San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Envision Fest descends on Bahía Ballena

From the print edition

UVITA, Puntarenas – It was Wednesday afternoon in the tranquil town of Uvita, on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, when the buses started rolling in. Purple dye jobs and dreadlocks presented themselves above the seats, mussed and shaggy from their journey down the Pacific highway toward the site of this year’s Envision Festival. At rest stops along the way, groups in tattered clothing and tattooed bodies had disembarked to smoke marijuana cigarettes, while Ticos munched on empanadas and watched the passing circus.

A vacationing couple from Canada, self-described Jehovah’s Witnesses, looked on in restrained shock as the bus reached its final destination in Uvita and discharged its rare contents in front of the local supermarket. The couple handed out two small magazines about God and issued a general warning about drugs before going on their way, apparently lacking the resources to save each Birkenstock-shod soul that came in the most recent influx of sinners.

“Usually they stay in Dominical,” the husband noted, referring to the three-acre site several kilometers to the north, where the festival was hosted last year. This year, organizers were expecting as many as 2,500 people and the grounds were five times bigger, on private land near Bahía Ballena, surrounded by swamp, jungle and knee-high grass. The festival showcased a four-day lineup of performers, new-age seminars on spirituality and environmental workshops, yoga lessons, art exhibits and craft stands, constituting a long weekend of Bohemian revelry.

Envision could be likened to a mini Burning Man, the artistic shindig that takes place annually in the desert of Nevada in the United States and attracts nearly 50,000. It is often touted as the mother-gathering of the burgeoning alternative festival scene that has grown popular in North America, Europe and countries such as Australia and India. These types of events bring a subculture of youth from all over and have the lofty mission of not only providing entertainment, but also something deeper. Envision organizer Stephen Brooks said this year’s festival near Uvita was the link between Costa Rica and the global scene.

But were Costa Rica and its typical beach tourists ready for that link? Bill Wood, a visitor from Switzerland, had purchased a ticket at the last minute with no idea of what to expect. He watched as fellow attendants participated in a pre-dinner group hug and chanting session. “Am I weird or are they weird?” he asked rhetorically and then chuckled, “I feel a little like a fish out of water.” 

Envision security guard José Luis Zúñiga, from Dominical, took the festival in stride and laughed as a nude couple pranced by him, holding hands in the starlight. “For me this is a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s rare to have a festival like this around here.”

Apart from the tomfoolery, it was a pervasive feeling among the revelers, organizers and artists at Envision that the festival was something more than a festival, a gathering of minds, an important powwow of the ephemeral global tribe with which many of the festivalgoers identify. The event website described Envision as “a mix of conscious people from around the globe, gathered to share an elevated experience of culture, spirit and community in stunning raw nature.”

Jimmy Bleyer, a self-described alternative festivalgoer from the U.S. city of Los Angeles, said the “tribe” represents a group of people upset with the status quo, congregating to separate from the dysfunctional paradigms of modern society. He described Envision as “a gathering of people to decide what’s next.” By “next,” he meant choosing in which direction to take the world, and by “people,” he meant shoeless, face-painted attendants dressed in fairy costumes and wielding yoga mats – a common sight at Envision.

“All these hippies,” Bleyer said, referring to the 1,000 or so participants on opening day at Envision, most from the United States and Europe, “are amazing, hardworking, creative people. It teaches you that anything is possible. It may look like a party, but a lot more is going down.”

It definitely looked like a party. Ice-cold Pilsen beers were ubiquitous in the scorching hot Pacific sun; a man with a backpack and cellular phones sold hits of acid, and acrobats rocked back and forth from elevated cloth swings. Electronic music blasted from several stages while long hair tossed to the rhythm and women in colorful linen dresses twirled neon fluorescent lights. After opening night, Thursday, silence didn’t fall on the 15-acre festival grounds until well into the early morning.

The vision for the event – and the deeper meaning behind it – was at times more elusive. The global tribe may have been present, but aside from the security guards, shuttle bus drivers and other festival support crews, one couldn’t help but notice the local population was largely underrepresented, despite hefty discounts on ticket prices for nationals. 

“For me it’s a little bit of a funny thing where the integration takes place,” one man said, “to the extent where I have to ask if we are in Costa Rica or on Costa Rica.”

And as far as the festival’s mission, organizers made an effort to book workshops with the mission of ecological awareness and promised to donate 5 percent of ticket sales to a local nonprofit reforestation group. But the overall scene conjured more of a feeling of indulgence and celebration than guided purpose. 

Artist Mark Henson was hesitant to describe the festival as having a mission in itself, but rather, he said, it acted as a respite in the world-changing work carried on in the everyday lives of participants. He noted that Envision and its free-dancing attendees harkened back to Woodstock. Having grown up in Northern California in the 1960s, he was one of the few among the mostly young festival crowd who had the wisdom of years behind his perspective. 

“I’m a ’60s guy,” Henson said. “Woodstock and all that got the ball rolling. And look, here we are today.”

Much like Woodstock, Envision had its setbacks. During the first two days of the festival, the shower water supply was practically nonexistent (more tanker trucks arrived Friday). On Thursday night, a young woman kicked her best friend in the face during a fight, and several sick people stood lurching at the medical tent. An event organizer went running from an interview when she got a radio call about a person with a staph infection.

Furthermore, Environment Ministry officials didn’t think the makeshift bamboo bridge that connected the festival to a protected part of nearby Ballena National Marine Park was very eco-friendly, nor were they pleased that festivalgoers were entering without paying the $6 fee. The exclusive VIP-only party for organizers, artists and those who paid a $425 cover fee (the standard was $225 for the four days) smelled a little like the old paradigms of aristocracy.

One thing is for certain: Envision organizers created an environment that fostered an overall sense of well-being, artistic inspiration and creativity. Whether Envision, with its bamboo structures, tent cities, tree swings, electronic house music and pervasive “ommm,” can be a prototype village for the global tribe of the future is yet to be determined.

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