A first-timer’s trip guide to an ayahuasca retreat

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.
Rhythmic music plays a large part in an ayahuasca ceremony as shaman Taita Juanito takes to the guitar.

The shamans at Rythmia are trained by a Colombian tribe called the Inga, descendants of the Inca, who are ethnobotanists and masters of yagé. According to “The Medicine,” a 2019 documentary featuring the Ingas’ spiritual leader Taita Juanito, when conquistadors arrived on South American shores, their priests drank ayahuasca and then forbade its use. The natives then hid the plant medicine they had been using for hundreds of years. 

But now, the tribes feel it’s time to share.

“I loved what it did for me.”

Miley Cyrus

When the DMT in the shrub combined with monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) in the vine is blended into a tea and taken orally, it blocks the brain’s default mode, allowing new connections and pathways to form, achieving an altered state of awareness.

The Hollywood community re-discovered it more than a decade ago. Ayahuasca was introduced to modern culture in 1963 with “The Yage Letters,” in which Beat generation authors William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg chronicled their journeys with the psychedelic tea in the Amazon through the 1950’s. Early adopters like Paul Simon tried ayahuasca after a failed project, releasing the song “Spirit Voices” about his experience in 1990, and Sting credited it in his 2005 autobiography as the closest thing to a religious experience he’d ever had. But more recently, many were quietly turning to the plant medicine not only for healing trauma but for creativity. Reports from ceremonies conducted privately in living rooms say the yield has included not only suppressed emotions and memories, but things like the “Game of Thrones” opening credit sequence. 

A side by side of Miley Cyrus and Will Smith.
Brew crew: Miley Cyrus and Will Smith have both enjoyed the hallucinogenic elixir.
Getty Images

Since late 2020, celebrities as diverse as Chris Rock and Miley Cyrus have gone public about their use, with Cyrus telling Rolling Stone that, in 2013, the snakes took her to Mama Aya. “I loved what it did for me,” she said.

Most recently, Will Smith detailed eight pages in his 2021 memoir “Will” about taking the tea in more than 14 trips on a retreat in Peru after having marital problems. 

 “This was my first taste of freedom,” he wrote. “In my fifty plus years on this planet, this was the unparalleled greatest feeling I’ve ever had.” But Smith’s revelations come with a disclaimer: “I do not condone, nor do I suggest the use of ayahuasca or any substance without professional medical prescription and supervision.” He shared that of his 14 trips, Mother Ayahuasca showed up in eight, and in three of the six where she did not “were among the most hellish psychological experiences I’ve ever endured.”

Megan Fox told Jimmy Kimmel that on her second night of her ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica she went to “hell for eternity.” People interpreted that as meaning she had a bad experience. What she explained was that ayahuasca “surpasses anything like talk therapy” and makes you surrender to “your psychological prison that you hold yourself in, your own version of hell.”

A shot of Megan Fox on Jimmy Kimmel.
Megan Fox said she went to “hell for eternity” on ayahuasca — in a good way.
Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images

In other words, there is value in the unpleasant trip. She said she had “a real ego death.” Ayahuasca is said to be the closest thing to a near-death experience. Having to fight to survive “death” is a common experience in psychedelics and one that confronts you with fears and discomfort and forces you to push through. The reward is the calm of wisdom and gratitude on the other side.

My first “pinta,” as they call visions, after the very first cup I took, was of vines that writhed and coiled in and around one another like snakes. They were technicolor green, cartoon-like and they looped and writhed seemingly to the beat of the songs being played in the maloca, the ceremonial space where the ayahuasca ceremonies are performed.

The retreat involves drinking the tea four nights in a row. By the seventh day, some sort of breakthrough will have occurred. Ayahuasca is like 10 years of therapy in a few hours, some say. The active ingredient breaks down your defenses to let the suppressed, repressed emotions and memories come up. It’s been proven to improve neuroplasticity of the brain, forming new pathways. The experiential nature of the “trips” makes realizations stick. People tend to make significant life choices in the days, weeks and months afterwards. Many report they were positive.

Shaman preparing at an ayahuasca retreat.
Much prep goes into the ceremony by the shamans at Rythmia.
Steffen Hoffman

My first two days were spent easing in with orientation and preparing for the first night of drinking. Yoga in the morning, and the first of several breath work classes, a technique that can achieve the same altered state as ayahuasca. Guest speaker Ben Decker taught a class on meditation and led us through an eye-gazing exercise. The facilitators each spoke about their own experiences with ayahuasca and how they came to be involved in the retreat, and offered up lessons in the importance of preparing the mindset and intention setting before the ceremony. We received an introduction to plant medicine and what to expect, and the exact location and number of the bathrooms.

During each of the four nights of the ceremony, the group of 60 lined up outside the maloca, and at 5:30 pm, they were let in and free to take a spot on one of the beds lined up around the room. A bucket and toilet paper sat menacingly at the base of each one.

I took a seat between a magazine writer and a hedge fund manager.

The shaman presiding over that night’s events called the group to gather and gave a freestyle pep talk to prepare for the ceremony.

Beds at the Ayahuasca retreat.
Ayahuasca beds at the retreat come with very much appreciated toilet paper and buckets.
Steffen Hoffman

They then sat and watched as the shamans and assistants prepared the ayahuasca and performed the ritual of blessing the medicine. The shamans, facilitators and musicians all drank the medicine, too.

The drinking began after sundown. The shaman called for people to come and receive the first cup. People lined up and brought their ceramic shot glass to be filled with the sludgy brown brew. They stated their intention, drank in front of the shaman and then returned to their bed and sat upright for 30 minutes, waiting for the medicine to make them “drunk.”

And so it began.

For some, it begins earlier than others. I met someone who, as soon as they put back their first cup of medicine, threw it back up on the shaman.

The shaman’s response? “Did you get any of that?” 

An exterior of a maloca at night.
Night falls on a maloca, a safe space where you take the intense spiked tea.
Steffen Hoffman

The first-time drinker went on to do 68 more ceremonies over five years — at 75, you qualify to become a shaman — so that kind of mortifying reaction turns out not to be a deterrent.

Ayahuasca facilitators have seen it all. For those preoccupied with losing bodily functions in front of strangers, fact: There will be purging. We are encouraged to bring our bucket with us when we leave our bed. 

But purging looks like a lot of things: crying, peeing, vomiting, evacuating, shuddering and yawning. We will be conscious of all these reactions approaching and be able to act on them. Best piece of advice all week from Rythmia founder Gerry Powell: Do not trust a fart. Also, you’ll learn to be so glad when you do purge. Because the prevailing wisdom, as a facilitator who attended to me explained, is you’re getting rid of stuff that doesn’t serve you and making room for what saves you.

Side by side of a Banisteriopsis caapi vine and a Psychotria viridis shrub.
Ayahuasca is made from the stem of a vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, left) and a shrub (Psychotria viridis, right) found in the Amazon rainforest.

The main mantra is “Don’t think, drink.” The only real way you can screw up your experience is by not drinking. One of my neighbors spent the better part of one night arguing during his trip with the ayahuasca lady in his head about whether to drink a second cup. It was not a good experience.

Over the course of the evening, you’ll experience a tremendous amount. Or possibly just one significant thing. Or very little. The ceremony is accompanied by a soundtrack of recorded and live music that has an uncanny ability to match up with the trip. Some people have what’s called a “nada,” where they fall asleep and wake up when it’s over. They just have their realizations at a later date. 

The main piece of advice that got me through was: If it’s coming, it’s going. That means that if fear comes up, it’s being released. 

 “This was my first taste of freedom. In my 50-plus years on this planet, this was the unparalleled greatest feeling I’ve ever had.”

Will Smith

The ceremony ends sometime after midnight, when the lights come up. The group then gathers again for volunteers to share their experiences. That’s a whole other journey of insight that isn’t even yours but makes a huge impression. Some of it, you may have seen, some you heard. I kept my eyes tightly closed per the protocol of minding your own business in the ceremonies, and you should drink enough medicine that you’re deeply in your own trip.

Someone could be wailing in a life-changing epiphany, and you don’t want to interrupt it by touching them and mewling, “Are you OK?” Of course they’re not OK. You’ll find out later. In the postmortem, we heard hair-raising tales from a professor about her journey boarding a spaceship that turned into a slave ship so eloquent on healing generational trauma among nations that we all wanted to ask if they were available later on Audible. 

One young man had a rather dramatic group effort by the shamans and witnessing guests and overnight shed a chronic cough that was the symptom of the cancer, as well as his fear of death.

“I know I’m going to live,” he said on the morning of the seventh day.

People’s experiences tend to be profound. Over the course of the week, you find out that they are there for a wide variety of reasons: racial trauma, sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts, sleeping pills no longer working, porn addiction, anxiety, stage 4 cancer. 

After the shaman’s post-ceremony counsel, you head to bed and try to sleep to get ready for the next night. Or you sit and talk more to your new friends about what went on. Because nothing is as bonding as a night spent barfing up a lung next to someone — let alone four nights.

My fourth night was presided over by a visiting shaman trained by the Colombian tribe who brought their proprietary brew. In his prep class, he talked about the yagé you’re taking as “a drop of pure consciousness.”

I had developed a cold by the third night and opted not to drink the medicine but was encouraged by the medical staff to attend the ceremony “and help other people.” 

I lined up when everyone went up to get their first cup. The shaman said, “Who told you that you couldn’t drink?” 

“No one, I just have a cold, and I’m worried I won’t be able to breathe.” 

“The medicine will clear that right up,” he said, adding that I could come up if I heard the call for the second cup.

I went back to my bed and promptly fell asleep. 

When I woke up, they were laying out pillows for the healing circles. 

A couple got married in a ceremony performed by the shaman in the early hours of the morning. After that, I was brought up for a private healing by the shaman, because I had missed joining the circle. “You didn’t come up for a second cup.” 

I said I fell asleep, and remembered that I had eaten dinner at 7 pm. You’re not supposed to drink on a full stomach, I said. He shrugged, which is Shaman for “Don’t be a pussy.”

“Let’s get to the healing. Close your eyes. Be good.”

The author’s shaman

“What was your intention?” he asked, brown eyes boring right through me. Perhaps catching a glimpse of the Mayan priestess in me. I suddenly felt like a huge liar: It had been to help others, hadn’t it? He asked how the week had been for me and where I was from, and I answered nervously feeling like I was lying. 

“Let’s get to the healing. Close your eyes.”

He performed a cleansing ceremony with chants and noises and liquids sprayed and feathers with a noted physical emphasis on my heart area. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

When he was done, he looked at me, and I think he said, “Be good.”

For the next 24 hours, I went on to feel inexplicably uncomfortable and guilty, unhappy in my own skin. I watched others celebrate, swimming and dancing by the pool after dinner, giddy with joy.

The next morning I went to yoga. There in the maloca where the ceremony had been the day before, I sobbed through the poses. Tears not blood. A piece had fallen into place. It was forgiveness.