Broken clouds explode across a cotton-candy sky as the sun sets to the rhythms of an ever-growing drum circle. It’s the final evening of the Envision Festival, set midway along the Pacific shoreline of Costa Rica, and a mix of ticos (locals), American transplants and international soul searchers are gathering before returning to the hangover of life beyond the trees. Revelers apply warrior-style face paint before howling like wolves at the moon sliver starting to brighten high above the kaleidoscopic dusk. Howler monkeys bellow from the tree canopies. It’s like the 2000 DiCaprio film The Beach come to life.
Hosted near the town of Uvita on Rancho La Merced, a rainforest-meets-coastline property, the four-day affair offers musical acts, performers, surfing lessons, workshops and, most emphatically, the eco-friendly mantra leave no trace. At least 90 percent of the festival—extravagant music stages, rest lounges, VIP treehouse and cabana camping, staff quarters, medical facilities and food and merchandise vendors—is environmentally sustainable; each structure once a pile of locally sourced wood or bamboo. Vendors sell vegan smoothies in cone-shaped banana leaves instead of cups. (The banana leaves then serve as napkins.) No Wi-fi here; the only connection you’ll find is the human one.
Two young women kiss on the beach, silhouetted against the warm haze of sundown. Erin McGuinness, 22, and her fiancee, Krista Redcrow, 25, are from Humboldt County, California. They’re celebrating ahead of their wedding this summer.
“We come from a liberal place, but people still kind of look at you weird for being gay,” Erin says. Krista, squeezing her fiancee’s hand, adds, “A lot of people who come from places where they’re constantly questioned on that—I’m sure it’s such a relief being here. For us, it’s even a relief to be able to kiss each other without having to wonder who’s watching."
The couple’s unbridled intimacy serves to reshape notions of sexual inclination. "People need to see people of the same sex who really love each other getting married in order for others to do the same,” says Krista. “When you see people who actually love each other, you develop a new perspective about those people, regardless of their sexual preference.”
While the pair admit they come from a place where people already “question those boundaries,” there’s nothing quite like the sexual liberation they’re afforded at Envision. Erin describes the altered dynamic of their relationship: “This space allows us to have more deep and meaningful conversations about sex. You know—looking for another girl we’d like to share a night with or something."
"The people at these festivals have shown us that we can be in love and still want to experience other things with other people. Humans are fascinating in the sense that we can love so many different people. I have my one main person, but not focusing on yourself too while in a relationship is not healthy for anybody.”
So why is this evolved sexual paradigm more easily exhibited in these environments but not so applicable in everyday life?
Burning Man co-founders Crimson Rose and Will Roger—dubbed by a festival-goer as “legends of love” in this community—are celebrating 24 years of marriage this year; they were together for another 19 years before they wed. Attending for her first time back in 1991, Crimson, revered as the first person to introduce fire dancing at the capstone event located in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, met Will as a successful photographer in Oakland, where she then inspired him to attend his first “Burn” in 1993. Their relationship serves as a template for the conscious community.
“The Playa, Black Rock Desert, was just a location that was really calling us without even knowing what the hell we were going to before we got there,” recalls Crimson during a brief downtime before teaching a fire ritual workshop. “We found a very magical desert that was this blank canvas where anything is really possible.” One of those possibilities was the practice of gender equality amidst a predominantly patriarchal society, although Will believes that perspective has drastically changed for the better over the course of his life.
“Transformational events [that is, events that offer experiences beyond live music and generally encourage active participation and the loosening of social mores] allow for the open expression of love in a much stronger way than cultural laws,” he tells. “A real warm embrace and a kiss is sometimes not appropriate in the default culture that we have, but it is in the transformational environment. The openness allows for different kinds of coupling and pairing to go on.”
A rise in female energy seems to be an adopted philosophy at Envision. As a witness to decades of this transposition, Will says, “I see an equality that happens, and maybe even an emphasis on the goddess energy—the green, the healing, the connection to the Earth, the magic. But, you see, that’s in both men and women.”
He adds, “I mean, look at how difficult it is for transgender people in our culture. They’re expressing their male and female or changing from one to the other. That means you’re creative and receptive. You see both sides of things. To be really whole, to be really human, you have to be both.”
Sitting under a shaded, albeit sweaty, oasis of towering jungle palms in the festival’s Village area, Will uses the heat to comment on the distorted narrative of masculinity. “You know, dresses are really comfortable,” he chuckles. “In this weather, wouldn’t a dress feel good? But if you wear a dress out in the world as a man in our Western culture, there’s this false framework that’s built on opinion and projection that has no meaning and no truth and no reality. What the fuck is that?"
Envision co-founder and marketing director Justin Brothers has been with the event since its inception seven years ago, and while he found his calling as a curator of happiness for over 5,000 patrons, it was three years ago when he was given his own chance at love. His girlfriend, Colleen Musgrove, who is now his right hand in running the event production, entered the picture after moving to Costa Rica a few years ago with not much more than a passport and a bag of clothes.
"It’s amazing getting to work with somebody who understands my daily struggles at work, and it’s even better getting to spend quality time with the love of my life each day,” Justin says, kissing Colleen’s forehead.
“The biggest thing for us is communication,” says Colleen over an incessant stream of muffled conversations on her two-way radio. “Really taking the time to dial into your partner and what they need in those moments. On the sexual side, you can have more of a sexual release and you move on. But intimacy in this community teaches you that you need to take more time; it’s not just about the sex. Sometimes it’s awkward and it’s weird but it shouldn’t be, because it’s raw, honest and truthful.”
Justin adds, “This world breeds deeper communication and connection on an immediacy perspective. This world is a container for how you meet your next best friend, not just a sex partner.”
Of course, not all relationships at culturally shifted events such as Envision are ideal, and the lessons learned in a physically and emotionally raw environment can prove to be a major learning curve—or a dead end for some couples. But when all of the outdated archetypes, false pretenses and real-world additives are set aside, the amalgamation of genuine love and respect becomes the primary currency.
Psychedelic lights cast a glow on a young couple cozied up together in a tree lounge installation just above the site’s nonalcoholic elixir bar, a hub for “conscious consumption and conversation” put on by the Village Witches. Listed first on the drink menu is a love potion named Centered Heart, the primary ingredient being the wild shrub Damiana, known for its aphrodisiac effects. For the couple in the tree, it seems to be working.
As a yoga instructor at the San Francisco Bay area organization Breathe for Change, Angie Davis, 25, and her boyfriend of one year, Tim Scott, 33, who teaches disenfranchised youth how to love themselves through hip-hop seminars, have chosen this as their first major festival together.
“Intimacy is always on our mind; intimacy is most important with us,” says Tim. “In a real way, the sex is better because it’s not just about the physical connection. When you close your eyes with the person that you’re with, and only see that person, and you feel that person only, and your mind isn’t any place else, this type of space just enhances that."
Back home we’re on the work grind, so here we’ve been taking a lot of time to do acroyoga—and other stuff.
Angie elaborates: "We get to interact as a couple with all these other couples… It’s taught us how important it is to fit in play time. Back home we’re on the work grind, so here we’ve been taking a lot of time to do acroyoga—and other stuff.”
Adept at being the ones who do the teaching, Envision has made Tim and Angie students of acceptance. “These are all new experiences, and it’s kind of revealed to me insecurities within myself and I was able to release a lot of them,” he says. “It’s been a growing up of sorts, mentally and emotionally. I just feel our connection is that much stronger because we have a better connection to the earth and what universal love can look like, what it might feel like.”
Angie, too, notes the change she’s seen in her boyfriend as well as herself since their arrival at the festival. “Even for us, there are certain qualities we identify more with, like structure versus creative randomness,” she says. “I’m more of the structure, which is stereotypically more masculine, and he’s more creative and random, which is typically more of a feminine quality. It’s really enlightening being able to reconsider those labels.”
Before the pair head to a beginner’s course in belly dancing, they stress the importance of introducing the shared principles they’ve uncovered with their students back home. “People view these things as super hippie, but just like yoga, it’s becoming more accepted and practiced by more people,” remarks Tim. “What I want to take to my young ’uns back home is just the quality of being secure with yourself even when you’re insecure. Forgiving yourself, loving on yourself and being accepting of other people who aren’t the same as you.”
Over in the Children and Family Dream Oasis area, kids scramble around an elaborate playground with their parents chasing after them. Envision embraces and encourages families to celebrate and strengthen the bonds between parent and child, while also allowing the adults an opportunity to indulge in their own festivities during the nighttime usually with trusted parents in family camping taking turns each night to watch over the children.
“We said to each other: ‘This is the way we want our life to feel everyday,’” exclaims Lisa Grafos, a 47-year-old American living in Costa Rica with her husband, Dean, and their adolescent daughter. They were inspired to move last year after attending Envision and falling in love with the surrounding community in Uvita. They are now Costa Rican property owners building a home just a few miles from the festival to fit their family of three and Lisa’s parents.
“It’s a touchstone for us,” Lisa says. “If our daughter is having a bad day or whatever, we say, 'Hey, this doesn’t feel like the festival now; let’s get back to the festival energy.’ And she calms down and she remembers what it was like to be here.”
From love potions to couples’ yoga to raving into the early morning hours, it’s open to interpretation how various aspects of the event play a part in enhancing the quality of sexual interactions. But it’s undeniable that a certain energy has found a home here, and it’s certainly penetrated the hearts of its attendees.
"They just have to carry that out into the world,” says Crimson. “Sometimes that’s really hard. How do you take that openness back to an environment that won’t allow it? That’s where the fear is. You just have to be brave.”