While it hosts a laundry list of the world’s hippest DJs, each voyage of the Mayan Warrior starts and ends with the same song.
Since making its debut at Burning Man 2012, the behemoth art car has become one of the desert bacchanal’s premiere sound stages on wheels, over the years expanding in spectacle and volume as it fuses the ancient cultures that influence it with the cutting-edge tech that makes it visible from a mile away.
Its theme song, the aptly titled “Here Comes the Warrior,” summarizes this fusion, combining traditional hand drums, maracas and flute with a heavy synth line that goes uninterrupted for the duration of the hypnotic 14-minute mood-setter. The track has bookended sets by DJ Tennis, Jan Blomqvist, Damian Lazarus, Bedouin, Carlita, Francesca Lombardo and other stars of the underground house and techno world, along with artists from the Mexican electronic community that the Warrior is focused on showcasing.
“We give the same stage to super famous artists and these cool, upcoming friends of ours,” says Mayan Warrior’s Music curator, the DJ/producer Rebolledo, who also produced “Here Comes the Warrior.”
But while Mayan Warrior has become a chic Burning Man destination alongside high-profile art cars like Robot Heart and soundcamps like PlayAlchemist, so too has it developed an off-playa audience while on tour in Mexico, Europe, the U.S. and points beyond. The huge effort of getting the car and accompanying support vehicles across international borders is done not just to spread Burner culture, but to raise the money required to get Mayan Warrior back to the playa each August. Funds raised also go to Planet Buyback, a charitable initiative that works to protect habitats and cultures in Mexico and beyond, with whom Mayan Warrior has a partnership.
Upcoming Mayan Warrior tour stops include Los Angeles on October 29, San Francisco on November 19 and Miami in early December for Art Basel, with the growth of such events — the first L.A. show drew a few thousand people; last year they brought in 8,000 — signaling a demand for Burner culture among both people who’ve never been and the global electronic jet-set hungry for year-round playa vibes. (A second Los Angeles show hosted by Stranger Than; and called Stranger Than; Sunday Warriors will also happen on October 30.)
“Back when we started it was more of a hardcore Burner type of audience,” says Mayan Warrior Founder Pablo González Vargas. “Then I think from 2015 to 2019, we started to see more the L.A. scene, the New York scene, San Francisco, the main cities in Europe. Our niche, which is deep house specific, is ultimately a very small scene, maybe 300,000 or so around the world.”
But while the community is global, the core Mayan Warrior team is a close-knit 12-person crew of producers, builders, electricians and architects from Mexico, who’ve together made it their mission to showcase elements of the ancient and modern cultures of their country while showing party people a good time.
Influenced by Mexico’s ancient Mayan civilization, the car’s design and spiritual mission is in homage to this culture. (“The theme is that [the Mayans] had their basic needs met,” says González Vargas, “and that’s how they got to evolve to a point where they say they just transmuted into energy.”) Mexico’s Huichol culture influences Mayan Warrior via the gifts made by Huichol people that are given away on the playa, in alignment with Burning Man’s gifting principle. (Smoke from copal, an incense burned in ceremonies among pre-Columbian Mesoamerica cultures, is typically wafting from the car as well.) While Mayan Warrior is a prestige gig for any artist, the musical focus is largely the modern Mexican electronic scene, including rising acts like Zombies In Miami and Kalexis.
Lineups for each tour stop aren’t announced ahead of time, although audiences can depend on the car’s standard melange of Mexican producers and globally known names. Produced in partnership with Los Angeles-based production company Stranger Than; — which has put on electronic-focused events throughout the U.S. with Black Coffee, Keinemusic, Circoloco and more — tour stops expand on the car by adding a sound, lighting and pyro rig that towers 50 feet above the crowd. Stranger Than; Founder Tal Ohana has focused on finding singular urban locations to park the car for each party, and this year encouraged the Mayan Warrior crew to expand to Austin, an especially hot market for Burners following the population influx to the city during the pandemic.
The tour set-up is an expansion of Mayan Warrior’s already impressive list of technical specs, which includes a light and soundsystem of finely calibrated watts, pressures and EQs. For those less than tech savvy, this all means that the Mayan Warrior has a banging loud system that’s impeccable up close and discernible from far away. Another way to find the car is through the beam of light emanating from it, with the car’s primary laser composed of 20 individual lasers pointing toward the sky, forming a luminescent pillar limited only by the atmosphere itself.
“When you see the laser stop, that’s where the humidity in the atmosphere no longer exists,” says González Vargas. “So basically, you can see the measurement of where oxygen thins.”
If this all sounds expensive to create, it is. The car’s initial investment came from González Vargas, who recalls the endeavor as “a very irresponsible and crazy thing to do, because it’s basically just throwing my money at a black hole.” Mayan Warrior has since become more sustainable through fundraising efforts, including a Patreon-style subscription service where Burners donate a set amount to the car each month, and through touring. (González Vargas is also the Founder and CEO of leading Latin American e-payment platform Sr. Pago, but says none of the money funding Mayan Warrior comes from his company.)
Costs of bringing the car to Burning Man hit around $300,000 annually (these costs don’t include the money required to build Mayan Warrior’s adjacent camp.) While fundraising helps, the team advises that the productions costs — insurance, maintenance, gas, visas for the crew, flying inspectors from the Department of Transportation to Mexico City to obtain a permit for the car — keep margins thin.
Still, for those involved, the intense amount of work involved with border crossings, productions headaches, and the physical exhaustion of building and tearing down is worth it for the sense of accomplishment gained on those desert nights, when the music is hitting just right, the copal is burning and the crowd is immersed in the sound and sights of this passion project — and is perhaps absorbing some information about Mexico in the process.
“Without the fundraising process,” says Rebolledo, “there’s no chance to go back to the dust.”