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Costa Rica’s Ayahuasca Retreat Industry Faces Threat of Closure

Inside the politics of Costa Rica's ayahuasca retreat industry and why the country's Minister of Health threatened to close some of the leading ayahuasca centers.

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Eight years ago, Juliet and Daniel, a married couple from the UK, decided to sell everything and move to Costa Rica. Daniel had taken ayahuasca and saw a vision of them living in a tropical paradise. A few days later, they were watching TV, and a show about moving to Costa Rica came on. It was a sign!

Juliet tells me: “Ayahuasca influenced the move to Costa Rica, especially my husband, as he was shown a vision of a paradise setting. I think with the lack of assistance and aftercare to process the visions, and what they mean, you only get half the story…The move to Costa Rica was more emotional than logical, and in retrospect, we could have handled it differently.”

They searched the internet for opportunities to live and work in Costa Rica and found a horse-riding business on the Caribbean coast, which somehow they agreed to buy with their entire savings—sending £30,000 to the seller without actually going to Costa Rica to check out the business.

This was a bad idea in retrospect.

When they flew to Costa Rica and traveled to its Caribbean coast, the woman who they bought the horse business from told them that, unfortunately, all eight horses got sick and died. In addition, the area where the horses were taken for walks was rented, not theirs. So all they had to show for their £30,000 was a few tattered saddles.

READ: Spanish Police Bust Ayahuasca Syndicate for Sex Crimes and Workers’ Rights Violation

They quickly ran out of money to rent rooms or buy food. An American acquaintance lent them some horses for their business and said they could sleep in his stable, so they put up tents in the stable and slept there, surrounded by their piss and shit. They lived in those conditions for four months. The water was rancid, and they only ate what fruit Daniel could forage. They stopped speaking to each other.  

Juliet eventually became so malnourished and ill that she flew back to the UK to see a GP. She was told she had an infection in her womb and might never be able to have children. Daniel stayed in Costa Rica to make his dream of paradise a reality. They argued over Skype. Juliet agreed to fly out to try and make it work one last time. While there, the couple tried ayahuasca again. It was a very tough experience for Julia, though she did have a vision that she and Daniel would have a child.

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Four months later, they returned to the UK for good. Their dream of paradise was over. But they did end up having a child.

Juliet and Daniel are not alone in being drawn to the dream of Costa Rica. In many ways, it really is a paradise. It has beautiful beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts; 25 percent of the country is protected rainforest; it has 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity (red macaws fly past my balcony every day); and it’s a peaceful, friendly place without an army, with some of the best environmental policies in the world, and with a national motto “Pura Vida” (which actually comes from a 1956 Mexican film about a guy who wins the lottery).

Its idyllic reputation has made it a popular destination to visit, move to, and retire in. Thousands of “digital nomads,” like me, moved here during the pandemic. And hundreds of thousands of Americans and Canadians have retired here—Costa Rica is consistently voted “best place to retire.”

In the past few years, the country has also attracted many psychedelic seekers like Daniel and Julia. There are around 80 psychedelic centers in Costa Rica, according to one estimate—60 ayahuasca centers and other centers offering mushroom and ibogaine retreats, making Costa Rica the second-most-popular country for psychedelic retreats after Peru.

The biggest centers are in Puntarenas and Tamarindo. One of which is known for packing 100 guests into its ayahuasca retreats, each paying $5000 for a week. They offer four retreats per month, meaning that center can earn upwards of $2 million in just 30 days. Then there are many other smaller centers or private ceremonies. In Santa Teresa, the most popular beach town for seeker-types, you can buy psychedelic chocolates in the supermarket.

All of this attracts the luxury psychedelic seeker who might not be up for the gnarliness of the Peruvian Amazon. Everyone from Megan Fox to Lord Evgeny Lebedev (owner of the Evening Standard newspaper in London) has blabbed about their life-changing psychedelic experiences in Costa Rica. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and podcaster Aubrey Marcus bought out Soltara for their crew to aya-bond during their stays. We don’t know why Prince Harry and Megan Markle came to Costa Rica over Christmas, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they came for the aya. Ivanka Trump came here in February of last year and then subsequently asked some of my sources how to fund psychedelic research.

But there’s trouble in paradise. Recently, the Minister of Health threatened to close down some of the leading retreat centers over health and safety concerns. Furthermore, there’s also a rising wave of narco-violence in the country, and the infrastructure and environment are struggling to cope with the red-hot pace of development.

A recent memo from the Minister of Health, which was leaked, complained about the health claims being made by psychedelic centers and amplified by visiting celebrities like Megan Fox. In the memo, the Minister called on local health authorities to shut down a total of six centers.

It’s not clear how seriously this leaked memo should be taken, but the psychedelic industry is responding. Last weekend there was a gathering of the owners of 40 centers at a meeting of a new organization called La Alianza de Plantas Sagradas (LAPS) to discuss strategy.  

READ: Shipibo Curandero Stabbed Six Times by Westerner Seeking Ayahuasca

Based on my understanding, the strategy involves several key actions. Firstly, it aims to be more careful about the health claims centers make in their promotional materials so they don’t get criticism from the Ministry of Health. Secondly, the plan is to raise more funding, hire legal counsel, and make a proposal to the government to advocate for the regulation and normalization of the market to further bolster tourism and the economy. It will also outline the benefits of moving toward a more organized system, such as improvements around standards of ethics and care, and work with local universities to analyze data from the country’s centers.

There is, apparently, concern among LAPS members that one of the bigger retreat centers might screw it up for everyone else through pushy promotion and its alleged practice of upselling clients during its ayahuasca retreats—offering them other retreats, stem-cell injections, and other luxury experiences. Some guests have complained about this practice of upselling during retreats because people are in suggestible states.

However, it is unlikely that shaking up the psychedelic industry is top of the government’s list of priorities right now. The country faces two far more serious and existential challenges.

Firstly, the economy is running so hot that it is threatening infrastructure, the environment, and living standards. Costa Rica is expensive, and that is slowly putting off tourists and expats who can get more for their money in places like Belize or Guatemala.

Infrastructure is groaning under the pace of development. I live on the Pacific Coast, and the concrete towers are rising so fast here that you could do a year-long timelapse and watch the beach towns turn into concrete jungles. In the Nicoya Peninsula, hundreds of luxury “eco-communities” and “eco-lodges” are getting built—so many that the Peninsula is running out of water and residents have to buy their drinking water from a truck every week. 

While the Costa Rican elite and foreign developers get richer, the benefits of the economic boom are not always spread out. Costa Rica avoided the extreme wealth inequality that characterized other Latin American economies and condemned them to violent lurches from the far left to the far right. But in recent years, it’s gained one of the highest rates of inequality in the region, leading to the election of populist strongman Rodrigo Chavez.

READ: How to Learn Portuguese While Drinking Ayahuasca

Chavez’s popularity rating has plummeted from 70 percent when he was elected in 2022, to 40 percent now, largely because of rising narco violence in the country. Costa Rica never had problems with drug gangs that plague countries like Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia—until now. The homicide rate rose 40 percent last year, and politicians are worried the country could be heading the way of Ecuador (which has been engulfed in narco violence the last couple of years).

Tourists and expats are noticing. In the beach town where I live, three Colombians were shot dead in the middle of the town one evening. I was meant to see the new mayor give a talk this week, but we were told he’s been advised not to show himself in public because of threats from a local drug kingpin.

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Why has the situation with narco-violence suddenly become so bad? One theory is the rise in demand for drugs, especially from tourists visiting the beach towns. It creates local markets that gangs fight over. Where I live, Colombian and Nicaraguan gangs shoot it out for dominance over the market. The poor, peaceful, friendly Costa Ricans are not set up to fight violent international cartels. They don’t even have an army.

What’s happening is truly tragic, especially when foreigners are part of the problem. So, what can be done? “Legalize drugs,” some will no doubt say. The president has, in fact, floated a plan to legalize marijuana, but we’re decades away from ever legalizing cocaine. Others think the president should order a violent crackdown on gangsters, like the president of El Salvador did, but he ordered the arrest of 1 percent of the population and is holding them without trial, possibly for life.

One step could be a public campaign to tell tourists at the border not to buy cocaine, as it is destroying the country. But Costa Rica is generally terrified of losing its “Pura Vida” reputation.

We foreigners have a responsibility not to ruin the paradise we are visiting or make our home. That means not buying cocaine—at the very least—and seeking to support society in healthier ways.

My Costa Rican partner and I recently bought some land in an “eco-community” in the hills not far from here. There are many such “eco-communities” springing up around the country, often with names like New Earth or The Ark, as if a few special souls have gathered there to wait out the apocalypse while breeding their blond-haired indigo children in Steiner schools.

We bought land in one of these communities because it’s beautiful, safe, and we want to meet other interesting people (and maybe I’m just a masochist). We have no illusions that we’re “saving the world,” but some of these projects could develop good communities, plant lots of trees, and offer nice places to live, as long as residents realize we’re lucky people with a responsibility to give back, as opposed to some kind of evolved spiritual elite.

There is a risk that eco-communities can become eco-bubbles if they don’t interact and integrate with the country around them. A friend told me about visiting one eco-community in Uvita. “When I said I was Costa Rican they stared at me—I realized I was the first Costa Rican to ever stay there.”

READ: How the Shipibo Came to Be the Most Common Group Serving Ayahuasca to Foreigners

Another “eco-community” in Santa Teresa, Yoko Village, is raising millions of dollars for a new wellness clinic at the heart of its condo project. It tells investors there are hardly any good healthcare facilities in the area. OK—but is building a psychedelic clinic really the answer? That might attract some rich seeker types, but it’s not going to do much to help the locals (I put this to the founder of Yoko Village, and he told me they are exploring ways to give back to the local community).

We must accept that we’re lucky that Costa Ricans let us live here, and we must try to integrate and give back, just like any other immigrant to any other country. How about attending one less workshop on “healing your inner child,” and instead organizing a fund-raiser to give money to a local charity?

We sometimes go to a gringo church near where we live—they sing cheesy songs and talk a lot about Jesus. It’s a long way from the ecstatic dance and psychedelic ceremonies of the eco-bubbles. But at least they make an effort to support the local community by running soup kitchens for the unhoused and building rehab centers for those who want to get off of certain drugs.

Who’s really the more “evolved”?

*This story originally appeared in the “Ecstatic Integration newsletter authored by Jules Evans.

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