Carlos Suárez Álvarez | 30 August 2023
We scoured Aya Advisor and Retreat Guru, searched Google and Facebook, sent messages, and double-checked data. These efforts were to answer two key questions asked in some research circles: how many ayahuasca retreat centers operate in the Amazon? And how many people visit them?
This research, outlined comprehensively in this report, led us to estimate that there were at least 232 retreat centers operating in Amazonian countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru) and Costa Rica in 2019. Costa Rica has emerged as a preferred location for ayahuasca entrepreneurs to establish such centers.
Peru is the country with the most centers. There are two main reasons for that. The country has a deeply rooted ayahuasca tradition. The traditional knowledge and ayahuasca practices of the Amazonian communities were officially declared Cultural Heritage of the Nation. In addition, dynamic tourist businesses have been developed in cities like Iquitos where most of the centers are located. The Sacred Valley has the advantage of close proximity to the popularly visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu, making it an ideal choice for those who either cannot or prefer not to venture into the Amazon jungle.
The retreat center phenomenon is almost irrelevant in Brazil and Colombia. Public security in the Putumayo region of Colombia is precarious and unsuitable for tourism. Additionally, there is a long tradition of itinerant taitas, who travel from city to city to facilitate ceremonies. In Brazil, the ayahuasca churches are the most popular way that people engage with ayahuasca.
Visitors and Servings
Once we identified the centers operating in 2019, two questions were asked of them: how many people visited them that year? And how many servings did each of them take during the retreat? A total of 35 centers responded, providing information about 9,436 individuals who underwent a combined total of 32,083 ayahuasca experiences. Typically, each retreat lasts for a week, during which participants consume ayahuasca between three to four times.
To estimate the overall number of individuals who took ayahuasca at tourist retreat centers, we extrapolated the data from these 35 establishments to the 232 centers that were estimated to be operating in 2019. The result was that the 232 retreat centers in the Amazon and Costa Rica would have received 62,000 people, providing around 210,000 experiences that year.
We were also interested in focusing on the statistics from Peru, the country of ayahuasca tourism par excellence. Of the 35 centers that responded, 28 were located in the country. These 28 centers received 5,888 visitors and offered 23,373 experiences. By extrapolating this data to the 173 centers operating in Peru in 2019, we estimated that the country received over 36,000 individuals and facilitated more than 160,000 ayahuasca experiences.
Average Age and Purchasing Power
We were able to profile the individuals who attend retreat centers through the valuable insights provided by the Global Survey of Ayahuasca Drinking (GSAD), a comprehensive global survey led by the University of Melbourne in collaboration with ICEERS. The survey asked almost 11,000 people about their experience with ayahuasca around the world. More than a thousand of them had primarily taken the Amazonian brew in Peru. The number of male and female ayahuasca tourists was approximately equal. The average age at which they started taking the medicine was 35, indicating an age range that is higher than the average age when people typically begin experimenting with other psychedelics.
Forty percent (40%) of respondents had consumed ayahuasca between one and five times in their lifetime. Additionally, around 80% had taken it less than 25 times, suggesting that ayahuasca is typically taken in controlled environments and not done in excess. Two out of three ayahuasca tourists had at least a university degree. More than 60% held managerial positions and worked in liberal professions which suggests high socioeconomic standing.
Prosperity and Fatal Accidents
In 2019, the typical price for a one-week retreat was around $1,000. If our estimate is correct that there were 62,000 ayahuasca tourists that year, then the revenue would be around $62 million. This income has positively impacted the economy of many local families and communities, although the ownership of the centers is often in foreign hands.
However, this commercialization has faced criticism. The pursuit of economic benefits has been argued to potentially lead retreat organizers to overlook participant admission processes, reduce safety protocols, or employ more potent ayahuasca brews to create an “unforgettable journey,” possibly compromising the participants’ health. Moreover, retreat centers are often situated in remote areas with limited medical services and which also makes evacuation challenging. It is not surprising that out of the 58 deaths attributed to ayahuasca consumption in the media from 1994 to 2022, 24 (40%) were linked to tourist retreat centers in Amazonian countries. Nevertheless, our full report estimated that the number of servings that occur in retreat centers accounts for only 5% of the total ayahuasca taken worldwide.
The comparison between the number of servings taken at tourist retreat centers and the number of deaths that have occurred should spark a crucial discussion that has been ongoing for years, particularly in locations like Iquitos. Implementing minimum safety standards for admitting clients, providing proper supervision during ceremonies, and offering post-experience integration support can significantly reduce the risks associated with ayahuasca. By taking proactive measures, these unfortunate accidents can be significantly minimized to ensure a safer and more responsible relationship with this sacred plant medicine.
- Four Million People Have Taken Ayahuasca Worldwide
- Ayahuasca, Global Consumption & Reported Deaths in the Media
- Health Status of Ayahuasca-Ceremony Participants in the Netherlands
- Ayahuasca In Spain
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
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