Over the last 10 years, the ‘psychedelic retreat’ has entered the public consciousness. By now, you have almost certainly heard of them or know someone who has gone to one. They’re featured on Netflix; referenced as the ‘secret weapon’ of Silicon Valley; and espoused by celebrities such as American football player Aaron Rodgers, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and podcast personality Joe Rogan. With all of this interest and visibility, you’re right to wonder: what are they? Why does someone go? They can be expensive – is it worth it? I hear you can get quite sick, and sometimes the trip can even be dangerous. Is it something I should be thinking about?
Your author is quite intrigued by the rise of the retreats and the profound impacts they can have a person’s mental health. He spent February 2023 touring facilities and meeting operators all across Central America to distill the hype into reality. He visited ayahuasca retreats in Costa Rica, psilocybin retreats in Mexico, and learned about other powerful psychoactive ‘plant medicines’ such as ibogaine, bufo, and 5-MeO-DMT. With all of this context, we will help you understand whether a retreat is something you would personally benefit from.
1 Psychedelic Retreats: What are they?
A psychedelic retreat is more of an idea than a thing. There are many different kinds of psychedelic ‘retreats.’ They can be an independent hotel that welcomes guests on an ongoing basis. They may be tours organized by a therapist and held in a rented space. And sometimes, they may be in a shared room in a therapist’s own home. Wherever they are held, they share a few things in common:
1. They are meant to help you grow and heal. A visit to a psychedelic retreat includes at least one experience with a ‘plant medicine’, psychoactive substances like psilocybin and ayahuasca. It is becoming quite clear, through high-quality and peer-reviewed research, that these substances help the consumer access and deal with subconscious trauma in a much more visceral way. They ‘grease the wheels to help you do your work more efficiently. While a consumer doesn’t need to go on a retreat to consume these substances or to work with a therapist, the idea of being free from your daily routine and stresses will allow you to more thoroughly focus on your introspection.
2. To allow you to focus on your healing and growth, retreats tend to operate as ‘all-inclusive’ experiences; your itinerary, food, and transportation to and from the facility are all typically paid upfront, leaving you clear to focus on yourself.
One of the first things you will notice when looking at retreats is the cost, which can be considerable. Retreats will say that their clients ask for cost breakdowns to explain why the fees are exorbitant when ‘they can purchase some shrooms on the street back home for $50’. While retreats are expensive, it’s the cost of the practitioners that ultimately makes them so. Taking shrooms on the street may not help you reach your mental or spiritual goals much because you aren’t taking them while working with a therapist. Once your subconscious has been unlocked by the plant medicine, the practitioner goes to work, helping you document and understand the emotions and thoughts that surfaced during your experience. And while this considerable personal attention ain’t cheap, it’s necessary and far more effective.
Retreats may specialize in the use of a single plant medicine that they have been well-trained to administer or work with several at the same time (sometimes in direct response to your goals and personal profile). Some medicines have specific advantages over others at certain times. For example, ibogaine, derived from the iboga root native to West Africa, is emerging as the most powerful anti-addiction medication known to man. Some psychedelics have more intense experiences than others. Generally speaking, though, they work similarly, chemically enhancing ‘neuroplasticity’ to encourage the re-wiring of your neural pathways. Having an understanding of the particular plant medicine you’ll receive is an important part of deciding which retreat to attend.
2 Psychedelic retreats: Where are they? Who did we visit?
While Costa Rica and Mexico are popular destinations for retreats, there are many others spread across the world, either operating legally in plain sight (as in the Netherlands or Peru) or trying not to receive much attention throughout the United States. The legal status of these substances goes a long way to understanding where retreats operate and how easy it is to find them.
In February 2023, your author traversed Central America, visiting with over 30 retreat operators. Their operations were all quite unique. Some small and private, some large and somewhat corporate. They were sometimes in the middle of a city, sometimes in a remote jungle, and sometimes on a beautiful stretch of beach. And yet one aspect of our visits seemed quite common – the operator’s intentions. To be sure, we met operators who were equally focused on profit as they were on healing. But the vast majority of retreat operators have come to the calling because of personal experience. Many have used psychedelics to work through their own deep traumas and decided to open a practice to help people transform their lives in the way that theirs had been. Many actually spent time with the descendants of indigenous communities who have worked with these medicines for centuries, gaining critical first-hand expertise.
But don’t let this first-hand experience confuse you – many retreat operators are not formally trained in Western medical disciplines. To what degree that matters is a point of some contention, and serious adverse reactions to psychedelics are usually quite rare (if proper screening has been done). But it’s understandably something that you would want to ask about before you commit!
3 Well, I’m Curious About Going on Retreat…What Should I Ask About?
First off, you should take some time to consider why you’re going. What’s your intention? Are you looking for a spiritual journey to unlock creativity or a deeper understanding of yourself? Do you have specific traumas or issues that you’re struggling to deal with? A clear understanding of your objective and which specific plant medicines are best suited for these objectives will make it more likely that you will have a good experience. Frshminds.com offers a retreat selection guide to help you narrow down your options to the group of retreats that best suits your needs.
Second, it’s not all about the medicine, and your retreat operator should clearly understand that. You will want to hear them talk about preparation and integration – what to do before you arrive to ensure your experience is a good one and how to absorb the insights you gleaned from the medicine into your everyday life. If there isn’t a heavy emphasis on these two elements of the experience, keep looking.
Third – remember it’s your vacation. Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? There are benefits to being on a beach, of course. There are also benefits to the solitude and calm bestowed by a natural setting. Sometimes an itinerary will include offsite tours to other tourist spots in the area. And remember – while a location might be incredible, if it’s 4 hours from the airport, you have to factor that into your experience.
Finally, as retreats come in all shapes and sizes, so does their point-of-view on group sizes. Some refuse to accept more than even a single guest at a time, as giving their full attention is paramount. Some focus on the number of guests per practitioner. Group composition may also be a factor, as some retreats will offer all-female groups or intend to bring very similar or very different types of people and backgrounds together..
A First Step to a Deeper Understanding
Not everyone who goes on a retreat journey has a great experience. Some don’t profess to notice any positive change. Others did not enjoy the intensity of the experience. But most participants return home with a sense of profound growth. Most operators consider your growth to be their life’s work and are diligent in your care. It’s quite natural to feel nervous, but for those dealing with real traumas, a trip to a psychedelic retreat may, in fact, be better than the doctor ordered.