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What happens when you go to an ayahuasca retreat? A first-timer’s guide

A golden sun appears on a bed of molten-brown, churning thick liquid, like molé. The heat is oppressive, leaden.

A disembodied voice in my head, not mine, says, “Guatemala.” 

No, not Guatemala, I respond. 

In that moment, I have no idea what “Guatemala” means, but I know I don’t want to see it.

At night, at an altar lit by fires, stands a Mayan priestess in a headdress. She has a small knife, and she uses it to cut the heart that she will consume out of an infant in a sacrifice.

In an instant I recognize the priestess. She is me.

Disgust coils in my stomach.

I crawl to the edge of the bed and purge into the bucket. It looks red, like blood.

This is my third night of drinking ayahuasca. 

The night’s visions began with … a puppy, a terrier puppy trying to lick my face.

Aw cute. 

Wait. What the hell?

Shaman Taita Juanito blows smoke on  guest's face.
A guest at an ayahuasca retreat has his head in the clouds thanks to shaman Taita Juanito.

Is that my dog? Whose dog is that?

Why is the dog?



It’s not your dog. It’s not someone else’s dog.

It’s just a dog, expressing love. For you.

The Mother, or “Pachamama” as they call her, has a sense of humor.

The message — in this case, of the dog — is that you will be held in an unconditionally loving embrace, even as you “meet yourself” as a matter of course while taking the plant medicine.

Welcome to psychedelics.

I came to Costa Rica to do ayahuasca, after a friend suggested plant medicine during the collective freak-out at the beginning of the pandemic. A coach in LA suggested Rythmia as the only medically licensed place in the world to do ayahuasca. Admission requires that you pass a medical intake — if you have a heart condition or a history of psychotic disorders, you won’t be able to drink the medicine, and you have to prepare with a protocol that requires a strict diet — no alcohol or drugs for a period prior to arrival. The stay is medically supervised throughout. This setup is friendly and accessible to Westerners as it combines a therapeutic approach in a luxury resort carved out of the Costa Rican jungle where pumas and pythons roam. It’s all in aid of creating what in psychedelic circles, dating back to the 1960s, is known as the optimal (mind)set and setting necessary for a productive journey, or “trip.”

Psychedelics such as psilocybin (mushrooms) are being studied anew in clinical trials — built on research that was halted in the early 1970s with the war on drugs — for their proven benefit in a therapeutic setting for the treatment of Alzheimer’s, PTSD, anxiety and depression, addiction and eating disorders, among other health conditions. Among the entheogenic plants, ayahuasca will be a more complicated journey for approval for common use in the US given its religious ceremonial component. The hallucinogen in ayahuasca that makes it illegal in the US for common consumption is DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), classified as a Schedule I controlled substance — illegal to make, buy, possess or distribute. So seekers travel to countries such as Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Costa Rica for multi day ayahuasca retreats, costing an average of $3,500 a week at Rythmia, where participants are monitored for safety and have their psychoactive brew prepared by experienced shamans.

Ayahuasca is made from the stem of a vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub (Psychotria viridis) found in the Amazon rainforest, a formula presided over by indigenous tribes to form a plant medicine that is a sacrament taken from a young age in these communities for purposes of healing. That’s why they call ayahuasca “Pachamama,” or Mother Earth, a goddess they worship.

Taita Juanito playing guitar.

Read More:What happens when you go to an ayahuasca retreat? A first-timer’s guide

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