Can boutique festival Ocaso and established BPM brand both flourish, or even survive, in Costa Rica?
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included factual errors regarding BPM funding, BPM 2017 and ADI. They have been amended.]
Deep in the jungles of Costa Rica, the origami stage of Ocaso Festival shimmers in fractal explosions of color. More than 20,000 LEDs trace the 80-plus production panels, seemingly glowing from within.
At the center of this pulsing lotus, Maceo Plex takes the stage, and the roughly 5,000 attendees segue into a kind of collective euphoria. The American DJ has never before set foot in this littoral Central American nation, and almost none of the Ticos, as locals call themselves, have ever seen him play live. But the sophisticated crowd, well versed in the world of underground music, levies great expectations. [Editor's note: The writer of this article attended Ocaso 2020 as part of a paid press trip.]
Too often the first sets you see of a hyped DJ underwhelm. Whatever Maceo Plex proceeds to feed the locals on this night is the exact opposite of that: a set chopped heavy with electro -- clear evidence of the artist's Miami roots -- and plenty of breakbeats, such as Chemical Reaction Food’s aptly named "Is No Way That the Crowd Can Sit Down." The impeccably architected set is scheduled to end at 4:00 a.m., but Maceo Plex is hearing none of it. He plays until 5:00, and even then doesn’t seem remotely ready to leave. The crowd, bathed under a beaming full moon, revels in the madness; buses heading out of the festival remain empty until the final track.
“This place is full of vibes,” the producer tells me on the shuttle ride home. He’s clearly not ready for bed.
At the inaugural Ocaso in 2017, festival co-founders Devin Ellis and Brett Ballou let everyone in for free. In 2018, attendance nearly doubled to 3,500, last year hit 5,600, and this year eclipsed 6,000. With an attendance of 65 percent locals, Ocaso’s renown is resonating not just with foreigners, but also from within Costa Rica. Consider this small nation hasn’t funded a military since a failed coup in 1949; they block out 25 percent of the country for national parks and ecological protection and spend more money on education than any other Central American nation. It’s no wonder the people themselves are consistently mentioned as a standout element of the festival.
And recently, these locals have had myriad dance festivals to choose from, with Ocaso happening Jan. 9-13 and The BPM Festival, the Canadian-based international electronic festival brand, making its Costa Rica debut just days after -- from Jan. 15-19. But the closeness of these parties on both the calendar and in proximity -- both events happened in Tamarindo -- pitted the events against each other as they vied for both attendees and talent.
Given how important Costa Rica is to the success of Ocaso, it’s noteworthy that the decision to host the party here near Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula -- on the Pacific Ocean not far from the Nicaraguan border -- was pure luck. Ellis was searching throughout Central America for a large outdoor venue capable of hosting an old school party -- the type he and Ballou grew up throwing in the '90s in L.A.’s nascent rave scene.
They found what they were looking for in Tamarindo. At a site located on an earthen amphitheater carved out of an open meadow, the stage, cocktail bars, food stalls, tents, and live art walls are surrounded by a wall of giant trees lit bright with lasers. The site features a hidden labyrinth made of cacti planted in concentric circles, a thorny pochote tree at its center. This secret meditation maze is meant to ground visitors, but its power is dubious, as most attendees appear to be orbiting the fifth moon of Jupiter.
The festival remains quite rough around the edges; at times the skeleton crew seems to keep the seams from bursting with bubble gum and duct tape. But that’s really Ocaso's shaggy charm. Critical factors such as bathrooms and shuttles are never an issue; they have a surfeit of the former, and the latter are plentiful and run on time.
L.A. house legend Doc Martin points out that Costa Rica has been happening for years. A decade ago, he came to the capital of San Jose and played Vertigo -- considered one of the top clubs in the world for years -- as well as rooftop and warehouse parties. “There's always been somewhat of a special vibe with Costa Rica,” he notes. “The fact that Ocaso has come in and not tried to ream the Ticos for every dollar they have… is really commendable, to say the least.”
Affordable Ocaso ticket prices -- $19 for single day and up to $119 for full five-day passes -- made entry possible for locals. With no VIP area or velvet rope, nor a single sponsor banner flapping in the wind, it was also one of the most egalitarian festivals we’ve attended. BPM also maintained low cost tickets, with early-bird five day passes available for $125, ten free daytime and nighttime events and discounts on five-day and three-day passes available to Tamarindo residents at the box office. Standard five day festival passes for BPM ranged between $175 and $350.
Before arriving to Costa Rica in 2020, the previous Central American version of BPM happened in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. That is until 2017, when a single gunman opened fire into the Blue Parrot nightclub during a party on the last night of the event and took the lives of four people, sending another 15 to the hospital, with another individual killed during a post-shooting stampede. BPM left Mexico in the wake of the event, continuing their planned expansion to Portugal in 2017. (BPM will host the fourth year of its Portugal in 2020 and also expanded to Israel in 2019.) Returning to Central America in 2020, BPM also chose the shores of Tamarindo.
“It's extremely frustrating,” Ellis admits of BPM’s encroachment. Capitalism is brutal business, of course, but Ellis questions why BPM would target Ocaso’s location and dates to host their own event. After all, there are thousands of beaches across Costa Rica, nevermind Central America. BPM organizers stated that part of the location choice was due to Tamarindo’s infrastructure and ability to service international tourists and that they selected the Tamarindo location before Ocaso was on their radar.
“We chose Tamarindo for the beautiful beach location which has become a trademark for BPM,” says BPM founder and director Phillip Pulitano. “We wanted to introduce Tamarindo and all its beauty and eco-tourism to a whole new audience.”
Answering questions via email, Pulitano notes that the winter edition of The BPM Festival has always taken place during January, and that the Costa Rican edition had no concurrent days as Ocaso, even if they were only days apart. Additionally, he says, of the event’s 5,600 attendees, 90 percent came from outside of Costa Rica, with 70 countries represented. (Thirty-five percent of Ocaso attendees arrived from outside the country.)
Clearly, Costa Rica is emerging as a magnetic destination for underground dance music events. Consider the prestigious Envision Festival, which occurs about six hours south in Uvita. Celebrating its 10-year anniversary this Feb. 17-24, many think the seven-day transformational festival laid the foundation for the Costa Rican festival scene while also popularizing locations in Guatemala and other Central American spots.
But in what locals are now jokingly referring to as the Battle of Tamarindo, can both Ocaso and BPM flourish in Costa Rica, or even survive?
With a 13 year history of booking and promoting festivals and events, BPM has longstanding relationships with many artists in the worldwide dance scene, with BPM Costa Rica featuring more than 130 acts including Loco Dice, Masters at Work, Nicole Moudaber and Skream. BPM organizers note that it is these relationships, rather than just money, that make it possible for them to book such a stacked lineup.
After BPM, many artists took to social media to express their enthusiasm for the festival, with Fredo Cortez. the owner of Club Vertigo in San Jose, Costa Rica who DJs as Mr. Fredo writing, "First time in Costa Rica and you guys killed it from start to finish. My hat goes off to the BPM Festival and the entire crew in uniting the locals of Costa Rica and people across the globe in the beautiful beach of Tamarindo, where everyone becomes one with the frequencies and each other’s beautiful vibe in this magical event." Meanwhile, Ocaso 2020 featured more than 60 artists, including Maceo Plex, Seth Troxler, Âme and Justin Martin.
It also takes time to navigate the red tape and bureaucracies of developing nations. For instance, despite a large production staff and budget, BPM failed to secure the correct permits, which forced police to shut festival gates at 2 a.m. during one night of the five night festival. This caused understandable ire from festival goers who were not allowed to enter, despite having tickets.
Urs Schmid is president of the ADIT (Asociación de Desarrollo Integral of Tamarindo, the local business council). As part of this volunteer organization, it is Schmid’s responsibility to steer local commercial and social growth in a sustainable way. “The ADIT represents the community and we are currently conducting a community survey in order to understand what the community’s perception of the BPM event was,” Schmid writes via email.
“What we can tell so far," he continues, "is that the [BPM] event organizers did not respect the opening hours they were given by the local government.” Schmid confirmed that BPM’s permit for their jungle location was valid only until 2 a.m., which explains why police shut down entry at that time.
“Police from over an hour away shut down entry at one point on Saturday at 2:00 a.m.,” BPM's Pulitano says. “For the last night on Sunday, we asked everybody to enter by 1:00 a.m. to avoid any issues, but there were none.”
For now, for Ocaso to compete with the larger BPM machinery, Ellis and his team are aiming to expand the festival’s offerings in every category, growing its already stacked musical lineup, art program -- adding celebrated San Francisco street artist Sam Flores this year -- and an elaborate food program that included 14 local and international chefs serving traditional Costa Rican cuisine. Meanwhile, The BPM Festival is making plans to return in 2021 with, as Pulitano says, "many more Costa Rican editions to follow.”
In the end, Ocaso itself can be distilled into the motto of its host country: Pura Vida, the good life. Ticos sling the phrase as greeting, farewell, "sorry," "thank you," "oops, my bad" and just about any occasion they can. It is as essential to the fabric of this golden nation as the siesta is to Spain, or "mahalo" is to Hawaii. The motto represents a little bit of the soul of the Costa Rican people: Be grateful, for everything. This is a country that invests in itself, and the people feel invested in it.
One could say Ocaso is aiming for the same goals -- its survival will likely depend on it.