Don't Make My Ayahuasca Mistake

This post is designed to be a teaching lesson for anyone considering going to a "healing/retreat center" for a plant medicine ceremony, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere. I am sharing my experience to help others seeking true healing.

Ever since my wife, Jenny, became involved in the leadership team at Heroic Heart Project (HHP), a non-profit that sends combat veterans to South and Central America ayahuasca healing centers, I have become fascinated by the power of psychedelics to heal, stimulate personal growth, and explore the unknown aspects of the mind. Because HHP specifically focuses on healing trauma through plant medicines, my focus turned to psilocybin (aka, magic mushrooms) and ayahuasca, but understand that there are many options out there.

I am not going to talk about the plant medicines themselves -- you can find more information online and via some of my other articles. Instead, I want to focus on what you need to do when vetting a healing center for your own experience.

Jenny and I had originally planned to attend an ayahuasca retreat center outside the U.S., in a location where the practice is legal -- and a location steeped in the history and tradition of the indigenous cultures that have used this medicine for centuries. With the help of friends, I focused on centers in Peru and Central America, focusing specifically on Soltara, which has a facility located in Costa Rica. Soltara checked all the boxes for me -- great reputation, beautiful buildings and setting... and plenty of support before, during, and after ceremony.

Unfortunately, the pandemic hit and we didn't want to deal with the hassles of unreliable air travel and multiple covid tests to travel there and back. Ayahuasca is about healing, and I did not want the potential stress and frustration from travel delays and issues to affect that healing.

Unsurprisingly, there are places in the U.S. (mostly underground) that conduct ayahuasca ceremonies illegally. (Some Native American churches conduct ceremonies legally -- but only for their members -- in accordance with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.) There are some centers trying to be legitimate, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has shut down some of these. (See this article about Soul Quest.)

The problem becomes: how does one conduct due diligence on an underground retreat center? There are no websites, no testimonials, and really no way to perform any kind of background checks. You have to rely on the people making the recommendations -- and your own intuition.

The person who recommended the healing center we eventually attended is a trusted source who had vetted the facilitator about a year prior, when the facilitator was at a previous location. (That facilitator now manages two "healing" centers in the PNW.)

The facilitator sent a video explaining the center's practices and it seemed perfect for us. We later had a video chat with the facilitator, which was also went well; no red flags. During the chat, the facilitator claimed to have spent years training with the Shipibo tribe in Peru. (The Shipibo are an ancient tribe from the Amazonian rainforest credited with holding the sacred traditions of ayahuasca.)

Unfortunately, other than the recorded video and Zoom chat, there was nothing more we could do to learn more about the center. We had to decide whether to book a retreat... so we rushed ahead with our decision and scheduled one.

From the moment we arrived until the moment we left, it was clear the center did not follow best practices for psychedelic plant medicines, including:

  • Harm reduction

  • Proper preparation

  • Holding space/guiding participants

  • Positivity and kindness

  • Integration and counseling

Oddly, there was never any mention of love, which is something we always associated with ayahuasca. Every bit of research we have conducted talks about the power of ayahuasca for opening one's heart and being a loving presence.

Furthermore, in plant medicine ceremonies that follow BEST practices, facilitators are responsible for ensuring the physical and emotional safety of all participants. The facilitators are supposed to create a safe physical environment, help participants think about their intention(s) for the ceremony, assist during the ceremony as needed, and help participants integrate the lessons learned into their everyday lives.

The facilitator at the center we visited, we learned too late, has an overbearing ego in which he thinks he is God's gift to ayahuasca and that he is unlike any other man, any other healer. He even regaled us with how he decided to make his own brew of ayahuasca, traveling to Hawaii (where it is supposedly sustainably grown) to do so. He delighted in sharing how he shocked his contacts in Hawaii with his immense knowledge and healing powers. He seemed completely unconcerned that more than half of the participants during our ceremony had serious issues/concerns, with several leaving early or even trying to escape while in the middle of the ceremony (and under the influence of the medicine).

Psychedelics, from my research, are supposed to reduce ego ("ego death") and this man claimed to have participated in hundreds of ayahuasca ceremonies... so how could his ego be so overblown and out of control? Turns out there is a dark/shadow side to ayahuasca (and in all of us), which can lead to ego expansion -- especially in Western men of a certain age (typically mid-30s).

Dr. Clancy Cavnar, writing on (the Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines) states how psychedelics can increase ego: "the ego reinforced by witnessing its own glory, believing it has a dominant role to play in the unfolding drama, that can become full of certainty to the point of arrogance. The hungry ego, once fed, becomes ravenous and marvels at itself."

So... when you decide to make the leap -- either at a healing center or using a trip-sitting company -- please do your research as carefully as possible. Don't make our mistake; make sure all best practices are followed, from preparation to ceremony to integration... and if you see any red flags at any point during your retreat, consider walking away -- for your mental, physical, and spiritual health.

Final Thoughts on Vetting a Healing/Retreat Center

With ayahuasca, many experts and healers claim you are called to participate in a ceremony, are called to commune with Mother Aya, which is when your journey with ayahuasca begins. Even if you feel strongly called, please take your time and complete your due diligence. Just because the center you find calls itself a "healing" center does not mean healing actually takes place.

Examine the list of best practices and ask how that center follows these practices. Ask for testimonials of recent participants. If you do not get the answers you seek, wait. Reach out to others in the plant medicine/psychedelic space and ask about the center's reputation. Make certain the facilitators are doing this work for the right reason -- for healing, not for their own ego enhancement or profit -- and if the facilitator is a white male in his 30s or early 40s, consider a different center with a more experienced facilitator.

Finally, remember that besides finding the right center for your healing experience, you must also do a lot of prep work on yourself and your lifestyle -- including a strict diet, abstaining from drugs (and alcohol) and other plant medicines, and removing toxic people/relationships from your life. As one dear friend states, "Clear space in your life by removing any toxicity, tune into your intuition, drop into your heart."

See a few of my other articles:

Useful Ayahuasca Retreat Links

Dr. Randall Hansen is an advocate, educator, mentor, ethicist, and thought-leader... helping the world heal from past trauma. He is founder and CEO of, a network of empowering and transformative Websites, including

He is the author of the groundbreaking Triumph Over Trauma: Psychedelic Medicines are Helping People Heal Their Trauma, Change Their Lives, and Grow Their Spirituality and the well-received HEAL! Wholeistic Practices to Help Clear Your Trauma, Heal Yourself, and Live Your Best Life.

Dr. Hansen's focus and advocacy center around true healing ... healing that results in being able to live an authentic life filled with peace, joy, love. Learn more by visiting his personal Website, You can also check out Dr. Randall Hansen on LinkedIn.