Uvita, Costa Rica: Envisioning a New Festival
Envision Festival in Costa Rica: A jungle haven for music-lovers, yogis, and permaculture fans
By: Devinne Zadravec
Welcome to the Jungle
There’s heat, and then there’s the heat of a Costa Rican summer, on the coast, in the middle of the jungle. Body slick with sweat, head pounding, and the sound of frantically buzzing insects droning deafeningly in my ears, I was quickly learning which of the two was the least bearable.
My traveling companion gestured to the thick wall of foliage that bordered the few buildings of downtown Uvita and commented on the sound of the bugs: “Did you know, when they buzz that loud and fast it means it’s really hot out? The heat increases their frequency or something. Cool, right?”
Cool was an unfortunate word choice, but I managed a strained smile and a grunt that I hoped would convey polite interest in the matter. This was not my first trip to Costa Rica, but it was my first time visiting Uvita, as well as my first voyage that fell during the brutal months of summer. Uvita is the small sister town of popular surf destination Dominical, located on the Southern Pacific coast, about a four hour drive from the capital San Jose.
The Envision Festival
Uvita is also the home an exciting annual event: a music, yoga, and permaculture festival called Envision.
Though it began five years ago, the festival has recently exploded in popularity. For four days, people from all around the globe converged on Rancho de la Merced to camp, eat, play and experience the magic and community of the festival. The 2016 event had more than 7,000 attendees, and 500 staff and volunteers. I was one of the latter, ready to experience my first Envision as a volunteer with the hospitality team.
Having applied to volunteer on a whim and receiving my acceptance less than a month before I was due on site, my pre-departure preparations were hastened. A flight leaving from Boston only put me out about $500.00, and from previous visits I knew that transportation within the country would be quite cheap, a bus from San Jose to Uvita is only $14.00. But while I was both familiar and comfortable navigating Costa Rica, I felt an unusual sense of anticipation as I boarded my plane. This was my first music festival after all, and it was a big one.
Any nervousness I may have felt soon melted away, however, and as I futilely wiped sweat from my brow on the congested bus I could do little else but watch the palm trees fly by, and the lush green landscape shift from tumbling mountains to swaths of farmland and eventually, the surprise breaks in foliage that opened up sunny windows to the Pacific.
The First Day
The gate was made of palm fronds and bamboo. Set back about twenty feet from the road and shadowed by the thick shade of the jungle, it would have been nearly imperceptible if not for the small blackboard propped up on the side of the road that read “Envision Staff Entrance!” A chalky green smiley face drawn below the words welcomed us to our new home.
Approaching the gate, two guards stepped out from either side to check our credentials. I gave a quick reply in Spanish, and the guard on the right shouted through the leaves and the gate began to open.
The first on-site sunset. We had barely crossed the threshold when a bellowing voice called from behind “COMING THROUGH!” I turned and hurriedly stepped out of the way of two very sunburnt and sweaty volunteers, carrying a bundle of forty-foot bamboo poles on their shoulders. I hadn’t even made it to the check-in yet.
It was clear from the start that the volunteers here were busy. As my friend and I were quickly greeted, wristbands slapped on our wrists, and ushered to our camp site, it struck me for the first time that I wasn’t here for a vacation. I was here to work.
We pitched our tent in the only shady spot we could find: the scrawny shadow of a solitary palm tree. It was getting late in the afternoon, and the sun was unrelenting. We checked in with our supervisors, and were led away in different directions for a speedy orientation.
The first thing I was taught was proper handwashing techniques. Having clean, filtered water on site for such a large crowd was no easy feat, and there was a strict etiquette to be followed to ensure it stayed sanitary. No water bottle or human lips could touch the faucet. Water was to be used sparingly, and turned off when not filling a bottle or rinsing off soap. Only biodegradable soap was permitted.
The showers were to be used in the same manner, and I realized with a sigh the majority of my bathing would be probably come from dips in the ocean. I watched some men digging a long trench in the ground, and learned it would become a women’s latrine.
“Squatty potties!” my boss said with a laugh. All of the onsite bathroom facilities were compostable, a surprisingly delicate system that allows for waste to be repurposed as fertilizer, and also demonstrated the extent to which Envision aimed to be fully sustainable.
Recycling and food compost receptacles were placed conveniently throughout the site. As part of its mission to support permaculture and to be a no-impact event, Envision was part of the “end single-use” campaign, meaning there were no single-use food items (plates, cups, napkins) allowed on site at all.
Every guest would need to bring, make, or rent their dishes, and make sure they were kept clean enough for use. I was shown where the food vendors would be, where the dishwashing station was, and then left to explore for the rest of the evening.
I asked for directions to the beach, grabbed my towel and a book, and then lay reading in the sand, listening to the crashing waves of the incoming tide until the sun disappeared on the horizon.
The next few days passed in a sweaty, frantic blur. Creating a festival site in the middle of the jungle, where nothing but trees stood a month before, is a herculean task. It was an all-hands on deck situation, with stages being built, fences being constructed, signs painted, and art installed. You could hear hammers ringing out day and night, a fact I barely registered when I collapsed on my sleeping pad, utterly exhausted, at the end of each work day.
The Festival Begins
Guests began arriving at the festival on Wednesday of that week. My primary job was to lead them to their camping areas, assisting with luggage as needed. It was very exciting to see the site start to fill up, and to see people roaming around the grounds with a leisurely demeanor I hadn’t seen in days.
The biggest crowd would arrive on Thursday, and that was the day the music, workshops, and other activities would begin as well.
Envision’s popularity and growth are no surprise when you see the amazing lineup they boast each year. Musical guests such as Random Rab, Beats Antique, and Elephant Revival draw in huge crowds, while other stand out guests like yoga instructor and Instagram celebrity Rachel Brathen attract a whole other set of festival goers.
In addition to the 24/7 musical performances (yep: there’s a show going on every minute of every day and night, on three different stages, for all four days of the festival), Envision hosts a variety of themed workshops focusing on everything from Reiki massage techniques, to herbal medicine, to techniques for enhancing lucid dreaming.
Being such a large festival, I was surprised to find it was such a family-friendly event as well. Designated family camping and substance-free areas were removed from the general areas and perfect for those traveling with children, or for those less fond of the party scene. A chaperoned kid’s zone and family area served as a sort of daycare, with activities like a playground and maze for kids, as well as a series of programs and workshops designed to be appropriate for all ages.
Sol Stage, one of three main performance stages at Envision. There were art exhibits, performances, music, yoga, incredible food, a miles-long beach, and even a giant bamboo fortress–Envision quite
simply had it all. There was something for every kind of traveler here at the jungle paradise.
I was struck by the togetherness of it all– people from countries all over the world, with entirely unique backgrounds, all coming together to form this massive, loving community tucked away in a secret corner of the Pacific.
Four days passed before you can count them, and when the sun rose on Monday morning I blinked into the bright light, trying to place the strange feeling in the air. Silence. It was utterly silent, save for the sounds of the birds chirping cheerily in the trees. I hadn’t experienced a morning devoid of music, construction sounds, and general human noises in over a week, and had nearly forgotten how lovely mornings sounded without them.
Exiting my tent to brush my teeth in the jungle for the last time, I smiled at the other groggy-eyed people waking up and preparing to face the real world once more. Already there were patches of empty campsite, where people had packed up and quietly left during the night.
Envision was over, and I felt hugely content with the world. Happy, that such an event existed and attracted such a large and diverse community. Inspired, by all the people I had met, seen, and spoke with, people doing amazing things with their talents and enacting positive change everywhere they were called.
Most importantly, I felt connected–to this tiny sliver of paradise, to the many friends I had met there, and to myself, balanced and calm in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. And if there was one thing of which I felt certain, it was that I would most definitely be returning to Envision next year.
Fond of big dogs, stargazing, and foods covered in hummus, Devinne Zadravec is a writer/photographer/explorer from New England. Her favorite hobbies include hiking, yoga, and taking far too many pictures of her pitbull, Mischa. Currently, you can find Devinne hanging with her sisters in her Massachusetts home, or off adventuring, writing, and loving life in some new corner of the globe. Follow Devinne on her latest adventures on her website, or Instagram.
Read about another similar festival, Wanderlust, that happens each year in Manchester, VT.