What’s it like to take psychedelic plant medicine? Alanna Ospina goes on an ayahuasca trip with Behold Retreats in Costa Rica, and finds out if it is a therapeutic as advocates claim it is.

It all started with a DNA test. I was in my late twenties and without explanation, I felt a connection to nature in a way that I hadn’t felt before. I wanted to be in it, toes nestled amongst grass blades and fingernails in the soil as much as I could, which wasn’t easy in central London.

“20 per cent Native American” the test said and suddenly it all made sense. My father is from Colombia, a previously indigenous country that was colonised by the Spanish, so I suppose it wasn’t a complete surprise that my results demonstrated this history (20 per cent Spanish, the rest Irish and British and some others from my mother’s side) but it made my proclivity to nature make sense on a deeper level that stirred me.

The retreat

People often describe the beginning of their relationship with ayahuasca as a calling, which was how it started for me. It began quietly, lurking in the back of my mind as something that I might like to do one day and then over the years it became louder, front of mind as something that I had to do, which was about the time that I started my conversations with Behold Retreats, a pioneering company facilitating plant medicine retreats in Costa Rica, Portugal and Mexico, and soon to launch in Peru, countries where it’s legal.Behold Retreats, Costa RicaIt took a few years for the stars to align and at the end of April, I found myself in a van with four strangers winding up a private road to arrive at Behold Retreats Costa Rica ayahuasca hub in Esterillos, a quiet coastal area on the country’s Pacific Coast, nervous and excited, slightly terrified.

The setting is beautiful. Ten private rooms have been built into the side of the hill flanking a central pool and outside dining area that looks out to the ocean. Next to this is an open kitchen, where the kitchen team work tirelessly to provide delicious plant-based meals throughout the week, and a juice bar where a selection of nourishing juices is available each day.

There’s an inside air-conditioned dining room, which is also a space for chilling out in and admiring the jewellery and artwork made by the Amazonian tribes that Behold works with. My room was minimalist, airy, light and comfortable with its own balcony looking out across the green lusciousness of the surroundings, an amazing spot for listening to the cacophony of bird song and spotting pairs of majestic macaws squawking noisily across the horizon.Behold Retreats, Costa Rica Behold Retreats, Costa Rica Behold Retreats, Costa Rica Behold Retreats, Costa Rica

Behold Retreats, Costa RicaThe plant medicine

People typically are drawn toward ayahuasca for healing trauma or expanding their consciousness as the plant medicine rewires the brain’s system caused by DMT, a chemical that is present at birth and death. Ayahuasca is a plant medicine that has been used by tribes in the Amazon for thousands of years to connect to source, aka Mother Nature.

It is a combination of leaves from the Psychotria viridis shrub and the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, both plants found in the Amazon rainforest, and is served up as an earthy brown broth in small cups. It was traditionally used within spiritual ceremonies by tribespeople across the Amazonia in Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru.Behold Retreats Ayahausca One of the most baffling things is how these early tribespeople came to know how to blend this psychedelic concoction that gave them the desired visions and hallucinations. The explanation of their ancestors is that the plants showed them how to do it. In a fast-paced, consumer and technology led society, this reason is hard to digest.

Imagine being an indigenous person living in the rainforest as a sensitive intrinsic part of it, senses tuned to the sounds of birds and predators, bare feet hardy to the ground terrain, totally connected to the ecosystem, as part of it rather than being outside of it, and the explanation feels more believable. As humans we have become so disconnected to the state of being with nature, as nature.

The industry of psychedelics is going through critical times with many studies in recent years supporting evidence of how beneficial psychoactive medicine can be for overcoming depression, PTSD and trauma as well as enabling a deeper sense of wellbeing.

The crucial aspect for anyone curious about taking the plunge into psychedelic medicine, I believe, is that it is administered in a safe environment with a knowledgeable team that fully respect the sacredness and origin of the plant medicine.

The ceremony

Preparation before the retreat and support with integration after the experience is crucial. Speaking to friends who had undertaken solo experiences with plant medicine with only a shaman present, I was shocked at the lack of support in how they dealt with the very intense situations that can arise when sitting with the medicine and then how to deal with those on returning back to their normal lives.

Ayahuasca is not for the faint hearted. It is described as going through years of therapy in one evening and riding the highs and lows of all that entails. It is vital to feel supported in going through that rollercoaster, otherwise the result could be freefall with no soft landing.

Behold Retreats facilitates three ceremonies across the weeklong retreat, that take place at night over consecutive evenings – the first two from 7pm to 1am and the final ceremony from 9pm until sunrise. These take place in the outside covered yoga shala with all walls open to the elements. The nocturnal sounds of the rainforest are calming and therapeutic as the nerves of going into ceremony in the first night are high.

Behold Retreats AyahauscaAfter much blinking and eye rolling, the sensation calms and the effect is also to prepare the mind’s eye for clear visions in the medicine. Then it’s time for the ayahuasca. There were moments throughout the ceremony when I was moved to tears by the beauty of the rituals that were carried out with such respect for their sacredness and ancientness.

Watching each of the ten retreat guests go up to what can only be described as the altar to receive their cup of ayahuasca was humbling and I felt so grateful to be part of it. After the first cup, we sat in silent meditation for an hour before being invited up for a second cup after which the music begins. Oh the music! Divine medicine music was played by Pablo and three other musicians, or “angels”, during the ceremony playing between them the guitar, box drum, harmonica, didgeridoo, mouth pipe and voice, until the evening is drawn to a close.

The trips

With the second cup of ayahuasca, I said to myself “here we go” as I felt the effects of the medicine start to take hold and the beginning of the psychedelic trip. My reality altered to spinning shapes, colours and noises. I felt my body sink into the ground as if I had died, I felt myself give birth – not necessarily to a baby, perhaps my own rebirth (this is tripping! Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, not straight away anyway).Ayahuasca often causes the body to purge (this can be through shaking, laughing, coughing), more often than not, this means vomiting. Unlike the usual unpleasantness of vomiting, the experience feels relieving and like I’m expelling from my body whatever emotional weight I have been holding onto unnecessarily, and for me, the purging doesn’t last very long.

Although frightening at times, I remember the advice I have been given to tune in to my breath, thanking the medicine for what it is showing me and reminding myself that at 8am tomorrow morning I will be having breakfast with the other retreat guests talking about our experiences from the night before. This last point is surprisingly reassuring during the most intense moments in the medicine.

After a period of time the extreme psychedelic part of the evening comes to an end and I feel called to going outside to put my hands and feet in the grass and look at the giant full moon outside. It is in these moments where the big lessons and “downloads” start to land, the immense feeling of gratitude and love for nature and for my own life.

Over the next two nights, the series of events continues in a similar vein, and I ease into the ceremonies more quickly as the nights accumulate, the visions less intense and the feelings increasingly blissful.Behold Retreats, Costa RicaThroughout the daytime of the second and final ceremony, the anticipation of the evening was overwhelming, at times feeling like I didn’t want to do it. Then, at the last moment, I changed my mind. In these moments, the retreat guests often came together to talk and learn from each other’s experiences and very quickly I formed close bonds with many of the group, by the end truly feeling like we were a family. The challenging aspect of the ayahuasca feels like a microcosm for life – you have to go through the hard times to learn the lessons and appreciate how lucky you are.

The outcome

Once the ceremonies are finished, Behold organises activities in and out of the retreat for the last two days – a dinner at a nearby vegan restaurant, body clay painting on the beach followed by a dip in the Pacific, a rainforest trek. These moments of integrating with the rest of the group were fundamental for me in preparing to go back to “the real world” after experiencing the ayahuasca: sharing stories, knowing that I had a community to support me and for me to support as we dispersed back to our corners of the world with our new learnings.

It has now been just over a month since I returned back to the UK from Costa Rica and I am still thinking about the ayahuasca every day. We were told by Behold that many of the “downloads” from the medicine continue to appear days, weeks and months after sitting in ceremony, which has been the case for me, numerous “aha” moments of thinking “oh, that’s what that was”.

“We want the best for everybody in their healing journey – however, we don’t provide motivation for people who want to join our retreats – only guidance and guardianship.”

The way that has manifested for me in my day-to-day life looks like not taking life so seriously and letting work or the never ending to-do list stress me out in the way it used to. Now, I have been finding acceptance with whatever the situation at hand is and seeking out the joy in mundane moments, because they are there always: a smile and a kiss with a morning cup of tea; a sigh of happiness at feeling the warmth of the sun on my face; a text from a friend; not being stuck with frustration like I used to at an annoying email from a client or a belligerent comment from a family member. My new mantra is “if it ain’t flowing, it ain’t going”.

One of the loveliest takeaways for me has been that instead of coincidences, I think that synchronicity in life happens when you are open to it and willing to receive it whether it be a chance meeting, the finding of a lost object, an unexpected phone call… Whatever it is, there is magic in the world when we are ready to witness it.

Plant medicine is not for everyone. Behold Retreats turn away most prospective guests following the initial rigorous vetting.

“At a core level, we want the best for everybody in their healing journey, however, we don’t provide motivation for people who want to join our retreats – only guidance and guardianship. Their motivation to attend a sacred plant medicine ceremony has to exist independently of us, to some extent,” explains Daniel, the primary guardian and safety space manager for Behold Retreats.

Some of these are curious souls wanting to do it just to say they have, others are on medication that means it’s not advised for them to do it. It is an endless fascinating subject both for those that understand and respect plant medicine and for those that well, don’t. To the latter or to those interested in starting their own journeys, I would say choose your sources of information with discernment and read the science. And most importantly, make the decision with love. In the end, isn’t it love what it’s really all about?