Casa Tortuga, Tulum
5 - 6 January
Tulum, an idyllic patch of Caribbean coast in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is changing.
In recent years, Tulum has transformed from a sleepy beach town to a bustling hub. During our visit, the skeletal constructions of new hotel and apartment complexes rise across Tulum’s landscape. Tourists teem around on bikes, scooting between eco-chic hotels, yoga retreats, boutique shops, restaurants and, of course, its glistening stretch of protected coastline.
As Tulum grows, boutique electronic music events are finding a home across some of its most picturesque scenery. Seeming to soak up some footfall following BPM’s recent move from neighbouring Playa del Carmen to Portugal, such events are usually the haunt of affluent travellers keen to party against an Instagrammable backdrop. DJs from the European and US club circuit are the draw here, and posters across the city brandish names like Ibiza regulars Damian Lazarus, Maceo Plex and Blond:ish, alongside the likes of Move D, Antal and Dekmantel Soundsystem.
Slowly, the scene is diversifying. Comunité is amongst this wave, but its organisers are eager to offer something different, and the young electronic music festival has positioned itself as an alternative to the majority of the party scene in Tulum. The event began two years ago on the beach, followed by a relaxed back-to-back session at a plush hotel complex. This year’s set up at Casa Tortuga is a closer fit to what you would typically expect from a festival, but, oh boy, does it outstrip such expectations.
The site is something to behold, instilled with a mystical quality courtesy of its three crystal clear cenotes. The fresh water pools scattered across Tulum’s thick jungle, cenotes are a constellation of peep-holes into the Yucatan Peninsula’s vast underground lagoons. As we arrive at 10pm, the surface of the cenotes are like sheets of glass, projecting a mirror image of the trees towering above.
Due to its abundance of jungle, natural wood plays a starring role in Tulum’s décor, and Comunité is no exception. The main stage is the largest of three wooden structures which host DJs and live acts, connected by low-lit pathways that snake through the trees. Playing across these stages are a considered selection of Mexican, Latin American and international artists that make up an ambitious breadth of programming – one way Comunité sets itself apart from its competition. Another is the event’s ecological focus. All food on site is both vegan and locally sourced. The event has a strict policy on plastic cups – if you lose yours, you are charged double for another, to ensure everyone works towards the event’s leave-no-trace policy on its beautiful surroundings. And, furthering its socially conscious approach, the event also offers cheap tickets to Tulum locals.
Something’s clearly working, as this year was Comunité’s busiest yet. The festival attracted around 2,600 people to Casa Tortuga across its continuous 18-hour stretch. Throughout the night, the largest crowds assemble for the main stage acts. Ecuador’s Nicola Cruz draws a loyal following before Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s live performance, a gorgeous journey through her latest album, followed by Auntie Flo’s set, a vibrant swirl of world-influenced rhythms. The main stage also holds two of the event’s most anticipated live performances. Havana-born jazz singer Dayem Arocena thrills with Cuban-influenced songs full of joy and longing, driving the crowd into a frenzy alongside her band. Later, James Holden & the Animal Spirits conjure of wall of driving noise with various unorthodox instruments, replicating their album, while never quite reaching the intense heights achieved on the record.
The Lunar stage, a clearing aside the site’s smaller cenote, is laced with feel good house and sleek minimal. Highlights here include the seductive grooves of Afriqua as well as Lawrence, who takes cues from the brightening sky with classics like Larry Heard’s The Sun Can’t Compare. The smallest stage, Yu Yu (curated by the Mexico City club of the same name) is built into a dip in the site’s surface as to resemble a small, rocky amphitheatre. Matias Aguayo is also quick to capitalise on the energy of an incoming wave of early risers by banging out punchy tracks like I:Cube’s Transpiration. Over on the main stage, Carl Craig takes a similar approach, indulging in crowd pleasers like Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) alongside chunky, dramatic house. The euphoric atmosphere brings together the largest crowd we see across the event.
As the sun rises over the jungle, the mood shifts further. Murcof’s live set on the Lunar stage feels far removed from the flashier elements of Tulum’s party scene. The avant-garde Mexican producer transfixes the crowd with strange, sad and beautiful ambient glitches. An unexpected highlight, it’s a compelling intermission to Comunité’s mostly upbeat soundtrack. And, nearing the end of its 18-hour stretch, the cenotes create a similar sense of calm. The ropes enclosing the water came down a few hours ago, and attendees who aren’t dancing frolic in the water, laze across its bordering rocks or pass out in hammocks. As Mexico City club kids, European travellers and jet-setting techno tourists congregate in and around the impossibly clear pools, it’s in this moment where the event’s ethos seems to come into focus – its values of coexisting with the environment and with each other finally fleshed out. Comunité’s aims are certainly ambitious, but rather than banging on about raves being transcendental experiences, the event keeps its focus rooted in tangible change – and the payoff is well worth the trek into the jungle.
Photographers: Alejandro Puente, Aleks Sol and Maria Leyva