You feel compelled to try Ayahuasca, but you’re wondering how to choose a safe Ayahuasca retreat. Where do you even start? After all, it involves traveling to an unfamiliar country, potentially trekking into the jungle, and spending anywhere from a few days to weeks with a psychoactive tea that might make you vomit.
This isn’t a vacation, folks.
Ayahuasca retreats have grown in popularity as psychedelics have moved into the mainstream, and we’re just talking about the above-ground retreats. The New York Times reports that psychedelic retreats, from ibogaine in Mexico to psilocybin in Jamaica, have been popping up for over a decade.1
But what is an Ayahuasca retreat, and how can this experience help people achieve personal growth? We spoke with Ayahuasca retreat facilitators for answers.
What Is an Ayahuasca Retreat?
An Ayahuasca retreat is a dedicated space for people to drink Ayahuasca, a South American psychoactive brew that Indigenous Amazonian people traditionally consume for religious and healing purposes.
A shaman leads the ceremonial aspects of the Ayahuasca experience. Keep in mind that “shaman” is a broad term: These ceremony leaders can range from curanderos (traditional healers) to ayahuasqueros (specialists who know how to brew and serve Ayahuasca but are not traditional healers). 2
Just as there are many ways to prepare Ayahuasca, there are many different types of Ayahuasca retreats. But they have something in common, aside from the Ayahuasca itself: According to Elio Geusa, founder and lead facilitator at Aya Healing Retreats, retreats can create a “safe container for people coming from all walks of life.”
Why attend an Ayahuasca retreat?
Geusa was a social worker who left his job and traveled to Peru to live with Indigenous Shipibo communities in 2015. He said these villages are beautiful places but not necessarily the best spaces for Western tourists.
“When we think about Indigenous villages in the Amazon, we think about huts and things like that. Very rural,” Geusa said. “But no. It changed a long, long time ago. Those villages really are like any other Peruvian village in that part of Peru.” In these villages, the goings-on of everyday life—church, school, shopping, bars—might distract people from focusing their attention inward.
At an Ayahuasca retreat, participants are away from the reminders of everyday life. “When you do this work, you want to have a container you can find in isolation,” Geusa said. That isolation creates a controlled environment, and in that space, people can feel comfortable enough to fully let go.
“We create this cocoon of beautiful protection. People really flourish,” Geusa said. He takes a photo of people when they arrive and when they leave so that they can see the difference for themselves.
However, Ayahuasca retreats aren’t inherently safe spaces. They can be located in difficult-to-navigate parts of the world, and just because a person says they’re a shaman doesn’t mean they have a person’s best interests at heart. Some shamans “just want to give this experience to as many people as possible,” Geusa said. “It can be a good thing. But often, it’s not safe.”
Based on clinical trials, Ayahuasca itself is “physiologically very safe.” 3 However, Ayahuasca is not an easy experience: It can cause intense physical and emotional reactions, ranging from nausea and vomiting to intense hallucinations and mystical experiences (which can be positive, negative, or both).
Additionally, Ayahuasca can negatively interact with certain medications (specifically, SSRIs), and people with pre-existing mental disorders should avoid hallucinogenic substances. At the helm of any Ayahuasca retreat, you want someone with the experience to support and guide attendees before, during, and after their journey—and turn away the people who shouldn’t consume Ayahuasca.
At their best, Ayahuasca retreats create a safe, guided space for people to experience the highs and lows of plant medicine to different ends: Some people use it to process trauma or grief, while others view the experience as a means of self-discovery. But how can you tell whether or not a retreat is right for you? Is it safe, or is it a scam?
Below, we’ll highlight a few essential considerations for Ayahuasca retreats. Before we dive in, it’s necessary to consider what “safe” really means. Remember that Ayahuasca retreats aren’t luxury vacations. Ayahuasca is challenging and can illuminate difficult truths for people that they have to process after the journey is complete.
Geusa said, “The real work is afterward.”
In this article, we broadly define “safety” as an Ayahuasca retreat grounded in traditional practices, creates a controlled environment for attendees, and is led by experienced facilitators. Other factors, like accessibility and amenities, are up to your personal preferences. Use the following information as a starting point to do your own due diligence.
How to Choose a Safe Ayahuasca Retreat
Here are five things to look for when choosing an ayahuasca retreat:
- The retreat’s staff is experienced, transparent, and practices reciprocity
- There are easily accessible reviews from past attendees
- The screening process is exceptionally thorough
- You are told what you’re drinking, how much of it, and how to prepare
- They don’t make any promises about mystical experiences or cures
The retreat’s staff is experienced, transparent, and practices reciprocity
You should have access to detailed information about the ceremony leaders and the facilitators.
- Are the Ayahuasca ceremonies led by an experienced healer, like a Shipido curandero?
- Are you able to meet the shaman?
- Are the facilitators experienced in Ayahuasca and other plant medicines?
Experience matters because Ayahuasca can cause unpredictable effects. You want to have support from someone who understands how to guide you through the process—and what to do in case of emergency. Andrés Campos is the administrator of Casa de la Luz, an Ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica. “When things get out of control, the sooner you get assistance, the better,” he said. For example, Campos said that the “psychosis” that can be caused by taking Ayahuasca is very different than a person who develops psychosis naturally. An experienced facilitator should be able to help a person manage a bad trip.
Transparency is also essential. The retreat facilitators should be willing and able to answer any questions you may have. Geusa said that he often connects with people on Zoom or Whatsapp to answer questions, which also helps foster a sense of connection between the person and the facilitator. If the retreat staff is cagey or ghosts you when you have questions, consider that a red flag.
Reciprocity means the retreat center gives back to Indigenous communities, such as donating a portion of proceeds to nonprofit organizations or employing Indigenous people. Also known as sacred reciprocity, this practice is vital because it helps honor the Indigenous roots of plant medicines and prevents the erasure of traditions that preserved them for generations. 4
There are easily accessible reviews from past attendees
“The first thing people should look at is the place’s reputation,” Geusa said. He suggested reading testimonials, speaking with past attendees, or asking members of spiritual communities about their experiences at Ayahuasca retreats.
You should take online reviews with a grain of salt: Testimonials can be paid, and negative experiences can be taken down. Community groups, such as Ayahuasca groups on Facebook or Reddit, may provide more balanced feedback with a range of perspectives to consider.
Although Ayahuasca retreats can be transformative, it’s essential to do your research. For example, in Iquitos, Peru, there have been reports of people administering Ayahuasca without any experience, as well as sexual assaults and violence. 5 Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee complete safety, but reviews can help indicate if a retreat is reputable.
The screening process is exceptionally thorough
A medical and psychological screening process is used to determine whether or not Ayahuasca is appropriate for a person. This matters because people with certain conditions (such as schizophrenia or a history of heart problems) shouldn’t take Ayahuasca.
It’s a red flag if a retreat doesn’t screen potential attendees. Geusa shared that although Aya Healing Retreats’s questionnaire is tedious and lengthy, it was developed with ICEERS, which helps them give individualized care to retreat attendees. There’s even a screening process for staff.
This process can also determine whether or not a person is prepared for the Ayahuasca experience. “We ask some very intimate questions because we want to support those people in the best way possible,” Geusa said. “We forget that each of us has gone through some sort of trauma. Some can be a little trauma. Others can be multiple, bigger traumas. This work with plant medicine can bring back those traumas, even those that are forgotten or have been put away. So, it is very important that we address that right at the beginning.”
Pre-screening can also help a person integrate the Ayahuasca experience into their life. “The idea is to understand if the person has the right environment to support integration and to be safe afterward,” Geusa said. “For a person who comes to us, it is also important to give them the right knowledge and plan to continue the work afterward.”
“Both screening and integration depend on each other,” Campos said. “A proper screening leads to a smoother and well-handled integration.”
You are told what you’re drinking, how much of it, and how to prepare
Ayahuasca preparations can vary widely from region to region, and it’s not uncommon to drink Ayahuasca multiple times during a ceremony and the span of a retreat.
Additionally, some retreats will incorporate other plant medicines during the ceremony. For example, Campos mentioned the use of kratom and tobacco.
That said, you should have a clear understanding of what you’re taking and how much of it, within reason. In terms of dosage, note that it’s difficult to assess how much DMT is in natural plant preparations (unless you bring a testing lab with you).
One of the most common questions Geusa receives from participants is, “How best can I prepare?” While preparation instructions can also vary among shamans, you should receive clear guidance before the session.
“Please avoid reading, watching, or listening to any books, stories, documentaries, videos, or friends about the experience of Ayahuasca,” Geusa said. “Some people ask the question, what will I experience? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. Sometimes you get more questions than answers. I tell them to avoid all of that because that will only create more expectations.”
Some retreats will recommend changing your diet or starting spiritual practices, like journaling or mindfulness meditation. Of those practices, Geusa emphasized the importance of journaling to articulate and integrate a person’s insights.
“Ayahuasca is nothing else than just a dream, but we’re wide awake,” Geusa said. “Like a dream, sooner or later, it’s going to fade away. So if we start journaling, we start articulating the dream. It might be chaotic, but they can start making sense or putting a puzzle together. Maybe you see the full piece of the puzzle completed at the end of the retreat. Maybe it takes months or years. But a journal can help you track the experience and process that.”
They don’t make any promises about mystical experiences or cures
It’s a red flag if you’re guaranteed intense hallucinations, meetings with spiritual deities, and fast cures for all that ails you. Ayahuasca is not a magic bullet, and experienced guides know that.
Like other plant medicines, there’s no way to guarantee how someone will react to Ayahuasca. This idea should be communicated when you speak with the staff at a potential retreat.
You might feel reborn. You might have a bad time. Facilitators can shape your set and setting to help set you up for success, but at the end of the day, your experience will be uniquely yours.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an Ayahuasca retreat?
An Ayahuasca retreat is a space for people to drink Ayahuasca, usually led by a shaman. Some retreats also incorporate other plant medicines and therapies. Ayahuasca retreats can span several days or weeks and can be found worldwide.
Why attend an Ayahuasca retreat?
- Offers a controlled, guided space to experience Ayahuasca
- May introduce you to other plant medicines and healing practices, depending on the retreat
- May support Indigenous communities (do your research)
- Skilled facilitators can help you prepare for Ayahuasca and guide you through the experience
- May offer integration support after the retreat
- Some people gain insights that help them process grief, heal from trauma, and achieve self-growth
What are the qualities of a safe Ayahuasca retreat?
- Experienced and transparent staff
- Gives back to Indigenous communities
- Easily accessible reviews
- Thorough screening process
- Clear communication and preparation
- No over-the-top promises
Who should not do Ayahuasca?
People who have a history of mental disorders should not use hallucinogens, including Ayahuasca. Additionally, people with heart conditions or who are taking drugs or substances that impact the serotonin system or inhibit monoamine oxidase should not do Ayahuasca.
Finally, people who are just looking for a fun trip should not do Ayahuasca. This plant medicine is intended for healing and personal discovery, not recreational use.
Trust your Intuition. As Ayahuasca retreats increase in popularity, it’s important to do your research and talk to people (staff and participants) before you commit. If you recognize any red flags, listen to your gut.
Ayahuasca retreats can be simultaneously illuminating, challenging, and cleansing because they create a safe space for people to experience the effects of this traditional plant medicine. However, there’s no way to guarantee the type of experience you’ll have on Ayahuasca (or any other hallucinogenic substance).
Additionally, Campos said that plant medicine isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “Each plant, each fungus, and each cactus has its use and a traditional application based mostly on shamanism or ancient traditions. Understanding what these substances are capable of can lead to better use, more precisely and accurately.”