Ticos and Techno | We Went to a Rave in the Middle of the Costa Rican Jungle

Ocaso Festival is not your average Central American party...

by Nicolas Stecher; photos by Ryan Valasek
Feb 8 2019, 5:16pm

It’s Sunday evening on the tropical coastline of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, and even though the sun has fallen, the air is hot, dry and combustible. In the unconventional setting of aging Best Western hotel pool (complete with fake waterfall) DJ/producer Magdalena is working the crowd before her like a Vegas illusionist. We’ve seen about a zillion sets so far at this weeklong Ocaso festival, but few have held their audience as rapt as the Berlin artist.

"The Fyre Fests of this world are more common than Netflix documentaries would lead you to believe"

Unlike goofball DJs, Magdalena doesn’t physically assault the air with judo hits, allowing herself only a wry smile and slight flick of the wrist as she drops another bassline and brings the 300-hundred or so assembled ravers to a simmer. When she finally hits a peak, segueing into Sound Syndicate’s “Weekend Rhythm”, the simmer turns to full boil.

Ravers make the most of the pool at Ocaso. Photo: Ryan Valasek

The clear plastic floor organisers have constructed to span over the pool begins straining as the crowd starts jumping in unison. A couple days earlier we watched local workers assemble the supporting scaffolding in the water, and looked on dubiously as they argued over a measuring tape. Now, the engineering is clearly being put to the test.

Sensing the crescendo, a half-dozen dancers — wild makeup, wigs and all — slip into the pool, elevating the festivities to another level as they begin splashing water high into the sky. Not 10 seconds later a bunch of dudes in tank tops slither into the pool around the scantily clad models, much like the crocodiles do in the nearby estuary every dusk.

We have hit Peak Ocaso.

“I used to get here the day before my set and leave the day after I played, and was bummed I had to leave so soon,” Doc Martin tells me. “Then the organizers told me to just stay, so now I'm staying a whole week.” Doc — a legendary LA DJ who’s been headlining West Coast raves since before the Chemical Brothers existed — has now become a staple at Ocaso. Not only that, he brought 70 of his best friends along with him to enjoy what he considers one of the three best festivals in the world.

The main stage at Ocaso Festival is quite something. Photo: Ryan Valasek

Truth is, this pool party wasn’t even the marquee moment of Ocaso — the Sunday fete was envisioned as a post-coital decompression session, a soft landing after four nights of madness. The climax happened roughly 18 hours earlier, when Doc captivated an entire jungle amphitheatre filled with the 3,000 revelers who’d managed to keep going from dusk ‘til dawn, leading an army of buzzed-out zombies into bliss with a disco remix of Underworld’s classic “Born Slippy”. That was the Holy Shit/Wish You Were Here/Instagram FOMO moment. But this unexpected watery crescendo perhaps best embodies the carefree, familial soul of Ocaso.

The explosion of boutique festivals in once remote corners of the Earth has given rise to a whole spectrum of events — some good, many more very bad. On the latter side lie the comically inept: the Fyre Fests of this world are more common than Netflix documentaries would lead you to believe.

The Lisbona Sisters keeping the crowd entertained during the day. Photo: Ryan Valasek

Somehow, Ocaso avoids major snags that bedevil similar festivals in locales with brittle infrastructure. There are no long queues to enter any event space, no disastrous energy-draining delays for shuttles in or out of the darkness —an unheard of achievement when executing an event for thousands in the middle of the jungle.

The promoters’ experience — cofounders Devin Ellis and Brett Ballou threw the formative raves JuJu Beats, How Sweet It Is and Aquarium in Los Angeles in the 1990s — certainly helps. So does luck. Massive amounts of it, no doubt. But actual planning and disciplined execution deserves to be mentioned — and the effort is rewarded. At its inaugural event two years ago, Ellis and Ballou let everyone in free. Last year attendance nearly doubled to 3,500, and this year hit 5,600.

“I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve been fortunate to go to a lot of awesome festivals and travel the world, and this by far ranks up there with top, top experiences.”

“I really appreciate the level of how polished everything looks,” a partier named Joel Bier tells me as we watch Costa Rican DJ Richard Salazar spin. “Granted it’s their third year, so I know they’re learning as they go, but it’s truly amazing this exists.”

Ravers at Ocaso Festival. 85 percent of ticket sales are to Costa Rican locals, or Ticos, as they like to call themselves. Photo: Ryan Valasek

Bier was eager to do a festival in Latin America in the new year, and while researching found Ocaso listed #8 on Mixmag’s Top 10 Festivals. Past acts like Art Department and Claptone were enticing, but this year’s headliners Loco Dice, Jamie Jones, Damian Lazarus and Doc sealed the deal.

“I’ve been blown away, and I don’t say that lightly,” says the seasoned festival goer. The Lake Tahoe resident lists Symbiosis, Sunset Campout, and 12 years of Burning Man as similar vibing events he’s attended. “I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve been fortunate to go to a lot of awesome festivals and travel the world, and this by far ranks up there with top, top experiences.”

The mood of the festival itself paints an interesting bell curve shape, starting off Night One with a beach party. Night Two moves to the pool of the Best Western — a somewhat neglected crop of Spanish colonial buildings, slightly overgrown and paint peeling but rich in character. Nights Three and Four are the peak, as the festival moves from the accessible township of Tamarindo deep into the jungle. After 48 hours of madness, Ocaso then downshifts, with that Magdalena-helmed decompression pool party on Night Five and a beach party to close out all official festivities.

A view over Ocaso's main stage. Photo: Ryan Valasek

The beach and pool parties have their magic, but understandably everything seems restrained. As if people hold their power balls for the bloody party battles ahead, or simply recover. The jungle is where the arms-in-the-air jubilation explodes.

About 45 minutes down a dirt road from Tamarindo — after a harrowing bus ride that is more Universal Studios ride than shuttle — you’ll find a wide meadow in the heart of the jungle. Here the earth rises to create a natural amphitheater, its crest crowned with cocktail bars, viewing platforms and live art installations, all surrounded by looming trees lit up with polychromatic laser fire.

A dancer silhouetted in front of the main stage at Ocaso. Photo: Ryan Valasek

At the bottom of the hill sits a stage that seems alien in the organic surroundings. The brainchild of designer Björn Jelinek, this ornate light sculpture — outfitted with 78-panels and over 6,000 LEDs — looks like a blossoming lotus flower lit from within, a fractalized homing beacon of living energy.

“We like to transform spaces, and create the feeling of unconscious spaceships,” explains Jelinek. As head of the ExtraDimensional Space Agency, the Austrian has designed and built stages across Europe. His own psy-trance party in the forests of Croatia, MO:DEM Festival, and Ocaso are his masterpieces.

"Whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working - by the look in their eyes, most people are currently somewhere past Jupiter"

Utilising programs that intelligently manipulate the LEDs to move with soundwaves, his goal is to create new neural pathways of the brain through light movement. “We transform environments through intelligent lighting systems and visuals,” he tells me, with the calm tone of an astrophysicist explaining quasars to a toddler, “to give the feeling of traveling through the cosmos”. Whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working - by the look in their eyes, most people are currently somewhere past Jupiter.

The greatest error a festival in a place like Costa Rica can make, beyond avoiding endless waits, underserved shuttles and all-out chaos, is disrespecting the host. This might be in environmental terms, by trashing the grounds, or it might be cultural — by ignoring the people who welcome you. It’s perhaps here that Ocaso is at its most impressive.

“We transform environments through intelligent lighting systems and visuals,” says the lighting designer. Photo: Ryan Valasek

Unlike some giant festivals (like EDC Mexico, for example) which are reviled for ploughing over local talent, Ocaso takes the opposite approach - this lineup is packed with Tico and Tica talent, and other DJs from the surrounding countries. Ocaso is not a playground built for tourists and interlopers — it was envisioned from the outset as a festival for locals, and 85 percent of tickets sold were to Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves). Of course it helps the Costa Rican capital San José boasts one of the strongest underground scenes in all of Central America, offering a fertile soil for Ellis and Ballou to handpick the nation’s best DJs.

The Electric Animals, a Costa Rican collective who played a peak midnight set at the beach party that had VIP guests jumping on picnic tables, are a great example. Taking a cue from world-renowned party towns like Berlin, Barcelona and New York they launched a Sunday day party in San José that’s exploded in popularity, and now they’re throwing their own festival at the end of March.

Full spectrum - the line-up at Ocaso is nothing if not varied. Photo: Ryan Valasek

“Ten years ago, the whole scene was a little more underground — just people who knew about electronic music, techno, house and whatnot,” explains Ivan Céspedes, aka Oneiro, one of the collective, after their set. “But since maybe six years ago things have started to change.” Ivan attributes part of this evolution to clubs like Vertigo - now known as one of the best underground clubs in Central America. Cutting their teeth headlining Saturday slots and opening for the likes of Lee Burridge, Sasha, DJ Tennis, Hernan Cattaneo and Crystal Castles has been indispensable for the group, he says.

“Costa Rica has been known for reggaeton or dance hall or whatever’s big in Latin America, but in the past five or ten years [techno] has becoming more and more popular,” explains his fellow Electric Animal Javee. As DJs who are all born and raised in Costa Rica, do they feel at all disrespected that Ocaso brings in so much foreign talent?

The night gets going. Photo: Ryan Valasek

“No, no, no,” says Javee, who has played everywhere from Ecuador to San Francisco to Los Angeles to Prague. “This is what we want.”

“Ocaso brings a lot to the table because it is also in a way a school for Costa Rica,” says Ivan. “It’s schooling people in what is proper sound, proper lights, proper DJs in great locations. It’s one of those things that's actually giving the people what they really want, what they deserve.”

Dancers are a feature of Ocaso. Photo: Ryan Valasek

More than anything though, it’s a great showcase for local talent. “We're glad to have people interested in coming and sharing music,” says Javee. “We also want to show the rest of the DJs in the world that we have it going on here.”

And what they have going on here, on the evidence of the past five nights, is something pretty special.

Nicolas Stecher travelled as a guest of Ocaso festival. Check back on the Ocaso Festival websiteto find out details of next year's event when they drop.

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