Psychedelic wellness retreats are having a moment in the sun. Popularized by the bestselling book (later a Netflix series), “Nine Perfect Strangers”, they are the subject of articles in major publications like the New York Times, Vox, and the Washington Post. Demand is skyrocketing, retreats are popping up all over the Americas and Europe, and everyone seems to know someone who has gone, or is planning on going.
For those without much psychedelic experience this all must seem a bit bewildering. Aren’t these substances illegal? Are they dangerous? Why would someone accept these risks, there must be a reason – what do guests that attend these retreats hope to accomplish? And do they ultimately get the benefits that they sought? We spent a month traversing the jungles of Costa Rica and the beaches of Mexico, visiting 30 of these retreats and their guests to help separate fact from fiction.
What are psychedelics?
Psychedelics are natural or manufactured substances that cause your brain to have extraordinary experiences. Sometimes these experiences are visual hallucinations; sometimes they are feelings and moods. They alter your brain chemistry in a variety of ways. And a substantial and growing body of research, peer-reviewed and driven by the world’s leading research institutes, is showing that for most people, psychedelics can bring them tremendous personal growth. When combined with therapy, anxiety, depression and PTSD can be treated very effectively; similarly, they can have profound impacts on addicts who are unable to shake their addiction.
There are a host of different psychedelic compounds producing somewhat similar changes in brain chemistry, though the experience of consuming them can be very, very different. Psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical in all ‘magic mushrooms’, usually leaves the consumer in a state of euphoria and giggles. Ayahuasca, a vine that grows throughout South and Central America, often brings on intense delusions and vomiting. Each compound has unique properties that can help the consumer in different ways. Ibogaine, derived from the African ‘iboga’ vine, is known to be a powerful last resort for people suffering from addiction. So which psychedelic to consume depends on your tolerance for the experience, and on what you hope to accomplish by taking it.
What is a psychedelic retreat?
A psychedelic retreat is best thought of as a yoga or wellness retreat, where a guest would sign up for a host of services designed to boost their mood, perspective, or physical health. A wellness retreat may offer activities such as a sweat lodge, breathing exercises or meditation to help focus your mind on your own issues and trauma. Similarly, psychedelics offer the consumer a pathway to introspection and growth. Practitioners view them as a key to unlock your subconscious, to enable deep-seated past traumas to come to the fore and be understood. Most psychedelic retreats will offer all the modalities available in a wellness retreat and view psychedelics as a way to ‘grease the wheels’, getting you to a point of introspection much more quickly.
Who goes to psychedelic retreats?
There are no industry associations for psychedelic retreats so it’s hard to know who is going for sure. Having met so many operators in Central America, we heard a very consistent message - perhaps 80% of guests at psychedelic retreats women, typically in their 40’s or early 50’s and travelling from North America or Western Europe. Retreats indicate that ‘one-third of our guests come to deal with some acute problem (clinical depression, treatment-resistant addiction or PTSD), one-third come to deal with the fact that they are generally not happy, and one-third come to ‘expand their mind’.
What happens at a psychedelic retreat?
Most retreat itineraries feature the same basic parts. First, there is an ‘intake’, which starts at least two weeks before you arrive. Your medical history is reviewed to make sure you are a suitable guest. You will also be given a strict detox diet, both for foods and medications, to make sure your body is ready for the sometimes-difficult physical experience.
Next, there is the retreat itself. Your days will be spent doing yoga, lying in a hammock, or journaling your thoughts and insights about yourself, while several of your evenings will be spent participating in a psychedelic ceremony of some kind. These ceremonies can be a bit inhibiting for first timers. The facilitators of the ceremony have often been trained how to administer the psychedelic by the indigenous peoples who have used them for centuries, and this training always incorporates the specifics of the ceremony to best enhance the experience. Music, dancing, crystals – it’s a bit of a scene, but intended only to help make sure you gain as much from the experience as possible.
Finally, there is ‘integration’. This is a critical part of most psychotherapy – once insights have been surfaced, the retreat facilitators will work with you to make sure you understand what these insights mean and how you can take this new knowledge and incorporate it into your daily life after you return home. In many respects, it’s the most important part of the experience.
Where do I need to travel to visit a psychedelic retreat?
Psychedelic retreats are literally popping up all over the world. They are famously situated in countries where the use of the chemical is legal or decriminalized, including Jamaica, the Netherlands, Peru, and other countries. Countries such as Costa Rica and Mexico, where most psychedelics are either decriminalized or ‘unscheduled’, are choosing to allow the industry to grow without risk of prosecution as they are drawing wealthy tourists. And just as in a Caribbean all-inclusive vacation, hosting a retreat where labour is much cheaper is a good way to keep the costs more accessible for more patients.
Increasingly, retreats are also popping up in North America. Often, they are hidden in plain sight, as psychologists will rent a space to accommodate some of their patients and build a custom retreat through word-of-mouth. Taking advantage of a legal loophole, ‘churches’ are appearing all over the United States, where the ‘reverend’ is a psychedelic practitioner, and as a spiritual organization, they are entitled to issue psychedelic substances to their ‘parishioners’. Numerous retreats have started to emerge in Canada as well, legality notwithstanding.
Does a visit to a psychedelic retreat ‘cure’ everyone? What outcomes can I expect?
As in traditional psychology, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment and there are no guarantees that you will have a lasting and profound change. But such changes are very common. Of the 30 operators we met in Central America, virtually all of them started their journey as consumers, desperately seeking to resolve their deeply entrenched problems, and chose to work in a center so they can ‘pay it forward’ to others in need of help. In the mountains above Samara, Angel Twedt opened Om Jungle Medicine after she credited ayahuasca for helping push her multiple sclerosis into remission. Along the beaches of Baja California, the operator at Experience Ibogaine wrestled with addiction issues that ibogaine brought to heel, leading to his working in the industry. What can be said with growing certainty is that for many mental health conditions, psychedelics, with guidance from well-trained psychologists and facilitators, are much more effective than leading pharmaceutical solutions, with fewer (if any) side effects, and with benefits that last much longer.
I hear a trip to a psychedelic retreat can be overwhelming. Is it safe?
The short answer is yes, a visit to a psychedelic retreat is quite safe. While the experience of consuming a substance like ayahuasca can be physically (and spiritually) gruelling, it is largely safe, and the effects tend to wear off within 6 hours. You cannot be taking any anti-depression or anxiety medications (SSRI’s, in the lingo) as they may create conflicts. And if you have a personal or family history of severe mental illness (bipolarity, schizophrenia, etc.), you will typically be screened out at the intake. But long-term side effects appear to be exceedingly rare.
Physical safety is also something to think about. The most common retreat participant would be described as a woman travelling alone. There is certainly risk here, as you will be a position of vulnerability and must put your faith in the retreat operator to be professional. While there have been a small number of documented cases of assaults, such events are not common. Finding retreats that offer all-female sessions, or are run by female practitioners, is always a solution and there are many to choose from.
What kind of psychedelic retreat do I want? Are they all the same?
Truth be told, there’s quite a bit of homework that you need to do to get the perfect match. First, you need to understand yourself. Why are you interested in going? What do you hope to achieve? If you are not clinically depressed or on medication, you may not yet even understand your motivation. Introspection is critical here and is your first step.
With an understanding of your personal goals, you can begin to research the different compounds being offered. On frshminds.com, for example, there are 9 different ‘trip-types’ listed, ranging from the widely known psilocybin and ayahuasca, to the more exotic ‘bufo’ or ‘san pedro’. Practitioners of each of these compounds will tell you that they are all effective in helping you reach your goals, and there is some truth to that. But your experience will be quite different with each of them and may be more intense than you are comfortable with. Much research is encouraged here.
Once you have decided which compound you want to work with, the choice becomes more like booking a vacation package. Want to be near a beach? Have a few days before or after your retreat to go zip-lining? Do you love waking up in misty mountains, surrounded by nature? What’s your budget and tolerance for amenities (or lack of amenities)? With new retreats opening almost daily somewhere around the world, there is almost certainly one that is a great fit for you.
Where is the industry headed?
In our travels, most of the retreats we visited were adding locations, rooms, session dates, practitioners, and generally growing quickly. Over time, as cities, states and countries start to decriminalize and legalize psychedelics, retreats will be increasingly common in western countries. It will be up to the operators of these businesses to protect their reputation by making sure standards of care are in place and negative experiences are minimized. For those that are able to get over the trepidation of a first experience, real help and healing is available to them and will become more and more accessible over time.
About the author
Jon Kamin is the CEO of frshminds, an online resource for psychedelic retreats around the world.