All About Ayahuasca Retreats: The Ceremony and Potential Risks

Going on a backpacking trip through South America is a dream for many; there’s unspoiled beauty and friendly locals to be found. But, there’s something else that pulls in visitors too: ayahuasca. Going on ayahuasca retreats is becoming more and more common. In fact, there are entire tour companies and activities based solely around Ayahuasca available in various South American countries.


So you’re not going into your ayahuasca journey completely blind, we’ve compiled a list of things you should know beforehand. Everything from the background on ayahuasca, to staying safe during your ayahuasca retreat and what you need to prepare.

Cultural Background

Let’s start off with the cultural significance of ayahuasca. Many travelers and people who have never taken ayahuasca before often neglect this aspect. But, it’s incredibly important. You’ll be taking part in a tradition that’s been going on for thousands of years. It’s not something that should be taken lightly; rather you should reflect on how significant ayahuasca has been throughout the years.


Ayahuasca has taken on a completely new meaning in recent ages. Many Westerners go on ayahuasca retreats hoping to find “enlightenment” and “self-awareness”, but these concepts did not exist in the lexicon of the indigenous south Americans before Europeans arrived. In fact, shamans aren’t there to help you find “meaning” and fulfil your spirit, but rather existed to cure the sick of the village.


If you’ve ventured through the Amazon Rainforest or other parts of Latin America, you’d know just how inhospitable it can be. With some parts having strikingly hot weather, carrying tropical diseases and numerous plants and animals that can kill you, shamans were crucial to the survival of tribes throughout the ages.


To reiterate: ayahuasca was used to heal by shamans, not to help those who feel lost in life or need a spiritual guide. The shaman’s role was to tend to his tribe and ayahuasca was one of the available options in his medicine cabinet.

The Ayahuasca Ceremony

The ceremony itself varies from region to region and shaman to shaman, though there are some common characteristics of an ayahuasca retreat. One of the most common places to go on an ayahuasca journey is in Peru. One thing that most ayahuasca ceremonies have in common: vomiting. The shaman will likely give you a mix of native plants that induce vomiting, or will let the effects of ayahuasca work their purging effects alone.


After “purging” you’re ready to drink the brew. The brew is almost always blessed by the shaman. Blessing the shamanic brew of ayahuasca involves singing songs known as “Icaro” (special songs sungs during ayahuasca retreats) and also blows tobacco smoke and flower water over the ayahuasca brew. The blowing of the smoke can go on before, after or during the ceremony as the shaman sees fit.


After blessing the brew, you’ll get your share of ayahuasca. The amount of ayahuasca depends on how much the shaman thinks you need. The shaman will read you to determine the appropriate amount of ayahuasca to give each participant.


Then, the signing comments. Tye shaman will usually start singing traditional ayahuasca ceremony songs as people begin feeling the effects of the ayahuasca. The singing goes on and on throughout the entire ceremony followed by moments of silence. The singing acts as a guide through the ayahuasca journey.


If there are any requests to heal a particular disease or ailment the shaman may perform other rituals on the participant. This often involves blowing more crushed tobacco smoke on the person and other special, sacred rituals.


Eventually, the effects will wear off and the participants head back to their own huts. But before heading to the huts to sleep the night away or ponder the experience with ayahuasca, the shaman will perform a closing ceremony. As you can see, the process of ayahuasca is very involved, but don’t worry; with the right shaman you’ll be in good hands.


Crime and Security. While many people travel through Latin America with no problems, it’s no secret that violence can be an issue. Whether it’s robbery, assault or other opportunistic crimes, these do happen at a higher rate in Latin America (with the exception of perhaps Uruguay) than other Western nations. Always be vigilant and be sure you trust the shaman you meet.


A Bad Blend of Ayahuasca. While there aren’t many dangerous chemicals in ayahuasca, there are a few. For example, there are a few brews that are high in the alkaloids known as scopolamine and atropine which are known to cause life-like hallucinations, serious poisoning and dehydration. While this is a risk, keep in mind that the chance of dying from an ayahuasca journey can happen but is extremely rare (virtually impossible if you get the right blend free of such harmful alkaloids).


A Sham Shaman. There are opportunists out there who may want to take advantage of seemingly “rich” tourists. They may try to change an exorbitant amount for a shaman retreat, or they may not even have the credentials to act as a shaman. There are criminals who pose as shamans to take money from visitors who may not even brew a proper ayahuasca brew. They'll likely act as “spiritual gurus” or “teachers” giving you fake life advice.

How to Choose the Right Ayahuasca Facility

There are a few critical questions you should be asking yourself before choosing an ayahuasca facility for your ayahuasca retreat or individual shaman. There are a couple important things to keep in mind. You should be checking to see the cleanliness of the facility, and whether or not the damn is integrated into the society. Oftentimes shamans are very normal people with kids and families, not the lone wolf “dage” type you may be thinking of. Also, be sure to ask the locals and be wary of any “shamans” that approach you on the street. Those that approach you are probably opportunists looking to make asale. Try to ask around and get the opinion of locals. Be sure to do your research and look at reviews if you go to a facility.

We have sourced the best Ayahuasca ingredients for you here.

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