Sowilo: what happens when a psychedelic retreat turns into a cult
The only centre to be booted off Retreat Guru
This is a story about why psychedelic tourists should be extremely careful choosing retreats. If you do psychedelic tourism, you are handing your mind, body and, potentially, soul over to others and subjecting yourself to their methods (or lack of) while you’re in a highly suggestible state and often far from home. The repurcussions can last months or years, both on the upside and the downside. So ask hard questions long before you hand over your money. More positively, this story is also an example of how the psychedelic industry is gradually learning to improve safety and harm reduction. It’s the story of Sowilo, the only retreat centre ever to be removed from Retreat Guru
Sowilo was founded by a French businessman called Bruno Cluzel. A few years ago, he was selling real estate in Miami through various companies, including Keystone Morgan, Morgan Stachs and Morgan Vacation Properties. He is married to a French woman called Aymeline Hamm. They have four young children. They lived a fast life – apparently Bruno drove around Miami in a Ferrari. But his career was not without its legal bumps. He was taken to court twice by Puerto Rican Bank, first for defaulting on a loan, then for foreclosure of a property. And he’s a defendant in an ongoing trial in Miami for Fraudulent Inducement, Breach of Fiduciary Duty, Civil Conspiracy, Unfair Trade Practices and Negligent Misrepresentation during a real estate sale in Miami. That case has been rumbling on since 2018.
In 2020, Bruno left the Miami real estate business and set up a psychedelic retreat centre called Sowilo near Merida, capital of the Yucatan province of Mexico. The name Sowilo comes from a German rune, which features on the logo of the SS. He also started calling himself by his middle name – Gabriel.
Sowilo was listed on Retreat Guru, the most popular site for meditation and psychedelic retreats. It currently has 1700 upcoming plant medicine retreats listed on it. According to Devin Irvine, Retreat Guru’s head of customer success, Sowilo initially had glowing reviews and Retreat Guru had good interactions with Gabriel and Ayme. Sowilo catered to the more hardcore end of the psychedelic tourism market. It sold nine-day, 17-day and three-week retreats, costing anything from $2k to $9k, offering daily micro and macro doses of 5-MeO-DMT, a short-lasting, very powerful psychedelic drug derived from the Bufo Alvarius toad native to Mexico. Sowilo also offered its guests magic mushroom ceremonies, Samadhi (Syrian Rue), kambo and breathwork. It presented itself as a spiritual-therapeutic retreat run by ‘Gabriel, non-duality teacher, Bufo Alvarius guide and trainer, who also has over 10 years of experience with psilocybin and other medicines’.
Retreat Guru’s Devin Irvine says, ‘About a year ago, we started getting multiple complaints a day about Sowilo, and we found other complaints on Reddit.’ You can still see the complaints on Reddit, like ‘what happened at Sowilo’, and ‘Sowilo – be warned!’
What follows are four customers’ edited accounts of their nightmarish experiences at Sowilo, as well as Retreat Guru’s response, and finally a brief interview with the follower of Bruno / Gabriel who took over the centre. I reached out to Bruno on Linkedin for comment but didn’t hear back from him.
‘17 years ago, I had a mystical experience. During that experience, I realized I was possessed by a demon. Since then, I’ve been on a journey to try and exorcise the demon within me. Initially I tried in the Catholic Church, but despite repeated attempted exorcisms it didn’t work. I tried psychedelic drugs instead. The first time I smoked Bufo (5-MeO-DMT), the demon manifested in me. So I sought out a retreat that offered Bufo. I found Sowilo on Retreat Guru, wrote to them and said ‘I have a demon within me and want to exorcise it’. They said fine, come to us. I’m unemployed so I borrowed money and signed up for their three-week programme for $5,000, and went there in December 2022.
The first day, they were all completely smashed. No one was there not under the influence, except for their kids, who were running around near the ceremony. The guy running Sowilo, Gabriel, was doing enough Bufo to kill a horse. He was smoking massive doses two or three times a day.
He and his wife Ayme told me immediately ‘you don’t have any demon within you’. I’d just spent $10,000 coming there, so thought it was pretty arrogant to tell me that immediately.
It became obvious Gabriel thought he was Jesus. He genuinely believed it. He would say ‘only God can reveal who I am”. I said ‘who are you?’ ‘God will reveal it in time’. After the first week, I was so high on Bufo and in such a vulnerable state, I thought ‘maybe this motherfucker really is Jesus. If he frees me, I’ll believe it.’
Whenever I smoked Bufo, the demon within me would manifest, and sometimes say the most horrible things. Gabriel would shout at me during the ceremony, saying ‘I can’t do it on my own, you need to help me, you’re not trying’. I was like ‘bro, I’m not resisting here, I’m doing my best’. I was scapegoated. He openly discussed my demonisation with other attendees, assuring them that it was all my fault and that everything the demon said was true. One time he accused me of being the archangel Michael, attempting to overthrow him.
Because Gabriel believes he is Christ, he is never wrong and his ‘apostles’ agree with everything he says, no matter how ludicrous. He would insist his dogs lick the negative energy from your mouth after ceremony. In one ceremony, he stood over me and pissed his pants. He would give us orders then contradict himself. One time he sent us to an ayahuasca ceremony nearby, run by some women. Their ceremony had a very witchy Satanic feel to it. I and another person from Sowilo got a bad feeling, so we left and came back to Sowilo. When we did, Gabriel blamed us for going. We said ‘but you told us to go!’ He said ‘you didn’t listen to your inner voice.’
Another time, he handed me some mushroom tea and said ‘drink that’. It was a very high dose, no way you should be giving it to someone outside of ceremony. I was in his kitchen, having a panic attack, I ran up and said I needed help. He told me to sit down between his children, who were doing some painting at the kitchen table. You have someone who is possessed on a high dose of mushrooms. I said ‘bro, I can’t be sitting next to your children’.
They’re posing as experts, but they’re just clowns.’
‘I was at Sowilo this March. I found them through Retreat Guru. I went there for their 17-day Bufo training. By the third day, I realised I wasn't going to learn anything from Gabriel. There were people leading kambo ceremonies who didn’t have any training in it, people facilitating breathwork who didn’t have any training in it. It all felt very unsafe. But I decided to stay and take responsibility for myself.
Each day started with a ‘microdose’ of Bufo then a big dose in the afternoon. They were serving very large doses. The micro doses were usually closer to full doses.
Gabriel, the lead facilitator, was abusing the medicine like I’ve never seen. I watched him smoke eight to 12 hits of Bufo in a row. He would smoke it, drop the pipe, glass would go everywhere, and he would get up and go to each person, look them in the face and yell ‘what’s my name?’ Over and over, until you said ‘Jesus Christ’, then he’d leave you alone.
He had received a couple of bad reviews on Retreat Guru at that point. And he was absolutely livid about these reviews. He would go up to clients in Bufo ceremonies, when you’re out in the stratosphere, and say ‘you need to write a review on Retreat Guru before you leave!’
Gabriel’s wife is called Aymeline. She was also highly abusive. Many times when you were in the medicine, you’d come out of the trip, and they would jump in and serve you again. Aymeline had some issue with me because they realised that they couldn't manipulate me. Sometimes I said no to more medicine. They didn't like that. They would try to force the medicine on me. I saw them do it to other people too.
Aymeline followed a complete fruitarian diet for her, her children and everyone else. Nobody was allowed to eat anything other than fruit all day, then they would serve a vegan meal in the evening. Many of the guests struggled with this and if they challenged Ayme with questions she would become very upset. If you requested something she would actually deny you of it and tell you that you didn’t need it.
In one of the afternoon Bufo ceremonies, I noticed the man opposite me was laying down, and one of the assistants was sitting behind him, staring off into space, and a dog came in and was licking the man’s face and sitter didn't even notice it. Another time, there was a gentleman who apparently had run off into the woods in his first Bufo ceremony. So the next time he was served Bufo, Gabriel directed four people to hold him down so he couldn’t move.
Bufo is one of those medicines where it’s easy to love everyone and think the world is beautiful. And it can be easy for people to look at the person providing them with the medicine as God-like. There was one couple, the woman was called Leah, she had gotten there in January from Texas and she ended up staying and becoming their assistant. Her husband Mark and their son had joined her at the centre. Mark’s experience there sobered him up and he was excited about losing weight. When he was in the medicine, Gabriel would go up to him and tell him to sell his restaurant business in Texas, sell his house, give up all material possessions, no longer work for profit and commit to God for the rest of his life. Gabriel convinced Leah to move all their money to an offshore account. Leah was very nervous about it but she did it anyway. They did everything Gabriel told them to and then they bought a house down the road from Sowilo. They were also serving medicine to their 12-year-old son.
During my mushroom ceremony I watched Gabriel completely gaslighting others in the medicine. People who were getting caught in mental loops were berated for the way they think, causing them to desperately try and make sense of things and looping endlessly. Gabriel became exhausted himself by it all and brought his wife Aymeline in at one point. She proceeded to continue the abuse, telling one woman everything that was wrong with them and how badly they were screwing things up at Sowilo.
What happened to Gabriel / Bruno? He told me he hadn't been sleeping. The combination of his narcissism, the massive abuse of medicine, the lack of sleep - he clearly had a psychotic break. When he got these bad reviews on Retreat Guru, I think he was worried that he wouldn't be able to keep the place afloat. So he told everyone that he got a message from God to go to Argentina. He offered to sell the retreat centre for one and a half million dollars, and one of his followers bought it and is running a new retreat centre there now.
I spent $4000 on the training and Gabriel didn’t teach me a thing. My first day of so called training, he measured out 90 mg of medicine, which is a very high dosage as 40-60 mg is considered a threshold dose. This was the only time he measured a dose the whole time I was there. He showed me how to burn the medicine. That was the extent of any training I got there. I'm quite familiar with this type of abuse, gaslighting and narcissism, as it is what I am working to heal from. This experience and witnessing so much abuse was extremely traumatising for me. It took me several months to stabilize myself from the horror of it all .’
‘I am 47-year-old clinical hypnotherapist, shaman and Reiki master. I went to Sowilo because a friend of a friend recommended it, in March 2023 for a 17-day practitioner training. It cost just under $5000. There was no screening at all, just a quick conversation then ‘come on over’.
The facility was stunning, but the welcoming was a little awkward because they were in ceremony, I think on psilocybin. I was greeted, and then instantly Gabriel and Aymeline did a reading of what was going on with me. That felt rather vulnerable and personal. Then Aymeline said ‘I'm super intimidated by you’. She was frenetic. She was a fruitarian and pushed the diet on all of us. Their eldest kid was eight or nine, and was in extreme despair about his parents’ condition. He cried a lot and hated everything that was going on there.
I have had four COVID vaccines. And apparently, vaccines put Gabriel into a state of extreme aggression. Anytime he smoked Bufo, which was a lot all day long, he would walk around in circles, and if he was near you, and you happened to be vaccinated, he stared at you and started yelling, ‘what's my name?’ if you didn't say ‘Jesus’, he would get more and more aggressive. And then later, his followers would come up and say, ‘Did you get vaccinated? how many times?’ and then Gabriel would start drilling you – ‘why did you get vaccinated? Why?’
Another guest there had a lot of interactions with Gabriel. When she was on Samadhi, he started picking on her and saying she had partnered with the devil - real manipulation, torture to her mind. I think it took her a couple of months to recover from that.
I think Bruno / Gabriel was in a state of psychosis. There were moments when he wasn't in the medicine that you could have a lucid conversation with him, and he knew he wasn't Jesus. But you had to be very careful not to challenge anything he claimed when he was in the medicine.
One night, I did four grammes of mushrooms. I lived through every possible nightmare you can imagine as a child. With the amount of trauma and insanity that this beautiful head contains, it is not a place that I like to go to hang out. So that night on mushrooms wasn't fun. But I was present enough to give myself permission to be okay while in those dark places. And while I’m there, Gabriel starts yelling at me that I'm going too far. Then he starts yelling at me about how I'm supposed to see him as Jesus. Then he brings over these two chairs and he and his disciple JP sit above me and just start peppering me with information about how he’s Jesus, and we're all here to serve them and support them as they heal people. The psilocybin eventually wore off to the extent I could tell them to stop yelling at me. Then they wanted to give me four more grammes. They’re getting ready to shove it down my throat. I’m thinking I'm going to have to physically fight and I was trying to assess how strong I felt. And then eventually I became docile about seeing him as Jesus, so he said, okay, you don't need any more medicine.
Week two, the whole energy changed. All of a sudden, no more yelling, and instead it’s ‘Would you consider moving in with us?’ The pressure was on hard. Even their kids started pushing at me like ‘Oh, please don't leave us, we need you’. I started getting terrified, because I remember there was a woman staying there, and while we were all in ceremony she ran away. When we came out of ceremony, they said ‘we have to find her’, and sent people out to the bus stops and train stations to bring her back. So I wondered, am I going to get to go home? I'm a caregiver of my elderly parents. So one day I started to look really worried and I told Leah, I'm concerned about the pressure to stay here, I need to sort out the situation with my parents first. That got them to ease up a bit.
Leah had just moved in and was a very good little disciple. Then she brought her husband Mark who was becoming sober after multiple years of severe alcoholism. he was selling his entire estate, which was extensive, and giving all the money to Gabriel. They brought their 12-year-old son Max and started putting him into the medicine anytime he was misbehaving - they used the medicine as a parenting tool.
Because of the torture of my childhood I had an understanding that no matter what Gabriel was doing, he couldn't touch me. Still, I was terrified that I was going to be kidnapped and get stuck there.
We didn’t learn anything, all we did was sit inside the medicine for 17 days. I asked every single day, are there protocols? Are there things I need to know? Nothing about integration. Nothing about holding space. Nothing about nothing.’
‘I’m a 34-year-old English teacher from the Mid-West of the US. My first psychedelic experience, I had a very positive time at an ayahuasca retreat in 2022. So I thought I would try a Bufo retreat. I came across Sowilo on Retreat Guru and thought ‘if it’s on there it must be good’. I signed up for a nine-day retreat for $3000 in March 2023.
I went with a friend who I met on the previous aya retreat. There were a couple of odd things when we arrived. Their children were everywhere. It felt like we were in their home rather than a retreat. And then each day started with a Bufo microdose. But my experience was , it wasn’t a microdose . Then a few hours later we did an even bigger dose. I started to wonder, have I pushed myself into something I can’t handle
Day two, they added in kambo. Then Bufo. Then really aggressive kundalini breathwork right after a microdose. It was too much. Then we smoked a bigger dose of Bufo. Then in the evening we took mushrooms. While I was on mushrooms, Gabriel popped up next to me and said ‘what have you got going on, let’s get that out of you’ . I said ‘I don’t know you, you don’t need to know my deepest darkest problems’. Then I saw Summer getting yelled at. I thought, that’s messed up. You don’t get a bunch of people on a retreat, pump them full of drugs, then behave as if you’re God.
Day three, we’re smoking Bufo and the kids are watching us. I thought they would go to school or have private tutors. They said they were unschooling their children. I have a masters in education. This wasn’t unschooling, this was just the kids doing whatever they want. I also noticed the facilitators were doing drugs all the time. They were nasally ingesting rapé multiple times an hour.
I’m seeing all this behaviour and it was like ‘ten signs you’re in a cult: isolation, stripping away people’s belief systems, making people believe there’s something wrong with them, dismissing other forms of support, keeping them in an altered state, extracting money from them, love bombing them. Every time I entered a room, it was ‘I love you, we love you, you’re so loved’. And then, of course, claiming the leader is God.
In their library was a psychedelic painting of Jesus and he looked just like Gabriel. I made a joke about him growing out his hair to look more like Jesus. There was also a statue of the archangel Gabriel holding a sword. They kept saying ‘this is our garden of Eden here’. And then one evening, all of a sudden, Bruno / Gabriel, Ayme and their daughter come busting in to the room when I was on mushrooms. Bruno was crying, he says ‘oh my son I have been feeling lonely too’. And Ayme said ‘oh my son you’re so loved’. And she started singing me a lullaby. Even in an altered state I thought, what are you doing? Stop pretending you’re my parents. Ayme says to me, ‘remember that joke you made about Gabriel looking like Jesus?’ She stares into the distance and says ‘it’s him!’ I said ‘oh no, no, no, stop with all that.’ She said ‘you’re a teacher, Jesus is a teacher – won’t you give us a chance?’ I said ‘I need to go home’. ‘What even is home?’ she asked. ‘Not here, this is a cult.’ ‘Why?’ It was this weird telenovela scene. She said to Bruno, ‘I told him who you are’. And he did this mock protesting: ‘Oh no! Well…the truth will set you free’. I yelled at them, ‘you’re not who you think you are and what you’re doing is wrong’ . He said ‘do you want more medicine?’ I said no and went to bed.
I texted my friend in the morning: ‘we need to leave today, he thinks he’s Jesus’. She said when she’d come out of the medicine that day, he had wiped the tears off her face and licked them off his fingers. We packed up all our stuff and changed flights – this was on the fourth day. Ayme came straight over to me, but I put on a big performance and said I’d been healed, I’d found what I was looking for, and was leaving.
I got home. I was traumatized. I took mushrooms months later and was flailing on the couch terrified that I was Jesus. When I came out of the altered state I realized I had been traumatized from Gabriel’s appropriation of Jesus. I sought professional counseling after that and it took me six months to recover from the three days at Sowilo.’
Retreat Guru’s response
Gabriel is not the first 5-meo-DMT ‘facilitator’ to think he’s Jesus. Earlier this year I interviewed Victoria Wueschner who co-founded a 5-MeO-DMT harm reduction service. She told me she knows of ‘multiple’ other 5-MeO-DMT facilitators who’ve decided they’re the Messiah. All psychedelics can lead to Messiah trips, but 5-meo-DMT especially so.
As I said at the beginning, this story has a silver lining, in that Sowilo got booted off Retreat Guru, and encouraged Retreat Guru to improve its system for vetting psychedelic retreats. Cameron Wenaus, CEO and co-founder of Retreat Guru, says:
We’re evolving as we go. When we started the site back in 2014, we would allow anybody to come onto the marketplace, it was just literally ‘list your retreat’, like Yelp. We thought ‘let the public police the retreats through bad reviews’. But a year or two into that, it dawned on us that people were seeing us as a trusted vetting site, so we needed to do a lot more vetting on our end. As of this year, when a new psychedelic centre comes to us to list on our site, we ask them to fill in an onboarding document, which asks them questions like ‘what’s your lineage, your training, where do you get your psychedelics, do you mix medicines, are you close to a hospital, have you had any fatalities or injuries or complaints against you, are you in good standing with your community’.
Retreat Guru also introduced a new system this year to deal with complaints, called TRACE, which they borrowed from Esalen:
Thank the complainant for making you aware of the situation.
Recognize that it might have been difficult for the complainant to come to you.
Affirm Retreat Guru’s commitment to its policies and procedures when it comes to allegations against retreat centers and/or teachers on our Marketplace
Commit to these actions:
A thorough, prompt, and fair investigation
An end to the conduct
Appropriate corrective action if deemed necessary
Explain the next steps
In response to all the complaints about Sowilo, Retreat Guru booked a call with Gabriel and Ayme, and discussed the accusations. They also asked them to fill their new psychedelic retreat vetting form. Devin Irvine, Retreat Guru’s head of customer success, says: ‘There were obvious differences between what they said in conversation with Retreat Guru, and what they wrote on their onboarding document.’
Cameron adds: ‘Based on all of that, we let them go. A few months ago, we got an inbound request from a new centre in the same place, and it felt like Sowilo again - it was the students of the previous teacher trying to set up and rebrand. We made sure we didn’t onboard them.’ I ask Cameron what he thinks could improve safety and harm reduction in the psychedelic retreat space.
I think the answer is healthy strong local communities that hold people accountable. Perhaps retreat associations might work if they’re more than rubber stamps. More peer supervision would help prevent situations like Sowilo.
After the pay-wall, an interview with one of Gabriel’s students, who bought the retreat centre and took it over. Paid subscribers will also hear from Retreat Guru’s founders about what happened when they were forced to take over Synthesis Training earlier this year, and their plans for it.
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