Some viewers of the movie Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus may notice a suspiciously authentic-looking glint in actress Gaby Hoffmann’s eye during certain key scenes. This is no accident: while those scenes were being shot, Hoffmann, who portrayed the film’s namesake, was actually under the influence of tea made from the “magical cactus” to which the title refers: huachuma (Trichocereus pachanoi).
While the stereotypically spacey character of Crystal Fairy is no poster child for the huachuma community at large, the benefits that she reaps from this medicine in the film — improved communication and closeness with one’s peers, greater compassion for oneself and others, and the courage to address unresolved issues that are having a negative impact on one’s life — are commonly reported by real-life huachuma users.
Better known as San Pedro cactus, huachuma is native to the Andes Mountains and can be found in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Here in the United States, it is legal to cultivate the cactus for gardening and ornamental purposes, but the ingestion of the brew is prohibited.
The main active ingredient in huachuma is mescaline, the alkaloid also largely responsible for peyote’s psychoactive effects. However, since there are significant differences between the other psychoactive compounds found in huachuma and peyote, each of these two plants has its own distinct character. Huachuma is often described as the gentler of the two, yet its effects last slightly longer than those of peyote: about 12 to 14 hours, as opposed to peyote’s approximate 10 to 12 hours.
According to archaeological records, the ritual use of huachuma goes back at least 3,500 years. The earliest evidence of the ceremonial use of this medicine is a stone carving of a huachumero (male huachuma shaman) in Northern Peru’s Temple of Chavín de Huántar, a remnant of an ancient Andean civilization called Chavín.