Psychedelic Safety: How to Choose a Psychedelic Retreat–A Basic Guide

The decision to go on a psychedelic retreat can be both exciting and terrifying. With hundreds of retreats around the world to choose from, the options can also seem overwhelming. 

So, how do you choose a psychedelic retreat? 

When looking for a psychedelic retreat, the main factor to consider is your safety, both in terms of the substance you take and the care you receive during the retreat.

In this article, we discuss some of the most common psychedelics, how to find safe psychedelic retreat centers, and additional tips for staying safe during your retreat. 

How to Find a Safe Psychedelic Retreat

Before considering a  retreat center, it is important to consider the different types of psychedelics available. Finding the right  medicine for you is as important as finding a safe space to experience it. Finding a retreat center is not a one-size-fits-all process. The process will vary widely,  depending on the substance or plant medicine being consumed and the intentions of the participant. 

Remember that each substance has different risks, benefits, length of effect, and chemical composition. Personal responsibility and information are key components of safety. The best way to ensure your safety on a retreat is to research the substance thoroughly and be clear on the risks and benefits, so you understand what to expect from your experience. Don’t simply accept what retreat guides and leaders tell you without doing your own research first. 

Types of Psychedelics 

There are many psychedelic substances to choose from, and a plethora of retreat types around the globe. Before you can choose a retreat center, it is important to decide which substance is right for you. 

While there are some commonalities among psychedelics, each substance will provide a qualitatively different experience. Some of the most common psychedelics and entheogenic plant medicines are described below.

Ayahuasca 

Ayahuasca is a plant substance  that comes from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub mixed with the bark of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. These two elements combine in a tea-like brew. Ayahuasca was first used among Amazonian tribes for medicinal and spiritual purposes. In addition to ongoing indigenous use, this ancient medicine is considered a sacrament by certain religious communities, primarily established churches in Brazil and North America, such as the Santo Daime and União do Vegetal. Traditionally, the beverage is intended to be given under the care of an ayahuasquero, shaman or curandero (“healer”) as they are experienced guides and traditional leaders of ayahuasca ceremonies. 

The ayahuasquero prepares the brew through an extensive process of boiling the leaves and bark in water. Before boiling, the vines are cleaned and smashed in order to extract the medicinal components. Once the brew has reduced over a period of many hours, the water is removed. This process is repeated until the liquid is as concentrated as desired; it is then strained to remove particles. 

Both components of ayahuasca have hallucinogenic properties. The Psychotria viridis naturally contains DMT, a powerful chemical that causes visions and bright colors. Since DMT is easily broken down in the body by the enzyme monoamine oxidases (MAOs), it must be combined with MAO inhibitors (MAOI) to maintain the effects of the DMT. 

The Banisteriopsis caapi is combined with the DMT-containing plant because the vine  is a MAOI, but the vine alone also has psychoactive effects. Once the two plants are mixed, the resulting brew affects the central nervous system, causing powerful visions, insights, out-of-body experiences, and heightened senses. Because of its potency, ayahuasca is often used in a therapeutic context for those seeking to open their minds, heal from past traumas, address addictions, and gain a deeper level of self-knowledge. 

It is strongly recommended only to take ayahuasca under the supervision of an experienced ayahuasquero or guide. Skilled guides train for years to be able to prepare, or “pour”, ayahuasca and they are the most familiar with the effects, which can be wide-ranging and dramatic. A skilled guide can watch over you as you experience the brew’s power. The effects of ayahuasca typically last for four to eight hours (sometimes longer), and adequate supervision is necessary  to ensure optimal safety. 

Certain dietary and lifestyle changes are also recommended prior to an ayahuasca experience. Before taking ayahuasca, it is recommended to avoid indulging in cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, sex, and caffeine for a minimum of three days prior to the experience, as well as following a vegetarian or vegan diet for two to four weeks before taking the medicine. These recommendations are designed to free the body from toxins, thereby maximizing sensitivity and creating a proper sense of intention and commitment. 

Pros and Cons of Ayahuasca

One of the defining qualities of ayahuasca is its effect as a powerful purgative, physically and psychologically. After consuming ayahuasca, it is common to experience vomiting, diarrhea, crying, and various forms of fear or anxiety. The purging effects are considered a normal part of the cleansing of the body and mind that comes with the experience. While many participants feel enlightened and euphoric, others experience severe anxiety and panic at some point during the ceremony. During a workshop or retreat lasting several days, there is often a coherent trajectory in which the first ceremonies have a more difficult or challenging component, while the final ceremonies are more joyful and light. However, this varies from person to person. Most commonly, you will experience both ends of the spectrum at some point.

There are also medical considerations in relation to taking ayahuasca. There should always be trained staff on hand at retreats in case of emergencies, with a minimum of basic First Aid knowledge (and preferably additional training). With ayahuasca, there are various medical contra-indications, such as:

  • Ayahuasca can react dangerously with certain medications, including antidepressants, most psychiatric medications, Parkinson’s disease drugs, cough medicine, weight loss medications, and more. For a full list of contraindicated medications, click here.
  • Ayahuasca should not generally be taken by those with psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, as it can potentially worsen psychotic symptoms and cause mania. If in doubt, consult an experienced facilitator and always disclose any diagnoses you might have.
  • Ayahuasca can increase heart rate and blood pressure. This is dangerous for those with heart conditions or chronic high blood pressure.
  • If you take too high of a dosage or add other ingredients, ayahuasca can result in death. Always know the components of the brew you are drinking and check to see if other ingredients have been added. Never mix ayahuasca with 5-MeO-DMT, bufo, iboga, or alcohol. 

Because of these risks, it is important to only take the plant medicine under the supervision of a trained curandero, facilitator, or guide who is familiar with the dosing and can advise you on the risks with your medications. 

There are also some powerful benefits to ayahuasca, which is why ayahuasca is such a common substance to use on retreats. Some of the benefits include:

Click here to read about the Top 16 Benefits of Ayahuasca.

The benefits listed above are some of the common reasons people choose ayahuasca retreats, on top of looking to have a spiritual and awakening experience. 

Ayahuasca Retreats

If you wish to participate in an ayahuasca retreat, the key to finding a safe retreat is to pay careful attention regarding who is pouring, or administering, the medication, as well as the safety precautions that have been set in place. Location is also a key factor. If it is important for you to experience a retreat that takes place in more of a traditional context, the best places to consider are Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. Although traditional ceremonies and retreats are held in North America and Europe, legal restrictions are in place in most countries. 

Regardless of where you travel for your retreat, avoid signing up for any retreat that is not administered by an experienced curandero, facilitator or highly-trained guide. This will avoid any improper dosing and ensure that you are well cared for and looked after during the course of your time on the ayahuasca. 

Another thing to gauge is the way that a retreat markets itself. Watch out for retreat centers that make sweeping promises or guarantee certain results. While ayahuasca can offer powerful benefits in many areas, and can be life-changing, positive results are not guaranteed, ever. Reactions to the ayahuasca experience can vary widely from person to person, depending on many factors. Beware of dramatic marketing promises and sales pitches that guarantee “miracles,” as such centers use marketing techniques to establish unrealistic expectations that can lead to devastating disappointments. 

Finally, be cautious of self-organized journeys. While there are many anecdotes of successful solo experiences, the dangers are much more pronounced. If you are self-administering, you are at high risk for overdosing or being unsafe while under the influence. 

Psilocybin or “Magic Mushrooms”

For those who are not ready to take the leap into the intensity of an ayahuasca retreat, psilocybin mushrooms offer a great starting point. Luckily, there are legal options for magic mushroom retreats that are less intense and challenging than ayahuasca retreats, while still offering the potential for a transformative experience.

The active chemical in magic mushrooms that causes visions and altered perceptions is called psilocybin. Psilocybin creates an experience similar to ayahuasca as the chemical is pharmacologically related to DMT. However, a mushroom journey is often (though not always) a gentler experience. Those who take it usually do not experience strong purging, and the experience is not usually as overwhelming as that of ayahuasca, especially at lower doses. 

Psilocybin offers a gentler way to experience psychedelics and, for many, a starting place before jumping into a more intense experience. While psilocybin still offers a powerful journey, it is not quite as unpredictable as ayahuasca. 

Another difference is the length of the retreat. Ayahuasca retreats can be up to two weeks long, while psilocybin retreats are generally shorter. Psilocybin retreats are generally a few days to a maximum of a week, where up to five sessions take place. The most common places to find these retreats include Jamaica, Mexico, and the Netherlands. 

In the countries where retreats are legal, such as those listed above, psilocybin truffles (the roots of the mushroom) are used rather than the whole mushroom.

Pros and Cons of Psilocybin

All current evidence suggests that psilocybin is not addictive. However, mushrooms can have some negative side effects, most notably:

  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired concentration
  • Muscle weakness and lack of coordination 
  • Nausea
  • Paranoia 
  • Confusion 
  • Frightening visions
  • Vomiting 

These effects are typically less severe than those of ayahuasca and vary widely between people. As with all psychedelics, the experience one has is often highly dependent on set and setting: one’s mental state, or mindset, going into the experience, and the environment (setting) one is in while taking the psilocybin.

Those who have mental health issues or have high anxiety often will have a higher risk of having a poor experience. However, generally, psychological distress is most common in those who use psilocybin recreationally, rather than for personal growth or spiritual reasons.

The majority of risks that come with taking mushrooms occur when the mushrooms are taken recreationally and unsupervised. This can result in increased distress or reckless behavior such as driving while under the influence. It is highly recommended to avoid taking magic mushrooms without supervision or somebody who is aware of the dosing and risks.

There are also benefits of taking psilocybin; some of the most common benefits include:

  • Euphoria
  • Peacefulness 
  • Profound personal insights
  • Spiritual awakening 

On top of these positive emotions, there is increasing evidence for psilocybin as a highly effective treatment for depression and anxiety

Psilocybin Retreats

The most important thing when considering the location for a retreat is the legality of psilocybin in that region. In areas where psilocybin retreats are legal, there is no risk of legal repercussions.

Iboga 

Iboga, or ibogaine (the active component of the iboga plant), is often thought to offer the most intense experience of all of the psychedelic plant medicines. This is in part because the ibogaine experience  is long-lasting and extremely intense. Those who take ibogaine often have dreamlike effects that affect them for longer periods, with journeys often lasting 24 hours or longer. This substance induces a very potent trip and often leaves users with reality-shattering awakenings. 

Iboga is known to offer a heightened state of introspection and often leaves a participant with life-altering realizations, as well as a strong sense of physical wellbeing. Because of this, the substance is often used as a tool to bring healing for addiction. Early studies have shown a remarkable efficacy in treating substance addiction, including opioid addictions. Since ibogaine has started to be used more widely for addiction treatment,  it has gained more legality around the world. 

Iboga Retreats

The plant itself originates in central Africa; however, the most common retreat centers currently are in Canada, Mexico, Portugal, and Costa Rica. Many retreat centers available for ibogaine are oriented towards recovery programs and curbing drug and alcohol addiction. If this is not the reason you are interested in a retreat, take care to ensure the center you have found does not have specific clientele requirements. 

It is also critical to note that there are a variety of iboga plants and, therefore, different substances you can consume. While ibogaine is going to be optimal for opioid addiction, other iboga concentrates are primarily used for their spiritual and healing powers. Before embarking on a plant journey with iboga, be sure you know exactly what variety you are taking.

Unlike other common psychedelics, iboga comes with a range of serious physical risks. Improper use can result in death. Iboga should not be consumed by participants with heart problems, a history of blood pressure issues, liver problems, kidney problems, or people who are currently going through withdrawal from alcohol or other drugs.  When choosing an iboga retreat, it is essential that there are trained medical staff on hand to treat medical emergencies. Participants also need to undergo a thorough medical examination before embarking on treatment at a center.  If a center does not have stringent medical requirements, it is highly unlikely that it is a reputable, trustworthy organization.

General Safety Precautions

Once a specific type of retreat or experience is selected, it is important to consider general safety guidelines. Prior to making a commitment to any retreat center, do your research thoroughly. There are a few factors that are especially important to consider before booking. 

Screening Protocols

Excellent retreat centers always screen their participants. This is important because psychedelics are not equally suitable for all individuals, and can be negatively indicated for some people. Always ask openly about safety precautions at the retreat center of your choice. A respectable, reputable center should have clear, comprehensive guidelines, from initial intake to preparation. Be sure to inquire about emergency protocols and procedures. Trustworthy organizations will never take offense or act surprised at being questioned about protocols, as safety should be a top priority. A center that is lax or nonchalant about safety precautions, or that acts defensive or offended when asked about this topic, is likely not the best retreat to choose. 

Credentials

Among the most important factors to consider when choosing a retreat is the credentials the center holds, reviews and testimonials from previous participants, and the credentials of those who are administering the medicine to users. Psychedelic Experience’s review system can help you see what other people’s experiences have been with a particular retreat center or organization.

On any retreat, it is critical that the person pouring the medicine is an experienced curandero (healer, or shaman) or a highly-trained guide. If the staff is not trained properly in healing and the history of the plant medicine, your safety is severely compromised. This issue is increasingly important with psychedelics like ayahuasca and iboga that are more intense and require constant supervision during sessions. Always verify your guide’s credentials and get objective testimonials from previous participants, whenever possible. Ask about your guide’s training and spiritual lineage. Most experienced facilitators train for many years.

Even for retreats for less risky substances, such as psilocybin, it is important to know the credentials of those running the retreat. Checking credentials not only ensures you are signing up with an organization that is legitimate and respectable, but also that you are receiving the proper dose and care while staying at the retreat center. 

Aftercare and Integration Options

Your retreat experience does not end the moment you step out of ceremony, or when you return to your home. The intense revelations and insights are likely to continue for weeks, if not months or years to come. When selecting a retreat center, always ask about aftercare and integration options. A trustworthy retreat should have on-staff therapists or coaches who are trained in psychedelic integration. These staff members should not only be on-call during the retreat, but should also be available to you in the days, weeks, and months following the retreat. A lack of integration support structure is dangerous, as it can leave participants feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the retreat experience. 

Mental and Physical Health Considerations

Be conscious of your own mental and physical health before committing to take a mind-altering substance. Taking any psychedelic substance will impact the way you are experiencing reality within your body. Engage in a process of serious self-examination and reflection prior to the experience. Be as clear as possible regarding your intentions and goals. Implementing a daily meditation practice is useful, along with journaling. In some instances, it is helpful to engage in talk therapy or other types of psychotherapy prior to a psychedelic experience, as a way to prepare a foundation for inner work. In terms of physical readiness, get a thorough physical exam from your doctor and be aware of any possible considerations or contra-indications that need to be discussed with your curandero, facilitator, or guide. 

Disabilities

If you have physical disabilities, this does not mean you cannot take psychedelic substances. Rather, before going on your retreat, be sure to speak with the staff or director to ensure they are able to accommodate you appropriately. This not only accounts for taking extra care while you are under the influence but also ensuring the retreat center is accessible for your particular needs. 

If you have a history of psychological illnesses or mental disorders, it is important to talk with your primary psychologist or psychiatrist about the risks you may take by using one of these substances. If you are on medication, certain psychedelics can react negatively with that medication and result in life-threatening side effects. Always fully disclose medications when applying for a retreat.

In addition to speaking with your doctors about your planned experience, it is also critical that you talk with the retreat staff and director about pre-existing conditions you may have. Being open and honest about the medication you may be on, or the mental illnesses you may struggle with, is crucial for your safety. This not only ensures that they are clear on exactly how they can be of assistance to you while you are staying at the retreat, but also that they have the opportunity to advise you on whether or not it is safe for you to join them at their retreat center. 

Environment

The next thing to consider is the environment, or setting, you are in while you are on a psychedelic journey. One of the most important things is that you feel completely safe and comfortable. If you do not feel safe in your environment, you may experience higher levels of anxiety and therefore be more susceptible to having a challenging experience or “bad trip.” 

Ensuring you are comfortable in your surroundings will  increase the chances of a positive and life-changing experience. Some retreat centers have basic, rustic accommodations in the middle of the jungle, while others resemble 5-star luxury resorts. Determine which style is best for you and thoroughly research the location and the amenities offered. If you feel especially safe and relaxed out in nature, look for retreats that are more in touch with the natural environment. 

Reciprocity and Sustainability

When choosing a retreat center, it is worth considering the ways in which they engage in reciprocity with their local communities. Many retreat centers are located in developing countries and have close ties with indigenous communities. Some of these connections are maintained respectfully, with sound intentions, while others are not. Unfortunately, exploitation and a lack of consideration for local people and the environment continue to be a problem. Reciprocity and sustainability are important issues for the psychedelic community, especially as psychedelics gain in popularity and the overall number of Western participants continues to increase. Consider asking retreat centers the following questions:

  • How do you engage with local communities?
  • In which ways do you reciprocate with these communities?
  • How do you sure that engagement is respectful and ethical?
  • How are you addressing sustainability issues?
  • Where and how do you source your materials?

If there is a collective effort to establish and maintain accountability, we can work together for a more sustainable, cooperative world.

Legality 

Finally, it’s crucial to research the legality of the substance in the region where you are looking for retreats. Certain substances are not yet legal in all areas of the world or have limited legality. 

In the case of psilocybin, some forms are legal in some countries (such as magic truffles in the Netherlands) while others are not legal. When searching for a retreat center, be sure to look in a country or region where the substance is legal. If the substance is not legal in any region, such as MDMA, reconsider your plans for recreational use or a retreat, as you may be putting yourself at risk.

If you are looking for a certain retreat and know that the drug you are hoping to take is not legal in the area, it is likely the center is not legitimate and may be compromising your health and welfare. 

Final Thoughts…

A psychedelic retreat can be an eye-opening and transformational experience. A  retreat is a great idea for those who are looking to engage in some serious inner work, reduce stress or work through limiting beliefs, traumas, or addictions. A psychedelic retreat is also a good fit for those who are looking for a spiritual experience to help reach deep insights about the nature of the self.

If you have the resources to travel internationally for a retreat, there are more options, as the majority of retreat centers are in Central and South America. This is primarily because of more relaxed laws around the use of entheogenic substances, and because these retreats are rooted in traditions centered around plants from these regions. 

Be sure to understand your needs and prioritize your safety when looking for the optimal retreat center. If these considerations are secondary to exotic tourism or a desire for a luxury vacation, you may be setting yourself up for a harrowing, negative experience. Along with the qualifications of the facility and guide, mindset and setting will determine the quality of your experience.

Ask openly about safety precautions at the retreat center of your choice. A respectable, reputable center should have clear, comprehensive guidelines, from initial intake to after-care. Be sure to inquire about emergency protocols and procedures. A center that is lax or nonchalant about safety precautions is likely not the best retreat to choose. 

Once you have chosen your psychedelic medicine, you should consider all of these  factors before booking  to ensure you put your safety first and that you are in the most suitable retreat center for your needs.