By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
There’s never a guarantee of finding hallucinogenic mushrooms in the wild. Neither the psilocybin hongo silvestre (wild mushroom) used by folk healer María Sabina in Oaxaca’s Huautla de Jiménez, now synonymous with the term “magic mushroom,” nor Alice’s wonderful white flecked orange crimson Amanita muscaria. But searching for wild mushrooms in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte during the summer rainy season does increase the likelihood. More importantly, being part of a group of mushroom and ecotourism aficionados during the annual Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres (regional wild mushroom fair) makes for an extremely enjoyable treasure hunt.
This year’s toadstool festival takes place July 21 – 22 in the Sierra Norte area of Oaxaca, less than an hour and a half’s drive from the state capital. While summertime in Oaxaca is best known for the Guelaguetza folkloric festival, the mezcal fair, and the mole festival, the mushroom weekend is fast becoming a major reason for visiting during the summer.
Mushroom Fair and Ecotourism in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, Ixtlán District
The village of San Antonio Cuahimoloyas is perched almost 10,500 feet above sea level in the district of Ixtlán. It’s one of several pueblos mancomunidades (community managed villages). It can be visited any time of year for hunting mushrooms, and in fact together with other Ixtlán villages it forms part of a burgeoning ecotourism region. While an abundance of species begin to appear at or near pine tree trunks in April and May, the broadest diversity of hongos is found beginning in June when the amanitas first emerge, and continues into October.
Hence the Cuahimoloyas 18th annual Oaxacan Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres will be held smack in the middle of prime mushroom hunting season. Regardless of the time of year, a local guide trained to identify edible, poisonous and hallucinogenic mushrooms must accompany those wanting to trek through the woods; whether for hiking or searching out toadstools.
My Hunt for Hongos Silvestres at a Cuahimoloyas Mushroom Fair
Isauro, a lifetime resident of Cuahimoloyas, was our guide / resident mycologist. Nine of us accompanied him on a four-hour trek down into river valleys and up over hills, under cedar fence posts, across fields of light bush and diverse outcrops of brilliantly painted wildflowers, along agave-lined dirt roads, and through corn fields under cultivation.
We encountered mushrooms in each and every micro-environment, including tiny brilliant orange hongos peeping their pinhead tops out of fallen pine trunks. “There are about ten types of those pequenitos [tiny ones], all different colors,” Isauro explains, “so let’s see how many we can find.”
“How many species are there in this area?” I ask, shocked at the answer I’m about to hear. “Oh, I suppose we can find 200 or more if we’re lucky and we really want to win the contest,” he eggs us on.
Each group of hongo aficionados is accompanied by its own Isauro. Just over half of the approximately 170 attendees out for the hike are residents of Oaxaca, the rest tourists. Some groups prefer hikes requiring minimal stamina, others take a more difficult route, and then there are groups like ours, in theory the younger or more active participants, or perhaps the more curious or mycologically inclined. But even the twenty-year-olds would struggle from time to time, no less than this sixty-year-old.
“Those negritos [little black ones] are edible. They’re great marinated in vinegar. But there are some other bigger black ones, hard to find, that we might encounter if we climb up that hill towards those tall trees.” Isauro picks up a smallish darkened pine cone: “They look like this, and if we find them it’ll help us win.”
Time and again one of us points to a mushroom, thinking we’d already placed that specie in one of our three large wicker handled baskets. But Isauro would often show us a different gilled underside, point to no band around the stock, or explain another distinguishing feature. Then a minute later the opposite might occur: “That’s the same type as this, except the color is a bit different,” or “that one looks different because it’s already starting to decompose.”
As we walk along paths, some of my new-found friends hum and sing, as if on a leisurely Easter egg hunt. My eyes catch a large yellow mushroom, half-hidden under pine needles. I call out for Isauro. We already had it. But beside my boot there’s a much smaller pale green hongo: “Right there, at your foot, we don’t have that one,” he excitedly exhorts.
Ten minutes later he perks up once again: “This one is in the flyer, see over here.” I examine our color brochure illustrating about 15 species, each with a photo, taxonomic name and identifying features. Into the basket it goes. A few yards away I almost pick up cow turd while anxiously looking for those rare black mushrooms.
“If you squeeze this hongo smoke will come out of a little hole in the top; watch.” In unison a great “wow” comes over us. Then moments later, “That one’s not really poisonous; it’s hallucinogenic, but the one that Silvia is coming to show us is toxic, but not that much.”
After three hours, despite baskets nicely filling with a rainbow of color, we’re still finding new varieties. María has been gingerly placing the tiny most delicate hongos we’d encountered into a small felt jewelry box she by chance had brought along.
“This one looks like a big onion, doesn’t it? It’s great with a little salt and epazote [an aromatic wild herb used in a great deal of Oaxacan cookery]. And this hongo, a trompeta [trumpet], is delicious fried in batter and eaten with rajas [sliced marinated chiles and vegetables].”
Losing the pathway, we hike along a bed of pine needles crunching beneath our feet. Vines and other growth close in. Too bad I don’t have a machete to clear a way for us, but that’s illegal. Nothing can be disturbed. There’s a remarkable absence of plastic bottles, pop cans and other telltale signs of prior human traffic through the forest.
The Return to Base Camp for the Contest Results
Four hours into our hike, along a potholed dirt road only minutes from base camp, we’re still looking, and, miraculously, still finding mushrooms, under moss, beneath ground hugging agave leaves and emerging from fallen branches. Back at camp we reunite with the other groups. Each displays its bounty so that the contest judges can determine highest number of mushroom species and best mushroom overall – out of perhaps 2,000.
Excitement builds. Isauro disagrees with the judges’ determinations from time to time, but consensus is always reached, sometimes in consultation with a colleague mycologist. Our team to a member looks on. Another group’s hongo total is 207. Must be the winner I figure. However our counting continues beyond; 208, 209, 225, upward and onward. We weigh in at 254. The din begins, even from those in the know. Can 254 possibly be topped? One last group’s total is yet to be tallied; 237, 238, and finally 239. Our team wins and cheers aloud.
At the awards ceremony our group takes the prize for highest number of species. In the best single mushroom category, the prize goes not to a spectacular, oversized Amanita muscaria specimen, but to a much smaller yet rarer mushroom with excellent flavor, a species of morel.
After our hongo dinner, we’re off to the cabins for the evening, knowing that tomorrow will bring another full day of hongos silvestres; not another hunt, but rather workshops, booths for shopping and traditional Oaxacan cooks anxious to prepare all manner of mushroom delicacies for our meals.
To reserve, contact Expediciones Sierra Norte http://sierranorte.org.mx, but if language is an issue email Johann Mathieu: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about mushroom workshops in the Sierra Norte, go to http://www.micologica.mex.tl.
Alvin Starkman’s 1974 Honors thesis was about hallucinogenic mushrooms. He now owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).