VacayNetwork.com Editor Adrian Brijbassi traveled to a remote mountainous area of Ecuador to participate in a spiritual healing ceremony. This article is the second in a three-part series chronicling that experience.
For 35 years, Welby Winstead has been a surgeon and professor of medicine. He works in Louisville, Kentucky, performing on patients in need of ear, nose, and throat repair. For 12 mostly sleepless days in October, however, Dr. Winstead was in the mountains of Ecuador and far from the world of mainstream medicine.
He arrived at Gaia Sagrada, a retreat center established to help people coping with illnesses and disorders, because of his “life-long interest in entheogens, or psychedelics.” His experience as a scientist leads him to believe these naturally occurring substances have solutions to an assortment of ailments mainstream medicine falls short of answering.
“I think some people could have been cured in one session, whereas at home we give them anti-anxiety pills and keep them medicated for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Winstead, who cited research showing successes with treating post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems, including forms of addiction and depression, with psychedelic drugs.
The psychedelic rituals Winstead and I participated in contained ayahuasca and the juice from the San Pedro cactus, plants that reputedly help humans attain enlightenment and healing. We had journeyed, along with about 20 others, to an isolated, mountainous region of Ecuador to reach Gaia Sagrada, a facility whose shamans aim to foster healing, if not rapture, through their administration of what is called “plant medicine.”
For people who have heard about ayahuasca and San Pedro, the connotation is most participants are young, or hippies who never grew out of the movement, and they arrive with the intention to get high, disguising it as a form of healing or spirituality.
What I found were people eager for joy, wanting to let go of pain, some of which had clung to them for decades, and looking for connection with like-minded, sensitive souls. They approached the medicine — given in a sludgy liquid, and sometimes chased down with blindingly painful-to-swallow liquid tobacco or burning sugar-cane liquor — with reverence, each staring into the fire with communal cup in hand, some offering a prayer, before throwing back the one or two ounces of the stuff. During the ayahuasca ceremonies, the shaman would pass the medicine around about once every two or three hours. San Pedro was more free-flowing and also had less physical effects. Fewer people “purged” (threw up) on San Pedro than ayahuasca, and San Pedro also doesn’t leave you staggering nearly as much.
The experience was so moving for Bart de Bakker, an information technology professional from Belgium, that he made the decision to leave his job and move to Ecuador, in order to assist Gaia Sagrada in growing its reach. He agreed to do so for $150 per month, plus food and lodging.
“It’s time to help people and life is not about the money. It’s about your heart. I’ve been to places all around the world and this is one of the most special places I’ve visited,” says De Bakker, who first tried psychedelics of this kind in 2010.
Having felt the stigma of others who look askance when they hear open talk of the use of psychedelics, De Bakker is cautious about revealing too much.
“I tried to convince people that their belief system is not the truth, or not exactly the truth, and that wasn’t received so well. People tend to hate it when their belief system is taken away from their feet. It’s an ego thing and I understand it. I just have to be careful who I tell about this for now,” says De Bakker, who is ecstatic about his future path, saying his new role at Gaia Sagrada “won’t feel like a day in the office for me.”
Meanwhile, Diva Tyler, an actress from Atlanta, Georgia, arrived to celebrate her 60th birthday at Gaia Sagrada. She spent more than a month at the facility as a volunteer before deciding to try ayahuasca for herself for the first time.
“I believe in watching what happens to other people before I try things for myself. Everybody seemed to come back okay, so I figure I would try it,” says Tyler, who has appeared in the TV series “Eastbound and Down” as well as films and theatre productions.
She also participated in a private ritual, where the shaman administers ayahuasca in the dark and in more potent doses than during the group sessions.
“Some of my family believe I’m just going back to my teen years and test driving psychedelic drugs again,” Tyler says with a grin. “But I’ve done a lot of research around anything to do with spirituality and I know some of these psychedelics can take us away from this reality and to some place more spiritual.”
For me, the ambition was colossal. I arrived to Gaia Sagrada looking to connect with my wife in the spirit world. Julia passed away in March 2016 and I felt compelled to seek her out, one persistent question driving me, as it would any husband. I wanted to know if she was okay, and I hoped ayahuasca and San Pedro would show me, tangibly, that she is.
Instead, I received a blow of reality. When the shaman, who clearly perceived my pain and enlisted what methods he could to ease it, apologized to me, I knew I could not achieve what I wanted with the psychedelic plants. Tears trickled across the shaman’s cheeks when he admitted, “There’s nothing I can do for you.”
I challenged ayahuasca and San Pedro to return my wife and learned it could not be done. Of course, I was chasing a desperate fantasy, but it was an effort I had to make. Despite failing to resolve my grief, I learned an immense amount about psychedelics, entheogens, and hallucinogens. Most importantly, perhaps, the experience and the people I met during it destigmatized ayahuasca and San Pedro for me.
Psychedelic therapy shouldn’t be undertaken by everyone — and to Gaia Sagrada’s credit an application must be filled out before acceptance to a retreat is given — but neither should a healing experience be discouraged. We know psychedelics will open the human mind. What I found compelling about ayahuasca and San Pedro, and the intensity of sharing them with strangers, was how much they also cleared room in the human heart.
MORE ABOUT VISITING GAIA SAGRADA
Location: Gualaceo, Ecuador, about one hour by car from Cuenca.
Rates: Prices for the 12-day ayahuasca and San Pedro retreat range from $1,175 to $1,975, depending on accommodations selected. Choices include dormitories with shared rooms and bathrooms to private accommodations. A seven-day retreat is also offered, costing $775 or $975. The prices include good-quality lunches and dinners prepared by staff and volunteers. Guests prepare their own breakfasts using ingredients in the facility’s kitchen. The meals follow an alkaline diet that is said to help participants improve their ability to cope with the effects of the plant medicines and to increase their energetic harmony.
What to Expect: The 12-day ayahuasca and San Pedro retreat is intense. The ayahuasca sessions take place at night and the San Pedro ceremonies in the day. Each psychedelic plant is brewed into a foul-tasting tea that has the consistency and appearance of sludge. Participants drink approximately one-ounce glasses of each liquid every 90 minutes or so during the sessions. You can have more of each drink or less if you like. Typically, the sessions last for 10-12 hours, and no food or water is given until the ceremony culminates. The day following each ceremony, participants gather to recount their experiences. Those recollections are often emotionally charged as well.
More Coverage of Ayahuasca and San Pedro Ceremonies
Article 1: In “The High Life and Much More During an Ayahuasca Retreat in Ecuador”, Adrian Brijbassi introduces the spiritual healing experience and details how Gaia Sagrada was founded.
Article 3: The final article in the series will feature an intimate look at the shamanic experience. Watch for it on VacayNetwork.com in coming weeks.