AN UPBEAT, DOWNTEMPO DREAM
It’s 6AM and behind the hooded, hypnotic DJ, the sky fills with light like a perfectly poured tequila sunrise.
Techno beats with psychedelic twists grace the air as we slide to the lake’s edge to witness dawn’s dramatic unveiling of Volcan Atitlán.
WHERE: Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
WHEN: 8-11 February 2019
Wachalal Festival is set on Guatemala’s mystical Lake Atitlán, a place described by Lonely Planet as ‘the closest thing to Eden on Earth’. This massive water-filled volcanic crater, the largest in Central America, was formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago.
Known for its incredible sacred energy, Atitlán has been home to over a dozen indigenous Maya groups for millennia. The name of this new three-day festival derives from ancient Mayan language, and means brother or brotherhood. A sense of family is definitely apparent here.
When we arrive at Wachalal Lake Lodge for the warm up session, we’re wrapped in welcome hugs, set to the sound of traditional Guatemalan marimba music.
A colourful Maya mamma serves us a bowl of soul-satisfying chicken pepian (a traditional Guatemalan dish of chicken in spicy pumpkin and sesame sauce with rice) as the crowd participates in a gleeful sing-along hip hop performance in indigenous tongue. After this we watch on as the curious opening fire ceremony invites a beautiful sunset.
Day one closes with an uplifting ‘Wachajam’ by some of the organising family. So neat it is that I later ask if they’d rehearsed much, to which co-founder Eduardo Otxoa coolly says, “actually no, it was freestyle; we haven’t played together for four years.” I’m impressed but somehow not surprised. Each member of this crew can produce/mix/strum/tap/sing or all of the above; I’m cetain thei veins run with small musical notes.
The festival intends to celebrate the practices of the native indigenous cultures here, and what we’ve witnessed so far feels authentic and special. OK, to some people my pictures might appear to depict something of a neo-hippie hell, but it honestly couldn’t have felt further than that. Loin-cloths and fire-spells aside, this was – put simply – a fun gathering of chill people. The calm before the psychedelic storm, if you like.
Besides, day one was about setting the intention. Which – oh wow – I just love about this festival. ‘Let’s take care of feminine energy’, reads their mantra, which calls for any man behaving in a disrespectful way towards a woman to be reported immediately. And the sentiment sticks. The organisers receive zero complaints of this nature, and I for one can’t remember a time I feel less hassled and more free-spirited on a dancefloor.
Day two has a serene start with lakeside yoga at 8am, followed by story time (teachings of the local land). The afternoon air is filled with the special sounds of one of Guatemala’s most renowned music collectives, Mazukamba Beats. Always ethereal, never predictable – these guys journey through everything from latin tribal to afro beats. The tunes hype up colourful UK party crew ‘The Provibers‘, who are weaving shapes and sprinkling their infectious energy like puppies in a bath of glitter.
Then it’s time to transition to the private beach, where we’re promised a 30 hour non-stop music experience.
Offloading from lancha boats and tuk tuks provided by the festival, more than 250 locals, expats and tourists arrive hungry for the main event. And we’re not disappointed. The bamboo stage is understated but perfect for the space – it’s built like a face with lights for eyes that blink with the beat. The sound system (always my obsession) fills the festival sweetly. Moving through we eye up local food vendors selling comida tipica at affordable prices, and spot FREE WATER EVERYWHERE (even on the dancefloor). This is a festival that cares about me, I think. A little further up, the intricately-decorated chill zone provides pockets of comfort surrounding a glowing fire. Already little tribes have settled in.
As is a growing expectation in modern festival land, everything on site is created with sustainability at its heart. National green architecture experts Ambiento, Geomante and Chile’s Nomade Festival have built everything from bars to bathrooms here from the ground-up, using responsibly-gathered and reusable materials. There are no single-use plastic sold here, and our zucchini beignets come served in banana leaf.
The toilet situation also exemplifies smart bio-construction, separating wet and dry to prevent lake contamination and create compost for organic farming. On arrival there’s a stern briefing on the four toilet setups which amazingly include a girls urinal. Imagine removing the dividing walls and doors from your average female cubicles and, as if by magic, you have a washroom-meets-cocktail-bar hangout. Apparently this little social haven alone took a team two whole weeks to build, and us chicas are suitably impressed. Less fun is the interrogation on entering the ‘number two zone’. I can’t understand why I have to confirm my motive SO many times but (much) later learn I’d been hustling my way into the male ones. Fresh.
So, accustomed to our surroundings, we’re ready to dance. I’m totally transfixed by live downtempo from the likes of Ecuadorian Quixosis and local musicians El Suchi and Sam the Legend, as they infuse analog sounds with digital synths and live instruments. The incomparable richness of the live guitar swirls into my ears and tattoos a smile on my face.
Post-sunrise, Danish DJ Warte:mal starts spinning a kind of trippy downbeat that makes it hard to leave the dancefloor, but we know we should lay these legs down so they can go till Monday.
So, the music does’t rest, but we do a little.
Sunday daytime, there’s not a cloud in the sky. Just sun beams reflecting off sapphire blue lake water. ‘Atitlán’ actually means ‘the place where the rainbow gets its colours’ in Maya language. How cool is that? This place radiates that vibrancy for sure. In fact, ten percent of each festival ticket sold goes to a local lake-preservation project, which works to protect the livelihoods of those living here.
A small but committed mix of still-standing and fresh-to-death dancers are twirling around to ambient, earthy downtempo. With a genre so wide, it feels redundant to try and label the sounds but we identify trip-hop, bass, half-time, tribal, chill step and, a new genre coined by a friend – ‘Lion King’.
Headliner Jo.Ke, from the well-known eclectic US collective Feathered Sun, sets the mood as night falls again. All the ravers are out now and in full-battery mode for his set. The self-named ‘musichef’ cooks and serves an uplifting and melodic live mix, which again cannot be classified. Let’s call it experimental.
Nearing midnight, we are treated to some meatier beats, with fiery poy-spinning and fierce high-energy psytech closing the show at 3:30am Monday morning.
As I catch my breath, and prepare to re-enter the real world, I turn back to catch a final glimpse of it all. Defying the impossible, I feel myself fall even deeper in love with Guatemala.
This festival definitely captured the magic of the Lake, and embraced its intimate atmosphere. Having attended larger transformational festivals such as Guatemala’s Cosmic Convergence and Costa Rica’s Envision, both of which started as tiny gatherings with mammoth visions, it will be interesting to see how Wachalal Festival evolves in 2020.
In the meantime, you can visit Wachalal Lake Lodge if you’re passing through San Pedro La Laguna and want to be well looked after.
It’s the Wacha family’s one-year anniversary celebration, Sons of Tribal (MORE HERE), on Sat 21 April, if you’d like to escape the Semana Santa (Easter) madness of neighbouring cities and head for waterside serenity.