As April rolls around every year, the resort cities near Palm Springs prepare for the exodus of “snow birds,” or temporary residents who spend the warm winter months in the dry heat of the Mojave desert to head home further north across America or Canada.

  • Story Daniel
  • Photos Daniel / Jenna
  • Soundtrack of the report
  • Bright Lights, Live From Coachella
  • Gary Clark Jr.

But as the communities prepare for the end of what is the tourist season for grey haired sun seekers and golfers, they also prepare for the influx of 20 and 30-somethings from across North America, and the A to D list celebrities from Hollywood who migrate to the desert for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, or simply, “Coachella” as it is known.

Arriving by plane or by car to the Coachella Valley, or the Palm Springs area, is always an incredible experience. Picture perfect green golf courses and palm tree-lined communities sit in the shadow of rolling desert mountains (sometimes even capped with snow) and amongst vast stretches of barren desert. Not far away is Joshua Tree National Park, the shimmering Salton Sea and of course, the border with Mexico. Entering any grocery store early in the days during the weekends the festival is on is an interesting experience, as festival attendees stock up on food and incredibly cheap booze.

The Coachella Valley is stunningly beautiful, and has an interesting and diverse mix of locals (like any California county) and retired golf enthusiasts and Los Angeles-based weekend tennis warriors. And adding the fact that the valley’s warm, dry climate can become intensely hot once spring rolls around, Indio, California seems a strange choice in setting for an enormous mainstream music festival.

mosaic coachella
Coachella D - Festival grounds - Day 2 Coachella D - The Do Lab - Day 3 Coachella D - Sunset - day 1 Coachella

But after its 13th year, Coachella is a becoming a festival not to be missed. For the first time this year, the festival featured identical lineups over back-to-back weekends, as demand for tickets can no longer be satisfied over one weekend. After a massive two-day festival in 1999 that featuring Beck and Rage Against the Machine, the festival organizers were deep in debt. No festival took place in 2000, and the 2001 event was only a one day affair.

But in the past decade, Coachella has only gained steam. The festival now runs two, three-day festivals over two weekends, and after being taken over by a major event promoter a few years ago, both weekends operate like a well-oiled machine of sunshine, music, camping, drugs and youthful exuberance.

This year the festival saw breakout performances from Gary Clark Jr., M83, St. Vincent and tUnE-yArDs, along with massive headlining sets from Radiohead, The Black Keys, Florence and The Machine, The Shins, Bon Iver, Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta, as well as a the hologram of the late Tupac Shakur joining the alive and stoned Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on stage to close out both weekends.

tUnE-yArDs - Powa, Live From Coachella, April 14, 2012

The first weekend this year featured the coldest temperatures ever for a Coachella festival weekend, including only the second day of rain ever (take that Glastonbury!), while the second weekend (which we were lucky to attend) set the record for hottest temperatures in the 13 years the festival has run (106F/42C on both Saturday and Sunday).

I chose drinking lots of water over downing $7 Heinekens or taking hallucinogens, and with 60 SPF sunscreen, the festival is nothing but enjoyable. This year, for my first Coachella, we skipped the camping experience, which I hear brings 24-hour parties and long queues for a shower. Instead, we opted to stay nearby in a family-owned condo, taking the affordable shuttle buses to the Empire Polo Field every day (where the festival has always been held).

mosaic coachella 2
Coachella J - Day 1 Coachella J - Day 2 Coachella J - Day 3

The real event for celebrities, annoying corporate promoters and journalists are the infamous after parties that take place at 5-Star Palm Springs resorts or at the condos rented out by bands. This year, after Radiohead wrapped up their set on the second Saturday, lead singer Thom Yorke DJ’d his own after party at the glitzy Parker Hotel for those lucky enough to get an invite.

    Apart from having slim chance of getting an invite to these parties, the only thing anyone could really complain about:
  • - Long lines for free water, mediocre and overpriced food, $7 beer, $12 margaritas.
  • - Lack of shade outside of a beer garden.
  • - Those with VIP or backstage bracelets have special sections in front of all stages, and will always be closer the bands (standing where the security guards do at most concerts, but in enlarged pens between the general admission crowd and the stage).
  • - Double standards at security checks (I saw EVERY item on the “Do Not Bring” list inside the festival (DSLR cameras, camel backpacks, outside food, etc).
  • - Five stages means you always have to miss an up and coming act if you want to see a headliner).

Coachella - Beirut - Day 3

    Things that are awesome:
  • - Free parking at shuttle bus stops throughout the Coachella Valley.
  • - Shuttles run often, have hilarious organizers getting you excited onboard, many have air conditioning, and the buses bypass traffic.
  • - Bottled water is only $2 (price capped since 1999).
  • - Always having the opportunity to get cooled down by mist tents and water cannons.
  • - On-site lockers.
  • - It’s fucking beautiful in the desert (most bands encourage the crowd to turn around to check out the sun sinking behind the sandy desert mountains, beyond the hundreds of palm trees surrounding the festival grounds).

Coachella J - sunset at main stage

Overall, Coachella is very well organized, and considering the calibre of artists the festival brings in every year, is an event that is nothing but an enjoyable experience. Get your tickets early next year - Coachella will only continue to sell out in mere minutes as always!

- Daniel