The psychedelic renaissance is well upon us, and while some folks are down with self-experimentation when it comes to substances and plant medicines, others might be looking for a more guided approach. Enter psychedelic retreats: A welcome option for newcomers to the psychedelic world and old hats alike. But are they for everyone? And what are the benefits of attending one? Retreats can be wonderful, but they still have risks– not all retreats are made equal. Moreover, if legal options with noted testimonies and overseeing authorities aren’t available, it’s important to know how to vet underground providers for safety and harm reduction.
Why retreats? And why not?
Psychedelic retreats can be a great way to enter into a psychedelic experience for the first time. They can offer safety, security, and foster a sense of community with other attendees. They can open you up to connection, and offer profound healing moments and help you find life-changing insights. They can also be dangerous, frightening, or just downright unpleasant. So what are the pros and cons?
For some people, the legal barrier can be too much to deal with, and the comfort of doing something within the confines of the law, no matter how draconian, can be a huge factor. Last year, I was invited to a psilocybin retreat in Jamaica, where most of the attendees were Americans who were afraid of the law and wanted to experience psychedelics legally. Another benefit of retreats is the obvious location boost – being in a private, tropical location can certainly be much more welcoming than tripping alone in your basement or in the living room of some Instagram pseudo-guru. Retreats can also offer a safe and unique container to have a first psychedelic journey with an experienced guide. Additionally, if a retreat is located in a country where the psychedelic substance being served is legal, you have the added protection of the law should anything go awry. Legal retreats are often held to a higher standard, and both the retreat and the practitioners who work there can be held accountable by a higher, governing body.
That said, group psychedelic retreats may not be right for everyone. If you prefer to process alone, a psychedelic retreat with a dozen attendees all taking a substance at the same time may not be the space for you. It can be easy to feel awkward, judged, and too “perceived,” and the energies of other people can easily affect your trip. Some retreats offer private ceremonies: Tandava Retreats, for example, in Mexico, offers an option with private 5-MeO-DMT ceremonies, even though you will be participating in other events with the retreat group. Additionally, for some people, the retreat container can actually be a barrier when it comes to readjusting back to normal life after the experience. This is why integration is so important.
Remember, though: Legality isn’t everything. Legal or underground, psychedelic retreats still have their risks. Ayahuasca is fully legal in Costa Rica, making every retreat there serving it legal by default, and there are still horror stories from poorly managed retreats in the country. Just see this Vice article for an example of a legal retreat that leaves their guests feeling bothered and afraid.
Legal options available to UK residents
Unfortunately, legal retreats aren’t an option in the UK, but UK residents with some cash to spend can travel to Europe for retreats in the Netherlands, where they can approach psychedelic medicine through a legal lens. Synthesis, Alalaho, and Beckley are just three legal psilocybin options available for visitors to the Netherlands. Still, at their high price point, reaching anywhere from £4,000 to £10,000, these are not always available to everyone. These types of retreats offer a more luxurious experience, often somewhere more secluded, in a beautiful setting that can sometimes be more conducive to seeking inner peace.
Some European countries, such as Portugal, have decriminalised the use of psychedelic drugs, so finding a retreat that’s operating publicly can be less of a challenge. Accessing a retreat in a country where drugs are decriminalised means there is more accountability, as well as the comfort of knowing you’re not breaking the law.
For those with the budget available to travel further afar, there are options across the Atlantic. In Canada, where 5-MeO-DMT and ibogaine are legal (but not approved for human consumption), there are a handful of retreats available, such as Iboga Journey or Enfold Institute. The prohibitiveness comes with the cost and the environmental impact of jetting thousands of miles for a psychedelic experience.
What about the underground?
For those who care a bit less about the law and are looking for a retreat that’s more local, or simply don’t like the price tag associated with well-known legal retreats around the world, there are often many providers operating in the psychedelic underground. There have been people working in the psychedelic space for decades, who have previously operated without the restrictions of the legal and medicalised industry, and who continue to do so today. These people can facilitate intimate group retreats with ketamine, 5-MeO-DMT, ayahuasca, psilocybin, and more.
If you’re looking for an experience with an underground (read: illegal) psychedelic guide, retreat, or facilitator, there are still things to look out for and ways to vet and check up on things before booking and attending. First, try to find a space or facilitator through a friend, acquaintance, or your local psychedelic community. Word of mouth is as important for them as it is for you, as many underground guides may not want to take on a new client that hasn’t been referred to them. These underground sessions may not be as readily available as book and fly legal options online, but they can still offer benefits. Find a psychedelic group or organisation near you, and start hanging out there to build a network in the space. Somebody there will know somebody else, and you might be able to find the person you’re looking for.
Remember: Attending an illegal or underground retreat comes with its own risks. Not only will you be breaking the law, but you may not be as cared for or as monitored as you might be in a country where these substances are legal. An underground retreat or guide likely won’t have somebody to answer to, and if things go wrong, you may not be able to report it to law enforcement without revealing your own partaking in illegal substances.
Legal retreats vs. underground retreats
Ultimately, the decision to enter ceremony is up to you, whether you go the legal or underground route. It’s your body, your mind, and your consciousness, and, as of right now, the bulk of the responsibility for what happens is on you.
Legal retreats can offer more comfort and peace of mind, which, for some people, can be well worth the price tag. On the other hand, underground retreats and guides can offer a bit more financial freedom and a more local experience for UK citizens who don’t want to or can’t leave the country, while also removing the additional safety barrier. Moreover, not all underground retreats will give you a preparation plan or some integration help, while most legal retreats tend to treat the psychedelic experience as a whole, from preparation to ceremony to aftercare. The whole experience is often offered as a package when it comes to legal retreats, usually with one to three preparation calls and the same amount of group integration calls with the company’s resident specialist. Both types of psychedelic retreats and options have validity, benefits, and risks, including the same risks across both – the inherent potential dangers that come with taking any drugs, regardless of setting.
What to look out for when picking a psychedelic retreat
These days, it can be overwhelming to look for a retreat or psychedelic guide. With so many options around and everybody and their grandmother talking about this retreat or this guru, relying only on word of mouth can be a tricky option. Instead of just listening to anyone, pay attention to some of these key things from a retreat or guide to see if they really have your best interests in mind.
- Is there a robust health screening or proper intake form?
- Is there an integration program or offering afterwards?
- Are they over-promising miracles, magical healing, or more?
- Is there a consent process in place before taking the drugs regarding what is allowed from the guide during the session and what isn’t?
- Do they have a methodology, or a set of morals, values, and guidelines that they abide by?
- Are they eager and able to answer all of your questions and supportive of your nervousness?
- Are they going over the risks, clear on dosing, and knowledgeable about the substance they are serving?
- And, finally, are the vibes right? More than anything, when searching for a psychedelic guide with whom you’ll be entering a vulnerable and altered state of consciousness, you have to trust your gut.
When possible, we’d also urge you to consider meeting with or having a call with the retreat or guide before committing to anything. Seeing how you feel talking to them in a sober setting will help inform how you might feel in a psychedelic one.
Living in the prohibitionist state of the Uinted Kingdom, legal options for psychedelic retreats on our shores aren’t really an option, but if you’ve got some cash to spend, a trip over to Europe can give you access to legal but pricey psychedelic retreat options in the Netherlands, or retreats that operate in grey areas in countries such as Spain and Portugal which are more affordable. If the legal route isn’t your concern, consider joining your local psychedelic society or group and hanging around there for a while to build rapport with people and hopefully eventually be connected to an underground guide or facilitator. Be sure to vet any retreat or guide properly before committing to a session with them; we’d recommend having a call or chat in a sober setting before agreeing to a ceremony, and checking with other attendees about their practice whenever possible.
Remember, legality isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to psychedelic retreats: Always, always do plenty of research, and be sure you feel comfortable with what you’re getting into. Legal retreats, despite their benefits, can often be prohibitively costly, and can alienate a lot of potential clients. By comparison, an underground retreat or session with a guide where the substance is illegal might cost less, but not come with as many security protocols, including the protection of the law. Research both options and make sure you have enough information to make a well-rounded decision, and also remember that both options still carry the inherent risk of taking psychedelic substances, which you should also research on your own before deciding to partake in them. Safety first!
This article was amended to clarify that while 5-MeO-DMT and ibogaine are legal for personal use in Canada they are not approved for human consumption.