From globe trotting to globe tripping: Why psychedelic vacations are on trend

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By Ksenia Prints, Food Drink Life

More people are opting to leave 5-star resorts and cruises behind and take a different kind of vacation, one that comes with a side of mind-altering drugs. But the legal and physical implications of this sort of travel can be murky.

For a moment, consider taking a slightly different kind of trip on your next vacation. You and your fellow travelers will explore unimaginable distances without moving much at all. You can’t take any luggage with you – unless your emotional baggage counts – or bring back souvenirs. In fact, you may not even be able to describe the journey to the folks at home.

Despite this strangeness, or perhaps because of it, many of the travelers who have turned to psychedelic vacations consider them to be life-changing experiences that are well worth the money. Others, however, point out that these retreats have an uneasy relationship with Indigenous communities – and they worry about the possible dangers of consuming mind-altering substances without proper guidance.

Why are so many tourists turning to psychedelic tourism, and what are some of the most popular substances offered at these wellness retreats? Should travelers be concerned about the safety, ethics or legality of these experiences? Keep reading to find out.

What does a typical psychedelic vacation involve?

Sia-Luna Estrella, a healer and Shamanic practitioner, knows exactly how she found her way into running psychedelic retreats. “It was a higher calling from the sacred mountain here in Cuzco,” she remembers. She felt called to move to Peru and later invited others to join her on retreats to South America, South Africa and other locations.

Estrella said goodbye to her car, job and ocean-view apartment, and embraced a fresh start. “It brought me back to the truth of who I was and what is my greatest purpose here on Earth.”

Over the years, Estrella has seen over a hundred retreat participants come and go. She doesn’t always weave psychedelics into her retreats – sometimes, she just works with cacao ceremonies and the energy of the land – but she’s quick to note the importance of treating these powerful substances properly.

Plant medicines

“We don’t think of these as psychedelics, we think of them as plant teachers and plant medicine. They have their own consciousness,” explains Estrella. She primarily works with the San Pedro cactus, a plant that contains the psychoactive substance locally known as wachuma, or mescaline.

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Mescaline is just one of several psychedelic substances that can be experienced during retreats. Peyote, another cactus that also contains mescaline, is a popular choice, as is ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea. Medicines gathered from toads can also be used, such as 5-MeO-DMT, which can also be derived from plants, and Kambo, a poisonous toad secretion that is applied to the skin through small burn wounds.

But perhaps the most familiar substance used in psychedelic retreats is psilocybin, also known as ‘shrooms – not to be confused with regular mushrooms. According to Thrillist, psilocybin can be experienced in vacations across the globe, from beachside ceremonies in Jamaica – where psilocybin is unregulated – to collaborative research projects in The Netherlands.

The recent emergence of wellness tourism is a brand-new phenomenon, but psychedelics have been used by Indigenous communities for thousands of years. Robyn Landau, writing for Trippin, noted that the growing demand for psychedelics can quickly become unsustainable, threatening to destroy traditional Indigenous practices.

Landau explains that in Mexico peyote has become scarce due to tourism, agriculture and mining. In light of the fact that the plant takes 15 years to grow, this is cause for concern. Landau suggests that travelers hoping to benefit from Indigenous medicines should take time to learn about the communities that are stewards of these remedies and how to respectfully engage with traditional practices.

Who will your fellow travelers be?

Why might someone be drawn to a psychedelic retreat? Some travelers are simply looking to try new experiences; others attend in hopes of working through bigger problems such as depression, anxiety, trauma or addiction.

In an interview with Travel Weekly, Justin Townsend, CEO and Head Facilitator at MycoMeditations, highlighted the diversity of attendees at their retreats. “A typical retreat normally consists of about 50% female, 50% male, and we get everything from blue-collar workers to white-collar workers from all kinds of professions, people from their mid-30s through to their 60s,” Townsend told Travel Weekly.

Psychedelics and mental health

In recent years, there’s been a growing conversation about the way in which psychedelics can address mental illness, as demonstrated by Michael Pollan’s 2018 book “How to Change Your Mind” exploring the subject. On the other hand, critics have also noted the risks associated with psychedelic use.

The New York Times warned that psychedelics “can cause psychosis or long-term mental health issues, particularly in patients with a predisposition to mental illness.” The same article also discusses the robberies, sexual assaults and even deaths that have occurred at psychedelic retreats.

Estrella is well aware of the dangers of misusing traditional medicines. “You see a lot of people in Western society go to the jungle for three weeks and say they’re a shaman who is qualified to work with the medicine, and that is incredibly dangerous,” she says firmly. But she also believes in the power of psychedelics to help people heal. “The medicine will help you work through trauma, limited beliefs and conditioning. If there are answers, the medicine will help you find those answers within yourself.”

Wait, is any of this legal?

Before grabbing your passport, should you call your lawyer? To give a classic lawyerly answer: well, it depends.

“In some countries, particularly in South America, psychedelic retreats can be legal or legal-ish, per my understanding,” says Marc Z. Goldgrub, a lawyer at Green Economy Law Professional Corporation. The firm focuses on psychedelics, green business and housing. Goldgrub also runs the website Estrella confirms this answer.

“But in the US and Canada, psychedelic retreats are generally simply illegal,” says Goldrub. In these parts of North America, “there is no such thing as a 100% legal psilocybin, MDMA or ayahuasca retreat that’s totally open to the public. Though some retreats are marketed with an impressive veneer of professionalism which wrongly would suggest otherwise to those who don’t know better.”

On top of how the psychedelic substances themselves are regulated, Goldgrub explains, there may be civil liability concerns to be aware of as well. “If something bad happens to someone, practitioners can be sued under tort law.”

Final thoughts

So, is a psychedelic retreat your next vacation? Some travelers will undoubtedly be eager to experience these medicines for themselves. Others will be content to curl up with a copy of Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” and a mug of regular tea.

One thing is for certain: as the demand for wellness continues to grow, it’s likely that psychedelic retreats will become ever more popular. Will this cause them to lose their cool factor, though? Only time will tell.

For her part, despite the sometimes challenging aspects of running psychedelic retreats, Estrella maintains a characteristic sense of calm and optimism about introducing new travelers to medicine ceremonies.

“It’s quite normal for people to feel a sense of excitement and nervousness,” she says. “But as long as they come with an open heart, then it’s an incredible experience.”

Ksenia Prints is a writer, blogger, photographer and recipe developer from Montreal, Canada. She blogs over At the Immigrant’s Table, a food blog showcasing healthy, beautiful international recipes for adventurous home cooks. She loves to highlight ethnic cuisines and immigrant cultures and adapt those recipes to gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, sugar-free and other dietary restrictions.

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