With a Side of Mushies, Please - Part I

With a Side of Mushies, Please – Part I

It was my birthday, and I was in Mexico. My new travel-best-friend Cat and I had decided that this was worthy of a trip into the beautiful jungle of El Panchen, in Palenque, Chiapas. El Panchen is a small patch, 14 hectares to be exact, of land in the middle of a wild jungle that is home to a small group of locals and expatriates. This area is a thriving tourist destination due to the ancient Mayan ruins uncovered there. People travel from all over to visit the ruins and beautiful surrounding waterfalls, and to experience what it is like to live in the midst of a thriving jungle full of unique animals. We came here for all of that of course, but also to eat the mushrooms.

Now, it is something of a common knowledge while travelling through Mex that there are particular spots one can go to broaden their hallucinogenic horizons. Mind-altering substances such as Peyote, Ayahuasca, Mushrooms and diverse local herbs are used in a variety of settings; some highly spiritual ceremonies, and some less-enlightened, tourists-chasing-kicks type situations. We knew that this patch of rainforest was known specifically for its prosperous growth of magic mushrooms, and wanted to get amongst it.

An Aussie guy, Sam, who I had met back in Puerto, was meeting us there with his mate Josh, so we had a nice little foursome happening. Upon arriving, we procured accommodation at the somewhat misleadingly named ‘Jungle Palace’ – but hey, a bed’s a bed, mildewy or not, and besides, we were totally accustomed to roughing it amidst screeches from howler monkeys, the buzzing of insects and the cawing of birds.

After only one day in El Panchen we had devised a plan (and had also made the token trip to the ruins, which were quite nice, BTW): we were to set out early the following day, purchase a bag of mushrooms from a local supplier (of which there seemed to be many) and head off to the waterfalls – Agua Azul – for a beautiful day laughing in the sunshine. Oh what a foolproof plan, we thought.

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The next morning, everything was going swimmingly. We had each chucked in $5 to procure about 1kg of magic mushrooms from a passer-by at breakfast and had made it to the local bus station in town, euphoric with excitement. The driver told us we were due to depart any second, so we quickly scoffed down a couple of chunky shrooms squeezed between two chocolate biscuits; bon appétit!

Turns out, “any second” meant about 45 more minutes parked in the shed, resulting in us being well and truly tripping balls by the time we got on the road. The four of us were wedged tightly in the back seat of the collectivo and were the only touristas on board the filled-to-capacity vehicle. On top of this, they were blaring 1990s top-40 hits such as ‘Hit Me Baby, One More Time’, which played at least thrice in the duration of our ride. We were in hysterics for the first ¾ of the journey, drawing much attention (see: ‘deathies’) to ourselves, until we began to realise we had been on the bus FOREVERRR. In a drug-induced surge of paranoia, we began to question each other about whether we even knew where we were going, where we were meant to get off, and whether this bus had even been destined for the waterfalls to begin with.

Finally, we pulled over on the side of the road at the top of a long driveway and all of the local passengers turned in silence to look at us, which indicated that this was our time to exit. As we began to stand up I glanced out the window and saw about 13 heavily-armed policemen standing around two police trucks, all staring at our collectivo. A rush of panic filled my inebriated body as I reverted back to Australian legal standards (I’m still not totally sure what kind of trouble we would get in for having a bag of freshly picked mushies on our person, but at the time I didn’t particularly want to find out) and Josh, who had also seen them, stared at me in shock. Almost wordlessly, we made the decision to leave the remaining mushrooms wedged between the seat and the door and bailed, completely sure that we were about to be searched and questions. We were done for…

In my haste and delirium I almost fell into a puddle of mud exiting the van. The driver was quick to shut the door, and it disappeared in a cloud of exhaust fumes. The police watched us walk off down the hill; absolutely no moves made. Sam suggested we eat some more mushrooms, and a sinking feeling developed in the pit of my stomach as I broke the bad news that they were now probably being cooked up by an unsuspecting Mexican family. We were devastated, and Josh and I were sheepish: our lack of badass had ruined the day. Additionally, we realised that, in the time since we left the town, an enormous storm had rolled around.

Agua Azul – Blue Water – was not living up to its name. The rainy season had turned it a solid brown and it was gushing so fast there was no chance of swimming. This didn’t really affect us though, as it took me about 14 minutes to walk three metres to the bathroom – even in pristine weather, swimming probably wouldn’t have been very safe in the state we were in. It was probably a blessing in disguise that we ditched the mushies, because we were all still sufficiently loose, and in the end the rain did come, heavily.

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After lying on the wet ground for what seemed like four hours but was probably twenty minutes, we made the mission home. None of us were together enough to string a Spanish sentence together, so we couldn’t to find out if a bus was returning for us. Instead, we jumped in the back of someone’s ute and paid them more than what an organised tour would have cost to take us back to town.

That night, after the mushrooms had worn off, we sat at the only restaurant in town – Don Muchos – drinking and laughing about our screwed up day. We were planning to take a bus out of Palenque the next day, and head for the Yucatan… until we befriended a large group of backpackers who were sprawled out around a table nearby ours. They filled us in on their day, which was described as “life changing”, and “one of the best things I have ever done”. They had been on a “tour that basically consisted of a local man taking them deep into the jungle, feeding them lots of mushrooms, and looking after them for the day, like a pack of curious toddlers. Their stories of apparent self-enlightenment were more than enough to convince us to try this tour for ourselves. We scrapped our plans of departure, and booked in for the “tour”, making sure to tell the conductor we wanted it to be “extra special”.

Once again, excited for what tomorrow would bring, the four of us retired to our glamorous accommodation and stayed up late reading comments left behind on the walls from previous guests; cliché travel quotes such as “adventure begins when you leave your comfort zone” and “Tis is the worst place I have ever stayed”… One particular warning told us to “Beware of the Mushroom Man”. We laughed and fell asleep.

To be continued…

Cover by Thomas Aleto; inset by Gemma Clarke.