Everything you need to know about choosing an Ayahuasca Retreat
This is it—you’re finally ready. After consuming as much information about ayahuasca as humanly possible, it’s high time to look for an ayahuasca retreat center. But where should you start? After all, it’s imperative that you choose a place that is safe, one that employs qualified, trustworthy people who will help guide you through potentially one of the most significant transformations of your life.
This is an in-depth guide that was created to help you make an informed decision about where to go for your first ayahuasca experience. Whether you are considering attending a retreat in Peru, the United States, the Netherlands, or elsewhere, there are essential problems or questions that everyone faces. Here are important things you should probably think about before reserving your spot at a retreat or booking an international flight.
Without a doubt, the most important thing you need to consider when assessing a retreat center is whether it is safe. If you don’t feel safe, then at the very best it will be difficult for you to go as deep in your ayahuasca experience as you might like. At worst you may end up in a perilous situation. A first-rate retreat center will be designed with physical and emotional safety in mind.
All of the following safety protocols should be included on the retreat center’s website. If they’re not, you could either leave that center behind and move on to another, or you could contact the center to see if they can answer your questions. A reputable center will always be available to answer any questions you may have, and being able to contact someone at the center when you need help is paramount to a center’s safety profile.
So what makes an ayahuasca retreat center safe? First on your list should be the other people you’ll be interacting with. A high-quality center will place an emphasis on employing experienced and properly-trained staff. The number and type of people working at each retreat center will vary, but it is common to see shamans, facilitators, translators, medical personnel, and general helpers on staff. Although it is difficult to ascertain before arriving, every one of them should make you feel comfortable. Search online and see if any previous attendees have had anything negative to say about the center’s staff—you’ll thank yourself later.
In addition to the people who work at the center, you should also consider the other attendees; they will have a demonstrable effect on your overall experience. A responsible, safety-first ayahuasca retreat center will conduct rigorous medical screening prior to allowing potential clients to book a retreat. Usually in the form of a questionnaire or intake interviews, the screening enables the center to weed out any risky individuals before the group arrives, preventing people from harming themselves or others during the retreat.
Two other important safety aspects are preparation and integration. A retreat center worth its salt will underscore their relevance and will ensure that its attendees understand how to prepare for the experience ahead of time (by following an ayahuasca diet and setting intentions) as well as how to integrate it into your normal everyday life afterward. It should be easy to contact the center for assistance during all stages of the retreat.
The retreat center should also have a healthy stock of safety items, including things like a fully equipped first-aid kit and a fire extinguisher. The last thing you need when you’re floating in entheospace is to worry about evacuating due to a fire or trekking hours through the jungle (in the middle of the night no less) after being bitten by a poisonous snake, rushing to a hospital miles away just to get some anti-venom.
Another very important safety issue involves researching what is actually in the ayahuasca brew. Scroll down to read a list of potentially dangerous ayahuasca recipes used by some ayahuasca retreats.
The Staff at the Retreat Center
It takes a lot of people with varying skills and abilities to run a successful ayahuasca retreat center. Among the most important are the shamans, healers, or ceremony facilitators that you’ll be working with. It’s highly recommended that you spend some time researching the people who conduct the retreat—you’ll be sharing some of your most intimate moments with these people, so you should be as comfortable as you can be around them.
A qualified shaman or facilitator will have studied with other experts for a considerable amount of time (typically years or even decades) and will have ample experience with ayahuasca and probably other plant medicines they choose to work with. Shaman and facilitator belong to lineages that stretch back generations and generations, and there can be significant differences from one lineage to another. It is of utmost importance that the people running the ceremony are of the highest integrity and that you trust them, as they are responsible for establishing a safe space and guiding the direction of each ceremony.
The main shamans may not be the only people providing healing—it is common for some retreat centers to have shaman apprentices on staff. Existing somewhere in between the skill level of the retreat’s attendees and that of the center’s healers, these apprentices are soaking up as much information as they can about ayahuasca so that they can eventually become shamans themselves.
In addition to the shamans and apprentices, there are almost always several other people on staff. The facilitators who assist the shamans are frequently Westerners, which may make it easier for some attendees to bond with them rather than the shamans, who often come from a much different culture than the guests.
It’s also common to have translators who assist with converting the shamans’ primary language into English or another language, medical staff who step in to help when the occasional (and rare) medical event occurs, chefs who prepare meals adhering to an ayahuasca diet, and security personnel on hand to keep everyone safe from outsiders. Everyone from the shamans to the security personnel should make you feel comfortable.
Your Fellow Guests
Another thing to consider are the other participants. While you can’t control who else will be there, you can make sure that the center screens out potentially risky individuals who could put themselves or others in harm’s way. It’s also helpful to know how many participants will be taking part in the ayahuasca ceremonies. Various group sizes have their pros and cons. While a small group size may result in a more intimate experience, the multitude of different personalities in larger groups can intensify the experience in unique ways. In the morning after drinking ayahuasca, guests usually join together for an “integration” session, to talk about their experiences with one another, and this will be more diverse, and possibly more insightful, in a larger ceremony.
The ratio of staff to participants is also important. There should be a sufficient number of shamans, facilitators, and translators so that every participant receives the attention they need during ceremony.
For people dealing with gender-related issues, such as domestic abuse or sexual trauma, it can be helpful to seek out a men- or women-only retreat. These same-sex retreats are useful in helping people suffering from gender-specific issues to relax, open up, and heal at a deeper level. Many ayahuasca retreat centers offer same-sex retreats, so keep your eye out for them if this is something you are interested in.
The people involved with your ayahuasca retreat will have a substantial impact on its overall success. From the staff to the other participants, it’s important to make sure you will be surrounded by grounded and caring people who have your best interest at heart.
Where to Go for Your Ayahuasca Trip
There are a lot of places that you can go to work with ayahuasca, but depending on what you’re looking for, some will be better than others. In fact, you have a wide variety of options when selecting the perfect country and retreat center to meet your needs. When it comes to ayahuasca ceremonies, the setting (which includes both the general location as well as details about the retreat center itself) can make all the difference.
Not all ayahuasca ceremonies take place in countries where ayahuasca is legal. There is an obvious benefit to choosing retreat centers located in countries that have clearly defined laws supporting the use of ayahuasca, like Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia.
Even though your primary reason for visiting may be to work with ayahuasca, you might also like to see or do other things while you’re there. If going to Peru, visiting the legendary Inca ruins of Machu Picchu or observing the diverse wildlife found deep in the Amazon rainforest can be an invaluable—even transformational—experience.
Native cultures of the Amazon region are colorful, diverse, and unique. It is important to know that some ayahuasca retreat centers in Peru allow no (or only a very minimal) interaction with shamans or healers. If you’re interested in the cultures that have used ayahuasca for centuries or longer, then you should look for retreat centers that offer intercultural activities with shamans or healers. These activities include brewing medicines, weaving tapestries, and going on nature walks.
Logistically speaking, you’ll need to know the level of difficulty you might face when trying to navigate a foreign country where English is not the primary language—it is easier to get around some places without speaking the local language than others.
Finding a Reputable Ayahuasca Retreat Center
Along with the potential of traveling to another country, there are a myriad of factors to consider when it comes to the retreat center itself. From the center’s overall prestige to the full menu of services it offers, everything contributes to the overall retreat experience.
Looking into an ayahuasca retreat center’s reputation (or lack thereof) is crucial to making a solid decision. The ideal places have been established for a significant period of time—at least a few years, but preferably a few decades. If a retreat center has been open that long, it is an indication that it (at the very least) hasn’t been shunned by the global ayahuasca community.
If you don’t have anyone to ask for personal recommendations, which are optimal, then you can seek out help online. There are plenty of blog articles, web forums, and even entire websites dedicated to reviewing ayahuasca retreat centers. You should be able to find some reviews about the retreat center you are considering—many people like to share their ayahuasca trip experiences with others after they return home. In fact, nowadays it’s a red flag if you can’t find any information about a center on the Internet.
Considering the Modalities of the Retreat
There are several ways that an ayahuasca ceremony at one retreat center can differ from a ceremony at another center. In Peru, many shamans sing icaros—traditional sacred songs—during ceremonies, but not all do. Lots of ayahuasca practitioners find the icaros to be an integral part of their ayahuasca trips. Some shamans will incorporate other healing modalities into the ceremony, such as flower baths, while others stick to strictly working with ayahuasca. If you have an aversion to any specific practices, you will need to find a place that does not incorporate them. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a multimodal ceremonial approach, there are plenty of retreat centers that will accommodate your wishes.
If you’re seeking a sacred experience, some retreat centers follow spiritual paths like Christianity or Buddhism. Others may hold retreats centered around companion activities like yoga, meditation, breathwork, or service work. These modalities can be combined with an ayahuasca trip to heighten or guide the experience in a desired direction.
Many retreat centers allow apprentices to help out during ceremonies. If you are interested in learning the art of ayahuasca healing and spirituality, it may be worthwhile to go to a place that offers apprenticeships so you can get a firsthand glimpse at what it would be like to study there.
Traditional ayahuasca drinking often involves reducing the diet to a very basic set of ingredients and then consuming or “dieting” with different medicinal plants. More advanced ayahuasca practitioners may benefit from seeking out retreat centers that offer other plant dietas in addition to ayahuasca. These centers will enable you to work one-on-one with alternative plant medicines, often for a longer duration than a group retreat. Some of these plant dietas even last for years, allowing the practitioners to develop a much stronger relationship with the plants.
Things to Consider Outside the Ceremonial Context
In addition to the actual ayahuasca ceremony itself, you should consider the food the retreat offers, the possible extra healing services, and what type of sleeping quarters the retreat offers for its guests. They don’t have to be as fancy as an expensive spa or hotel, but they should cater to your preferences and needs.
Research how far the retreat center is from the nearest airport, and whether the retreat package includes transportation to or from said airport. You don’t want to show up in another country only to find out that there isn’t an easy (or cheap) way to get to the retreat center.
Once again, it is very important that you are able to conveniently contact the retreat center before and after your stay. It can be more difficult to properly prepare for an upcoming retreat or fully integrate a past retreat without being able to have an ongoing conversation with the center.
The final things to consider when choosing a retreat center are the overall cost and how long the retreat will last. Prices can range from several hundred to a few thousand dollars, and obviously you will need to choose a retreat center that fits within your budget. Most ayahuasca retreat centers offer a variety of program lengths, ranging from a few days all the way up to several months.
Ayahuasca Tea and Other Plant Medicines
One of the most important things to consider when choosing a retreat is the recipe that will be used to brew the ayahuasca tea that you’ll be drinking. Each batch of ayahuasca varies in potency and psychoactive effect, depending on the skill of the shaman, the intent of the ceremony, and other plants that are sometimes thrown in the mix.
Ayahuasca recipes can vary greatly across centers, shamans, and even entire lineages, and while a few ingredients are common, having been proven relatively safe through repeated use, others are rarer and can be dangerous—potentially even life-threatening.
So let’s start with the basics. In order to make ayahuasca tea, you need at least two ingredients: a plant that contains the psychedelic molecule called dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and one rich in monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI).
DMT is a powerful, visual psychedelic compound that is found in many plants and animals, and while it produces short-acting effects when it is smoked, the monoamine oxidase in humans normally prevents it from affecting us when we eat or drink it. This is the chemical that is responsible for the vast majority of ayahuasca’s psychoactive effects.
MAOIs have an assortment of medicinal uses and effects, but they are mainly used in antidepressant medications. They are capable of disabling the monoamine oxidase in your stomach, which allows the DMT to pass through your stomach, enter your bloodstream, and make its way to your brain.
Banisteriopsis caapi (also known as the ayahuasca vine or yagé) is the most common MAOI-containing plant used in ayahuasca brews, while Psychotria viridis (also known as chacruna) supplies the DMT.
That’s the basic ayahuasca tea recipe used by most shamans and facilitators; however, some will add additional plants in the retreat experience. One common plant used in ayahuasca shamanism is Nicotiana rustica, which is drunk, smoked, or taken as a snuff (also known as mapacho or rapé). It is a tobacco with more nicotine than typical cigarette tobacco. The nicotine stimulates blood flow, increasing attention and awareness, and some shamans use it to cleanse energy and set intentions prior to a ceremony. Tobacco drinking can be tough on the heart and has been associated with several deaths among ayahuasca retreats in Peru and Colombia.
At the top of the list of admixture pants to watch out for are Brugmansia and Datura (also known as toé). These incredibly powerful deliriants can reduce motion sickness, nausea, and stomach cramping when taken in very small doses, but at higher doses they can cause delusions and can even be poisonous—in fact, some people have died from consuming these plants. Your stomach might feel a bit better during ceremony when working with small amounts of toé, but you run the risk of entering a highly suggestible, vulnerable state (or being fatally poisoned) if you consume a large amount.
If you learn that a center you are thinking of visiting uses one or more admixture plants in its ayahuasca brew or during the retreat, find out what and how much they are using and make sure they can answer any questions you have about them.
Working With Other Plant Medicines
In addition to the plants used in the ayahuasca tea itself, some centers will incorporate other plant medicines into the ceremony. Kambô or sapo, a secretion from a large green frog known as Phyllomedusa bicolor, is sometimes used prior to an ayahuasca ceremony to increase absorption of ayahuasca (by purging the digestive tract) and creating greater awareness of your body, thereby easing you into the psychedelic experience. This medicine is typically administered through small holes that are burned into the top layers of the skin, and it can result in side effects such as cramping, swelling, vomiting, and robust emotional reactions.
Some ayahuasca providers are beginning use secretions of the Bufo Alvarius toad in combination with ayahuasca. There is evidence to suggest that taking this in combination with ayahuasca can be very dangerous and even fatal. The venom from the Bufo Alvarious toad contains potent psychedelic molecules (including 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin) and is becoming popular around the globe as a smoked substance.
Both mapacho (the strong tobacco native to the Americas) and rapé (a snuff made with mapacho and other plants) are sometimes used before ayahuasca ceremonies for their grounding and stimulating effects. They help focus and sharpen the mind in addition to clearing negative energies in a person or space. Mapacho is usually consumed by puffing the thick tobacco smoke (or having it blown on and around you), while rapé snuff is snorted through a ceremonial pipe made of bone or bamboo. People sometimes experience vomiting, sweating, and diarrhea after consuming these tobacco variants.
Sananga eye drops are another plant medicine that is sometimes used in conjunction with ayahuasca. This medicine has traditionally been used during night hunting for its ability to sharpen night vision, but it is also believed to possess an energetic healing power that can greatly enhance an ayahuasca ceremony. Sananga has been used to treat and prevent diseases of the eyes, intensify visual perception, detoxify the body and mind, and even treat spiritual diseases known as “panema.” It is common to experience a burning sensation (or even pain) when these eye drops are taken, but breathing through the experience will cause the feeling to eventually go away, leaving the practitioner cleansed and in a state of total relaxation.
Shamans or healers may incorporate additional plant medicines into the ayahuasca ceremony. It is important to find out ahead of time whether a retreat center plans to use any of these plants so you can better prepare yourself for the experience.
Making a Final Decision and Getting Prepared
Now that you have an idea of the most important things to look out for when researching ayahuasca retreat centers, you should be able to confidently assess whether a center is right for you. After selecting and booking a retreat, it can help to spend the days leading up to the start of the retreat following the ayahuasca diet and cultivating your intentions.
The ayahuasca path can be a bumpy ride at the best of times. To help you navigate the journey of healing and self-discovery with ayahuasca, Kahpi has secured a dozen experts to teach online video lessons about ayahuasca safety, benefits, psychological preparation, ceremony “inner” navigation techniques, post-session “integration” approaches, and more. In my opinion, there is no better way to prepare for taking ayahuasca than by watching these videos.
Author: David Wilder