You’ve felt the medicine calling and you’ve decided to attend an ayahuasca retreat, but where do you start? With the growing popularity of ayahuasca, there are now hundreds of retreat centers all over the world to choose from so how do you know which one is *right* for you? Trying to navigate the process can feel overwhelming. Don’t worry, you aren’t alone! Many people don’t realize how many different retreat programs are available to them.
To help make the process a little easier, we’ve established some key factors to consider when narrowing down your ayahuasca retreat center options in this 10 part guide:
1- LOCATION – The first thing to do is pick a location for your retreat. There are options all over the world, but the primary concentration of retreats are in ayahuasca’s home – the Amazon Rainforest. This seem to be where the majority of ayahuasca seekers naturally gravitate toward and there are a plethora of reputable centers for those whom the jungle calls.
However, there are many factors involved in traveling to the Amazon that can give a cautious traveler cause for concern:
general travel logistics (expenses, long flights & boat rides)
foreign disease (yellow fever, malaria, parasites)
the unknown of the jungle (more boat rides to remote areas) and stories of seedy centers/shaman
lack of access to medical care
Some of these points are not relevant depending on the retreat you choose. Some centers provide transportation to and from the airport while at others you need to make your own way. Some centers are easily accessible from the airport by car or motor taxi but others require lengthy boat rides into remote and secluded areas followed by long hikes into the jungle to find camp.
Drinking ayahuasca and hearing the jungle sing at night can be the most magical experience of a lifetime, but it’s really not for everyone. If you’re the type of person that would feel more comfortable in a more ‘western friendly’ setting, there are plenty of options for you too!
2 – ACCOMMODATIONS – What type of retreat are you looking for? Basic? Traditional? Eco-retreat? Luxury? How much comfort do you need? Are you looking to go completely off-grid without electricity? Is sustainability more important to you? Do you want to pampered in a 5-star resort? Do you just want to be comfortable and cared for with basic amenities provided? There are options for everyone! Then consider what kind of room you would be most comfortable in.
Most ayahuasca retreats offer a variety of accommodations to choose from with varying price. Some housing types include:
Camping – bring a tent or rent a tent, outdoor/shared bathrooms
Communal bunk house (1-15 people) – shared bathroom
Shared dormitory (1-4 people) – shared bathroom
Private room – private bathroom
Are you looking for a shared experience with others going through the same process? Do you prefer to have your own personal space? How much of a price difference is there in the retreat based on accommodation type? Is having your own bathroom important to you or are you comfortable sharing with multiple participants or using an outhouse? Each center is different and each person is different. Some travelers may find comfort and support in the proximity of the other participants while others prefer to have privacy to reflect on the experience.
There is no right answer but at NLA we always offer private rooms with attached private bathroom. Ayahuasca is a deeply personal experience and we want our guests to be in control of their process and their personal space. We are not a ‘luxury’ retreat but we provide a comfortable, compassionate and safe place to have an experience with ayahuasca while providing amenities that most westerns are accustomed to.
3 – SHAMAN – The ayahuasquero – shaman – facilitator will be the one that essentially determines the energy and flow of the experience so it is very important that you know who you will be drinking with and what the ceremonies will be like.
Some people feel very strongly that only indigenous peoples can be true shaman and work with ayahuasca. They believe that since ayahuasca originated in the Amazon that only natives from that area can have a true connection to the plants.
On the other hand, many westerns may feel more at ease drinking with a ‘gringo’. It is easier for one westerner to communicate to another westerner the struggles or stresses that affect them on a daily basis from a fast paced and materialistic society without trying to navigate language or cultural barriers.
Either way, whether indigenous or gringo – experience is key. Just because an individual is from the Amazon does not mean they are qualified to serve ayahuasca. On the other hand just because a Westerner is not from the Amazon does not mean they can’t be qualified to work with ayahausca. Ethnicity and skin color are irrelevant, the training and knowledge are what really matter. Information on the retreat facilitator should be available on the website, but if not feel free to ask questions. How long have they been serving ayahuasca? Where did they train and what traditions do they follow? Do they drink the medicine with the group to guide they experience? (the should!) The ayahuasquero is the person that will be accompanying you and guiding you into the great unknown – so get to know them and see if you are comfortable. From there we will move on to consider the ceremony itself.
4 – CEREMONY – Ayahuasca ceremonies can vary significantly from one retreat to the next. With the rise of ‘new age’ spirituality and the growing interest in ayahuasca, a number of different kinds of ceremonies are now offered. Some retreats go very nontraditional and play recorded music, electronic music or have a live music set up (think burning man/envision festival). Some don’t even offer a ceremony, only serve the brew and ‘sit’! The ceremony will guide your experience so it’s really important to know what kind of environment you will drink in. However, most ceremonies typically adhere primarily to one of the following most common ceremonial traditions:
Shipibo/Peruvian Traditions – spiritual practice, done at night, one ceremonial facilitator singing Icaros (medicine songs) for a group of participants
Santo Diame/Brazilian Traditions – religious organization, wears all white, members all participate in song and dance together
Some facilitators require silence for participants for the duration of ceremony, while others encourage you to ‘go where the medicine takes you’ (although in my opinion, this practice can be extremely distracting, especially in large groups).
5 – GROUP SIZE You will also want to know how many other people will be participating in ceremony with you. Some retreats can be as small as 3-5 people with others reaching up to 90 participants! That’s a lot of people to share such an intimate experience with, and also would require a lot of facilitators and assistants to maintain proper care of the space. Keep in mind that you, along with all the other participants, will be processing and releasing energy into the ceremony and those energies affect everyone in the group. Ayahuasca can be a form a release (purge) and sometimes the release is vocal through laughing/crying/moaning/talking so when you get ceremony groups with close to a hundred people there are bound to distractions. Personally, I do not recommend such large group sizes as it feels overwhelming and chaotic. New Life Ayahuasca limits our retreat groups to 10 or less.
6 – AYAHUASCA BREW – The ayahuasca brew is arguably the most important factor of any ayahuasca retreat. Without a quality brew, it doesn’t matter how great the center is or how skilled the shaman is. Of course, those things play a role but at the end of the day it is truly the ayahuasca that determines the value of your experience.
Ayahuasca brew is made by combining the vine ( Banisteriopsis caapi or b. caapi for short) with the leaves of a DMT containing plant such as chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana) or chacruna (Psychotria viridis). Some shamans add other plant materials to their brew such as tobacco or flowers to infuse the spirit into the medicine. Generally, this is okay and does not affect the quality or potency of the medicine, however there is one extremely poisonous and powerful hallucinogenic flower called Datura (Toé ) that can have dangerous effects.
With the boom of ayahuasca tourism to poor countries, some natives have seen this as an easy way to make money. Unfortunately, many of these people are unskilled and knowledgeable. Gringos come to their country expecting a magical psychedelic visionary experience (which is not always the case with ayahuasca) and they either don’t have the knowledge to make quality medicine or lack the resources, so they use Datura alone or mixed into weaker ayahuasca to increase the visionary aspect of the experience. Datura can be deadly in high doses and in lower doses can land you in the hospital for psychosis or disassociation.
Do not be afraid to ask about the source of the brew for your retreat. Ask if any additional plants are added. Ask if the shaman/facilitator drinks the same brew with the group.
7 – PRICES – Prices for an ayahuasca retreat can vary significantly based on a number of factors, many of which we have already mentioned (location, accommodation, facilitator etc.) A retreat in the jungle at a bare-bones camp will surely cost less than a retreat at a luxury resort. The cost of living in whichever country you choose will be a factor, as will the duration of the retreat and any extra therapies that are offered (yoga, massage, Kambo, breathwork, bodywork etc.) All factors considered, most ayahuasca retreats will fall somewhere in the $1000 – $3000 range for an average duration of 5-10 days. Be sure to ask if the retreat has any additional charges. Some centers will charge a base price for accommodations and then let the participant add services in an ‘al-a-carte’ fashion to customize their retreat at an additional cost.
We often see comments from people that are angry at retreat centers for charging for something that the earth gives for free. While we understand the sentiment behind these kinds of statements, it is important to remember that outside of the medicine, each retreat has overhead that needs to be considered (rent, utilities, food, staff etc.)
Additionally, when a shaman or ayahuasquero works in a ceremony, there is a vast amount of energy expelled. It is egocentric to expect that kind of work should be given to you for free. Even if you went to the jungle on your own and managed to find an experienced indigenous shaman who was willing to drink with you, they would still expect some kind of compensation for the time and work they put into the ceremony and healing.
8 – LENGTH– Most centers will offer different retreat lengths but how do you determine which duration you should attend or how many ceremonies you want to sit for? Retreats can range for 3 – 30 days but the most common retreats are 5 – 8 days with 2 or 3 ceremonies. This seems to be a very appropriate amount for first-time participants. Drinking ayahuasca can be difficult so unless you have the experience or are extremely committed to the process, any retreat over 10 days with more than 3-4 ceremonies might be too much. At NLA we offer 5 and 7 day retreats and even during the 7 day retreats we usually have a least a few participants that opt out of the 3rd ceremony because the feel they have too much to process from the first 2 experiences. The duration of the retreat really depends on the individual person and how the medicine sits with you.
9 – SAFETY PROTOCOL – Ayahuasca is generally considered to be very safe when used responsibly, but there are some medical conditions and medications that should not be combined with ayahuasca. Some interactions could be life threatening so it is extremely important that the center you choose has some kind of safety protocol in place. Are you asked to provide any medical history or disclose medications you may be taking? How would the center respond to a medical emergency? Does the staff have any experience responding to emergency situations? Have there ever been any incidents at the retreat? How far is the nearest medical facility? At the very least, every center should ask about any medications you may be taking as that is the biggest concern in regards ayahuasca safety.
10 – REPUTATION – Lastly, consider the overall reputation of the center. How long have they been operating? Do that have written or video testimonials? Are there reviews from multiple sources? (Google, Facebook, Retreat.guru, Website etc.) Search the name of the center and its facilitators to see if there have been any negative reports written about the center or staff. Before you book do you actually speak with someone from the center or is everything done online? You can always reach out to different communities to ask specific questions about any center you may be considering. Don’t be afraid to speak up! Ayahuasca has been growing in popularity and it is far more available now that years past but it is still one of the most powerful hallucinogens on earth, so be sure to do your due diligence and be completely confident in the retreat center you choose.