I Went to A Transformational Festival In the Costa Rican Jungle In Search of a Better Way to Live
Amidst local opposition, the four-day event in Uvita celebrated its sixth year in which people from around the world gathered to practice alternative lifestyles and music.
Jack Pasco Photography
Update: This story was updated to incorporate a statement from the festival organizers received after publication.
It's 5:30 AM in Uvita, Costa Rica, and after wrapping up the night dancing to tech-house, a friend and I traverse the steamy jungle landscape of dirt and rocks leading back to our campsite. There, we encounter a woman nervously peering inside the entrance of her tent, having been awoken by a large crab crawling across her body.
After taking four steps backwards, I recommend we shake the tent to draw out the creature, but the woman protests—she doesn't wish to frighten the crustacean, or bring any "bad energy" to the situation, which she believes was caused by fate. Deciding that three hours of sleep is enough for the night, she adorns herself in a trippy leather Burner vest, and braves the interior of the tent once more to salvage an important item: her ceremonial drum. She disappears into the night, leaving her tent unzipped—a thought I contemplate as I drift away to sleep, listening to the sounds of howler monkeys singing in the tree canopy above me.
To call Envision a "music festival" doesn't really do it justice. Sure, the event—which just wrapped its sixth year, on February 25-28—features hundreds of musical acts playing everything from world music to dubstep, spread across multiple stages. But, like Burning Man, it's also a place where an international population of tattooed, heavily pierced, and occasionally naked hippies can live out their vision of an idyllic society—in this case, one revolving around a constellation of alternative lifestyle practices, including veganism, yoga, shamanism, and even witchcraft.
Like other so-called "transformational" events, Envision revolves around near-mandatory self-reliance. On the festival's grounds—a combination of stages, camping zones, yoga temples, and ceremonial fire pits—there's a stringent ban on disposables, plastic, or any kind of MOOP (or "matter out of place") that isn't naturally biodegradable. All food trash is composted, which contributes to a constant odor of rotting organics fruits, vegetables, and coconuts. So is all human waste: when you go to the bathroom, you drop your "stuff" into a large hole in the ground, where it breaks down over time and finds its way back into the earth's soil. At meals, which usually take place in the Village area—a multi-purpose hub with food vendors, hammocks, and various public meeting spaces—plastic plates and cups are nowhere to be found; instead, festival-goers use a plate rental system, where you return your utensils after each use. Bottled water is not sold anywhere on the premises.
Envision's jungle location—a ranch three hours outside the capital city of San José—is equally unforgiving. While the site is picturesque, with sprawling tree canopies, rolling green hilltops, and a nearby beach—access to which was restricted this year from 7:30 AM-5:30 PM, due to a powerful riptide—, the temperature hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and drops at night to a "chilling" 80 degrees, making sleep a treasured rarity. Still, to coexist with the oft-brutal intricacies of nature feels like it's at the heart of the event, even more so than the music.
While Envision's location is responsible for much of its unique vibe, the festival has consistently met with opposition from the local community over the years, something that this year culminated in an organized protest. An article from local San Jose newspaper, The Tico Times, reported on a community-led peaceful demonstration that took place on Saturday, in which local residents bearing signs that read "No Mas Envision," or "Stop Envision," walked to the sound of the Costa Rican national anthem, ending up outside the festival's gate. According to the article, they were offered water and food by the Envision organizers, which they reportedly refused. "There's nothing to negotiate; they are trying to buy us, " a local named Ester Vindas said to the paper. "Values have no price."
According to the article, the demonstrators opposed the drug use and nudity that was visible at the event, and worried about its influence on local youth. Additionally, during Saturday night's headline set by Beats Antique, frontman David Satori took to the mic to announce the music would be momentarily paused due to it being to loud—suggesting perhaps that someone had complained to authorities.
With a multitude of community protest evident throughout the weekend, one must consider if Envision, with all its emphasis on sustainability for the local community, is at all detrimental to the very population they're trying to protect. One of Envision's Co-founders, Justin Brothers, who is also quoted in the Tico Times, suggests the opposite—outlining the efforts of Casa Envision, a local school in the town of Uvita that the festival has helped rebuild and develop into a more advanced youth center. Some locals quoted in the Tico Times article also gave their support to Envision's efforts, noting the money the event drives into the nearby tourist town of Uvita.
Stephen Brooks, a Co-Founder of Envision, told THUMP that the protests are being led by a radical evangelical church group located in Uvita. "No matter what you do as things grow bigger it is impossible to please everyone, Brooks says over email. "We tried on many occasions to meet with [the church group] prior to the festival to hear their concerns, and see what we could do to help them to feel better about what Envision's goals are for the region. They agreed to meet and then cancelled at the last minute."
During one panel talk, Miami-bred, Costa Rica-based Stephen Brooks, further emphasized Envision's altruistic intentions. Describing the inception of the event, Brooks recalled a specific instance in which he saw a group of local children on a playground get sprayed with toxic fungicides used by a Chiquita banana crop duster while on vacation in Costa Rica, filling him with a harrowing sense of Westerners' reckless disregard of the local Costa Rican community. "[Crop dusting] happens just so our bananas in the states don't have any bruises on them, " Brooks said. "Let's just let that soak in for a minute," he continued, bringing upon a lengthy awkward silence throughout the crowd. To that end, in addition to providing a boost to the local economy, one could argue that Envision makes a conscious effort to safeguard the locality against the potentially detrimental effects of its own presence, with its focus on minimizing waste and conserving water, which is often a rarity in jungle climates.
Many of the other panels I would attend throughout the weekend would cast a similarly critical lens on Western society, including one talk about American government conspiracy theories ("The government is fake," I heard), and another about the dangers surrounding the the acidification of sea-water. With its packed crowd of "students," Envision often felt like some sort of bizarre, psychedelic university; people constantly seemed to be talking about something deep. I heard about a woman's experience attending a retreat on yoga, shamanism, and permaculture while sitting on a bench that she herself had built. While at a fire ceremony at 5 AM, a man explained the intention behind the fire pit's shape—a heart—and its lineage in Native American culture, while a trio of friends beside me locked arms and gently cried. A man simply named Murmur showed me his collection of laser-cut wooden pendants, which he planned to trade in exchange for other people's life stories.
With a secluded Children's Village where little ones brought along by their forward-thinking parents took part in their own group exercises, it seemed even the kids at Envision were there to expand their consciousness. Some kids I saw throughout the grounds would cutely and craftily trade dirty jokes and refreshing spritzes of oil water for colones (Costa Rican dollars), as well as help feed attendees, like a local youngster named Cody who cheekily would instruct my group how to slice a jackfruit at 7 AM at the Envision fruit market while holding a sippie cup.
On the health-conscious front, Envision's Village featured a Witches' Healing Sanctuary, where one could purchase powerful elixirs and attend workshops on the health benefits of cayenne peppers. Natural and vegan food vendors sold everything from fresh ceviche to kale and citronella popsicles, eagerly educating festival-goers on their health benefits; festival-goers sat in on workshops led by health experts, toxicologists, herbalists, certified life coaches, and a variety of healers, teachers, and ecologists. Yoga classes were offered pretty much around the clock, ranging from sweaty vinyasa flow formats, to spiritual dance workshops, to couples yoga, where people molded their bodies together in search of connective energy.
Considering the high cost of travel to Costa Rica, I'd half-expected the crowd at festival to be dominated by young, downward-dogging yuppies. Instead, for me at least, it was the earthly travelers that stuck out; many of the people I spoke were itinerants, traversing the globe and living in alternative communities, often trimming weed to make ends meet. Approximately 400 of those present were volunteers, having signed up to help out at the festival for a free ticket. (Sadly, some of the unluckier volunteers, along with a handful of ticket-buyers, would fall victim to the infamous "jungle bug," Costa's Rica's version of Montezuma's Revenge).
Envision's focus on the alternative and unexpected seeped its way into the music of the weekend, with artists often breaking their beats to share inspirational messages. Oakland rapper and DJ Lafa Taylor interrupted his music to guide a massive crowd-breathing exercise, and Colorado-based bluegrass group Elephant Revival talked about the importance of cleaning the ocean before performing a song about the issue; local artist Guadalupe Urbina, meanwhile, used beautiful guitar music to preach to the crowd about the spiritual benefits of consuming multicultural food. That being said, when the lights went down, Envision became one hell of a rowdy party—almost creating the feeling that people were rewarding their day's mindfulness with wild hedonism.
Much of the music was fittingly psychedelic, rolling glitchy bass, tribal chanting, sitars, and live instrumentation into something trippy and danceable. On the headier side of the spectrum, British psytrance pioneer Shpongle performed a 3:30 AM set on Saturday Luna Stage amidst fire dancers and massive live painting installations. The Lapa stage was Envision's rave zone, with Playa-friendly tech house from the likes of Desert Hearts' Lee Reynolds keeping the stimulant crowd grooving until sunrise on Saturday night; during a set from German tech titan M.A.N.D.Y on Friday of the weekend, the appearance of one of the ranch's infamous crabs on the dirt ground made the audience part like a biblical sea.
But the Butterfly-shaped Luna stage—with its decorative eruptions of fire, launched from behind its hallucinatory structure—would be home to what was perhaps Envision's most moving moment. This was an inspiring sunrise set by Random Rab, setting the scene for a massive, sweaty group hug filled with B.O and gentle sobbing, as well a guy beside me jamming on a flute.
That moment of release felt earned. Compared to the lavishness of many festivals across the world, nothing about Envision felt particularly easy. Getting to the event is hard, it's unbearably hot, and you need to worry about jungle creatures invading your tent (at one point during my time there, I even heard a rumor about someone playing tug-of-war with a monkey over their sleeping pad). Holding a festival deep in the jungle also presents a number of technical difficulties; power outages were rampant due to spotty electricity, occasionally shutting down entire stages for brief moments. In my own camp, narrow pipe width led to the showers being shut off for extended periods of time.
But, at Envision, everything you struggle with results in a reward. Never have I encountered a group of people devoted so much to each other's well-being and creating a world that sucks less; bump into someone here, and you can expect a full hug. I learned how to roll delicious cacao chocolate into treats used for a spiritual ceremony, and gazed in awe beside a fire ceremony as a group of women drummed and danced and sang songs dedicated to Mother Earth. In the jungle, I even learned that veggie burgers can be tasty.
After immersing yourself in such a otherworldly environment, the prospect of returning home to the "normal" world is cause for dread. To that end, one Trinidadian yoga instructor at a class I attended eased my mind, urging students not to re-enter society bitter at those who hadn't experienced something so amazing. Instead, he explained, Envision-goers should honor their experience by finding ways to induct others into their tribe. This welcoming spirit lies at the core of Envision's gentle world view, one that in turn echoes the native mantra of Costa Rica: Pura Vida. Roughly translating to "pure life," it speaks to a life that honors the simple treasures of the world—like having a good conversation, or dancing with people you love, or downing a fresh slice of fruit at 7AM.