I got a last-minute ticket to Coachella, the festival as famous for its flashy outfits and Instagram-heavy attractions as its music. Here's what it's really like to attend.

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderIt was my first — and probably last — time at Coachella.

I’ll be honest: I never really thought I’d go to the Coachella Music & Arts Festival.

Living in New York, I never thought it made much sense to ship out to Indio, California, for one of Coachella’s two weekends of music and fun.

That’s without getting into what Coachella is supposedly about, which, according to varying reports, is both a glittering entertainment-industry party and a bunch of Orange County teenagers skipping school to drink. The weekend has become such an event for social-media influencers, models, and celebrities that some have dubbed it the “influencer Olympics.”

When Business Insider asked me to cover the festival, I was determined to go in with as few preconceived notions as possible. And with this year’s Coachella lineup featuring Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Janelle Monae, and Tame Impala, some of my favourite artists, it was hard not to get amped up.

By the end of the weekend, I had seen some incredible performances, discovered amazing new artists, found my way into an ultra-exclusive after-party, danced the night away at a hidden stage, and was convinced I probably wouldn’t ever come back.

Here’s what it was like.

My journey to Coachella was a long one. I flew from New York on the Wednesday before the festival because the airfare was cheaper, rented a car, and then drove out Friday morning. I had heard horror stories about the traffic, with some saying the usually two-hour drive takes seven hours or more. It ended up taking me three.

Before I could go to the festival, however, I had to stop in Indian Wells, a town near Indio where attendees pick up their Coachella wristbands. The lines moved quickly, but it was still a pain to have to go to a separate town just to get my wristband.

I still had to drive 30 minutes to Palm Springs. Lodging is the most expensive part of Coachella — even budget hotels charge $US350 or more a night. By staying in Palm Springs, I was able to stay at a boutique hotel, called the Hideaway, for $US379 a night. It looked like a “Mad Men” set.

To save some moolah, I did some grocery shopping in Los Angeles so I could eat breakfast and snacks each day before going to the festival grounds.

Source: Hideaway

The festival offers an $US80 shuttle to take festivalgoers between hotels outside Indio and the concert. The ride from Palm Springs took an hour with traffic, and the shuttle was full of rambunctious college kids drinking beers. There was a near mutiny when the bathroom door didn’t open. Thankfully, we made it to the grounds before people started peeing in bottles.

The shuttle drops festivalgoers about a half-mile from the entrance. As soon as you step off the shuttle, you can feel the energy buzzing in the air. Attendees were jumping up and down and shouting in excitement as they walked. Or maybe they just needed to pee.

There are two entrances to the festival: one for VIPs, and one for regular folk. If you don’t want to walk the half-mile in the blazing desert sun, you can pay a few bucks to hop in one of the colorfully decorated rickshaws blasting music.

Every day, I entered the festival between 2 and 4 p.m. — more or less prime time — and there was barely a wait. A tap of the wristband and a quick pat-down, and I was through. To be honest, I couldn’t help but feel a bit taken aback by how lax the security seemed.

Each day, I made a beeline for the main stage. While there are great acts on other stages, there was usually someone I wanted to see on the main one in the afternoon. Signs out front list the lineup at each stage, but I mostly used the Coachella app, which lets you create your own lineup and notifies you when your artists are about to start.

In past years, I’ve scored VIP passes to Goldenvoice’s New York version of Coachella, Panorama, where there were designated VIP sections directly in front of each stage. At Coachella, the only stage-front VIP section was a small one at the main stage. With VIP tickets costing $US999 for the weekend — double the price of general admission — it hardly seems worth it for that section and a secluded food-and-beverages area.

Coachella has eight venues, each with its own lineup. Three of the stages were large, open-air tents that were perfect for catching up-and-coming acts.

On Sunday, I caught the Norwegian indie-pop band Boy Pablo on the Gobi stage, one of the medium-size open-air venues. The benefit of these stages is that they keep out the heat and keep in the sound.

Visual art is a major part of the festival. There are giant art installations all over the grounds, and the festival’s art team starts building them as early as six months before the event. Office Kovacs, an architecture studio, designed these seven cactus sculptures, dubbed “Colossal Cacti.” The tallest is 50 feet.

Source: Artsy

Francis Kéré, an architect based in Berlin, created 12 multicolored towers out of steel and wood, modelled after the African baobab tree. “Baobabs have multiple uses as food and medicine. It’s the place where you get together, celebrate, and discuss,” Kéré told Artsy.

Source: Artsy

One of the most ambitious art projects on the grounds is “H.i.P.O. (Hazardous Interstellar Professional Operations),” a multimedia installation consisting of sculpture, performance art, architecture, design, and music.

Source: Artsy

While “H.i.P.O.” is a little hard to explain without seeing it, the concept is that a race of sentient hippos is trying to start a space program and launch a rocket. There are six performance spaces where 180 performers, artists, and engineers cycle in and out to improv ridiculous and hilarious scenes of the hippos trying (and failing) to perform their duties.

“H.i.P.O.” is the brainchild of Derek Doublin and Vanessa Bonet, who have been using hippos to craft absurdist commentaries about society for close to a decade.

The two have become a fixture at Coachella. Doublin has said Coachella is unique in the level of financial support, visibility, and creative freedom it allows its artists.

Coachella’s musical lineup is wildly diverse, if a little short on old-fashioned rock. You can find electronic music, hip-hop, funk, R&B, indie, pop, and more. On Sunday afternoon, I saw the rapper Pusha T run through a wide variety of hits and covers.

Coachella has become known as a place where artists crank up their energy and performances another notch to meet the audience’s high expectations. As you can probably tell from the ecstatic expressions on these attendees’ faces, Pusha T was lighting it up. He was rapping “Grindin’,” his first single as part of the iconic hip-hop duo Clipse.

While old hippies and longtime festivalgoers have long been complaining that festivals have become cannibalised by corporate sponsors, I found “corporate synergy” to be relatively unobtrusive. One of the more fun tie-ins was Cupcake’s Frozie Factory.

It’s a $US16 rosé slushie that Cupcake prints with your selfie on the spot. It’s shamelessly made for the Instagram set, but when the photos are that accurate, it’s pretty cool.

There’s no getting around it: The desert is hot. Several water stations dot the grounds, but they get pretty crowded. I brought a hydration pack so I had to fill up only once a day.

One of the best parts about any festival, in my opinion, is lounging on the grass to a laid-back artist. On Saturday, I whiled away an afternoon to the goofball rock of Mac DeMarco.

I’m not going to pretend like this wasn’t an Instagram-obsessed millennial crowd. It was. But you can choose whether you let that annoy you or not.

As Coachella has grown, the festival has worked to integrate the comforts of home. This year, it debuted a tie-in with Postmates where you could order from select vendors and pick up your food at a designated location without waiting in line. It worked pretty seamlessly, but the food selection was minimal.

The biggest corporate tie-in on the grounds was American Express. Cardmembers have access to, among other perks, an exclusive lounge, an air-conditioned hangout space with a bar. If you’re willing to wait on a long line, you can also get a manicure by the celebrity nail artist Britney Tokyo, or a sneaker cleaning by Jason Markk.

If you want to drink alcohol at the festival, you’ll have to head to one of the cordoned-off beer gardens or 21-and-over areas. At first, I thought it would be a pain, but then I realised how much cleaner it made the grounds and how many fewer drunk people were bumping into me in crowds.

There’s tons of food and beverages. Eater LA has said Coachella’s food lineup is “as impressive as its music.” I don’t know I would go that far, but there were plenty of tasty options, from Spicy Pie to Japanese katsu sandwiches by Konbi.

Source: Eater LA

One of the stranger phenomenons of the festival is how every day, as the sun begins to dip below the horizon, attendees congregate at the art installations to get sunset Insta-shots.

It’s more or less impossible to get a photo without half a dozen other people in your shot during that hour. A popular spot is in front of a 57-foot-long astronaut sculpture by Poetic Kinetics that has become something of a mascot for the festival since it debuted in 2014.

Source: Artsy

Coachella’s artist scheduling is impeccable. Each evening, as the sun finished setting, there was a high-energy performer to set the tone for the night.

On Friday, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals got the night bouncing with their funk-and-soul-inflected grooves. On Saturday, it was J Balvin who lit the night’s fire with his vibrant reggaeton. The electronic-music producer Zedd woke up the sleepy Sunday crowd with fist-pumping electro that sent thousands running to the main stage.

Friday night’s lineup was stacked with three of my favourite artists: Anderson .Paak, Janelle Monae, and Childish Gambino. My partner and I made the bold decision to fight our way to the front of the stage and hold our spot for six hours. It’s not every day you get a chance at essentially a front-row ticket to those artists.

I did skip out of my spot once to run to the bathroom and purchase this delectable bowl of lobster mac and cheese. Finding my partner again wasn’t easy, but I got back in time.

All the waiting paid off. Childish Gambino’s team had built a runway extending deep into the crowd. The singer-rapper-actor-renaissance man was standing five feet from me for much of his set.

On Saturday, I explored the festival’s varied night offerings a bit more. First, I got in line for Coachella’s famous Ferris wheel, said to be the world’s largest transportable one. I surprised to find that the line moved pretty quickly.

I was on the Ferris wheel in 10 minutes. And thanks to another American Express perk, I got on for free; it usually costs $US5 a pop. The view at night is spectacular, even if the windows are a little dirty.

For those fatigued from trendy headliners and Instagramming teens, the Do Lab, a small, independently operated stage, acts as a refuge. Featuring exclusively up-and-coming electronic-music acts, the space is focused on dancing and good vibes.

Source: Do Lab

A public-relations brief described it to me as “Coachella’s best-hidden secret.” I obviously was sceptical but checked it out on Saturday. I ended up dancing for over an hour to Mr. Carmack, a DJ known for blending hip-hop and dance music. When I checked back in over the weekend, the Do Lab was never packed, but it always had a solid core of dancers having an excellent time.

It didn’t hurt that my media pass got me access to a backstage lounge area where I could enjoy the music and chill behind the Do Lab.

I closed out Saturday night by listening to the mind-bending stylings of Tame Impala. While I certainly could have bobbed and weaved my way to the front, some artists are more fun to sway to with plenty of space. For me, Tame Impala is one of those bands.

Having heard so much about Coachella’s after-party scene — which some VIPs swear is far better than the festival itself — I finagled an invite to the Zenyara estate for one of Coachella’s “most exclusive after-parties.” But with a 90-minute wait for an Uber, I walked the two miles to the party. The security guards looked at me bizarrely when I walked up.

Source: Zenyara

Clearly, they had a broad definition of “exclusive.” The party was so crowded that the fire department threatened to shut it down, and no one on the guest list was allowed in — that is, until they decided that anyone willing to throw down $US150 cash for an on-the-spot ticket could get in. I went home and ate ramen.

On Sunday night, I got into the real exclusive after-party, thrown by one of the hottest nightclub brands in the US, 1 Oak. There were no tickets to the event — you had to be invited. I was picked up in a decked-out van by Gravity, a new luxury-car-service startup that was cosponsoring the event.

Source: 1 Oak

The event, at Lago Vista Ranch, featured an open bar, a big dance floor and DJ booth, a food truck, and all the music-industry insiders one could hope to rub shoulders with. It was hosted by Tyga and featured appearances by Lil Pump, Meek Mill, Desiigner, 2 Chainz, and Paris Hilton, of all people. The pours at the open bar were very heavy. It was a ridiculous end to a ridiculous weekend.

The following morning, I hung out in my hotel, exhausted. A weekend of festival-ing was more than enough for me. I had a blast. The performances were top-notch, the festival was well-organised, and the setting was beautiful — but I’m not sure I would do Coachella again. Spending $US2,500 and taking the flight-car-shuttle combination to get to Indio for the weekend is too much money and logistics to be an annual affair. But I can see the appeal if you live in California.

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