For the past 16 years, I’ve spent most of my free time doing two things – seeing Phish and traveling. Since they rarely play Detroit and have never played China or Indonesia, I’ve had to travel to almost every single Phish concert I’ve seen. As luck would have it this year, Phish finally came to me. We spent the first six weeks of the year living in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, which is just up the road from the host resort for the Phish Riviera Maya event. With my favorite band in my favorite country, I knew I couldn’t miss out on this! Here’s a little recap of the shows and the amazing time that was had by all.
What is Phish Riviera Maya?
If you’re not familiar with the band Phish, then go read their Wikipedia page as you stream a playlist from Spotify. You can also read some of our blog posts about our love for the band, including how we got engaged at their New Year’s Eve concert and a recap of their epic Halloween run in Las Vegas this past year.
Phish Riviera Maya is a destination event where the band plays three nights at the Barcelo Maya Resort. They plop a stage right down on the beach, and concertgoers can choose to either stay at the host resort or shuttle in from a few other resorts in the area. It’s all-inclusive, so you can have all the tequila and tacos your heart desires!
One gripe that many have about these sorts of events (myself included) is that there’s no way to just buy tickets for the shows. The only way to get in the door is to buy a very expensive package that also includes airport shuttles, accommodation, and a swag bag of merch. Fine for people on vacation, but not so much for people who live in the area.
With the cheapest package for two going for around $4,500, it’s a tough event to pull off for those used to living on pesos – like us. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, because it totally is if you’ve got that kind of cash to burn. I’m just saying that for those of us who live in Mexico, it’s a bit of a stretch to be able to attend. So… how did we manage to pull it off?
Third Time’s the Charm
This was actually the third time that Phish Riviera Maya happened. The first time happened in 2016 while we were living in Bali. Being on the complete opposite side of the world and living on a meager student stipend, there was no way we could make that one happen. It was disappointing, but we quickly got over it. It’s pretty hard to care about missing some concerts when you live in paradise!
For the 2nd go around of Phish Riviera Maya, we were actually in Mexico City. So close, and yet so far. We were on our way to our new home of Puerto Vallarta and were pretty strapped for cash. As such, we had to settle for streaming the shows from our Airbnb. That one definitely stung a little!
After finishing up our year-long party by spending the holidays at home, we knew we had to get out of the country and head somewhere warm. Flights from NYC (where we were for Phish New Year’s) were super cheap to Cancun, so we decided to head to the other side of Mexico and give Playa del Carmen a try. After all, it’s probably the top digital nomad destination in all of Mexico.
There was definitely an ulterior motive in our choice to head to Playa Del Carmen, though. With Phish Riviera Maya scheduled again for late February, we figured we might be able to make it happen if we put ourselves in close proximity to the resort. Once again unable to afford a package, we had to exercise a bit of patience and unicorns & rainbows-style hippie optimism.
A Buzzer Beater Miracle
In the weeks leading up to the shows, I religiously checked Cash or Trade in hopes that someone was selling a wristband for just the shows. If we could find two, our plan was to keep our apartment in Playa and just catch the colectivo in and a cab home. We also left the option on the table of splitting a room with two other people, as that was by far the cheapest option.
After much searching, I finally found one wristband for $1,000. We were halfway there, but that wasn’t going to cut it. I let the wristband go, and we decided to just book a room directly through the resort for the nights of the shows. It was only $690 and would at least allow both of us to dance on the beach and enjoy a 3-day resort vacation.
We’re not huge fans of these all-inclusive resorts (see our post about staying at Barcelo in Puerto Vallarta for more), but it’s a different story when the place is full of a few thousand Phish heads! We figured it would be a nice vacation even if we couldn’t get into the shows. Plus, with the resort being a 30-minute drive away, we just couldn’t sit this one out.
The night before heading down to Barcelo, I found someone selling a wristband. With Rachel’s birthday approaching, I figured I would buy it for her if the price was right. I had to sleep on it, as we weren’t sure we could cough up over a grand just for one. The next morning, I was thrilled to find he would take $600 as long as we went down to Tulum to grab it. Thanks a lot, Nate!
On our way out the door, I was told that the wife of another phan at the resort didn’t care about the shows at all. That dude was willing to sell her show wristband for just $500. All of a sudden, we were both getting into the shows! I had also been chatting with another fellow VIPKID teacher in Mexico and trying to help him sort things out.
Then another guy hit me up to say he had both a resort and show wristband but didn’t want a roommate.
Hmm… the plot thickens.
We hosted well over 50 strangers through Couchsurfing when we were living in China, and we’ve also been guests of many people during our travels. I decided to be a good w00k Samaritan and help both guys out. I literally sprinted across the resort – which is massive, by the way – to grab the wristbands and transfer money. Rather than let him camp on the beach, I offered our new friend Dan our couch if he tossed me a couple hundred bucks.
Just like that, everyone was good to go.
It was party time!
Day One: Splashing in the Sea
With very little time to go until the show, we hustled over to the buffet and smashed some food and drinks. We also made plans to meet up with several friends who were in attendance.
Next thing you know, we were walking into the big “Bienvenidos” sign and into the coolest concert area I’ve ever seen.
Upon entering, waiters in tuxedos greet you with trays of margaritas and cervesas. The palm trees are covered in lights, and there’s some funky colorful string thing blowing in the wind. If you’re hungry, there are tacos al pastor, Mexican street corn, and churros. Oh yeah, and Phish is getting ready to play two sets on the beach.
If there is a heaven, it probably looks something like this.
We met up with some friends and were all smiles as we headed towards the stage, several drinks in hand. For night one, we made our way to Page side, wave side.
The band hit the stage, and around 5,000 of us settled in for what was sure to be an epic run.
I won’t go into huge details about the shows, as I find it difficult to review Phish shows. If you want all the nerdy details, I recommend checking out the reviews on Phish.net. What I will say about night one is that it was pretty amazing dancing in the ocean as Phish sang “In a minute I’ll be free, and you’ll be splashing in the sea!”
Not surprisingly, the weekend was full of songs referencing the ocean, beach, sun, and moon. On night one alone, we got Who Loves the Sun?, Free, Sand, Spanish Moon, and Squirming Coil.
If some phans had complained that the previous Mexico runs were a bit lackluster, it was clear from the first night this would not be the case for round three.
I Always Wanted it That Way > Death Don’t Hurt Very Long from Night One
Day Two: We Enjoy Ourselves
After that super hectic first day running around trying to secure wristbands, we were super pumped to finally relax and enjoy this Phishy vacation. A late brunch included some mimosas to get the party started right.
From there, we headed to the pool party right in front of our room. This guy had been promoting his floatie party for weeks before the shows, and tons of people turned out with their Phish Riviera Maya tubes for a daytime rager.
One group even brought a massive unicorn floatie that they said took up an entire suitcase. Way to go, guys! Now that’s dedication.
There was a DJ by the pool spinning a nice mix, mainly of songs that Phish covers. We actually walked out as he started the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.”
“How awesome would it be if they busted this out this weekend?” I asked Rachel as we made our way to the pool.
The next couple of hours were spent lazily floating around the pool, making new friends, and indulging in the all-inclusiveness of the resort. It was a beautiful day with a beautiful group of people.
This was already starting to look like the best vacation ever.
When the party finished up, Rachel headed back to the room to shower and get ready. In true w00k form, I instead followed some new friends to their room to keep the party going. Next thing you know, we were doing Macho Man and Hulk Hogan impressions to hype up the shows.
“Ohhhh yeah! Let me tell you something brother! Whatcha gonna do when Phish-a-mania runs wild on you?!”
While many phans made reservations at the nicer restaurants, we didn’t even bother. We live in Mexico and eat awesome food all the time. Sure the buffet food kind of sucks, but at least you can get a decent bowl of pasta with some seafood and then just carb up on other snacks.
Oh yeah, let’s not forget the endless booze and the fact you can just pour your own beers.
The excitement was high as we all made our way back into the venue for night two. I didn’t want to say I was chasing any songs on this run, but I really wanted to see them play “You Enjoy Myself.” Despite going to 11 shows in 2018, I didn’t see it once.
And what do you know?
Phish came out and opened with a freaking YEM. I proceeded to cry like a little girl. A few songs later, and they busted out Emotional Rescue.
Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow.
We enjoyed ourselves, saw turtles in the clouds, and saw it again while we danced the night away in no man’s land. We all set our souls free as we were tossed about like a bottle in the sea. There were no traffic lights to be a slave to on the beach as we yelled at the stars and told them how much they sucked because sanity never came our way. We walked away into the night pulsating with love and light, knowing full well that we had more to look forward to.
Set Your Soul Free from Night Two
Late Night Shenanigans
If I can make one complaint about Phish Riviera Maya – and I will, because that’s what Phish fans do on the internet – it’s that there was no music other than Phish. Don’t get me wrong – they’re my favorite band and all, and I know that they never have openers. It’s just that all of the other all-inclusive shows have music all day and night. When we went to Holidaze in 2012, there were late-night shows going on until 3 or 4 in the morning.
That’s not the case at Phish Riviera Maya, so a few thousand phans riding a wave of jubilation (and possibly psychedelics) are left to their own devices to entertain themselves. There isn’t a whole lot going on at the resort after midnight, save for a sports bar called Strikers. It was a funny scene inside and out of that bar at 2 AM, that’s for sure!
One night, we just plopped down in our beach loungers and stared at the moon through the palm trees. On another, we joined friends for a late-night dance party on the beach.
What a fantastic couple of nights with some amazing people. We got to spend some quality time with old friends and made plenty of new ones in the process. That’s what I love most about seeing Phish – the community that surrounds the band and all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.
Day Three: We Will Always Remember Where We Were
Some motivated go-getters spent their days at Phish Riviera Maya heading out on excursions. From visiting the Mayan ruins to swimming in cenotes, there were plenty of options.
I’m glad lots of people got out of the resort to see more of the area, but there was no need for us to do that. One of the many perks about living in Mexico! We can do that stuff all the time. As such, we spent day three the same way we spent day two – partying with all the fools in the pool!
They say time flies when you’re having fun, and damn did it cruise by at Phish Riviera Maya. In the blink of an eye, it was time to go in for the third and final night. You know, because when we screw up once, we do it two more times! We learned that most events aren’t planned as we looked up at the divided sky.
Trey rocked so hard he fell down, but Mike and his song picked him and the rest of us back up again as we shared in the groove. We practiced our Spanish as we yelled “Fuego!” and then stepped into the freezer on the beach. A little ghost story helped us get ready to find out what space smells like to close out the show.
Our trip definitely was not short in the 3rd set-esque encore, as our spaceship blasted off to discover some big black furry creatures from Mars. After a long weekend, it was time for the monkey to go to sleep before we cranked it up one more time with the reprise.
Just like that, it was over. We picked up the pieces of our brains that had been scattered on the beach, shared hugs and goodbyes with friends, and wrapped up what is sure to go down in Phish lore as one of the best runs of the modern era. I’m now at 97 shows, and these just might be the three best shows I’ve seen.
It was that damn good!
Carini from Night Three
In conclusion, we are so freaking happy that we pulled the trigger on Phish Riviera Maya. It took a lot of patience and optimism – two things I’ll admit I don’t always have – but we did it. We saw our favorite band in our favorite country with some of our favorite people, and these Gypsies will be forever Grateful for it.
Muchas gracias to Phish, their entire crew, and the folks at CID who put this event on.
Muchas gracias to the hard-working staff at Barcelo, who made us smile and laugh all weekend long.
And muchas gracias to all the crazy people we shared this experience with. To the friends old and new who joined us for el pez en la playa, you guys are the best. Let’s do it again next year, amigos!