Ayahuasca or San Pedro: which works better?

Jerry Toth
Jul 23 · 12 min read
Wild-harvested San Pedro cactus at an undisclosed location in Ecuador, shortly before boiling.

Ayahuasca and San Pedro are both extremely powerful tools with the potential to trigger a positive transformation the likes of which is difficult to achieve through other means. But they both work quite differently. The answer to the question posed in the title is this: it depends on the person.

I have come to appreciate the similarities and differences of both of these teachers. To some degree, I credit each with saving my life, and the gratitude I feel for them is roughly equal. Therefore, this is meant to be an unbiased look at how Ayahuasca and San Pedro each work. My hope is that this article will be of assistance to someone who is exploring the possibility of experiencing one or the other.

First, a few disclaimers. The exact nature of the psychedelic experience cannot be accurately translated into words. We are all forced to use metaphors when attempting to describe an experience to someone who is outside of our own head. All I can do is try to make my metaphors as useful as possible.

Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) vines ready for maceration.

The second disclaimer is subjectivity. I will be drawing distinctions between the type and quality of experiences that Ayahuasca and San Pedro create when consumed by people. Undoubtedly, these distinctions are colored by my own personal experiences and are therefore subjective. Ultimately you can’t take anyone else’s word for how you will experience anything in this life, whether it’s Ayahuasca or a work of art or the taste of asparagus.

Lastly, as is the case with all psychedelic tools, “set and setting” strongly influence the Ayahuasca and San Pedro experiences. I would also like to add a third and fourth variable into this equation, which is the quality and dosage of the medicine itself.

In this sense, San Pedro is inherently more predictable than Ayahuasca because it only involves one plant. The typical Ayahuasca brew involves at least two psychoactive plants, if not three or four — each of which exert a different range of effects. San Pedro is harder to screw up and requires less experience to make. Ayahuasca, on the other hand, should only be prepared by someone who is properly trained.

In any event, there is some variability between the quality and potency of both of these plant medicines. There is also great variability in the quality and nature of the person(s) who are guiding the experience and/or accompanying you, unless you are alone.


The San Pedro Experience

For a more detailed guide to preparing and consuming San Pedro, I recommend reading my article “DIY Mescaline: How to explore San Pedro without a guide.” It’s a tutorial on how to harvest, process, and consume San Pedro cactus by yourself, which is my preferred way of doing it. I live in Ecuador, which allows me to wild-harvest the cactus in its native environment, but garden varieties of San Pedro — which can be found in plant nurseries across the world — also work just as well.

Long story short, San Pedro is a cactus that bears mescaline in its green flesh. You add water to a pot that contains slices of the flesh and boil it for a long time, to extract the mescaline. Then you drink the reduction. It’s as easy as making stew — anyone can do it.

(San Pedro is the colonial name for this sacred plant. In Quechua, it’s called Huachuma, or else Wachuma. I use the term San Pedro here because it’s the more commonly-used name, internationally.)

In terms of setting, my personal experiences with San Pedro, which go back about seventeen years, have never involved a guide or a group. I’ve always been by myself or with one other person. In each case I/we harvested and prepared our own brew, I/we drank the brew early in the morning, and always in a beautiful patch of the natural world without the intrusion of civilization. This is different from the guided group-style ceremonies that sometimes (gasp) take place in a city.

A jar of San Pedro consumed at about 8:30am, far from the madding crowd.

If set and setting are good, and the quality and dosage of the medicine are suitable, the San Pedro experience is usually gentle, positive, loving, and profoundly transformative. Purging can happen, but it’s far less common than it is with Ayahuasca. Usually some level of nausea will come into play, but in most cases it’s not intense and it’s short-lived. It often takes at least an hour and a half for the journey to begin, sometimes as much as two hours. The waiting period is usually a mixture of mild physical discomfort, akin to butterflies in your stomach that extend throughout your body, combined with a touch of pre-journey jitters. In this respect, it’s similar to the onset of a psilocybin mushroom experience. But ultimately the San Pedro experience is capable of achieving greater depth, in my opinion.

Once the medicine comes on, mild visual distortions begin, combined with revelations. Everything you look at appears benevolent and meaningful. The fact that you are alive and conscious suddenly feels like an immense privilege, and there is a giddy joy derived merely from the act of existing. A child-like awe at the surrounding world takes hold, along with a more cosmic sense of awe that this thing called you is an inextricable part of it all. There is the recognition, which feels extremely comforting, that not a single element is misplaced in the entire universe. Your body is pulled lovingly toward the earth and your eyes are attracted to the sky. And all the while, the surface of everything you see shimmers and breathes. Want to go on a real trip? Look at yourself closely in a mirror. You can see beneath your ego. The doors to your heart are flung wide open.

After four or five hours at the heights of awe and wonder, the journey transitions into a phase of constructive thought and creativity. Dots are connected and perceptions turn into lessons that are deeply learned and never forgotten. Finally, the experience settles down into a peacefully reflective phase. The understandings you’ve acquired over the course of the day can now be used to make key decisions about priorities in life, where to direct your energy, and how to love. From the first drink of the brew until its conclusion, expect the whole experience to last about 14–16 hours.

The Jama-Coaque Reserve in Ecuador. This 1,700-acre rainforest preserve would not exist today if it weren’t for a single cutting of San Pedro cactus prepared and consumed by two people in 2007.

Contrary to Ayahuasca, San Pedro is not something that needs to be done more than once. I generally space out my San Pedro experiences at intervals of several years, but even this may not be necessary. I feel like 90% of the wisdom I’ve acquired from San Pedro was imparted during my very first experience with it, back in 2002. My second experience, several years later, inspired the creation of a 1,700-acre rainforest preserve. My third experience helped me heal from a trauma that I did not believe I would recover from. My fourth and fifth experiences helped me re-open my heart, although the law of diminishing returns does seem to be at play.

I do not plan on taking San Pedro again for a while, and may never take it again. As I said, I feel like the lessons have already been learned. But the act of living those lessons, and continuing to grow from them and alongside them, is a daily process that will last the rest of this life.

Nabilia Ganem in “Kissing Gaia,” filmed in Ecuador under the influence of San Pedro

Special Note: We just finished making a short film about harvesting, preparing, and consuming wild San Pedro cactus in Ecuador, shot on location under the influence of the plant itself. It’s called Kissing Gaia, and should be ready for viewing before the end of 2019. If you’re interested in seeing the final cut, please send me your email address at jerrytoth@hotmail.com and write “SAN PEDRO” in the subject line.


The Ayahuasca Experience

In its most fundamental sense, the plant medicine known as “Ayahuasca” is a combination of two plants: the leaves of a DMT-bearing plant (usually Psychotria viridis, Mimosa hostilis, and/or Diplopterys cabrerana) and the Ayahuasca vine (usually Banisteriopsis caapi), which contains the MAO inhibitor required to activate the DMT. Both plants are native to the Amazonian lowlands, less than a hundred kilometers downhill from San Pedro’s native range.

As with San Pedro, not all Ayahuasca brews are created equal. There are actually three different species of Ayahuasca vine, each of which generate a noticeably different psychedelic experience, not to mention the variations generated by the different DMT-bearing companion plants. Some medicine men/women also add other psychotropic plants into the brew, depending on which ailments they aim to treat. An Ayahuasca brew aimed at treating a stomach parasite may not trigger any visions. Likewise, a brew aimed at triggering spectacular visions may not trigger a lasting, seismic shift in perspective. But the medicine itself is only part of the equation. The biggest part of the equation is you.

The raw materials. Photo courtesy of Aya Advisors.

Contrary to my experiences with San Pedro, I’ve only consumed Ayahuasca in an orthodox ceremonial setting with a guide and a group of people, and always at nighttime. I would not recommend consuming a full dose of Ayahuasca alone. That is perhaps the first major difference between the San Pedro and Ayahuasca experiences. Due to its relatively gentle and primarily positive nature, San Pedro is well-suited to a solo trip in a beautiful land, for those who are so inclined. Not so with Ayahuasca.

Although Ayahuasca can be gentle, it can also be very challenging, even scary — although never needlessly so. The power and magic of Ayahuasca is that it always gives you exactly what you need. Not necessarily what you ask for, but what you need. In our normal everyday lives, most of our mental activity is dictated by our ego, which is merely the figure head of our being. Ayahuasca bypasses the ego and directly engages that which underlies our being — call it by whichever name you wish.

The apparent downside of this feature is that you can’t overtly control the outcome of your Ayahuasca experience. But by you, I really mean your ego, which is not actually you — it’s just a thin projection of you. The upside is that you will most likely receive both a diagnosis and treatment for whatever it is that most fundamentally ails your deepest self. This includes psychological, emotional, spiritual, and/or physiological ailments.

Ayahuasca is, above all, a doctor for your soul. Sometimes a trip to the doctor’s clinic involves pain, but in this case, you’ll almost always leave the place feeling healthier, stronger, more capable. Furthermore, you don’t have to deal with those white walls and the smell of sterile rubber gloves. Hopefully you’re surrounded by a forest.

Chakruna (Psychotria viridis): Just one of several DMT-bearing companion plants that can be combined with Banisteriopsis caapi to create the tea known as Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca’s greatest gift, to those who take it, is the opportunity to face your fears, past trauma, or whatever it is that is limiting your growth. Oftentimes the offending thing, which is usually conceptual in nature, manifests in the imaginary form of something visible or seemingly physical. This presents you with a unique opportunity to directly engage it. And you’re able to do so with the full arsenal of tools that Ayahuasca entrusts to you.

In our everyday lives, the entrenched problems within our psyche are amorphous and invisible. Hidden in our subconscious, they’re like snipers who take shots at us from behind a mountain. Under normal circumstances we have no idea where the shots are coming from, we just sit there and helplessly absorb the blows…for years if not decades.

The playing field changes under the influence of Ayahuasca. It shines a bright light on whatever is undermining us, renders its weaponry useless, and invites us to deactivate it from our lives. It’s like Dorothy pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz, and realizing that he’s just a short old man standing a stool, talking into a loud speaker.

The lessons are not always hard. Sometimes they are infinitely soft and lovely. Under the influence of Ayahuasca I have been kissed by the woman who I love more than anyone else and who is no longer alive. I was lying down and a warm, glowing sensation lowered onto me and what I received was a kiss. Was it really her, or was it merely a figment of my DMT-altered mind? It was both, and that’s another thing I learned, which is beyond the scope of this article. But during that particular ceremony, which was my first of many, that’s all that really happened. There were no visions or purging. I felt her love, I basked in it for hours, in utter darkness, surrounded by a forest and accompanied by the melodious chanting of a lovely, grandmotherly woman whose love I also felt.

Sometimes beauty and suffering are simultaneously present. This calls to mind a ceremony that followed shortly after the first one. At the peak of it, I was a disembodied cloud of consciousness enveloped by spectacularly colored currents of electricity, and I felt myself on the cusp of being annihilated by it. This ultimately proved to be a life-altering lesson in the management of Fear. I realized that I was actually creating the fear myself. I was experiencing something that I labeled as fearful, and this triggered the Fear response, which was further exacerbated by my resistance to it. So I consciously shed both the label and the resistance, and merely experienced it, and very quickly the fear subsided. I was again a person with a body, lying on a mattress on a floor in the middle of the forest, covered in sweat and feeling ecstatic. In the years since then, whenever I experience Fear I always go back to that lesson and apply it, and it works.

The important documentary “From Shock to Awe” follows military veterans using Ayahuasca and other psychedelic tools to overcome PTSD.

I know people who have successfully used Ayahuasca to help heal from addiction, abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, intractable depression, fear of death, even physical disease. So much of suffering is connected to perspective and one’s personal narrative. Ayahuasca has the uncanny ability to loosen deeply-entrenched assumptions, shift the angle of perspective, and shine a spotlight on the counterproductive narratives we tell ourselves. It seems simple, but it’s extremely effective, and something that’s difficult to do in normal circumstances. Years of psychotherapy can fail to achieve what Ayahuasca is capable of triggering in a single night.

Here’s why: once a counterproductive narrative has been exposed for what it is — i.e., a construct of our mind — it’s much harder to take it seriously. At the very least, it opens the door for a new, more constructive narrative. The next step is to work on experiencing each given moment without any preconceived narrative — to simply experience without the mental commentary. I’m certainly not at that point yet. The best that can be said, in my case, is that I’m aware of it as a possibility and I’m clumsily moving towards it. Which is something!

Physically, Ayahuasca is usually harsher than San Pedro. The nausea is stronger, lasts longer, and is more likely to trigger vomit or diarrhea. But again, if your body purges, it’s probably for a good reason. You’re getting something out that needed to be expelled. And you usually feel great afterwards — you feel clean, light.

The psychedelic portion of the whole experience lasts about eight hours, but the lessons can last a lifetime. Weeks and months and even years later, the medicine is still quietly working inside you, in service of healing and growth. Ultimately, it is not merely a chemical compound — DMT — that performs this action. It is your own psyche, activated by a chemical, that does the work.

Conclusions

Ayahuasca and San Pedro work in different ways. In both cases, their transformative power can last a lifetime. They’re not for everyone, especially people who are predisposed to psychosis. But for many people, they represent a tool that, if used properly, can achieve extraordinary results.

Some people may be better suited to one rather than the other. Many people will benefit from experiencing both. And some people are better off not consuming either. Psychedelic plant medicines represent only one of many different ways to heal and strengthen elements of the mind-body and develop one’s Self. If and when they are used, they are best employed in conjunction with other tools and approaches. Growth is a lifelong journey, at the very least. And it may keep going after that.

Jerry Toth

Written by

Cacao farmer, rainforest conservationist, obscure filmmaker, and metaphysical explorer based in Ecuador.

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