Festivals are getting a little too slick for my taste. The yearly lineup is full of pre-packaged deals and all inclusive vacations. As Fyre proved, the new products popping up are hit or miss, and it’s okay to be suspicious when a festival sounds too good to be true. But though few people rushing to snatch your travel dollars are doing festivals right, there’s still hope.
In fact, I just discovered the new path forward. It’s waiting for you, down in Mexico.
A little primer: In the 60s and 70s, festival culture set the stage for major paradigm shifts in how people thought and treated one another. Over the years, that’s morphed into big business. Today, there’s a huge selection for the discerning partier. Burning Man sets the bar very high, and since attending three Burning Man gatherings in a row I gave up on traditional parties. The sloppy behavior, endless queues, and questionable lineups we encounter today at so many events deserve to die off. But even if they don’t, rest easy knowing you can go to Tropico — where they seem to be doing things a lot better than the rest of the world.
I’ve had my eye on Tropico — a boutique festival that takes place in Acapulco every December — for five years now. I’ve always been very impressed by the high taste level reflected in the lineups (David Byrne headlined last year) and curious to know what the event is all about. Two years ago, I used to think going to Mexico for Tropico was a massive mission. This year, it was all I thought about. I was ready.
After seeing this year’s the lineup, I decided to fly in, all the way from Indonesia. It took me 48 hours and I didn’t mind a bit. I was that excited about the music and the journey. People sometimes worry if I get enough sleep or if I’m okay emotionally when they see how much I travel, or how many hours I spend on planes. But what they fail to see is that travel is extremely important when the world is, for lack of a better term, going to shit. When our governments seem to do everything they can to fragment our culture, to create divisiveness and conflict, or when natural disasters force us reconsider our priorities… It’s our job to take the lead and create new dynamics.
When the world is in distress, we must remember the power creativity has to shift the current discourse and inspire change. This is why I went to Acapulco: To take risks, hoping to come back brighter than when I left.
I sacrifice a lot for the sake of experience. Tropico organizers do too. Rather than setting up a festival at one of the many popular spots along the Mexican coast, on a date that would attract a larger audience and not compete with Art Basel, in a city with more direct flights from the US, founders Antonio Vilches, Pepe Bezaury, and co. do just the opposite. They share my love for the unconventional and are way ahead of their time when it comes to cultural leadership. Besides launching very successful endeavors in Mexico City, the duo has taken Tropico to new heights, defying all odds and creating an incomparable experience on the beach in Acapulco — splashy headlines aside.
If you’re heading to Tropico, you go in knowing that it’s not convenient, it doesn’t rely on mainstream marketing, it has a life of its own, a purpose of its own. To me, it’s clear that festival organizers are looking to do a lot more than sell tickets. They’re changing the way we party, cutting the umbilical cord a lot of us have to super easy, disposable things. The goal is to make you think about your choices, and highlighting Acapulco when everyone else is looking the other way, bringing the city back to its feet by leading with culture and bringing people together through music.
Those are lofty goals; and important ones.
Upon landing, I did think twice about whether I was in the right place. It was 4 am, I was half delusional from the trip and Acapulco just felt so old school. The city has seen plenty of highs and lows over the years. During the 1950s, it was the “in” place among celebrities and the well heeled. During this era developers built an array of art deco hotels along the beach, and they still stand today. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Acapulco continued to grow and attract international tourists as well as thousands of visitors from Cuernavaca and Mexico City. Today, with a decline in tourism due to political issues and violence, the city counts on Mexico City beach goers and events such as Tropico to stay afloat.
Since Tropico’s inception in 2012, the city has seen a resurgence in tourism and newfound economic prosperity. This year, with around 7,000 attendees, a significant increase from last year’s 5,000, it’s safe to say that festival culture is helping Acapulco make a comeback.
The closer I got to the venue, the more excited I got. The festival is somewhat contained within the parameters of a beachfront hotel property, which I found interesting. I wondered why we had to go through a hotel lobby to walk in to the festival grounds.
It turned out, this was all part of the curation. It was a new, lean festival experience — where you don’t have to run around for days to find your friends or a drink or a snack.
Within the property, everything you could possibly need to party was within an arm’s distance. This is a luxury I never knew I was missing. Typically, at festivals, you must endure the weather, carry what you need with you at all times, queue for port-a-potties, sleep on the floor and eat whatever is provided by food trucks. Tropico’s seamless set up has guests staying within the festival grounds, in hotels, which means, unlimited naps in your air conditioned room, showers, mezcal refills as needed, changes of outfits, touch ups… anything you need. This is the only way I ever want to party. I realized that this way, you can focus on the music and the setting instead on focusing on typical festival logistics.
In this model, experience takes precedence to everything else. The five stages sprawled across the beachfront property and moving through them was a pleasant mission each time. I had the feeling that everything at Tropico had been thought of in detail, from the set times that never competed with each other, to the little surprises you would find while walking from stage to stage. Salon Carino — a private party room with colorful disco lights set up within one of the hotels — was one of those trippy, time travel moments that just kept happening all weekend. The scene would change often, the music was varied, and people just looked great. Each time you knocked on someone’s door, a warm set of arms would welcome you in.
While getting to Acapulco may knock the wind out of you, once you’re there you’re so well taken care of that you forget how long you’ve traveled. It was refreshing to witness a true focus on experience, rather than on numbers and profits.
Mezcal Union’s mezcaleria is where I spent most of my time, sipping artisanal mezcal cocktails infused with fresh juices and hanging out with the new artists I got to meet. I rarely waited in line for cocktails. The was a flow to everything and everyone seemed to be in a synchronized high vibe. The mezcaleria was made up of true mixologists — drinks were prepared to order with sal de gusano and fresh toronjas to garnish. I often would take a cocktail, The Flamingo was my favorite, have a seat at the bar and enjoy the view to the main stage. Yes, you could watch the headliner from a bar stool in a mezcaleria, if you so wished. Within certain areas, Mezcal Union’s “fairies” would come around to make sure you always had a refill.
In homage to the craft of this sustainable party elixir, this is all I drank.
Besides Jungle and Cut Copy as headliners, Pional, Polo & Pan and Matanza performed alongside underground Mexican DJ’s and a chicha band from the Peruvian Amazon. Ame, Rub n Tug, Mano Le Tough, Papooz, Concret all set up a vibration so unique and special that I was afraid to sleep and miss a set. Luckily, our rooms were right there and we could take turns waking each other up when things got really groovy.
The highlight for me was Rub n Tug’s Sunday sunrise. Music veterans sometimes just know best, and the energy that morning was hand crafted by the masters. This is not something you see in festivals anymore. Eclectic, unspoilt, good musical taste that does not borrow from the mainstream. Tropico displays a natural respect for music and genuine love for up and coming artists, who share the spotlight with some of the biggest names in music today. I love unpretentiousness, it’s rare in today’s overly narcissistic culture. Tropico had a family affair feel, and as soon as I set foot on the venue I felt the pressures from all the hours of traveling vanish from my body. As a matter of fact, days later, I still feel great.
The party roved from cabanas, to midnight swims, to sunrise sets on the beach — running for almost 72 hours straight. To close the weekend, Tropico’s very own founders Tono and Shakes graced us with a two hour set on the sand. Hoola hoops flying in the air, bodies exhausted but enduring, we all stayed until the last mezcal was served. As I inspected the grounds with a bit of nostalgia, ready to continue my journey onwards, I realized I was already planning next year. Maybe I’ll move to Mexico, I thought to myself. I got on the flight home with at least another 50 Tropico guests, we all napped, smiling. My leftover mezcal even made it through security.
Perhaps, the secret to the perfect travel experience is to only do what you love, with people you love, in places you love. Maybe we need less of the same, we need to declutter our lives and make room for more epic experiences. We need to go places that challenge us to step out of our comfort zones, to travel farther, to listen more closely, and to support each other’s effort to make the world better. That’s what I found at Tropico, and it feels like the future of festivals.