To have a successful business with gringos in Mexico, you just need a website. Why? Because no one else has one. It’s one of those countries like Japan where you really have to get there and just ask the locals if you want any sort of legitimate experience. In Mexico, if something has a website, there’s a good chance they’re catering to gringos i.e. overcharging you for something that isn’t necessarily the best. Not always, but…usually. The sign of a truly Mexican business is that they want you to make your reservations through WhatsApp and transfer them money at the local Oxxo corner store, not with your credit card. It’s impossible to know that before getting there; I guess that’s why I’m writing this blog.
I could tell you that I went to San José because of the majestic views over the rolling mountains and its convenient location halfway between between Oaxaca City and the beach, but I’d be lying: we went because it’s the only town in North America where magic mushrooms are legal. Well, they’re illegal but it’s unenforced because it’s part of the region’s indigenous culture. Close enough.
We left from Oaxaca City one late afternoon. To get to San José from Oaxaca City, you can take a van from the Lineas Unidas van terminal (Bustamante Nº 601, Esquina Xochitl) for 95 pesos. They piled the roof of the van with suitcases and strapped them down with ropes. The trip is supposed to take a little less than three hours but, you know, Mexican hours.
This is partly a post about San José and partly a hate-review of Cabañas La Puesta del Sol. Cabañas La Puesta del Sol really take advantage of being the only cabañas of their kind to offer you a special kind of abysmal customer service. They’re the only cabañas in town with a website and a semblance of seclusion, and because the whole town is such a mystery, I was worried about getting there and having nowhere else to stay. All I could find online were blog posts about a famous hostel there, Hostel Catalina, one with no phones or internet that serves as a communal space for hippies. You just show up and they make space for you for about 50 pesos. I found videos online of people in a room full of beds chopping vegetables and singing together. The threat of having to stay at the hostel made me decide to reserve the only other option I could find online, La Puesto del Sol, even though it cost twelve times the price at 600 pesos a night. When we were in Oaxaca City, I made a reservation by email for a small cabin and they confirmed. I noticed that check-in for the cabañas was “before 5” in the email signature, so when we realized from the van that we’d arrive late, we called to tell them that we were still coming.
“Sorry, the system erases all our reservations at 5,” the receptionist explained.
“Can you make a new reservation for us then?” El Chango asked.
“It would just be erased at 5,” the receptionist says.
“Um.. Can we call back at 5 and make a new reservation?”
“No. We don’t take reservations after 5.” El Chango rolled his eyes.
“Can we just show up and take the cabaña if it’s still available when we get there?”
“You can try, but we won’t hold it for you.”
“Are there other cabañas in town?”
“Not like ours.”
“We’re literally on the bus and are going straight to the cabañas. We have nowhere else we could go.”
“Nothing I can do.”
This was bullshit, since the first time I reserved with them they had responded right away to confirm, at 11:45 p.m. which is definitely after 5. We considered calling back to make a new reservation with a different accent.
“What is this ‘system’?” I asked. “Animals with typewriters?”
El Chango looking out the window over the vast forested valleys and mountains on either side of the highway. “This place looks like Jurassic Park. Maybe dinosaurs. A velociraptor with a headset.”
“Maybe they change shifts at 5 and then a T-Rex comes on duty and its tiny arms don’t reach the keyboard.” I thought I was hilarious at the time, so at least I knew my joint/Dramamine car sickness cocktail was working.
When our bus finally pulled in to San Jose at 7, we hopped into a moto-taxi, to El Chango’s delight, and arrived at the cabañas. The humourless woman from the phone who we’ll call T-Rex reluctantly let us have the cabaña. Another gringo next to us told them he had a reservation and she handed him the keys to his cabin. The gringo had been in our van and hadn’t called to say he’d be late. Why did the system keep his reservation? Do they only erase your reservation if you ask about it? I was also annoyed to see another foreigner, from that dumb weird territorial instinct to be the THE foreigner in the obscure place you’re travelling so that other foreigners don’t take away from the Mexican experience or some bullshit. I sometimes hope on a subconscious level that as long as I stay away from mirrors, I’ll never see a white person. I remember seeing that a lot when travelling Japan: every small town has the live-in gaijin, some relic of the JET Programme who married a Japanese woman and never left, sneering at you from his vaguely modified Mazda Miata and asking if you’re lost even though you’re not, offering you directions you don’t need to affirm his superior knowledge of his corner of the country. I have to be careful not to become an equivalent kind of asshole.
An attendant helped us down the steep path to our cabañas, motion activated floodlights periodically blinding us as we stepped into the steep blackness.
The cabaña was pretty rustic and smelled of smoke. We noticed there was no kitchen, which was awkward given the huge bag of groceries we had brought, all things that needed to be cooked and refrigerated. Last time we stayed in a cabaña, it was in Mazamitla, Jalisco last summer, and our luxury narco cabin had probably raised our expectations too high (I’ll do a post about it later). El Chango went to talk to the receptionist who unsurprisingly said we couldn’t use their kitchen.
“What about hot water to make tea?”
“We sell camomile tea.”
“We brought our own tea,” he said, an insistent Tetley convert thanks to me.
“We sell tea.”
“We want a different tea.”
“Nothing we can do.”
“We can’t have hot water?”
“We can sell you a cup of hot water for the price of tea.”
On principle he refused. I would expect to see this pointless determination to stick to the rules in places like Japan, or in Canada if you get someone taking their job too seriously, but it felt like an intentional dick move for the usually easygoing Mexico.
That said, the view from the cabañas was awesome, you can DRINK THE TAP WATER because it comes from a natural spring, which is pretty fucking novel, and the showers are hot (not hot enough for tea, sadly) and have great water pressure, which is also pretty amazing (after you’ve spent enough time in Mexico and are accustomed to never really getting the conditioner out of your hair).
We decided to walk back down the highway to the pueblo in search of food. The street is a winding mountain highway with no streetlights, on the edge of a cliff with no barrier, which is a dangerous kind of fun at night when you have to jump out of the way of speeding busses belching massive clouds of exhaust, while remaining mindful to not jump too far, into the void. Every once in a while, we’d hear something large moving in the trees. Dogs? Coyotes?
We made it to town and found a cafe that sells baguette sandwiches. They advertised wifi in the window but you have to pay for it separately, which we soon found out is the norm for all of San José. When you have nowhere else to go, everything has a high cost, like in airports. The woman at the counter seem annoyed that we were ordering food although she didn’t appear to have anything else going on. When they brought our baguettes to our table, the server dumped a portion of my fries onto the table, stared at them a moment, smiled, and then walked away. I was a mess from the Dramamine, and wondered if maybe I looked like “another annoying tourist on mushrooms”.
“What did I do?” I slurred to El Chango.
“I think working in customer service just sucks.” So far everyone we’d met in San José was kind of an asshole.
In the morning we woke up to a foreign variety of bird sounds: tweeting, singing, a ridiculous distant turkey, and the tree in front of our porch was droning with humming birds. It was a welcome break from the urban noise of air brakes, people yelling out of trucks, and the trucks’ jingles loudly advertising water and gas. El Chango said after I passed out from my Dramamine, he was outside smoking on the porch and could have enjoyed the lone silence much longer had something dark and huge with a wingspan as long as his body not swooped by his head.
A lot of the flowers here are the same as the west coast of Canada, yet were new and exotic to El Chango who is something of an amateur botanist and can usually name every species of Mexican flower and its ideal growing conditions and medicinal uses. We walked up the paths to the main building, where there seemed to be iguanas sunning themselves on every single rock of the garden. La Puesto del Sol does offer free breakfast, a toast-and-cereal kind of thing (I feel like they should do better if they aren’t going to let you cook but maybe I was still grumpy from being on the road for so long), and their precious hot water is free until 12, so I squirrelled away a thermos of it. The wifi they advertised on their website naturally wasn’t free, so I bought 24 hours worth and worked on our patio while El Chango napped. The cleaning lady was nice, so not everyone at the cabañas is a jerk, for the record.
So yeah, San Jose is considered the Mexican capital of magic mushrooms. They were always a part of the culture of the Mazatec people of Oaxaca, more of a therapeutic and spiritual experience than anything else, and were then Columbused by an Austrian and an American in the 30s, consequently becoming famous as a recreational drug, and then made illegal pretty much everywhere. White people ruining stuff as usual.
San José is also associated with curandera, shaman, and pop culture icon Maria Sabina, not because she’s from there (she’s from another pueblo in Oaxaca), but because she is sort of the poster lady for mushroom rituals and San José is the poster town. Her photo is all over the pueblo. Apparently the Beatles went to San José to get high too. I hope they didn’t have to stay in Cabañas La Puesta del Sol.
San Jose has really capitalized on the psychedelic aesthetic.
So obviously I wasn’t going to not do mushrooms given this important cultural opportunity. We went on a hunt to find them. We walked into the pueblo and El Chango asked a woman who was unloading a washing machine on the side of the highway if she knew where we could find hongos.
“It isn’t mushroom season,” she explained, “they grow in the rainy season in June and July.”
El Chango nodded like he knew this. I, knowing nothing about plants, did not know this.
“But you can buy them preserved,” she said, pointing down an alley, “that way.”
We thanked her and walked down the alley until we got to a sort of motel filled with French hippies. We asked a local woman working there about mushrooms. She called to another girl who took us into the office on the ground floor. There on a wall shelf stood a small supply of mushrooms in various reused instant coffee and spaghetti sauce containers. They were preserved in honey, the liquid stained inky blue from the psilocybin.
“Four hundred pesos,” she said.
“And… How are they?” El Chango asked.
She shrugged. “I’ve never taken them. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. A lot of people come here asking for their money back when they don’t. There are no guarantees.”
We nodded. It struck me that maybe people in the service industry were so annoyed because the whole town’s economy is begrudgingly based on tourists coming to do drugs that aren’t even part of the contemporary local culture. Fair enough.
“Ok, we’ll definitely be back later,” El Chango said, which he says to every merchant we have no intention of seeing again.
As the sun began to set, we saw one of San José’s coolest features: the creepy fog that silently envelops the town at dusk.
In the evening we wandered into another tourist shop selling crocheted mushrooms and jewellery.
“Hey, do you know where we can get mushrooms?” El Chango asked, which somehow felt embarrassingly direct to me even though this whole mushroom thing was my idea.
“My nephew can hook you up,” the man replied. He gestured to a younger man in a dirty baseball cap next to him who appeared either incredibly drunk or high on something that wasn’t mushrooms. I shot a look at El Chango, but he has a better trouble radar than I do and didn’t seem concerned. We followed the man to some nearby cabins on the highway, where we entered a two-bedroom apartment. The apartment was cramped and messy, with a camp stove as a sort of makeshift kitchen on a shelf. The walls of the bedroom were entirely wallpapered with nineties posters of Michael Jordan. A slight man with a shaved head greeted us, and brought out similar jars to the last place filled with hallucinogenic mushrooms floating in dark honey. It still looked revolting.
“They’re 500 pesos,” he said.
“The last place we went to said 400,” I said.
“Ok, 400 then,” he said, shrugging. He waved us over to his computer, where he sat down in front of the large, late 90s monitor.
“Check it out,” he said, opening a folder of photos. We crowded around with the guy in the baseball cap as the man scrolled through photo after photo of psychedelic mushrooms growing out of tree trunks and old logs, which had taken in the rainy season. There were photos of them freshly picked in his hands. Selfies where he awkwardly fit half of his face into the frame behind the mushroom. He reminded me of people who proudly overshare too many nearly-identical photos of their newborn.
We decided to do the mushrooms in the forest the next day, but within sight of the road, the one road the town has, in case anything went wrong.
El Chango was nervous, having never done them before. I assured him he shouldn’t be, and told him whatever he did, not to think negative thoughts or else he might spiral into hours of seemingly limitless existential despair. I was partly saying it to remind myself and obviously wasn’t helping either of us. We opened the jar and took out a spoon we had stolen from the cabañas breakfast buffet.
El Chango still seemed unsure so I went first. I took a spoonful of mushroom honey. It wasn’t awful like dried magic mushrooms are, but it wasn’t good either. The mushrooms were kind of gritty. Was it dirt? I passed the jar to El Chango. He took a bite.
“It’s not bad,” he said. “It’s like mushroom jam.”
This description made them seem even more disgusting. We took turns eating the honey-drenched clumps of mushrooms until there were none left. We took note of the time.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
We looked around at the forest, the filthy creek, the sign that said not to dump diapers (so specific!), the highway. We exchanged a look of “what if the mushrooms start working in the bathroom?”
“I’ll just hold it.”
We sat there, not sure what to do with ourselves.
“How long has it been?”
I spooned more honey into my mouth. Then it had been thirty minutes. We heard a noise in the trees. Two barefoot Mexican hippies emerged with some bewildered looking white guys in tow. They asked us if we knew the path to some place we’d never heard of. We didn’t. They continued into the forest.
“What a bunch of idiots, walking barefoot in a country with this many deadly insects,” El Chango said, foreshadowing the night we would have.
After close to an hour it became clear that the mushrooms weren’t more than expensive, disconcertingly crunchy mushroom jam. We wandered deeper into the forest until we found a clearing that reminded me of a campsite and sat in the sun, warming up after sitting so long in the shade of the trees. Somehow the hippies passed us again, still looking for whatever it was they were looking for. We nodded to each other. El Chango and I watched a giant grasshopper that had red and yellow colourations more fluorescent than I’d ever seen on a living creature. I always thought Mexican depictions of brightly coloured grasshoppers were caricatures but they actually look like that. It was real, not a sign of the drugs kicking in. I remarked that I could see the details of the grass in sharper focus than usual, but other than that, felt nothing out of the ordinary. El Chango felt the same. Looking at grass isn’t interesting, so we wandered back towards the pueblo. As we turned back onto the highway, an old lady sitting outside of a house/restaurant called us over.
“Come take a break from the heat,” she said, patting the space next to her on the bench. She wore her hair in two long braids with listones, ribbons braided into her hair, and had red chandelier-style earrings. She wore a long brown woven skirt, a type that El Chango later explained to me that many older women make themselves, and had the kind of permanent tan of someone who’s farmed their whole life. She asked us where we were from and we told her, both relieved to not be tripping balls for this conversation with an elderly stranger. I told her about how cold it was in Canada. El Chango reflected on the comparative peace of Oaxaca to Guadalajara, how not feeling like he has to size everyone up and watch his back is an unexpected relief. How you don’t realize how omnipresent the violence is, until it’s not.
He’s told me about how the daily newspapers in Guadalajara, and how they make grotesque and inappropriate jokes on the front page, a photo of a headless corpse with the tagline “Looks like he lost his head over his girlfriend!” That kind of thing.
The woman shook her head when El Chango mentioned the normalized violence, although fortunately he spared her the details of the newspapers. “It’s very peaceful here,” she said. “We don’t even have police here. No need.”
“The police are some of the scariest people in Guadalajara,” El Chango added.
“Did you do the ritual?” she asked us. We sheepishly explained that we had taken magic mushrooms over an hour ago and were just returning from the woods after realizing it wouldn’t work.
She nodded. “It isn’t mushroom season.”
*(Side note: a few weeks later at a temescal ceremony, we met a shaman who laughed at us and told us that honey is actually the antidote to psilocybin).
The woman told us that everything grows in San José, and that the flowered trees along the highway would be covered in peaches later in the year. She considered it a small patch of paradise away from the chaos of the rest of the country. She ran the oldest restaurant in town, and was used to many foreigners coming to try the mushroom ritual, which she respected but had never done herself. She said that most foreigners don’t speak Spanish but that she enjoyed meeting people from all over the world, and was always able to communicate with gestures.
She asked what we do for work. I told her that I’m a translator and El Chango explained that he is a tattoo artist. He showed her the tattoos on his arms, some of which he has done himself.
“How do you do them?” she asked, touching El Chango’s arm tattoos lightly.
“We inject the ink with a needle.”
“And then you can take them off later?”
“No, they’re there forever.”
“They’re very beautiful,” she said, looking at a tattoo of my favourite flower that El Chango tattooed on his arm for me as a surprise. “I like them.”
El Chango looked really pleased. In big cities, older people will glare at him or just demand “What do you want?” when he enters a store (although once in a while they correctly guess that he’s played pro soccer in his life and love him; only extreme reactions happen, apparently), but in small towns, they judge him less for his tattoos, as they don’t carry any stigma of criminality (maybe of soccer more than anything?). There’s no tattooed San José gang living in the forest ruining everyone’s lives.
As the weekend approached, a hoard of white hippies emerged from somewhere (?) to mingle in the street, all seemingly French, their dreadlocked hair adorned with beads and feathers, feet bare and clothing ripped. A tall bonde girl with ribbon wrapped up her legs in lieu of shoes gave me a dirty look as we walked by. As we passed a group, I overheard one girl telling the others in a Parisian accent and matter of fact tone that “Les toilettes sont le forêt, en fait.” I whisper translated to El Chango that she was informing them that the forest was the toilet around here. It didn’t sit right with me that these white people show up with their backpacks, stripping off their shoes and shitting in the woods out of nostalgia for an imaginary simpler time that the locals don’t even live in.
We went to the restaurant La Casa del Arbol which has the eponymous tree growing through it and proved to be the only good restaurant in town so far. On top of reasonable prices and portions and a back balcony overlooking the valleys, there were no dreadlocked white people glaring at us.
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked the server.
“Sure,” she said.
“How do you feel about all these French hippies wandering around town barefoot? I mean, the locals don’t do that.”
She shrugged. “They’ve been coming here forever. We’re used to it. They’re not all French; many come from England and Canada.”
I looked down in shame.
At night we went to La Taberna de los Duendes for a beer.
We thought the meal prices seemed high, but we saw the servers delivering plates to the other tables, and they were viking-sized portions, so had we known about this earlier we would have eaten there too. Next time. When we go back in mushroom season. A group of American men drank mezcal in the back, yelling out orders in heavily-accented Spanish. El Chango looked annoyed, like he had reached his saturation point for gringos taking up too much space, and I couldn’t blame him.
As the temperature dropped (San José can be at the freezing point at night, pack accordingly), we went back to the cabin, where an attendant came and lit a fire in our fireplace. We slowly started to put things back in our suitcases for the next day as the cabin warmed up. When El Chango tilted up his suitcase to lean it again the wall, something black stretched out beneath.
“Alacrán!” I yelped in a voice I had never heard myself use. A black scorpion stood in defensive position where the suitcase had been.
“What do we do, what do we do??” I said, dancing around.
El Chango and I looked at each other and back at the scorpion. Not waiting to find out, it ran for the wall where it flattened itself and somehow fit out through the crack between the baseboard and the floor.
“Oh, gross,” I said at the sight of its flat body slipping away. Its pointed tail was last to disappear.
El Chango explained that it was probably drawn in by the heat from the fire. We reasoned that it was probably too freaked out to come back.
“You know, scorpions don’t like smoke,” he said. Although it was the most stoner idea imaginable, we lit up some weed, got on our hands and knees and blew the smoke into the crack between the floor and the baseboard, going along the wall. DIY fumigation.
Suitcases and scorpion dealt with, I sat on the bed colouring pictures of cats. At one point I reached down for one of my notebooks where some of my sheets had fallen to the floor.
“No, don’t!” El Chango exclaimed from somewhere on the floor. I pulled back my hand. El Chango was crouching next to the bed, lifting a fold in the sheet with a pencil. Curled up in beneath my hand was another scorpion, this one yellowish brown.
“No!” I cried. “Why?!”
“I figured there might be more so I’ve been scouring the room. What do we do?”
“I don’t know!”
The scorpion stretched out its body, also not sure what to do.
“…We have to kill it,” I said with dramatic gravity. I never kill living creatures on purpose (unless they’re mosquitoes, obviously, I’m not totally insane) but the thought of it slipping into the wall like the other one was too horrifying.
El Chango grabbed one of my shoes.
“Why MY shoe?”
“It was the closest one. Do I do it?”
“Ahh do it do it do it!” I cried, watching through my fingers.
El Chango brought the shoe down on the scorpion and ground it into the floor.
We both looked at the shoe, sharing a guilty silence.
“I feel bad.”
“What would have happened if it had stung me?”
“It would be like a really bad…mosquito bite,” he said. I thought about the unnecessary force he used to grind it into the floor and knew he was lying, but was content with this lie.
“Ok, I killed it so you can clean it up,” he said.
It was only fair. I lifted the shoe and wanted to throw up a little bit. I’m not usually bothered by insects but my Canadian sensibilities aren’t used to small deadly creatures. I balled up some toilet paper and tried to scrape it off the floor, shuddering at the crunchy wet sound of it peeling off the ground. I opened the door and flung the body into the forest.
“Lo siento!” I called after it. Poor little guy just wanted to escape the cold San José night after all.
We thoroughly checked our bedsheets and mattress. El Chango explained that scorpions hate light as much as they like heat, so we should sleep with the lights on to lessen the chance of more sneaking in. Fortunately scorpions can’t climb bedposts, so as long as the sheets didn’t drop off the side of the bed we were safe.
“Imagine if they could fly,” I whispered, never having taken scorpions seriously until now.
El Chango told me that there’s actually a Mexican expression, Dios no le da alas a los alacranes. God doesn’t give scorpions wings. You use it to describe something that shouldn’t happen because it’s too ridiculously dangerous.
“Like me on a motorcycle,” he said.
It was a long night under the bright overhead lights, made all the more surreal by the sound of a large animal running back and forth on our roof for hours.
The next morning El Chango told me that the scorpion beneath my hand was a bark scorpion, North America’s deadliest, and that he’d seen on the Discovery Channel that its sting kills within two hours. The small yellowish ones are always way worse than the large black ones.
Not an ideal infestation in a town with no cell reception or hospital. It was pretty sexy that El Chango had possibly saved my life though. We warned the cleaning lady and decided to tell the receptionist, so they could fumigate. T-Rex was working again.
“So, have you ever had scorpions here?” El Chango asked.
“No, never, they can’t survive in this climate. There has never been a scorpion here.”
She seemed suspiciously insistent.
“Well there were three in our room last night.”
(We added an imaginary one because we were used to this woman not taking us seriously).
“…You must have brought them with you in your suitcases from the beach.”
We hadn’t come from the beach but that was her answer and she was sticking to it. They did not have scorpions, we had scorpions. I resolved to write them a terrible TripAdvisor review.
If I were to stay in the town again, I’d stay at this place instead:
The best gift we received from San José was a special vignette before our departure: a brood of bloodthirsty baby chickens devouring a carcass on the roof of a carnicería.
Anyway, we want to go back, if only to hang out with that abuela again.
Top 3 Things to Do
1. Show up at the correct season and do mushrooms, with a shaman so you don’t get lost in the forest.
2. Go chat/mime with the woman who works at El Neuvo Triunfo.
3. Stare at the view and enjoy your lack of internet and cellphone reception. Only the scorpions can find you now.
Liveability ratings (out of 5)
Cultural life: 1?
(one point for mushroom season)
Air quality: 4.5
(usually I will mean safety from other people, but exceptionally we’re losing a point for scorpions and the risk of falling off a cliff or getting hit by a truck)
Reliable internet: 1
(note: there’s no cell reception whatsoever)
Accessibility from foreign locations: 1
Next stop, Puerto Angel.