What To Expect At An Ayahuasca Retreat

Western tourists are traveling to the Amazon to drink the sacred psychedelic brew ayahuasca — here’s what to expect at an ayahuasca retreat.

The sacred botanical brew known as ayahuasca has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian communities for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. The brew, often referred to as “Mother ayahuasca” signifying its revered status, has extraordinary psychedelic effects at the level of consciousness, and, as such, is used for spiritual and healing purposes.

Ayahuasca is made from two plants; Psychotria viridis, a leafy shrub that contains the classic psychedelic dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine containing the beta-Carbolines harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine.

Due to the activity of an enzyme in the lining of the stomach called monoamineoxidase-A, DMT is not active when orally ingested. However, the beta-Carbolines in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine inhibit the action of this enzyme, thus facilitating a visionary, dream-like experience to occur. 

In the past couple of centuries, an increasing number of indigenous communities in Latin America have adopted the consciousness-expanding ritual use of ayahuasca, routinely engaging in ceremonies as a key to unlocking spiritual experiences. With that has emerged the phenomenon of “ayahuasca tourism,” as more and more Westerners flock to ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon seeking wholeness.

An artistic rendition of the ayahuasca vine.

What Is An Ayahuasca Retreat?

An ayahuasca retreat – most of which are located in the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador – refers to the multi-day experience of consuming ayahuasca in a group setting under the wise and watchful eye of an experienced shaman or “curandero.”

The cost of an ayahuasca retreat differs from center to center and largely depends on one’s preferred package, which typically vary in comfort level, duration, intensity, and level of integrative support provided. 

For example, one of the most popular ayahuasca retreat centers, Soltara Healing Center — from the Spanish verb “soltar” meaning to let go or release — offers 5-night, 7-night, and 12-night retreats at their two oceanfront locations in Costa Rica, ranging in price from $3,125-$12,650, with ayahuasca ceremonies interspersed throughout the evenings. The potency of the medicine served gradually increases to facilitate more intense introspective work. 

Soltara, which has a star-studded advisory board that includes revered psychedelic luminaries such as ethnopharmacologist Dr. Dennis McKenna and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Mate, has more affordable options at their center in Tarapoto, Peru, with costs ranging from $1,875-to $5,500.

Incidentally, Mate, who describes ayahuasca as an “antidote to western psychological distress and cultural alienation,” used ayahuasca for years in his Vancouver private practice, treating hundreds of heroin-addicted individuals and saving countless lives in the process, no doubt, before Health Canada threatened to prosecute the esteemed physician on grounds that he was using an illegal substance. 

Adding in the price of flights and time off work, opting to journey with Mother ayahuasca can be quite a pricey endeavor. This issue isn't unique to the Amazon, however. The average price of a one-off underground ayahuasca ceremony in the U.S., (which, to be clear, is illegal,) is approximately $200-$250, and with facilitators likely to recommend that people partake in at least two ceremonies to reap maximum reward, the cost of healing very quickly adds up. 

Thanks to organizations like Heroic Hearts, a wonderful nonprofit that connects veterans suffering from treatment-resistant PTSD with fully vetted, reputable ayahuasca retreat centers, the process of finding healing has been made simpler and more affordable for this trauma-stricken population. Heroic Hearts, founded in April 2017, provides eligible applicants with caringly organized logistical and integration support. 

Ayahuasca Ceremonies 

People who travel to retreat centers are clinically screened at intake before the ceremony commences to rule out a familial or personal history of psychotic disorders. Individuals with genetic vulnerabilities to such disorders are typically excluded from ceremonies and are advised against experimentation with psychedelic substances. 

In recent years, ayahuasca ceremonies have increasingly incorporated rituals reflective not only of indigenous communities but also the cultural background of attending participants. In that sense, ayahuasca ceremonies have become multicultural, with specific details varying depending on the traditions proposed by the shaman and the characteristics of the group undertaking the journey. 

Once the ceremony begins, shamans ensure that participants are treated with empathy and respect as they skillfully guide patients through the unfolding experience. Focusing on the group with a direct and mindful presence, shamans help to create the optimal conditions for a cathartic experience.

Ceremonies are held in large, wooden, wall-less cabins with conical roofs called “malokas,” which are designed specifically for ayahuasca ceremonies.

A key feature of the ayahuasca ceremony is the “icaros” or “ikaros” — traditional indigenous Amazonian songs that are performed by the curandero as an accompaniment to ayahuasca healing ceremonies. Icaros are musical prayers that are thought to embody the spirits of the Amazonian plants and animals, as well as ancestors and “higher powers.” 

The Ayahuasca “Dieta”

In the weeks leading up to the ayahuasca ceremony, most shamans expect participants to adhere to very specific preparatory guidelines which typically include strict dietary and lifestyle regimens. 

Participants are asked to eliminate all drugs, prescription and recreational, and refrain from eating certain foods 2-4 weeks before the ceremony is due to take place. In particular, participants are advised to steer clear of foods containing tyramine because the ayahuasca vine inhibits monoamineoxidase, an enzyme that is essential for the processing of this amino acid.

It is also common for participants to abstain from salt, refined sugar, spicy food, dairy, oils, and sex to sufficiently prepare the body for the ayahuasca experience and to facilitate adequate reception of the plants’ healing qualities. 

Mindful activities such as nature walks, yoga, and meditation take place after each ayahuasca experience to promote the successful integration of visions and insights. 

In traditional shamanistic cultures, the dieta and integrational activities following the ceremony are considered just as important as the ayahuasca journey itself. 

Artistic, mystical rendition of a shaman.

The Subjective Effects of Ayahuasca

Consumption of ayahuasca facilitates the emergence of an entirely new state of consciousness, often perceived as mystical, that typically lasts 4-6 hours. 

After drinking the botanical brew, it may take 30 minutes for detectable effects to kick in, before reportedly “ineffable” psychic states characterized by a sacred sense of unity and the transcendence of space and time begin to grace one’s conscious awareness. 

Commonly reported subjective effects of ayahuasca include:

  • Euphoria 
  • Peace 
  • Ecstasy
  • Visual distortions (intensification of colors, geometric patterns and intricate images, kaleidoscopic imagery, visions of people, scenery, and jungle animals. 
  • Heightened visual creativity
  • Auditory to visual synesthetic effects
  • Altered sense of time and space 
  • Encounters with plant spirits/animals
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fear
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion 

Ayahuasca can enable users to experience their prosaic negative emotions or afflictions in a broader scheme of awareness, fostering a perspective that softens their psychological impact.

One may also experience a shift from emotionally damaging, narrow forms of consciousness to blissful states of what is termed “cosmic consciousness” — a transcendent illumination of the mind characterized by a sense of interconnectedness, a feeling of oneness with the universe, and a heightened appreciation for nature. 

The fresh feeling of connectedness to others and nature, in conjunction with the sense of re-connection to oneself, can eradicate the sense of isolation that is so often the culprit behind crippling health conditions both physical and mental. Unsurprisingly, this connection can be of immense therapeutic value

Ayahuasca journeys often entail encounters with seemingly intelligent entities that possess the faculties for telepathic communication. Of course, it would be a mistake to make a claim one way or another as to the reality status of these encountered beings. That said, it is indisputable that, on a phenomenological level, journeys to such extraordinary realms have a noetic quality of reality. 

Challenging Ayahuasca Experiences

Of course, as comes with the territory of psychedelic exploration, one may very well be put through the proverbial wringer.

Physically challenging ordeals of purification and, as is often the case with ayahuasca, purgation, are common. Many ayahuasca retreat attendees purge soon after consuming the foul-tasting brew, which is quite an unpleasant side effect of the physiologically taxing medicine, but one that is considered necessary for the achievement of catharsis. 

On a psychological level, ayahuasca also tends to ruthlessly uncover misgivings and failings, identifying in no uncertain terms one’s blocks to flourishing. As author Graham Hancock eloquently puts it, ayahuasca can take people to “the judgment hall of Osiris where our souls are weighed on the scale in the presence of the Gods against the feather of truth, of justice, of cosmic harmony.”

Furthermore, it is common under the influence of ayahuasca for one to experience the sensation of dying, or indeed of having died — a phenomenon referred to in psychedelic circles as  “ego-dissolution.” Interestingly, ego-dissolution has been correlated with better therapeutic outcomes in clinical studies using the classic psychedelic psilocybin. 

Psychedelic revolutionaries Timothy Leary, Richard Albert, and Ralph Metzner claim in their 1964 manual, ‘The Psychedelic Experience’, that the key to navigating such disorienting states and eventually “be set face to face with ecstatic radiance,” is to “turn your mind off … stay calm and let the experience take you where it will.”

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