For most millennials, magic mushrooms evoke full moon parties, music festivals, or the one creepy stoner at uni who always harped on about ‘hallucinogenic exploration’. Except perhaps now, it seems, he may have been onto something. Preconceived notions about psychedelic mushrooms are shifting thanks to the wellness set, who are flocking to all-inclusive magic mushroom retreats in their droves.
Whilst there have been ayahuasca retreats in South America for years, these all-inclusive magic mushroom retreats differ, in that they are popping up in countries where psilocybin (the psychoactive compound) is legal. They are also much more of a luxurious affair, ranging from rustic guesthouses set against the backdrop of Jamaican shoreline, to Dutch coastal hideaways complete with panoramic views, plush furnishing, and fine-dining vegetarian cuisine.
"Psychedelic mushrooms serve as tuning fork for a higher state of being"
These 21st century retreats signal a cross between a luxurious spa and a professional therapy centre, where psychedelic mushrooms serve as tuning fork for a higher state of being. Places where a mind-altering “trip” happens on a wellness holiday rather than at a sketchy warehouse party.
The reason for their emergence? “We’re catering to a demand”, explains Paul Austin, founder of the Synthesis retreat based in Zandvoort, Netherlands. Set against the backdrop of a sand dune, the house is reminiscent of something you’d see on Grand Designs. “Not everyone who is interested in trying psychedelics wants to travel to the depths of the Amazon, lay on a mat for 6 days, and puke their guts up. Instead they want comfort, convenience, good quality food. They want a nice middle-class experience, rather than the bohemian one associated with ayahuasca”.
Moreover, this new wave of retreat allows people to focus purely on the psychedelic experience. “If you’re not sleeping well, or eating well, because you’re getting to grips with the jungle, then it can detract from the efficacy of the psilocybin”, adds Paul.
A self-confessed mushroom microdoser, his three-day retreats have sold out each time. His customers are not the crystal adorned, yoga pant-wearing crowd one would assume. “We get lots of wealthy professionals who are either looking for spiritual growth, or to help boost creativity. We’ve had a cross-section of both male and female professionals, from doctors, and investment bankers, to film directors, CEOs, and start-up founders”.
The turn towards magic mushrooms says a lot about our current, constantly medicated culture. “People in the west are finally realising that medication isn’t providing long-term benefits.” believes Jessica Grotfeldt, co-founder of Sol Medicine retreats in Mexico. “Synthetic medication shuts down feelings and emotions, whereas plant-based psilocybin reconnects parts of the brain that have not been communicating, thus helping to heal you”.
Female-only retreats are on their agenda for the future, along with a sliding scale of cost so that they have space for those who need healing but don’t have the money. “That’s important to us. Wellness shouldn’t just be for wealthy white people” says Jessica.
Most people assume that science and spirituality don’t play well together. Yet research has started to catch up with what Shaman healers have been advocating for years. Much of it represents a revival of research done in the 1960s, when psilocybin was viewed as a mental health breakthrough. Before 1965, there were 1,000 published studies and six international conferences dedicated to the drugs.
Issues around legality and morality then killed off studies, but now, institutions like Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London are picking up where previous research left off, finding psilocybin to be effective at treating cancer-related depression, treatment-resistant depression, and smoking cessation.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure how psilocybin works, but one analogy offered is that of an unbaked vase. “Psilocybin brings your mind into an acute plastic state, like a ceramic before it goes in the kiln - in that state, your brain is malleable,” reveals Matthew W. Johnson, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Science from Johns Hopkins University. As such, you can be prompted to reflect and change in a much more direct manner than you would normally be impelled to.
This was certainly the case for James, a 29-year-old Londoner, who recently visited a Dutch retreat organised by the Psychedelic Society. He is still very much on a high. “I’m not being hyperbolic, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I hadn’t cried for seven years, but afterwards, it really deepened how I empathise with people. My fiancé has noticed a real positive difference in how I process emotions. It’s been great for my relationship”.
For James, the one hour flight to Amsterdam was a logistical no-brainer. He took 5 grams of psilocybin truffle and then, the next day, partook in an integration workshop. “Prior to the weekend, they recommend resources to read, talks to listen to, and encouraged mindfulness by way of journaling and nature walks. After, I had follow-up phone calls, and a free session with a psychologist”.
At Myco Meditations in Jamaica, the experience is a little more hardcore. There, guests take three doses of psilocybin mushrooms, keeping the brain in this open state. “Negative patterns that prevent someone from functioning as a happy person can be broken down even further with the subsequent dosing”, explains Mike Ljubsa, partner and facilitator.
There does seem to be one snag concerning all retreats, and it’s a pretty big one: background checks. Currently, all mushroom retreats require an application process where you’re asked to reveal your medical history. Anyone that’s suffered from psychosis or other contra-indicating mental health problems is turned away. Yet there is no way you can cross-check anyone’s information.
At the Synthesis retreat, waivers are signed, while Sol Medicine have worked with psychologists who are trained on intake, so their applications are better equipped at screening out people with red flags. James, however, admitted that the application for his retreat was “pretty easy to flunk”.
Risks are certainly very real and bad trips can and do happen. Katherine McClean, a research scientist who has conducted legal clinical trials of psilocybin recommends retreat goers ask some serious questions before attending. “Check what kind of clinical and medical training do the facilitators have. If abroad, ask whether the retreat leaders have ever been supervised in apprenticeship with an indigenous elder, and always check the laws in the country where you'll be partaking - don't just believe what the website says”.
This type of “trip” may not be on every traveller’s bucket list, but in an age where rules in wellness travel are changing, it seems that magic mushroom retreats will only continue to emerge from the underground.
Perdita Nouril is a freelance journalist, based in London. Keep up with her on Instagram.