Sunday, July 21, 2024

Mexico offers ayahuasca retreats for addiction recovery, PTSD and personal healing

Might depression and anxiety be the most costly diseases in the West? You wouldn’t be alone in wondering if the mental health epidemic, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder and the opioid addiction crisis, might even cast into doubt the survival of our species. But one field is galvanizing the interest of mental health practitioners, neuroscientists and the rest of us: psychedelics. 

Clinical studies from John Hopkins University and Imperial College, among other research institutions, show powerful results in combating these mental health issues using psilocybin, bufo, ibogaine and ayahuasca. These drugs are less costly, less toxic and, perhaps most importantly, seem to induce spiritual experiences that can reframe a person’s perspective and set them on the road to healing — especially when guided by a professional. 

In the last decade, Mexico has seen a wealth of retreat centers and clinics spring up. With its history of Indigenous healing rites and ceremonies, including those that incorporate psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms, Mexico is attracting visitors looking to heal with psychedelics — a phenomenon now known as psychedelic tourism.   

PTSD is one of the most treatment-resistant medical conditions. “We are on the cusp of understanding how we can truly transform these mental conditions,” Sarah Oppenheim, a trauma-informed psychoanalyst from New York, informed me. “I don’t advocate the use of psychedelics professionally, but I have witnessed miraculous changes in my clients that have worked with them for mental disorders.” Several of her clients have traveled to Mexico to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies for healing, which has piqued her interest in Mexico as a potent place of healing. 

“I’ve always been interested in María Sabina, the Mazatec shaman, who is responsible for introducing psilocybin mushrooms to the West,” Oppenheim said. “As a psychology student, I remember Freud’s cynicism about PTSD. I think he only treated one veteran with PTSD, but he diagnosed him as cowardly, weak and effeminate. We have come a long way, both with our compassion and our willingness to think out of the box and help people heal from traumas that once seemed intractable. But countries like Mexico have been healing people and communities for a long time, and Freud’s limitations seem almost laughable now.” 

Why travel to Mexico for ayahuasca retreats?

Psychedelic tourism — in this case, foreigners traveling to Mexico and South America to take ayahuasca — is exploding. The internet is awash with advertisements promoting retreats in Mexico, from the most simple two-day retreats by the beach to high end, full-package clinics and retreat centers. These have drawn medical workers in the direction of alternative, holistic medicine. In the social media space, there are many questions regarding the credibility and trustworthiness of guides or shamans and the cultural appropriation of ancient Indigenous practices. Ayahuasca ceremonies have become a lucrative business in Mexico. With mainstream media highlighting the compelling results from clinical trials with psychedelics like ayahuasca, people are increasingly choosing this alternative treatment for PTSD, addiction recovery and deep personal healing.   

There are a multitude of retreat centers in the United States as well, but participants I spoke to who have traveled to Mexico for treatment cite a better experience all around. It’s possible to attend two-day retreats in the U.S. for under US $1,800 —  for example at Soul Quest Ayahuasca in Orlando, Florida. In addition to signing a waiver, however, Soul Quest Church of Mother Earth Inc. requires compulsory membership and a 10% registration fee. A weekend retreat can cost between US $2,000 and  $5,000, while a week-long retreat can range from $4,000 to $8,000, according to Philippe, who trained with the Shipibo people in Peru and now runs ceremonies all over the United States.

Marianne, who traveled to an ayahuasca retreat in Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo, told me about the difference between her experiences in Mexico and the U.S. “I took part in an ayahuasca ceremony in a New York loft with about 50 other people, and as well as feeling too crowded and chaotic, which made it feel unsafe, you could hear traffic,” Marianne said.

“I paid $1,200 for the weekend and we all just slept on the floor, listening to more traffic — and that was supposed to be a good price. The experience had its worthwhile moments, but something felt off. I wanted to travel to a place where working with plant medicines like ayahuasca was part of their culture — and I also wanted to be in a natural, comfortable and attractive setting. I’d heard about shamans who are either from or travel to Mexico.  When I was done with the ceremony in New York, I felt called to Mexico.”  

Given its proximity to the US, Mexico has become a mecca for retreats, especially in the areas around Tulum and Cancún, due to their affordability, beautiful locations and easy travel access for Indigenous shamans coming from Peru and Costa Rica. Some ceremonies are much more affordable than in the U.S. and off the radar. Retreat prices can equal those in the U.S., but the settings are far more enticing, and additional treatments like temazcales, massage, crystal therapy or shamanic energy healing are often on the menu. 

Marianne chose to attend Aloee Wellness in Puerto Morelos, for a one-night ceremony for US $450 including bed, food and post-ceremony customer support. “My experience was completely different,” she said. “The setting made all the difference, and I trusted the shaman. The whole experience — from the environment, time spent pre-retreat discussing my medical background, which includes a history of depression and CPTSD (complex PTSD), to post-retreat care — was one of great care. I think Mexicans are naturally more nurturing as a culture, and the pace of life is less hectic. Also, the amount of delicious fresh fruit and organic foods available after the ceremony was amazing. In New York, there were just a few small snacks available. It felt like you were on a conveyor belt — like the next 50 people were about to be shuttled into the loft!”

If you’re seeking a longer, four-day experience, Behold Retreats holds ceremonies in Valle de Bravo, México state.  They also offer traditional Mexican healing practices like temazcales and bathing in hot springs. 

For the more hardcore seeker of personal growth, the Arkana International Spiritual Center in Izamal, Yucatán is also popular and hosts seven-day retreats which include three ayahuasca ceremonies, a psilocybin mushroom ceremony and a temazcal session. This experience starts at slightly under US $4,000, while their two-week retreat runs at just over $7,000. Arkana often hosts retreats with Heroic Hearts, a nonprofit helping U.S. veterans cure their PTSD with ayahuasca

Can ayahuasca cure PTSD?

To answer that question, let me share a personal story that took place in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, my second home for 14 years. In 2018, the Santa Ana theater at the Biblioteca Pública library and cultural center screened a special pre-release of “From Shock to Awe,” a documentary co-produced by former San Miguel resident and psychologist Janine Sagert, PhD. A deeply affecting and intimate film about healing with ayahuasca, the film raised fundamental questions about PTSD, mental health, the pharmaceutical industry and the effects of war. It went on to scoop film awards the next year in New York.

Matt Kahl and Mike Cooley served in the Iraq War, as part of the U.S. military. The film brilliantly documents their journey to healing from PTSD at an ayahuasca ceremony. As they drink ayahuasca several times over a weekend, images of battle appear to consume their minds.  They later experience profound revelations and a newfound perspective on their lives. The audience in the theater was visibly and profoundly affected. 

What interested me further was the passionate conversation that ensued among an audience that admitted they knew very little about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. “I still thought of them as hedonistic drugs, used by irresponsible ‘hippies’ who simply wanted to push the boundaries of consciousness,” confessed Herbert Morrow, an expat writer living in San Miguel. “I grew up in the 60’s. But wow, times have changed. If these two men can transform from a shell of a human being, as well as reuniting their shattered families, then I can believe this treatment holds incredible promise for the future.” Further conversations in the theater fostered frank truth-telling about past traumas and a keen and excited interest among the audience in attending ayahuasca ceremonies themselves.

Matt Kahl and Janine were present and hosted an electric Q&A session after the screening. Later that week, I took Matt and his wife Aimee scouting for land and old haciendas around San Miguel de Allende. They had a dream of setting up a retreat center in Mexico that would host ayahuasca ceremonies for veterans and civilians with PTSD. 

Tragically, Matt passed on recently, but I’ll always remember his joy, kindness and determination to bring psychedelic medicine to the masses. Aimee runs retreats in Colorado, continuing to honor his vision. She still dreams of bringing their kids to Mexico and finding that hacienda.

I have a happy memory of our conversations in the car, as we bowled along the dusty roads, heading towards La Huerta, a canyon outside San Miguel where Indigenous curanderos have lived for centuries, on a glorious sunny day in October.

“I could never participate in the military again. It seems so crazy now,” Matt commented. “I think psychedelics like ayahuasca will play a huge role in the future of humanity’s health.”  And with exciting scientific progress in that field today, better-trained retreat practitioners and the wealth of retreats now available in Mexico, who knows where psychedelic therapy could take us.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal or medical advice. The writer and Mexico News Daily assume no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content on this site. Individuals should always consult with qualified professionals regarding the use of ibogaine or any other substance for medical purposes, as well as consider their jurisdiction’s applicable laws and regulations.

Henrietta Weekes is a writer, editor, actor and narrator. She divides her time between San Miguel de Allende, New York and Oxford, UK.

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