Learning About Mushrooms in Guatemala

A fun(gi) experience.

Way up on a hill in Guatemala, overlooking a lake surrounded by active volcanoes, I encountered a group of mad scientists, artists, and free spirits who have co-created their own authentic way of living.

Joining together to form the Fungi Academy, they embarked on a mission to change the world by sharing the boundless potential of mushrooms. Living and studying with this eclectic and amazing community has inspired me deeply.

I am honored to share my experience with you.

The Fungi Journey

Before coming to Fungi Academy, I had attended several short workshops and grown oyster mushroom kits on my own. But each time I gradually lost focus. My limited understanding of mycology kept me from confidently deepening my relationship with fungi.

Then, I listened to a Joe Rogan podcast episode with mycology legend Paul Stamets and attended a talk by William Padilla Brown, a mycology prodigy from Pennsylvania. These experiences renewed my interest in mushrooms and motivated me to find a course, mentor, or experience that would take my mycology practice to the next level.

I found all three at Fungi Academy.

I first learned of Fungi Academy while browsing NuMundo, a directory of transformational travel organizations. I wanted to know what experiences were available to me after attending Cosmic Convergence, a music festival on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Fungi Academy’s six-day intensive course immediately intrigued me. It combined many important qualities such as communal living, permaculture design, a beautiful location in nature, and a stimulating educational experience. The high potential of integrating fungi into my work with urban agriculture and nature education further motivated me to seek out the knowledge in the course. I was curious about the role fungi could play in feeding the world, improving soil, and reducing dependence on nonrenewable resources.

At Fungi Academy, I explored these questions, connected with like-minded people, and gained skills that I could share both in the Washington DC area and around the world.

Arriving at Fungi Academy was a dramatic experience in itself.

I stepped off a crowded motorboat at the dock in San Marcos, Atitlan with a heavy bag and small guitar in typical backpacker fashion. In order to get to Fungi Academy, you pass by a local neighborhood as well as other San Marcos institutions like the Yoga Forest and Eagle’s Nest Retreat Center. I followed painted mushrooms periodically marking the route as I made my way up the steep, winding path.

Needing to catch a breath from the hike, I turned to see a breathtaking vista of the town and lake that had opened up behind me.

World-Class Faculty in an Epic Setting

The academy is situated on a tent-lined ridge centered around one main structure. The design is reminiscent of other eco-villages I have visited. Our first group meeting took place on the large roof-deck with a sensational view of Lake Atitlan and San Pedro volcano—a truly epic setting for most of our activities, including morning yoga, classes, and meals.

I immediately noticed how the Fungi Academy team was focused on creating a comfortable and effective learning environment. The quality of dialogue and sharing in the opening circle quickly reinforced my first impression. I was impressed by the strong technical and educational skills of the teaching staff, whose backgrounds ranged from extensive learning in university settings to extreme DIY and self-taught wizardry.

Later, I experienced how the intersection of these many different styles creates a compelling and varied environment, where textbook learning and crazy experimentation hold equal value.

Each day, one or two core team members taught the course, which allowed participants to build a relationship with the entire team. My co-participants, (who came from Australia, Spain, the USA, Israel and more) shared interests in commercial and home mushroom cultivation, natural medicine, self-exploration, and community living.

The Unexpected World of Mushroom Science

The first class following the opening circle set the tone for the quality of the entire course. Oliver Merivee, Fungi Academy co-founder, began with a compelling introduction to mycology and the “Ten Super Powers of Mushrooms.” Learning about the seemingly miraculous power of fungi, I felt a mix of unusual optimism for the future of the planet and a fascination with mushrooms.

One session was dedicated fully to laboratory work propagating and expanding mycelium. Another session focused on medicinal mushrooms. Having often felt skeptical of dietary supplements, I had placed medicinal mushrooms in the same category. However, after studying the subject and speaking to the teachers at Fungi Academy, I gained a better understanding and appreciation of their history. Since returning home, I have been imbibing Reishi extract every day with a noticeable impact on my quality of sleep and focus.

Studying permaculture applications and outdoor mushroom cultivation was yet another high point for me. These sessions directly connected to my gardening goals through hands-on experience. Furthermore, I learned the proper technique behind mushroom logs and grow kits, two highly practical and popular growing techniques that I’ve since implemented in my work.

Later in the course, we took a field trip to visit Tomasa, a local woman who is cultivating oyster mushrooms for sale with the support of Fungi Academy. It was inspirational to see the growing operation this single mother and her three children have set up.

Towards the end of the course, workshops on foraging and spiritual applications of mushrooms rounded out the experience. While I have yet to muster the confidence to forage and eat wild mushrooms on my own, I do feel empowered to start foraging by consulting local field guides, finding a mentor, and practicing basic identification and strategies.

Learning about the relationship between wild mushrooms and cultivated mushrooms proved particularly interesting. Before the course, I was not aware of the practice of naturalizing local mushrooms, taking spore prints or samples from local mushrooms to then expand and cultivate. These naturalized mushrooms tend to do much better than varieties from other regions, since they have adapted to local conditions. I look forward to practicing this technique at home.

Key Takeaways

After the course, I reflected on how I had grown.

I had graduated with the confidence to immediately apply a range of mushroom growing techniques. I overcame a story about myself that I am not capable of enjoying or succeeding in a laboratory setting. And finally, I became much more knowledgeable about the power and essential role that the fungi family holds in nature. I also felt connected to the greater community of ongoing learning and knowledge co-creation around mycology, as well as the active alumni from the academy. Most importantly, I found new long-term collaborators and friends in the “Fungi Family,” to which I now belong.

Proof that the course worked for me came quickly. The week after graduating, Fungi Academy co-founder Tanel Heinsalu handed me a block of spawn to bring to Sattva Land, a permaculture community and retreat center in Belize. I taught a well-received two-hour introduction to mushroom cultivation class. We covered the superpowers of mushrooms in the first hour and wrapped up by creating grow kits with the spawn. By the time I left Belize, the bags were already colonizing.

Thank you for reading my account of my learning experience at Fungi Academy. While this course was a wonderful and transformative experience for me, it is not for everyone, so I created a short checklist you can use to help you decide whether to attend:

You will definitely enjoy this course if you…

  1. Are interested in starting to grow mushrooms.
  2. Enjoy living in a community and experiencing alternative lifestyles.
  3. Are fascinated by permaculture, gardening, and ecology.
  4. Practice natural medicine and herbalism.
  5. Enjoy eating a vegetarian diet.
  6. Can make your way up and down a long steep hike to the community, as well as walk up and down stone steps to class.
  7. Enjoy DIY projects and learning.
  8. Are interested in the healing potential of mushrooms—beyond conventional recreational usage.

Sound like you? Learn more about Fungi Academy here!

Want to explore the extraordinary world of fungi in Costa Rica? Fungi Academy is teaming up with Punta Mona to bring you the most accessible, low budget and easy to apply techniques. Their open Jungle lab will convince you that with the right techniques you can grow mushrooms successfully everywhere. Learn more here!

Jake Ifshin is a community organizer, green entrepreneur and educator based in Silver Spring, Maryland. After being deeply inspired through leading his first school garden program while working as a teacher, Jake decided to make a full-time commitment to sharing the joy of growing food and exploring nature. One of his specialties is making horticulture accessible to the youngest and oldest members of our society through innovative techniques and adaptive intergenerational programs. He brings his passions for nature, music and creativity to each of his projects. Jake is the executive director of Everybody Grows, a non-profit that equips and inspires people in the Washington, DC area to grow their own food. He is also the proprietor of Ifshin Gardens, a business with the mission of connecting communities to nature through gardening, wilderness and regenerative programs that has partnered with companies such as Discovery Communications and Senior Lifestyle Corporation. Jake has a BA and MA from St. John’s College, where he studied philosophy, ancient languages and the history of science. As a musician, he has performed and directed ensembles based in Washington, DC and New Mexico. He has pursued many learning opportunities in his field, including a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) at the Center for Creative Ecology at Kibbutz Lotan and a certification as a DC Urban Master Composter. He recently completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training with the Kula Collective.