It's past three in the morning and I was perched precariously on the back of a beaten-up Honda motorbike barreling down a pitch black dirt road cut through the Nicaraguan jungle. I had no crash helmet and was traveling at a speed that stopped being fun several kilometres back. There was nobody else on the road and the only illumination came from whatever moonlight managed to seep through the palms overhead. The road was strewn with potholes and makeshift speed bumps, and several animals including a dog and a cow had already attempted to kill us all by wandering into view without warning. As terrifying as this experience was, I felt lucky to be able to get back to the guesthouse I was staying at on another part of Ometepe (population approximately 3,000), as there was no alternate transport at this hour. My driver Jairo—who ran his family's furniture store in the village I was staying in—had kindly woken up at our arranged time of stupid o'clock to drive me the 13 kilometres back from Magma Fest, the otherwise tranquil southern Nicaragua island's only electronic music festival, and the country's largest.
volcanoes. I first discovered the two-day event entirely by chance, spotting the poster in a Guatemalan hostel a month previously. I was intrigued by the idea of a rave at the base of a volcano, and judging by the poster it looked like a legit festival. By the time the festival arrived, I had been backpacking through Nicaragua for almost a month, and Central America for close to three months, and traveller's fatigue had definitely started to set in. I'd been staying mostly in small towns off the beaten track, eating rice and beans twice a day, and getting eaten alive by a thousand different species of insects, who clearly were also surviving off of a limited menu. I hadn't had a hot shower since El Salvador—my last landlady actually laughed when I asked if there was hot water—and Magma Fest seemed like a great opportunity to have a vacation from my vacation.
Magma Fest—not to be confused with other festivals with the same name in the Canary Islands, Czech Republic, and Seattle respectively—takes place every December on Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua formed of two volcanoes, Concepción to the north and the dormant Madera to the east. Started in 2012 by a collective of five Nicaragua-based artists and sound engineers, the festival was conceived to promote the Central American music scene with the first iteration scheduled to coincide with the Mayan "doomsday" prophecy on December 21, 2012.
The world didn't end however, and four years later, Magma Fest continues to draw top electronic names from across Central America, and international headliners like Sweden's Alexi Delano and Francesca Lombardo of Crosstown Rebels. The dance-floor for the 1,000-plus attendees both days—essentially the beach—was overlooked by a gigantic 400-year old ceiba tree (which the Mayans believed was a tree that connected to the underworld), lit up with abstract projections and a light show that must have been using half of the island's power supply.
On Friday, the first official night, the majority of the crowd was mostly made up of fellow backpackers, as well a smattering of Nicaraguan students from the capital of Managua and nearby Rivas. One student, Charlie, told me that he's come every year since the beginning, although he barely looked old enough for that to have been true. I asked whether he came more for the party or the music and he replied, "The music, the drugs, the girls, everything. There's nothing else like this in Nicaragua."
Standout sets were delivered by Nina Garay, a Honduran DJ who beautifully skirted the edges of disco and house, and El Salvador's Carlos Padilla, who brought a more muscular sound but still very much grooving and percussive. Not that I was in much shape to be dancing—I could barely feel my legs following the previous day's hike up the side of the still-active Concepción (its last period of eruption ended only five years ago in 2009). To make matters worse, rain clouds had prevented me and my affable guide Iván from making it to the peak, and I accidentally smashed my iPhone to smithereens after dropping it on volcanic rock. My sole consolation was that I managed to get my revenge on the biting insects by eating a handful of termites, which disappointingly tasted like wood.
The second night was more heavily focussed on techno, and although it got off to a slow start, the payoff eventually came with Costa Rica's Esteban Howell. The San Jose-based DJ and producer played a straight up techno set, with a liberal sprinkling of acid throughout. The audience was a more even split of tourists and locals, making for a far more interesting dynamic than Friday. I bumped into the managers from both guesthouses I stayed at in Ometepe—Manuel from Hotel Kencho was delivering 40 orders of chicken and rice to the festival VIPs, and Edwin from Casa de Charly was there raving with a couple of pals.
What makes the two-day event such a unique experience is first and foremost its location. It's impossible to ignore the incongruity of partying to electronic music on the beach of a volcanic island, on the edge of a nature reserve. A space usually frequented by middle-aged hikers relaxing after a day of photographing butterflies with oversized lenses, or 20-something backpackers drawn to Ometepe for the punishing volcano hikes, suddenly became one of the least organic experiences human nature can provide. That it actually went off without a hitch on an isle where there is no public transportation after 6 PM, and access to the facilities needed to throw such a festival are close to non-existent, is quite impressive. Additionally, the two international headlining acts aside, Magma Fest focuses entirely on Central American electronic producers, a small-but-dedicated pool of talent often dwarfed by the number of contemporary artists from neighbouring Mexico and South America.
I finally bid farewell to Magma Fest at 7 AM on Sunday morning, exhausted yet invigorated, and I could still hear the music from several kilometres away, along the dirt road towards the port where the passenger ferry leaves for the mainland. Several locals were sitting by the roadside with expressions on their faces best-described as a mixture of bemusement and curiosity. As I trudged past with my huge backpack, one resident resting outside of his zinc-roofed shack hollered at me good-naturedly, "Buena musica, buena fiesta?" Suddenly feeling guilty for the noise we generated over the past two days, I shouted back somewhat apologetically "Sí, una buena fiesta, gracias!" as a baby chicken ran under my feet almost tripping me over.