla de Jiménez, a small town high in the Mazatec sierra in the Northern corner of the state of Oaxaca, close to the border with the state of Puebla.

Huautla is famous – or notorious – for being the place where María Sabina lived, worked and died. María Sabina was originally a subsistence farmer from the Mazatec indigenous people who also worked as a respected curandera (healer) within her local community, conducting ceremonies where she used diffeernt local mushrooms, which she called santos niños (holy or saint children), all containing the psycho-active ingredient psilocybin.

She became catapulted to fame when in 1955, a visiting amateur ethnomycologist, Gordon Wasson, whose day job was Vice President of the investment bank J.P. Morgan, together with his fashion photographer friend,  became the first westerners to participate alongside María Sabina in a velada – the night-time sacred ceremony involving the santos niños.

Despite being sworn to secrecy by María Sabina, Wasson published an account of his experiences in the May 13th 1957 issue of Life magazine – at that time the most influential magazine in the USA. This article has been claimed to have initiated the psychedelic revolution, as it particularly influenced Timothy Leary and others to start experimenting with these mushrooms.

Soon, all sorts of people – including it is said, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan – started to make their way to Huautla in the sixties to experience the veladas with María Sabina. She became an icon of the counter-culture. Much of the effect of the foreign visitors, however, was negative. They expressed their sixties ideals and customs – for example, making love naked in the maize fields – with mostly no respect for the local culture. In 1967 and 1969, the army was brought in to evict long haired foreigners, or “jipis” as they were locally known, from Huautla and they were prohibited entry to the town until 1976.

Despite, or because of, this rapid rise to fame, María Sabina’s life ended in 1985 tragically and in poverty. She had become ostracised by her local community – through a combination of envy and for having revealed its secrets to outsiders. Her house was burned down, and her son murdered. Towards the end of her life it was claimed she said:

“But from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it…”

Another respected male curandero said:

“What is terrible is that the sacred mushroom no longer belong to us. The language has been spoiled and is indecipherable to us … “What is this new language like?” “Now the mushrooms speak English! Yes it is the tongue the foreigners speak”.

To read a post that explores this exploitative legacy of the West in relation to María Sabina and the Mazatec community in Huautla, click here.

María Sabina has become a very ambiguous figure within Mexican culture. Heriberto Yépez, in an insightful and thought-provoking article about María Sabina and her link with Malinche, the generally despised indigenous woman who was Cortés lover and helped him in the conquista through her ability to translate between Spanish, Maya and the Aztec languages, says that:

“There is no doubt that unconsciously the public at large granted Sabina the attributes of a pop-culture version of Malinche, famous because she facilitated the invasion of famous people from around the world. In this view she was a woman dedicated primarily to helping rock-stars, beatniks, poets and adventurers from the United States and Europe have a nice trip in Language Land – Huautla as a little rural Disneyland for New-Agers. Sabina suffered the stigma of being involved in sell-out tourism, becoming in the popular mind one of those persona of popular culture that, thanks to their friendship with the dollar, are almost non-Mexican:border prostitutes; jumping frijoles; Tijuana; and María Sabina, an Indian healer turned chic guide for crazy gabachos, a betrayer of the nation.”

I was not aware of most of the above when I set off to go to Huautla. A friend of a friend had given me contact details for her cousin who lived in Huautla, and recommended that I get in touch with him if I wanted to participate in a velada, as there are many charlatans offering their services to outsiders.

As others have commented in relation to their experiences of going to Huautla, the drive there is vertginous and spectacular. From Tehuacán to Teotitlán the road is flat as it follows the plain for about an hour, but from Teotitlán, there is a steep and dizzy climb to the heights of the Sierra.

After a long initial climb, the road levels off somewhat and there are attractive views of the Sierra, before a final descent and ascent to Huautla. Overall from Teotitlán it is about 75kms and a two hours drive.

Huautla is a sprawling town set into the hillside with steep streets. My first impressions were not good. It is one of the ugliest Mexican towns I have been in, full of corrugated-iron roofed houses. In places, it smelt of sewage, dog shit, rotting vegetables and garbage. After I parked my car and walked around the narrow, enclosed streets trying to locate my friends’ cousin, everywhere seemed dark. The people were minimally courteous and there seemed none of the infectious enthusiasm and spontaneous warmth that I have found before in other small Mexican towns.

Rooftop view of Huautla

I finally located my friends cousin. He explained to me that he was no longer involved in giving ceremonies but he recommended two people to me, so I set off to locate them. The first person, Ines Cortes, was known to me from two blogs on the internet (click here and here). Her house is located above and behind the Casa de la Cultura.

I had intended to visit both people recommended to me, but on meeting Ines I decided to participate in ceremony with her. She emanates warmth, compassion and humanity. In addition, she has been a curandera for 40 years, working first with her uncle and then with María Sabina for nine years. She told me that John Lennon had indeed visited Huautla for five days in 1968 – I had suspected it might be a myth – and that she had met him.

She also said I could stay in her house in a simple room on the third floor for 70 pesos a night. I really enjoyed my stay with Ines and her family, and ended up staying for three nights. As time went on, and I got to know her family better, I felt very welcomed and well looked after. Although we had not talked about food, the family naturally invited me to eat with them, though I was mostly fasting in order to participate in the ceremonies.

Her husband Juvental, when he heard that I was keen to go walking, invited me to accompany him to the land he works. Our walk took us past a brand new building, never used, which Juvental explained to me was meant to be a new university in Huautla. His view was that APPO, a social movement in Oaxaca opposed to the former state governor, and initiators and organizers of the widespread rebellion in Oaxaca in 2006, had prevented this building ever being opened. I was surprised by this, as I had always been an instinctive supporter of APPO, and it gave me a glimpse into the complexity of Mexican politics.

The walk was part of my preparation for the first ceremony, which started at around 8pm. I was the only person present apart from Ines. Later, her husband joined her with the singing and at one point her grandson popped in. Ines gave me six mushrooms to eat. Fresh mushrooms are only available in the rainy season between June and September. Ines told me that there are three types of mushrooms used in the ceremonies and that the most powerful can only be found in June. Whilst I started to feel the effects of the mushrooms, Ines gave me a cleansing, a reading using the burning of copal, said prayers and sung songs in Spanish and Mazatec.

The ceremony is a syncretic mix of indigenous and Spanish catholic elements. Ines’ altar (which is the first photo on this entry) is an extraordinary and eclectic collection of religious and non-religious images from all over the world, including pictures of her family, and proudly displaying a plastic Mexican flag.

It was a real treat to have the ceremony directed just at me as I was able to ask Ines to sing more songs in Mazatec, rather than Spanish, and also to ask her to include the names of my family in a beautiful and simple song she sang which mentioned different peoples’ names.

My experience finished around midnight. Ines then gave another ceremony to two people who had just arrived by bus from Oaxaca and were to go back to Oaxaca early the following day. This seemed a crazy and overly-rushed way to participate in a ceremony of this kind.

Initially, I had only intended to participate in one ceremony, but as I felt the process I had been through was still incomplete, I asked Ines if I could participate in a ceremony she was running the following night with four other people and she agreed. This time the experience was very gentle, and the following day I felt I had been through an important cleaning process.

Ines and Juvental

As I got to know them better, I talked to Ines and Juvental about the unfavourable first impressions I had received of Huautla. I had begun to think that maybe María Sabina’s tragic story hung heavily over the town. They told me that, first, many of the people there did not speak Spanish well, as Mazatec was their native language, so they were reluctant to talk to Spanish speakers. In addition, they said the people were, in general, very closed. When I later read about the town’s history with outsiders and the “jipis”, I could see why they might have reason to not embrace foreign visitors.

I would wholeheartedly suggest that anyone going to Huautla to participate in a traditional ceremony look for Ines. I am sure there are other good curanderos in the town, but there are also people selling mushrooms and offering ceremonies, even as people get off the bus from Tehuacán, Oaxaca or Mexico City, who have no real training and experience of the traditional healing processes.

Postscript: see here for an interesting New York Times article about the renewed research interest in the use of psilocybin to treat people with terminal illness in the USA.


18 comments so far

  1. Tim Johnson on

    Very interesting posting. Sort of Mexico’s Woodstock.

  2. viola woolcott on

    Sounds beautiful and brings back many beautiful memories😉

  3. Luke O´Keefe on

    Hi,

    I´m actually in Huautla now, but having a little trouble finding Ines place (don´t really want to go knocking on random houses…) Do you have any contact details you could email me, or a more detailed description of how to find her?

    Any help would be greatly appreciated…

    Cheers,
    Luke (luke_okeefe@hotmail.com)

    P.S. Great blog btw…

  4. Linda Graham on

    Thank you for this! I lived and worked in Puebla from 2006 to 2010 and traveled all over Mexico during that time. I stopped in Huautla on my way to Mazunte, but had no idea about all this! I wish I had the time to investigate about doing the mushrooms…. you didn’t elaborate on your experience with it! I’d like to go back and find Ines…

  5. dorr on

    I lived in Hautla for several months in 1968. I was a Jipi who was favorablly accepted into the community. I was always told by my Maztec friends when to leave town as the army was coming. I would return after they left. I experienced many ceremonies with Maria Sabina and I also shared the disdain for the poor behavior of many of my fellow foreign visitors. I lived in a small thatched hut outside of town. Many mornings children would leave Plantain leaves carefully folded around a bunch of fresh hongos. I prefered the actual ceremonies and not just getting high. I will treasure forever my experiences there.

    One experience that I had, was seeing the introduction of electricity to the village. Of course they had a generator that the community would use occassionally. There were no wires and no telephone poles. I could look out from my hut and see on a distant mountain a small crew erecting reinforced concrete poles. One per day. After a few weeks the poles came into town. The following morning two trucks came into town. One was from Coca Cola and the other was Pepsi. They gave electric coolers to the tiendas on each corner of the square. They also presented to all of the tiendas, giant 4 foot tall plastic replicas of either Pepsi, or Coca Cola. They were lit from the inside. All you could do was sorta grimace and shake your head. As the two trucks drove away the power crew continued to drag wire up and down the main dirt road. At each house they would suspend from the ceiling one electrical light recepticle with two electrical outlets in each one. Now the local people could play horrid Mexican pop bubblegum music and stay up into the night. Prior to this they would only use their little battery powered radios, sparingly, to listen to the Sunday morning ceremonies from the National Cathedral in Mexico City. I wish that I was a cultural anthropologist. I could have written a paper on my observations.

    This article is excellent and really does reflect what Hautla was, and hopefully still is to some degree.

  6. paulrobertsmexico on

    Thanks for your interesting observations and your kind comment on my blog. It must have been a remarkable experience being in Huatla in the time you were. I now see the same thing happening with electrification in the indigenous Shipibo communities I am working with in the Peruvian Amazon. So called progress and development is not so straightforward!

  7. paulrobertsmexico on

    Thanks for your interesting observations and your kind comment on my blog. It must have been a remarkable experience being in Huautla in the time you were. I now see the same thing happening with electrification in the indigenous Shipibo communities I am working with in the Peruvian Amazon. So called progress and development is not so straightforward!

  8. CJ on

    Been to Huautla twice (just got home yesterday). Interestingly, it seems there is a disproportionate number of birth defects in that town. Anybody else notice that?

  9. Paul Roberts on

    Interesting observation CJ about birth defects. I did not notice that. I wonder if it is correct what is the cause.

  10. Ben Feinberg on

    I am glad that you enjoyed your stay with Ines and Juvenal. It is nice to find a photo of my smiling compadres on your site.

  11. Mauricio gallardo on

    I born in huautla and I totally know about the holy children I live now in lexington ky USA

  12. Willie Garcia on

    Hello my name is Guillermo Garcia Lasienrra Risser. But I simply go by ” Willie”.!!! I happen to type in huautla de Jimenez Oaxaca and ran into the history of some famous names of Rock stars & Maria Sabina. I visited Huautla in 1982. & I visited with Maria Sabina’s daughter. I stayed at her house for a week & also participated in some of the mind altering ceremonies. At that Time I was 20 Yrs. Old. My experience with the mushroom was beyond words. Pure ecstasy.!! And also in that little village my spirituality was born.!! Judeo/Christian concept.

  13. miguel angel santos playas on

    esta bien padre huautla y santiago mirador mazatlan villa de flores

  14. Bruce Rosenblatt on

    Yes, I along with 5 buddies from the University of the Americas, in 1970 spent 1 week sleeping on grass mats in a grass hut, having “hongos” delivered to us each morning wrapped up in a bed of leaves with the “hongos” still having their roots and soil attached. you consumed the whole thing.I experienced , for the 1st time in my life telepathy and “God,” or my higher self.Those experiences set me off on my life’s spiritual path.I thank God and the beautiful indians from Huaultla for that.

  15. Peter Schildhause on

    Went there several times in the 60’s. First visit, there were two other outsiders in town. Second visit about one hundred hippies. My last visit was after the army kicked them all out. There were about 6 outsiders. Upon arrival, I was instructed to visit the mayor ( La Presidencia) and I explained that I was there to visit old friends and convinced him to let me stay ( along with a couple that arrived at the same time I had arrived). None of us had obvious ” hippy trappings”, so we stayed for a week. The head of the Federales developed a crush on one of the outsider women and as such we were given free latitude to stay even though the Mayor had given us only a few days. Back then, I would walk for days into the more primitive back country between Huautla and Presa Miguel Aleman ( a lake on the eastern end of the Sierra Mazateca. I really need to get back there. Donovan, in his song “Sunshine Superman” sings “I’m just mad about Fortin (pronounced “fourteen”) Fortin is the eastern Barrio of Huautla which was Maria Sabina’s old neighborhood.

  16. Poncho G Fernández on

    HI HELLO . MY NAME IS PONCHO G. FERNÁNDEZ THE FIRST TIME I WAS IN HUAUTLA OAX. WAS IN 1975 , HUAUTLA IS A BEAUTIFUL TOWN LOCATED IN THE ESTATE OF OAXACA IN THE SIERRA MADRE ORIENTAL. THE ROAD FROM TEOTITLAN DEL CAMINO TO HUAUTLA WASEN’T PAVED , IT WAS A DIRT ROAD , AND IN THE RAINY SEASON (FROM MAY TO SEPTEMBER) THE ROAD WAS NOT EASY TO DRIVE , BUT MY FRIEND CARLOS AND I DROVE IN AN VW BUS 1980 ,ALL THE WAY UP TO THE MOUNTAIN TO HUAUTLA. THE FIRST TIME I EAT MOSHROMS WAS BACK IN 1973 , WHEN I WAS IN HI SCHOOL (preparatoria) .
    THIS WAS IN JALAPA VER. IN THE OUTSKIRTS , THERE WAS A LOT OF (POTREROS) COW RANCHOS where THE hongos grow.
    IN HUAUTLA DE JIMÉNEZ OAX. I HAD THE OPORTUNITY TO MEET MARÍA SABINA (la hechicera de los honguitos) SHE DIDEN’T SPAIN THAT VISIT SOME BODY OFFER ME AND MY FRIEND CARLOS A CEREMONY WITH MARÍA SABINA , BUT , BY THAT TIME I WAS AFRAID TO EAT THE HONGOS AND HAD PARTICIPATE IN THE CEREMONY AT NIGTH , BECAUSE DE CEREMONY WAS AT NIGTH TIME. I WANT TO TELL YOU THAT EAT MAGIC MUSHROOMS (DERRUMBES) IS A GRAT EXPERIENCE !!!! IS A SELF PSICOANALISYS EXPERIENCE !!!!!
    I RECOMEND IT VERY MUCH. TO HAD A GOOD TRIP , EATING MUSHROOMS …. IN MY PERSONAL OPINION YOU HAD TO BE IN PERFECT HARMONY WITH YOUR-SELF , NOT HAVING ANY CONFLICT OF ANY MATTER, INTERNAL OR EXTERNAL.
    ANOTHER RECOMENDATION IS : YOU HAVE TO BE VERY RELAX. I SUGEST TO BE IN HUAUTLA OR THE PLACE YOU ARÉ GOING TO EAT THEM ….TO PREPARE YOUR SELF FOR AT LIST 12 TO 24 HRS BEFOR EATING THE PSILOSYBINE HONGOS, IN ORDER TO PUT YOUR BODY AND YOUR MIND EQUALIZING TO THE ALTITUD OF THE PLACE. IT IS VERY SPECIAL EXPERIENCE .
    MY E-mail IS agilfly@gmail.com IF YOU WANT MORE INFO ABOUT IT
    Bye Bye take care…..

  17. radbola on

    No matter what anyone ever says, all outsiders rave about “beautiful” and “spiritual” as if they are shut out from truth by more than their own folly and imagination. Now the medicine is supposed to cure a sickness it cannot. The result is that they become even more mad and rave as if their personal justification, “blessing” and approval meant or changed anything. You’re not allowed to say “it made moderns even worse.” Because it detracts from the “great wisdom and beauty” – opium. Gringos in their madness and pain make everything an opium, everything remade to fit monstrous brute forms. These two worlds will never know each other and shouldn’t, even tho pop tourism has indeed conquered mexico.

  18. Anne Kivari on

    In 2008 my friend Carlos from Mexico City took me on a long bus journey to Huautla and we partook in a Velada with the Derrumbes (Hongos). Carlos is a practicing shaman and led the ceremony after fasting, constructing a small altar, offerings and prayer. We had visited several families in order to obtain the Hongos and after negotiations with several different abuelas Carlos chose the Hongos that we would use. The night we had the ceremony was magical, potent, and life altering. Shakespeare was correct when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
    We also met Maria Sabina’s grandson and he gave us a tour of her small home.


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