Mexico’s Magical Mushroom Tour at the Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres, Oaxaca
Finding mushroom in the field in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte
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, immortalized with the term “magic mushroom;” nor Alice’s wonderful white flecked orangey 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 Cuahimoloyas annual Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres makes for a most exciting if not fruitful treasure hunt.
Cuahimoloyas, Mushroom Fair and Ecotourism in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, Ixtlán District
San Antonio Cuahimoloyas is perched almost 10,500 feet above sea level in the district of Ixtlán. It’s one of several pueblos mancomunidados (community managed villages). For hunting mushrooms it can be visited any time of the year, and in fact together with other Ixtlán villages it forms part of a burgeoning ecotourism region in central Oaxaca. While an abundance of species begins 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 through September and well into October.
Hence the 11th annual Oaxacan Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres was held smack in the middle of prime mushroom hunting season, August 6th and 7th, 2011. During the festival and in fact throughout the entire year, a local guide trained to identify edible, poisonous and hallucinogenic mushrooms must accompany those wanting to trek through the woods, whether for hiking and other outdoors activities, or for searching out magic and other edible mushrooms.
August 6th Hunt for Hongos Silvestres at the Feria Regional, Cuahimoloyas, Oaxaca
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. 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 explained, “so let’s see how many we can find.”
“How many species are there in this area,” I asked, having no idea of the answer I was 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 egged us on.
Each group of 9 or 10 hongo aficionados was accompanied by its own Isauro. Just over half of the approximately 170 mushroom seekers out for the hike were residents of Oaxaca. The rest were tourists. Some groups went on hikes requiring minimal stamina, others took a more difficult route, and then there were 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 struggled 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 picked up a smallish darkened pine cone: “They look like this, and if we find them it’ll help us to win.”
Time and again one of us would point to a mushroom to show Isauro, thinking we’d already placed that species in one of our three large wicker handled baskets. But our expert often showed us a different gilled underside, pointed to no band around the stock, or explained another distinguishing feature. Then a minute later the opposite might occur: “That’s the same type as this one, 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 friends are humming and singing, as if on a leisurely Easter egg hunt. My eye catches a large yellow mushroom, half-hidden under pine needles. I approach, then call out for Isauro. We already have 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,” as I examine our color brochure which illustrates about 15 species, each with a photo, taxonomic name and identifying features. Into the basket it goes. A few meters along I almost pick up a cow turd, 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.”
It’s been three hours, and as our baskets nicely fill with a rainbow of color we’re still finding new varieties. María has been gingerly placing the tiny most delicate hongos we’ve encountered into a small felt jewelry back 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 other vegetable such as carrot and onion pieces].”
As we lose the pathway we hike along a bed of pine needles crunching down beneath our feet. Vines and other growth close in. I could have used 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 though the forest, yet we know others have been here before us, perhaps even earlier in the day.
The Return to the Cuahimoloyas Base Camp for the Hongos Silvestres Count, Contests
Almost four hours into our hike, along a potholed dirt road only minutes from the base, we’re still looking, and miraculously still finding mushrooms; under moss, beneath ground hugging agave leaves and emerging from fallen branches. Back at the 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 judge’s determinations from time to time, but consensus is always reached, sometimes in consultation with a colleague mycologist. Our team to a member is looking on. Another group’s hongo total was 207. Must be the winner I figure. Our counting continues; 208, 209, 225 and upward and onward. We weigh in at 254. The din begins, from even those in the know. Can they possibly be topped? One last group’s total has yet to be tallied; 237, 238, and finally 239. Our team cheers aloud.
At the awards ceremony we take prize for most species. In the best single mushroom category the prize goes not to a spectacular, perfect, oversized Amanita muscaria specimen, but to a much smaller yet rarer mushroom with excellent flavor, a Morchella esculenta – or was it the Fr. y M. elata.
It’s approaching 7 p.m. We’re off to the cabins to turn in, since tomorrow brings another full day of hongos silvestres, not the hunt, but rather other new after a day of hiking, camaraderie, exploration
Conclude: mushroom afic, ecotourism people, and others wanting adventure should embrace a visit during the rainy season …. For this weekend not a drop of rain … almost as if organizers somehow knew, or perhaps had a mushroom induced vision.
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Alvin Starkman is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Alvin enjoys taking visitors to Oaxaca to explore more off the beaten track sights, and encourages them to enjoy a diversity of experiences in addition to “the usual.” Alvin has written over 230 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, consults to documentary film companies, with his wife operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com), and with Chef Pilar Cabrera Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).
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