Looking for a Reset, a Writer Embarks on a Psychedelic Experience in Costa Rica

A personal journey.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Maira Suro
  • Illustrated by
    Yuiko Sugino

At 5 p.m. I enter the maloca, an enormous A-frame structure held up by formidable wooden beams. For the indigenous people of the Amazon, it’s traditionally a ceremonial center. For the weeklong ayahuasca retreat I’m beginning in a Costa Rica resort, it’s where all ceremonies will take place. Comfy mattresses topped with pillows and blankets cover the floor. A bucket and a roll of toilet paper are at the foot of each one. Despite the soft music and serene vibe, they hint that things might turn hectic later.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive, plant-derived brew, revered as sacred medicine among the indigenous people of the Amazon. Drinking it causes altered states of consciousness, which typically include hallucinations. Despite my lifelong stance against drugs, I welcomed the opportunity to reflect on my role as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and professional, and hopefully in that process, put to rest unresolved issues from my past. My focus was on letting go of childhood traumas.

I zero in on a bed in the corner by the window with a view of the enormous trees outside. Folding and refolding my blanket, I take notice of all 80 of us guests settling in for the ceremony, and do my best to ignore the inner skeptic that keeps screaming: cult!

Soon the shaman and his team parade in, calling us to gather in the main room of the maloca. Donning a feather headdress, he speaks of patience, gratitude and reverence for “the medicine” and its healing powers, and insists on the rule of noble silence—no talking allowed so as not to interrupt anyone’s journey. We are then sent back to our beds where we wait to be called up for “first cup.” 

Now, you, like most of my friends and family, may be asking: How did I, a former TV executive turned full-time mom and now an empty nester, wind up on an ayahuasca trip? In a nutshell: I’d just come out of three of the most challenging years of my life—the kind that rip the rug right out from under you. Still reeling from the pandemic, I faced a series of family and health crises, as well as the death of a loved one. I needed a serious reset.

The resort is nestled in the seaside province of Guanacaste. Set up in a comfortable private room with a king-size bed and simple bathroom, I was handed my itinerary for the next seven days. It included daily seminars to help prepare for the experience, a medical evaluation, spa appointments, access to the gym and pool, and the meal schedule. I was comforted by the trappings of a nice resort as the backdrop for this unconventional experiment.

Now, standing in line to receive my first cup of ayahuasca, I sway to the music, focused on my intention: Show me how to become a better person. I watch the shaman fill my cup, bless it, and hand me the liquid, which is like chunky prune juice. I swallow and think, “Could be worse.” Then lie down, waiting for the magic to happen.

The intensity of my journeys over those three nights was profound. Each time I drifted into darkness, visions from my childhood, interactions with relatives, dead and alive, permeated my consciousness. I saw my husband and daughters and gained insight on our family dynamic. I relived my birth and the birth of my children, and heard the soothing voice of Mother Aya (Mother Earth) telling me, “A woman can be strong and gentle; be both.” It was overwhelming and enlightening. The shaman had said to surrender to the experience, which meant letting go of old wounds and resentment and quieting my mind. In that unruly state, and as is common while journeying with ayahuasca, I reached for my bucket and purged, as if ridding my system of the wounds of my past. By the third night, I was exhausted, yet calmed by a feeling of insight and relief.

A week later as my plane lifted off, I prayed, grateful for all I experienced. My stay at this resort had been a mixed bag. Unleashing the emotional energy of 80 people in one room is chaotic, and in hindsight, the intimacy of a smaller group would have suited me better. Also, some of the staff at times were harsh, and that was difficult to manage, as I was in such a vulnerable state. But experiencing this ancient medicine is something I will always remember as a worthwhile spiritual journey. I realized I still didn’t have all the answers, but one thing was certain: A more tolerant and peaceful me was headed home.