JOURNEY WITH AYAHUASCA
The Essential Guide to Having an Amazing Ayahuasca Experience
PART 2 – Ayahuasca Retreats
How To Choose A Suitable Ayahuasca Retreat
The safest, easiest, most hassle-free way of legally experiencing ayahuasca is to go on an ayahuasca retreat. The majority of retreat centers are currently located in Peru, but you can also find retreat centers in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
Ayahuasca retreats come in different flavors, and not all of them will appeal to your taste. Before you potentially spend a lot of money, it is essential to choose a retreat that is right for you. Your reasons for wanting to experience ayahuasca should influence your decision.
For example, are you looking for deep healing? Overcoming addictions? Shamanic training? Spiritual development? Or are you just curious? There are many reasons why people go in search of ayahuasca and not all ayahausca retreats are suitable for all purposes.
When looking for a suitable ayahuasca retreat, it is important to be aware of what your intention is and what you hope to achieve. As you research different retreat centers, keep your intention in mind and pay attention to your feelings about the places that interest you. Your intuition will always be right if you know how to listen to it.
Keep the following questions in mind when researching different Ayahuasca retreats.
– Why do you want to drink ayahuasca? Physical health, mental health, emotional health, spiritual health/exploration, trying something new, etc.? Answering this will automatically rule out some retreats and suggest others.
– What sort of group size do you feel comfortable with? Some retreats work with small groups of less than ten people. Others have group sizes of more than twenty.
– What level of comfort do you need? How much are you willing to pay for that? Again, answering this may narrow the options.
– Do you want to be in the jungle, or would you prefer a different type of location, such as the mountains, for example?
– Do you want to experience traditional ceremonies with a native shaman, or does it matter if the shaman is a westerner? A small number of retreat centers do not use native shamans to conduct the ceremonies.
– Do you want to be able to speak with the shamans and learn from them? Will there be someone available to translate your questions and answers (if you do not speak Spanish)?
– Are there experienced facilitators to guide you through the process? Good facilitators can help you get the most out of your experiences.
– What have other people said about the retreats that interest you? Is the feedback positive?
– What other activities/healing modalities are offered?
– Is the center run for profit or non-profit? Do they specify what they do with the money? This issue is important to some people.
– Is the ayahuasca retreat center sustainable?
If you are clear about the answers to these questions, then you should be able to find a retreat that is right for you. Always do as much research as necessary, and always trust your own internal guidance and intuition.
Another issue regarding safety during ayahuasca retreats is the preparedness of the center. Particularly with large groups there ought to be sitters or facilitators present. These are people who usually do not drink ayahuasca and who are there to help you when needed; guide you to the bathroom, or prevent you from wandering off into the jungle.
A good retreat center must also have an adequate first-aid kit on hand (and someone trained to use it), as it is not possible to call 911 from the middle of the jungle.
The best ayahuasca retreat centers support and invest in the communities where they are located. We must realize that the people here have long been exploited and abused by the newcomers. We owe them at least our gratitude for their hospitality, but also our service in helping them develop sustainable ways of living in and of the natural environment.
Book your ayahuasca retreat in advance
If you want to attend an ayahuasca retreat, particularly in Iquitos, please make a reservation in advance of arriving in Peru. Many of the best retreat centers sell out many weeks and sometimes months in advance. Recently I’ve noticed what seems to be an increasing trend of people arriving in Iquitos without having a reservation and then look for a retreat to join.
You may get lucky, and sometimes ayahuasca retreat centers do get last minute cancelations. However, if you have to choose a center simply because they have last minute availability and not because it is the best center for your needs, then you probably won’t have the best experience.
How to find reviews and feedback
Whether you decide to attend an organized ayahuasca retreat or prefer to work with an individual shaman; it is important you do your research and feel comfortable with the decision you make. Here are some places where you can find feedback and reviews:
As with almost anything these days, the best place to do your research is the internet. There are some websites that may provide information about any ayahuasca retreat center or shaman you are considering visiting.
Retreat Center’s own website
Many ayahuasca retreat centers publish testimonials on their own websites. Obviously, they will be very selective about what they publish, and it is possible they can make up reviews, but I would hope that centers would only publish genuine testimonials.
The ayahuasca.com discussion forum has been around for many years, and it is the largest and most active online forum on the subject of ayahuasca. There is a wealth of information here on all aspects of ayahuasca and forum members are generally very helpful.
A small number of ayahuasca retreat centers are listed on Trip Advisor, but not many.
Several Facebook discussion groups about ayahuasca are very active and frequently used by people seeking ayahuasca retreat recommendations. The most popular group is:
Ayahuasca Retreat Review sites
Various ayahuasca retreat review sites have sprung up over the years. Many of them list most of the ayahuasca retreat centers and allow people to leave reviews. Review sites that are available at the time of publishing include:
Aya Advisors – http://ayaadvisors.org/
Retreat Guru – http://retreat.guru/be/ayahuasca
Ayamundo – https://www.ayamundo.com/
Should you trust online reviews/testimonials?
Yes and no. Your intuition can play an important role when reading reviews and testimonials. It is important to be as skeptical of the bad reviews as well as the good reviews. Even in the supposed ‘spiritual’ world of ayahuasca, it is not unheard of for jealous morons to try to harm the reputation of their perceived competition.
Furthermore, people sometimes attend ayahuasca retreat centers with completely unrealistic expectations. They may not have done their homework properly, and as a result, they did not have the kind of experience they wanted. Then they go online and complain. These are all factors to consider when reading reviews.
What is a (good) shaman?
An Amazonian shaman is a healer, a medicine man, a doctor. And although they work as a bridge between the physical and the spiritual worlds, you should not look at them as spiritual gurus or holy priests. Even though they may seem to have super-human abilities, they are still just human beings who usually have many of the same flaws and imperfections as we do.
So please understand that there are reasonable and unreasonable expectations you can project onto a shaman. Just do not put them on a high pedestal and expect them to act like saints.
It is hard to say what makes a good shaman, but there are a few clues you can use to determine if a shaman is worthy of your time and money:
In my opinion, a good shaman:
• Is motivated only by healing and never uses their power to harm others.
• Should not charge extortionate fees or be solely motivated by financial gain.
• Never or rarely drinks alcohol.
• Is open and honest about the way he/she works.
• Does not abuse their power or get involved in power games.
• Never takes advantage of the opposite sex and does not get sexually involved with their patients.
• Should seem humble, and not have an inflated ego and not boast about having special powers.
• Is never pushy or use any kind of manipulation to get you to work with him.
• Will not tell you that he is the ONLY shaman that can possibly help you.
When to run!
It can be difficult to judge a shaman when you first meet him (or her). A friendly exterior may hide darker ulterior motives. Never feel obligated to remain with a shaman if you begin to feel he or she is not the person you originally thought they were. Look out for these warning signs, and run if you need to:
• Evidence of using brujeria/dark magic
• Always looking for ways of charging you more money
• Appears drunk sometimes
• Always secretive about the way they work
• They seem to take a sexual interest in you or others
• Seems manipulative and engages in power games with you or others
• They continually inflate your own ego.
What’s a Fair Price For Ayahuasca, Or Should You Even Pay?
The subject of money, and payment for a ‘spiritual service’, can be an incredibly divisive topic. It is a complex issue and opinions vary widely; however, I have read many opinions online where I think the writer has little knowledge of the culture here in Peru.
While doing your research, you may occasionally come across people stating that real shamans don’t charge money for their ayahuasca ceremonies and healing, and if they charge money, then it means they’ve become corrupted. This is not true, or certainly not in Peru.
There are essentially two types of shamans in Peru. First, there are the tribal shamans who are truly indigenous to the region, and who still live with their tribes deep in the Amazon jungle. They usually have little or no contact with outsiders.
Tribal people have little use for money, although that’s not to say they have no need for it. Sometimes they do trade with outsiders and buy modern tools and weapons.
Few people will ever have the chance to drink ayahuasca in an authentic tribal setting. If that is what you want to experience, then good luck with that. It will not be easy to achieve, and it will probably cost you quite a lot of money for transport and jungle guides to get you there. Then there is no guarantee these shamans will want to include you in their sacred ceremonies, or even let you into their village!
The other type of shaman in Peru is the mestizo curandero. Mestizo means ‘of mixed race’ and it is what most Peruvians have become over the last five hundred years since the Spanish invaded. Only a relatively small number of Peruvians can say they are 100% indigenous, most are mestizo.
Mestizo shamans evolved primarily out of the rubber boom period in the late 19th century. When the rubber tappers became sick, they usually did not have access to doctors. They often relied on the indigenous healers in the region to heal them from their sickness.
Some of these rubber tappers later apprenticed to the indigenous shamans and became shamans themselves. They used their knowledge and abilities to heal others. Over time, the mestizo shamans became the village healers for the thousands of small villages that were forming all around the Amazon basin in Peru.
The mestizo shamans have almost always performed their services for payment. It may not always have been a monetary payment: it may have been in the form of food (such as chicken or fish), supplies, or whatever the patient was able to offer. However, the patient was always expected to give something in exchange for the service the shaman provided. Reciprocity is an important spiritual concept, particularly in Peru, so please remember that, next time you want to argue that ayahuasca should be free. What would you be giving back, exactly?
Almost all the shamans you are likely to meet in Peru are mestizo shamans (or Shipibo shamans, who are indigenous but have mostly adapted to modern life in Peru). They do what they do to make a living – it is a job for them as well as a spiritual calling. Many have large families to support, they have houses and bills to pay, and they need to make a living like everyone else.
Therefore, asking for payment has nothing to do with corruption; it is the way things have always been for them. If you do not agree with it, then simply do not come here. Although it is fair to say that some shamans have certainly become corrupted by money and fame.
The question then arises; what is a fair payment? It is all relative, and that is for you to decide. Most shamans operating in their own home will charge between fifty and one hundred soles (approximately $15 to $33) per ceremony. The shamans that own their own ayahuasca retreat centers will sometimes charge more (usually between $50 and $100 per ceremony).
The various ayahuasca retreat centers charge the most money, and it is here where much of the controversy lies. Some ayahuasca retreat centers in Peru do charge a lot of money and are clearly targeting wealthy people because their prices are out of reach even for the average westerner.
However, (speaking from experience) I know that running an ayahuasca retreat center can cost a lot of money. Some centers employ dozens of staff, provide high quality food, plus transport, supplies, constant maintenance etc. – it all adds up to a lot more than you would expect. I ran a small operation with a fairly small number of staff, and our fixed outgoings were well over $10,000 per month.
Ultimately, it is for each individual to decide what they agree and do not agree with, and what they feel comfortable supporting.
It is worth considering that the amount of money charged is perhaps far less important than what then happens to the money. If most of the money is flowing into one person’s bank account and making them rich, then that is certainly not very cool. If, on the other hand, the money is put towards worthwhile causes that benefit the local communities, the Amazon, or something else important, then that is a positive thing to support because more people benefit.
Not all retreat centers are expensive and providing you can afford the air fares to Peru, you should be able to find something that is within your budget. Experiencing safe and authentic ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru certainly does not have to cost the earth.
The Ayahuasca Diet
You have probably come across several mentions of the ayahuasca diet in your research. But what is it all about, and is it necessary?
There are essentially two diets with regards to ayahuasca, but often they get lumped into being the same thing (which they are not).
The ayahuasca safety diet
As you may recall from Part 1, the ayahuasca vine is an MAOI, which blocks an enzyme called monoamine oxidase, which breaks down excess tyramine in the body. Tyramine is an amino acid that helps regulate blood pressure and it is found in many different foods.
However, if you eat foods containing tyramine while taking an MAOI, tyramine can reach dangerous levels in the body. This can potentially lead to a sudden spike in blood pressure, to stroke, brain hemorrhage, and theoretically death.
Therefore, I would recommend avoiding foods high in tyramine for about 24 hours before drinking ayahuasca. Now, it is extremely unlikely, perhaps impossible that anyone would die this way. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no reported deaths from drinking ayahuasca after eating foods high in tyramine. It is more likely that you would get a severe headache.
Foods that contain tyramine include:
Fermented foods like soya sauce/Tamari, soya bean paste/curd (like Miso or Tofu), beer, vermouth, wine, aged/mouldy cheese (cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss cheese, blue cheese), yeast, mature avocado, eggplant, figs, grapes, pineapple, plums, raisins, prunes, broad beans, fava beans, lentils, peanuts, dried milk, sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, chocolate, Vegemite and sauerkraut.
For a more complete list see:
The shamanic diet (or dieta)
Shamans from the Amazon say that by eating certain types of food and avoiding others, we begin the process of cleansing, which enables our bodies to become far more sensitive to working with the plant spirits.
This is undoubtedly true to anyone who has experienced a proper shamanic dieta for themselves. It is important to remember that shamanic knowledge is practical knowledge. It is not based on belief; it is based on what has been tested and what works.
If you really want to get the most out of your ayahuasca experience, I recommend following the shamans’ advice. This means avoiding the following foods and activities:
– Hot peppers or anything spicy in general
– Onions or garlic
– Salt (a small amount is usually ok)
– processed sugar
– Caffeine or any kind of stimulant
– Oil or fried foods
– Sexual stimulation, including masturbation
In the jungle, the foods that you’re allowed to eat are limited mostly to plantain, potato, yucca, rice, some chicken, and fish.
If you are starting the diet back home, it is fine to eat a greater variety of fruit, vegetables, grains and pulses. Just keep your diet simple, natural and organic as much as possible, with no spices or stimulants.
Yes, it is hard for most people, but it is an excellent exercise in self-discipline, and not giving into what the ego craves. It also demonstrates to the spirit of ayahuasca that you’re taking the work seriously. Therefore, you should stick to the diet if for nothing more than showing respect for the sacred journey you are about to embark on.
You should start the diet at least 24 hours before you drink ayahuasca; however, I strongly recommend you start three to five days before. One week is even better.
You may read or hear reports from people who say the diet is unnecessary and that it makes no difference. That may be true for them and for some people. However, in my experience of running retreats, the majority of people who stick to the shamanic dieta as much as possible do tend to have deeper and more powerful ayahuasca experiences.
If you’re in a position to work with ayahuasca on a long-term basis, you can always experiment with the diet and find what works best for you. However, if you are coming to Peru for what might be a once in a lifetime experience, you should do everything possible to increase your chances of having deeper and more powerful ayahuasca journeys.
How Many Ceremonies Should You Do?
The number of times you should drink ayahuasca varies for each individual and largely depends on the reason you want to drink.
If you wish to experience ayahuasca because you’re curious or mainly for personal growth reasons then I recommend that you take part in at least three or four ceremonies, ideally within a relatively short period of time such as a week or ten days.
Ayahuasca healing is always a process, and very few people receive the healing or insights they need from just one ceremony. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to feel little effect during their first one or two ceremonies.
The first two ceremonies often serve to purge and cleanse the body, while preparing you for the full benefits of ayahuasca later on. You may experience fewer visions and/or revelations. This is one reason why it is important to start the shamanic diet about a week before you drink ayahuasca for the first time because it is a powerful way of beginning the cleansing process.
Often people are surprised by the fact that they hardly feel any effects the first few times they drink. They say; “If ayahuasca is so powerful, why aren’t I feeling anything?”
The reason is simply that ayahuasca is a spiritual experience. The intensity of the experience has little to do with chemical interactions or the size of the dose. If the spirit of ayahuasca is not able to enter you fully, then you will not feel many effects, no matter how many cups you drink. This is simply because of your own energetic blockages, which can sometimes take a while to clear.
For a small percentage of people, the initial cleansing process can last between five and ten ceremonies. They will experience very few effects at all, apart from purging perhaps. However, the majority of people will have a powerful experience by their second or third ceremony.
If you want to work with ayahuasca to heal from serious health or emotional/trauma based issues, or long-term addictions, then you may need much longer than just a week and a few ceremonies. If possible, you should consider giving yourself several weeks or even a month or two of intensive medicine work to give yourself the best chance of receiving the healing you need.
Please be aware that there are never any guarantees regarding what kind of experience you will have with ayahuasca. Each ceremony is different for each person who takes part, and it may even be that you do not get any results at all. It is hard to say what the reason for this is; you just have to trust in ayahuasca to do (or not do) what is right for you at the time.