It can hit you upon arrival, or sneak up after a few days; the realization that you have found one of the most exciting places of your life. For me that was Spain’s Ibiza. You know right away when it happens. It’s something more than just liking the looks of a new destination. It’s when something in the spirit of a place speaks directly to you, where you walk around with eyes wide open in disbelief, your heart bursting with the new discovery, wondering how you ever lived anywhere else and willing to do whatever it takes to stay.
I’ve been fortunate enough to find a few such places throughout my travels. But never in a million years would I have thought one of them would be the party capital of the world: Ibiza. I spent six weeks this summer working as a tour guide for young backpackers around the Balearic Islands: Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca. The passengers enjoy visiting the other two islands for their beautiful beaches and relaxed vibe, but it’s always Ibiza that they’ve heard so much about, and look forward to visiting the most.
I, on the other hand, didn’t expect to care much for it. I’m not a big partier, I know nothing about techno music, and paying 70 euros to enter a club… plus eighteen euros for a cocktail, is not my idea of a fun night. I hoped that I would be able to tolerate crazy Ibiza, at best. But that all changed as soon as I laid eyes upon the White Isle.
It is one of the most famous places in the world, and the Mecca for those who love music, nightclubs and parties. Thousands of people fly onto the island every day from May to September; in fact, two of the open-air clubs are so close to the airport that it has become tradition to applaud the new arrivals when their plane passes over the dance floor. You can watch world-renowned dj’s every night of the week: David Guetta, one of the most commercially-successful artists of the decade, hosts regular Monday and Thursday night gigs. Ibiza is home to six superclubs, including Privilege, the biggest nightclub in the world, and Pacha, which made its debut in Ibiza Town before expanding across the globe.
On certain nights in the clubs, women with exquisitely-sculpted bodies dance in giant champagne glasses, while acrobats ride unicycles along tightropes over the crowd. There are foam parties, costume parties, clubs that kick off in the afternoon and nights that last until 6am, when the music is still going strong as the sun rises. This is an island worth billions, so you would expect it to be pretentious, right? Nothing but a tacky, Spanish version of Las Vegas, with a crowded coastline full of five-star resorts, expensive restaurants, exclusive VIP lounges, and tourist traps. And if that’s what you’re looking for, you can certainly find it.
But the real Ibiza is an old town surrounded by centuries-old fortified walls, crumbling whitewash, dilapidated buildings, and narrow streets that look like something out of an Arabic Medina. And, there are walls full of funky graffiti, and alleyways covered by cracked cobblestones. Two of the superclubs are located on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere, both surrounded by industrial wasteland. Alongside the celebrities and millionaires on the street are regular people, even kids who are as amazed by the magic around them as are their parents.
Ibiza is certainly one of the coolest places in the world, without a pretentious bone in its body. Its attitude says: if you like me, there’s an island full of joyous people ready to welcome you. If not, that’s fine too. There’s something for everyone on Ibiza. The wildest tourists flock to San Antonio, where they don fluorescent shirts with slogans like, “What happens in Ibiza stays in Ibiza,” while drinking in the 100-plus bars located in the square kilometre known as the West End. San Antonio is not the classiest part of the island, but it can be forgiven because it is home to the Sunset Strip, where you watch the most famous sunset in the world from a rocky beach, accompanied by the smooth beats from Café del Mar behind you.
Playa d’en Bossa is where you’ll find the day parties. Check out the infamous Bora Bora beach bar, which overflows with half-nude, gorgeous people dancing to house music, whilst others play badminton or swim all afternoon before heading to one of Ibiza’s most unique clubs, Ushuaia, where they party around a giant swim pool as the dj whips them into euphoria.
And then there is Ibiza Town. Known in the local Catalan dialect as Eivissa, it is the capital and most populous part of the island. It is separated into the new town near the port – full of bohemian shops, bars and markets, where the walls are plastered in posters advertising the upcoming club nights – and ‘Dalt Villa’, the old town, which is surrounded by fortified walls and winds all the way up a cliff from which you can admire the white city below and the sea in the distance.
The real action in town starts at midnight when a parade – often a form of PR for the clubs – weaves through the streets, featuring burlesque dancers, men on stilts, or women in cat costumes. The streets are full until the wee hours with wild fashion and sexual energy and an atmosphere straight out of the Moulin Rouge. You’ll find the same characters in Ibiza Town every night: the drag queen who walks around with a whip, ready to spank passersby; the bar owner who smokes a cigar and impersonates Robert DeNiro; or the street performers dressed like gypsies and painted head to toe in gold.
And always, everywhere: music. Swedish House Mafia, Tiesto , Armin Van Buuren , David Guetta, Pete Tong: names that meant nothing to me before, but are now the soundtrack to six of the best weeks of my life.
As much as I grew to love the nightlife, it was daytime in Ibiza Town when I felt most at home. No matter how exhausted I felt, the energy in the streets uplifted me. During the quiet siesta hours, I was often the only person in Dalt Villa. I would walk for hours, finding new shops, stopping at cafes I hadn’t tried yet, taking hundreds of photos of the most fascinating old town I’ve ever seen.
The biggest surprise about Ibiza is that it is so much more than just its parties. Forget the superclubs, the drag queens or the expensive drinks: the essence of Ibiza bubbles right up from its soil. It is said that the island cannot sustain any harmful creatures: one of the only native animals on Ibiza is the gecko, which has become its emblem. Ibiza is also home to one of the most magnetic spots in the world: Es Vedra, a rock two miles off the southern coast, which is reachable only by boat and has been called both the tip of Atlantis and a landing spot for UFOs.
The air, the temperature, and the light around the White Island – so nicknamed because of its prosperous salt trade, which was started millennia ago by the Carthaginians – have always inspired a sense of hedonism. When they were first discovered by the Greeks, the original Ibicencos were given the Greek name for “naked” due to their carefree love for nudity.
The next group of pleasure-seekers to discover the island were the hippies in the 1960s. They left their conservative home communities in search of freedom of expression that could only be found on Ibiza. Here they experimented with drugs and music, partied in fincas and danced around swimming pools, the sites of which became the nightclubs of today.
You can still find hippies on the northern beaches, playing drums at full moon celebrations. Or at hippy markets around the island, the most famous being the Wednesday markets in the eastern beach town of Es Canar, which boasts spectacular sunrises to match San Antonio’s famous sunsets. The markets are set on a sprawling resort where you can buy anything from feathers for your hair, to handmade shoes, to the white crochet that is the official uniform of the Ibiza.
On one of my last afternoons on the island, I wandered into a smart art gallery in Dalt Villa called Traspas y Torijano, and was struck by a poster of a man and woman from the 1970s, with matching dark hair and eyebrows and intense stares. A moment later, an old man – the artist himself – walked into the shop. “Is this you?” I asked in Spanish, pointing to the poster. He smiled. “Yes, it’s me and my wife. That was thirty years ago, but I still look good, right?”
They originally came from Madrid, but the couple fell in love with Ibiza decades ago and ended up staying. I asked how he has survived a lifetime in Ibiza: he said he couldn’t have survived anywhere else. The partying and nightlife are behind him now; these days he wakes up early each morning, goes skinny dipping and snorkelling at Cala Bassa beach, and makes art in the afternoon. Ibiza has given him the life that he has wanted at every age. I bought his poster, said goodbye, and decided to walk right to the top of Dalt Villa, where I sat on the wall near the Cathedral and looked out over the town.
My heart already felt lonesome at the thought of leaving, and I tried to absorb every detail while I still could. I focused on the fragrance of the air, the soft, gentle breeze, the distant sound of music, and how the sun looked as it sparkled on the sea. It has now been two weeks since I left Ibiza, and I envy that girl who still had a few days ahead of her. Like so many others before me, my body might have left but my spirit stayed behind. I can see it there now, happy as it’s ever been, swaying to the music on the old streets of Eivissa, beckoning me back to the White Isle.
Written by and photos by Andrea MacDonald for EuropeUpClose.com.