It’s 6 pm and an orange color starts to paint the cloudless sky. I take a sip of my beer as I lay down on the grass on the top of the hill of the camping Lot 4. From here, framed with a background of palms, I can see my camping spot, along with a great number of cars, tents, canopies, and people chilling and enjoying free time the day before the festival begins. It’s perfection. I still can’t believe it: after months of planning and years of dreaming about it, I made it to Coachella.
I have high expectations, but after two hours of being actually inside the Empire Polo Fields, I have no doubt it will be the most amazing time of my life. The camping grounds are full of life and people are chilling in the hill or in their camps with their friends and neighbors. Or you could also walk through Lot 8, where there is are a lot of things to do: from an activities tent, a real-live futbolín, food, to the classic merchandise sal ($5 shirts from previous years!). Also, from 1 am, there is a silent disco, where there is no loud music, but the dj plays directly to the pair of headphones everyone gets.
Being from Colombia, it is very hard and expensive to attend this event. This is a one in a lifetime opportunity which I worked hardly to get, and I intend to make the most out of it. And so far on Thursday I have done it, even if entering the venue required a lot of patience.
The day passes by quicker than I would like, and before I notice, the festival starts.
As soon as the wristband reader shows me the green light allowing me to enter the venue, I get really surprised. I had been reading for months on the Redditchella Facebook group (if you are going, it is the most useful resource and greatest community) that you should get a bandana because the dust storms where strong, so I naturally expected a Desert full of sand (and the only desert I knew until then was Huacachina in Perú). But at midday on Friday, when they opened the gates and I was walking through the festival grounds with the enthusiasm of a kid who goes for the first time to Disney World, everything looked bright green. It might have been the excitement on my eyes, but the grass looked beautiful, the ferris wheel looked huge, the art installations looked very colorful and the whole atmosphere felt amazing.
First thing I did was riding the ferris wheel (tip: do it early when there is no line, I paid $10 but if you are one of the first 100 persons it’s free). From the heights, I could see the whole Empire Polo Club, enjoy the beautiful landscape of the valley, and get an idea of the distribution of things on the grounds.
Coachella has seven stages, named after deserts: Coachella (Main), Outdoor, Mojave, Gobi, Sahara, Yuma and Sonora, its newest addition. But additionally there is the DoLab, the Heineken House, the Absolut House and The Antarctic, a new stage/art installation from HP (more on that later). It has larg-scale art pieces, merchandising tents, record stores, beer gardens where you can only enter if you are 21+, general stores ($16 cigarettes was my more expensive purchase), a huge offer of food, water refill stations, the ferris wheel, H&M, Hewlett Packard where you could design and print your own bandana…
It is actually overwhelming.
The distances between stages were a bit long, but not traumatic. People were complaining because this year grounds were expanded due to the increase of capacity (from 99.000 to 125.000 persons), but I could move pretty well and fast between performances, even with the huge crowd. I guess I’m used to walk through the mud swamp and zombie apocalypse that is Estéreo Picnic (the biggest festival in my hometown Bogotá), so this was easier.
But not everything was that easy. Refilling water, for instance, was a nightmare. With temperatures above 32ºC and the constant movement, you had to stay hydrated. Water was free, but there were less refilling stations than shown on the map, the lines were long af and then the water was warm. You could end up wasting a lot of your precious time, as I did. It was better to sneak the water from the camp (it depended on the security guy, but worth to try), buy bottles of water (only $2 each) or refilling at the bathroom: as far as we could see, the pipes were not different. Also, you could use the occasion to go to actual toilets on the concrete stuff or on the trailers on the beer gardens, avoiding the porta potties for once.
After having my 4 bottles of water full and my bladder empty, I was ready to start getting to know the stages. I loved that in almost every stage I was confortable and had personal space to breath and dance. The main stage was huge and even being far I got coated by the sounds and images of the artists; plus, I loved the super high quality of the screens. Yuma and Sonora had conditioning air, so that was nice too; there you could lose the sense of time (as I did on Solomun) and at the same time cool yourself inside. Mojave and Gobi were small, yet enough for their performances, such as Richie Hawtin and New Order. But my favorite one was the Outdoor Theatre: it had a cozy atmosphere and there I got to watch Bastille and Hans Zimmer pretty close. Finally, Sahara was big and perfect for electronic music (visuals 360º!), but it was a struggle to get in and out (ask everyone who got their phone or wallet pickpocketed there). That’s why I didn’t get to enjoy performances there such as Empire of the Sun, Martin Garrix and Galantis.
But what stood up was the Hewlett-Packard stage/art installation. “Going to the Antarctic is like being on drugs” said one of my camping friends, “I felt I understood the whole existence”. It sums up pretty well the experience of going inside that huge dome, siting down and going through 10 minutes of psychedelic images and sounds that got into your mind. It was awesome both sober as well as with the senses altered. I watch it at least three times and enjoyed very much every one.
(Watch it on your phone or on a 360º device):
Coachella stands out from other music festivals for its lineup that combines genres, making it appealing to diverse kinds of public. From rock and indie to electronic, and this year it was packed with rap, hip-hop and dancehall stuff that everyone was hyped about but it’s not my kind of music. I fail to see why Kendrick is called a genius and I didn’t like Bad and Boujee being played over and over as everyone invited Migos as guest, but I could enjoy the quota from the other genres. So, for example instead of Future (and Drake as guest) I was on Moderat, and instead of Dev (and The Weeknd) I was on Solomun.
There is so much to see and to do, that it is physically impossible to do it all. So the key to enjoying it is not to plan everything: keep in mind your absolute must-sees and then just go with the flow. Discover new music (my favorite discovery was Honne), walk through the fields, eat a spicy pie ($7 slice of pizza, cheapest food on the festival) or an ice cream/popsicle, even throw yourself in a shade and take a nap if you feel like it (I did it through Chicano Batman, best decision ever).
On Friday I was mind blown for second time this year by Richie Hawtin. I was literally in front row, absorbing every last bit of his new CLOSE show. It’s amazing how the guy reads his public and plays according to it, and it’s good to know that there is space on the festival for djs that make the beat in front of you, not just lame djs trying to get kids to jump.
After that, I was also amazed by Jaime, Romie Madley and Oliver. I have an emotional link with the XX, and its performance on the main stage was heartfelt and vibrant at the same time: you couldn’t not move through the transition from Shelter to Loud Places to On Hold, or want to cry in Fiction, Angels and the Romie solo version of Performance. They were a great opener for Radiohead.
I personally decided to buy the ticket when I saw Radiohead as a headliner. And its performance didn’t disappointed, even with the sound problems that forced them to leave not once, but three times. I actually feel good I was witnessing that moment. I was there! I couldn’t believe that in such a huge festival occurred worse sound problems than The Strokes had in Estéreo Picnic. My heart cringed when I seriously thought that Thom Yorke wouldn’t come back, and instead I got to hear him joking that “it was the aliens”. And it was actually a good thing that half of the people left, leaving the crowd with only the true Radiohead fans. It was the perfect public to watch the perfect setlist Radiohead played. We were all singing along to Idioteque, the popular Creep, through Paranoid Android and closing with Karma Police. I just couldn’t believe it. Came back to my tent and slept like a baby with a smile on my face.
Saturday was my favorite day, there were too many artists I wanted to see and they conflicted with each other. I started the day with Bastille and I was impressed with their energy and the way its frontman Dan Smith engaged with the audience (fun fact: if you see the streaming/video you can watch me at the bottom left). Two Door Cinema Club was on the Main Stage at the same time, and I still caught I Can Talk, Sun and What You Know; but I liked them better in Bogotá.
But this day I actually didn’t follow my advise of not planning and had a busy schedule from 7:45 to 11:20 pm: Röyksopp – Moderat – Martin Garrix – Solomun – DJ Snake –
Nicolas Jaar. I still don’t know how we managed to see and dance our asses off to all of them (a huge thanks to Lina!), but it’s a night I won’t forget in a long time. Apart from Garrix I loved them all: Moderat closing sequence from Reminder into Bad Kingdom was gold, DJ Snake’s trap sped me up, and I had goosebumps when he closed with my favorite song Middle. By the time I was in Jaar, who is undoubtably a fucking genius, I couldn’t believe life was so beautiful.
At 11:20 closed Lady Gaga with a performance full of her hits Just Dance, Alejandro, Born This Way, Telephone, Applause, Poker Face, Bad Romance, the launch of her new song The Cure, a great version of Million Reasons and an acoustic The Edge of Glory. I hadn’t notice before how much I admire her. And it was different than I imagined: I expected her to be crazier, and she had less dress changes than in the Super Bowl.
Sunday was my least busy day and that’s why I relaxed way too much. I ended up listening to Porter Robinson and Madeon from far away, but their last show was amazing, full of the love they have for each other and for their fans. When I heard Sad Machine it was too many emotions at the same time. Then, the whole crowd moved together to Hans Zimmer, proving that a live orchestra can be at (and even above) the level of the biggest names in popular and electronic music, even at a hype music festival as Coachella is. His set was as epic as it could be with Inception, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Dark Knight, he brought us all back to our childhood with The Lion King and he even invited Pharrel Williams to sing Freedom. I couldn’t believe I was in such a magic and unique moment.
In between, I managed to catch Tove Lo’s Cool Girl, Influence (with Wiz Khalifa), Talking Body and Habits – Stay high (I’m so in love with her), and Green Light from Lorde. And then Justice + New Order were the perfect way to close the festival. I couldn’t make it to Marshmello but I regret nothing, the set of Justice was too involving, with excellent mixes such as Newjack+Helix, Alakazam+Love S.O.S and Waters of Nazareth+We Are Your Friends. I got to New Order in Bizarre Love Triangle and it was the perfect continuation, the whole set kept me going until Love Will Tears Apart, even if they didn’t play Crystal (again!). I was totally satisfied and done for the night, but still watched two songs from Kendrick just to see what all the buzz was about, and I confirmed that it definitely is not my kind of music.
“I came here for the music, the artist are so good. But I realized this is actually a 24/7 party” said a peruvian friend with whom I was camping. That statement sums it up perfectly. You start drinking as soon as you get up: your breakfast is beer (in my case, with eggs and bacon, sandwich and fruit). Then you keep drinking beer or whatever drink there is. Remember, gates open at 12m, but interesting stuff start at 3 pm, so you have plenty of time to get wasted and sober on and on. And the sun was heavily heating, so it was a relieve to be able to stay in the camp cooling with something to drink and a good company.
“We go to a festival once a month” told me Alex, the nicest guy in the world, who let us camp in his tent. And apart from the envy that sentence produced in my, it meant he and the rest were very experienced in the camping and festival stuff.
Before Thursday, I hadn’t met any of the people I was camping with, except from Lina (my friend with whom I was going). It was a Megacamping of 11 cars with at least 2 people each, so more than 22 people in total. They were from all over the country (Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, Seattle, New York, New Mexico) as well as from other countries (Mexico, Costa Rica, Perú, Switzerland and of course Colombia). We played beer pong all day long, we talked and laughed and cooked and drank and listened to music together. I couldn’t ask for better people to experience my first Coachella and I ended up with friends that I hope to visit when I can.
We arrived at 7:30 am on Thursday to get a space on Lot 8, closest to the entrance. But due to technical issues, after 3 hours of waiting we ended up in Lot 4, the worst according to everyone. The best, according to me (and my camping friends agree): we were close to the bathrooms, the charging stations, the market shuttles, the showers and we had a hill with a great view. The path to the entrance was long, but it gave me enough time to drink a beer and warm up with my friends. I did needed the bandana there to cover me from the sand, though.
The camping experience was way better than expected. I didn’t get cold at night, I slept pretty comfortable in my sleeping without air mattress, and my phone was always charged (so I could instagram/snapchat everything to my colombian friends). The thing I was most afraid of was the showers and they were surprisingly good: they were clean, the water was warm, they had enough space to change clothes, and the lines got long but you could avoid them by going at the right times. They even had sinks so you could wash your teeth and put your make up on. The porta potties, on the other side, were really bad. They were always dirty (even with flip flops and shorts inside!), never had toilet paper (always bring your own) and were really dark at night. If you are colombian, please thank the Estéreo Picnic staff for maintaining the porta potties clean and not in this mess.
But I wouldn’t change the camping for an expensive hotel/air bnb room that requires an expensive uber/taxi/shuttle every day and night, plus the traffic, plus the walk to the entrance, plus not meeting new people, plus just being quiet in your bed. If I come back, I would do it the same way again, camping is where you get the whole experience!
As far as music festivals goes, Coachella has a reputation for being the one to which people go because is the hype thing to do, rather than to enjoy the music. The rise of social media and the celebrity culture is especially fostered in this event (to actually see celebrities you need to buy the VIP ticket, though). Walking through the Polo grounds I could see that: people all over the place taking selfies, making their friends or partner take the perfect picture, or glued to their phones probably posting a Snapchat or Instagram. But I think there’s nothing wrong with it. True, It is the most hyped music festival in the world, but is organized to go beyond the music and giving people different reasons to buy the ticket. Besides, you can have the perfect Instagram pic and enjoy the music, they are not mutually exclusive. I personally could do both (special thanks to Lina who was patient enough to take my pictures!)
But everyone has a different experience, and the festival encourages it. The people that go to get the perfect pics are just as valid as the house and techno lovers than never go out of the DoLab / Yuma tent / Heineken House, or the ones that stay all day long on the beer gardens or even of those who get so high that end up not remembering half of the day.
At the end, we are all there to have a break from reality.
I was so on a break from reality, that at one point my father sent me an article about the start of World War 3 and I didn’t care, I would have died as happy as I could be.
I have read very bad reviews of this years’ Coachella: that it was too crowded, that pickpockets were higher than ever, that the festival is losing its essence, that lines were too long, that it was very expensive… But my overall experience was very positive. I didn’t see of felt any of that. I loved going on Weekend 1: everything was a surprise, from the setlist to the guest appearances, grass was green and weather was bearable (word is on W2 there is no grass just sand, temperature rises +5ºC and people already watched the sets of the artists through the streaming of W1). I ended up just spending money on merchandising (a shirt and a hoodie with the lineup), because I had free accommodation, free ride and bought the food and beer before.
It was really hard to leave and as the car left behind the palms, I couldn’t help to think about the great concerts I got to go and the special people I met: those were 5 perfect days. I thought about how when I was preparing for the festival I saw the people going crazy. They go every year from all over the world. They pay VIP o Safari Tents. The go alone. They go BOTH weekends. As I read them I couldn’t help to think they were crazy or exaggerating. But now I get it. I totally understand it. I don’t know how I will struggle to not buy the tickets for next year. I fell in love with the Desert and there is not going back.