Peyote tourism in Mexico
The consumption of a powerfully-hallucinogenic cactus believed to bring spiritual healing is fast pulling in a following in Mexico where thousands of tourists take part in shamanic rituals every year.
But backpackers looking to 'find themselves' on their travels are being warned of the dangers of taking peyote - which can cause those who consume to go insane.
MailOnline was told of instances where foreigners wanting to be enlightened were taken to hospital, or had to be restrained - with one man allegedly trying to bite off his own arm.
And when MailOnline witnessed a ritual in a Mexican town which has seen the number of 'peyote tourists' double in less than five years, one woman disappeared into the darkness only to be found hugging a tree - then screaming hysterically when she was convinced she had gone blind.
The plant is used by religions such as the Native American Church and Mexican indigenous 'Huicholes' to induce trance-like states, during which they claim participants are enabled to 'see the Gods'. It is believed that Native American tribes have been consuming peyote for more than five thousand years.
Indigenous Huichol shaman Clautini Morales, who goes by the name 'Paritzka' when conducting his ceremonies, says that the plant is often abused by those who come to Mexico seeking to use it as a recreational drug.
'The peyote is a sacred plant', said Morales, who offers ceremonies to tourists. 'It works in your soul, but if you haven't properly prepared to take the drug then it can make you go insane.
'I have seen people go crazy during my rituals - it can make people try to get completely naked, or even try to kill other people'.
'There was one American tourist at one of my ceremonies that had to be locked into a closet for his own safety', he said. 'He became convinced he had the ability to fly and we had to keep him away from the building's windows'.
The effects of peyote, which include colourful hallucinations, last for about ten hours. The plant contains around 0.5% mescaline when freshly picked, and from four to five percent when dried.
It is the psychoactive properties of this compound which result in hallucinations, greater sensory perception and a metaphysical awareness in those who eat it.
Dr Sven Doehner, a Mexico City-based psychoanalyst and contributing author to Stone Age Wisdom-The Healing Principles of Shamanism, warns against peyote abuse, saying that the chemicals which are found in the plant can be dangerous for those who use the drug without supervision.
'Peyote is a very powerful substance which must be used in the correct way', he told the MailOnline in a telephone interview. 'If taken as a recreational drug without prior knowledge of its effects, it can result in disastrous consequences'.
Morales added: 'The medicine (as all who offer peyote refer to the drug) is a good person, and we think of him as a teacher. But if you don't respect him then he will punish you'.
He spoke to MailOnline following a ceremony conducted at the 'Roots of the Earth' spiritual festival close to Guadalajara.
The event, which celebrates hippy culture and spiritualism and now in its 25th year, is attended by over two thousand people from across the world, many of whom come for the peyote experience.
'There are many tourists here from abroad who take the peyote and think of it as a recreational drug', he said. 'Those are the people who can be driven mad by the peyote. I have seen people become very violent and terrified by the visions they witness when the peyote is working in them'.
'You have to respect the peyote, or it will punish you', he says.
In the Mexican town of Real de Catorce, a former silver mining hub situated beside a desert where the plant grows, the residents live almost entirely from the profits of 'peyote tourism'.
The town which occupies the Sierra de Catorce mountain range in Mexico's central San Luis Potosí state, was once a mining hub, extracting one of the North American continent's largest silver deposits.
The mining exhausted the deposits fifty years ago, leaving the town's residents to search for other means of survival.
The town is now recognised as Mexico's premier destination for peyote use and receives more than five thousand visitors annually, all of whom arrive in search of the mystical plant.
'The amount of visitors we receive in Real has doubled in less than five years', said Maria Dominguez, the owner of Cafe Azul on the town's main high street. 'They all come for the peyote, it's no secret'.
Arriving in the town, tourists are immediately approached by the peyote tour guides who conspiratorially offer the 'medicine' to the backpackers and young adults who they say are their main client base.
Travel guidebook publisher Rough Guides has published articles on the peyote experience, although has yet to put anything more specific about peyote tourism in a dedicated guidebook.
Carlos Almaguer, who organises for tourists to stay in his desert cabin below Real de Catorce while they take the drug, charges tourists £10 to take them into the desert where they pick and eat the peyote, and then undergo a shamanic ritual overnight.
'The town receives many visitors from Europe, in particular from Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom', he said. 'The British often have bad experiences with the drug since they always want to drink tequila while they are tripping'.
MailOnline attended one of the intense rituals that Carlos offers to visitors, and witnessed the effects of peyote ingestion, as Mexicans and tourists alike began to hallucinate.
Irene Huang, a tourist from Taiwan, spoke of bright colours, a greater awareness of sounds in the atmosphere and terror at the sight of ripples running along a solid brick wall.
'I was horrified when I started to see things moving that shouldn't have been', she said on the morning after she witnessed a shamanic ritual - during which the witch doctor summoned ancient Aztec gods through chanting, consuming large amounts of peyote and making offerings of tobacco, corn and animal bones to the fire.
'But then I realised I couldn't fight against its effect, so I let myself be taken away by the trip', she said. 'In the end it was an eye-opening experience'.
Another participant in the ceremony, 22-year-old Diana Prabhu, from Oaxaca, southern Mexico, disappeared from the fireplace shortly after swallowing a large amount of peyote.
She was later found a hundred yards from the desert cabin, where she was alternately seen screaming at the stars, embracing a large tree and crying hysterically.
Later on she found a cactus, from which she began to extract sharp spines and push them into her arm, whilst claiming that 'acupuncture was good for the soul'.
When others involved in the ceremony attempted to stop her from hurting herself in this manner, she screamed at them to be 'left in peace'.
'I remember trembling all over and my vision blurring to the point at which I was terrified that I would go blind or never feel normal again', she explained in the morning after her awful experience.
She added: 'That's something I never want to live through ever again'.
Pierre Vignon, a Frenchman who left a career in the French special forces in order to pursue a life of shamanism, also offers peyote experience packages to European visitors.
The Frenchman is also an expert in South American shamanism, and spent six years in the jungles of Brazil and Peru using Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic concoction used by indigenous tribes which is also becoming a major tourist draw to the region.
He claims that respect for the peyote plant and humility in the adherent's soul are the most important factors for an enlightening trip.
'People come here to look for spiritual healing', he told the MailOnline. 'The medicine can kill the bad things in your past and help you to be born again'.
'If you have psychiatric problems like schizophrenia or paranoia, then the medicine will only make it worse.'
Pierre offers his clients 'spiritual healing' in his retreat below Real de Catorce. The former military man, who admits to being an alcoholic before he found healing in alternative medicines, supervises his visitors as they subject themselves to four days of fasting in the desert, intense sessions in steam chambers and solitary confinement in pitch-dark rooms, all under the influence of peyote.
'People bring other substances like alcohol and marijuana to the experience', he said, 'and that can cause major problems'.
'One Frenchman had to be taken to hospital in Monterrey during his stay', he added. 'He had been using peyote in an attempt to cure his alcoholism when we found he had been attempting to eat his arm while locked in the solitary confinement chamber'.
With tourist dollars flowing in to this small town, it is unsurprising that the authorities are both turning a blind eye to the use of peyote among tourists.
'It's illegal to eat the plant unless you are a member of a native indigenous tribe', said tour organiser Carlos. However, locals have suggested that the authorities allow it in exchange for bribes.
The Huichol shaman conducts his ceremonies around a fire, which he calls the 'Grandfather' and believes to be a god.
Tim Smyth, an Irish writer who lives in Mexico City, came into contact with the peyote shamans of the Native American Church, a religious organisation with branches throughout the North American continent which bases its ethos around the experience of eating the hallucinogenic cactus.
'I witnessed a cult-like christening which used a lot of peyote', he said. 'The shaman blessed the baby and then put it to one side to sleep'.
'Then we all ate a lot of peyote and began to trip. It was when the priest was in the middle of one of his more powerful hallucinations that he invented a name for the child and christened it'.
The peyote cactus grows in arid climates, its seeds needing hot conditions in order to germinate. Soft and fleshy, tourists harvest it using credit cards, which cut easily through its pulpy form before eating it on the spot.
The plant is extremely bitter and as a result, very difficult to eat. 'It's disgusting', said Sergio Guerra, a tourist from Monterrey who had paid Carlos to be taken into the desert in order to hallucinate.
Many tourists have been punished for taking the harvested plant away from the desert, rather than eating it on the spot as their guides instruct them to do. Many who are caught are forced into bribing the military who patrol the area for amounts over £200, it is claimed.