Wachuma: the San Pedro Cactus of Loja Ecuador

Old San Pedro cactus at Hacienda Gonzabal, Taquil, Loja Ecuador
Old cactus at Hacienda Gonzabal, Taquil, Loja
To talk about botany we must first speak of geology. The San Pedro cactus is native to the Andes Mountains between 6,600 and 9,800 feet in altitude. The soils of the Andean mountains are composed of loose sediments that were previously deposited in oceans, and then raised to heights by the South American continent being pushed up by the Pacific Plate subducting underneath it. The dry, gravelly soil of the Andes provides the perfect foundation for growing these cactus plants that can tolerate more rainfall than most.

Because San Pedro is native to the area, one will see it growing wild in many locations throughout the eastern half of Loja province. Still, some gardeners will plant it on purpose to have these stately ornamentals in their own yards.

The scientific name is Echinopsis pachanoi but prior to the Spanish monks renaming it after Saint Peter it was known by the local natives as Wachuma. It was (and still is) revered for its traditional healing properties and several ceremonies were developed around its use.

The name Wachuma is from the Quichua language and translates as "headless." While true that this cactus does not produce a "head" the other connotation of headless could refer to the effect of "losing one's head" or becoming "free of ego" after consuming a drink made from the plant's interior mucus lining.

In fact, the active ingredient distilled from the cactus is mescaline, a powerful hallucinogen. No wonder the name means to lose one's head! Indeed, if not prepared and consumed carefully while under supervision, it is possible to lose one's life. We at Life in Loja do not recommend partaking since shamans are not registered or certified in any manner that guarantees the concentration of the drink will be safe.

Flower of the San Pedro cactus
But do not despair because, like we said above, it is a fascinating plant to grow just for its beauty. Starting with a cutting about 18 inches long, the plant can reach 15-20 feet in height within 5 years under ideal conditions. According to Wikipedia, the tallest specimen known reached 40 feet! When they flower, the bloom lasts only a couple of days but is spectacular for its size - up to 8 inches in diameter, and just as long.

The plant pictured first in this article is growing at the Hacienda Gonzabal and is estimated to be 100 years old. Unfortunately it shows damage from a high wind storm a couple of years ago, but it will recover and continue to be one of the fascinating features of that bed-n-breakfast.

Maybe you'd like to try growing your own San Pedro?

This blog post is an example of how the team at Life in Loja helps tourists and visitors, expats and immigrants, to better appreciate the many aspects of living in Loja, Ecuador. If you would like to know more about our custom tours and relocation services then contact us by email or phone/WhatsApp at 593-098-674-5994 to begin a conversation.


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