Trans-Pecos Festival begins final run at current location as El Cosmico looks to the future

Front page (people sitting on grass): This year’s Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love will be the last at El Cosmico’s current location, as preparations for a move and expansion are underway. Photo by Chad Wadsworth.

MARFA — This week, beginning on Thursday, the 17th Annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love will kick off at the El Cosmico campground along U.S.-67, just south of city limits, as it has ever year prior. Next year, as every Marfa local knows, is a different story. The “nomadic hotel” that has become a hub of picturesque tourist visits, with its Instagrammable tents and yurts, will have relocated across town — with considerably expanded offerings and accommodations. 

Trans-Pecos, of course, will go with it, making this year a send-off of sorts from its birthplace. But El Cosmico founder Liz Lambert stresses that the festival will stay true to its roots — she has no intention of dramatically increasing ticket sales, she says, if at all. 

“We don’t want to be Lollapalooza,” said Lambert in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, referencing the famed Chicago music festival that draws around 400,000 annual attendees. “We understand where we are.”

Trans-Pecos caps its ticket sales at 1,500 (that includes ticket sales to locals), in large part because Marfa’s infrastructure can only support so many visitors at a time. But it’s also the case that what is born out of necessity has become the festival’s trademark charm — visiting musicians have been drawn to the relative intimacy of the event compared to larger venues. “Part of what’s beautiful about it is how small it is,” said Lambert.

So she plans to keep it small — even as the venue itself gets larger.

In March of this year, Lambert announced her ambitious plan to relocate the outdoor resort to a swath of land triple its current size off Antelope Hills Road. The plan includes the construction of 3D-printed hotel units, a restaurant, a swimming pool and a bathhouse, plus 30 to 40 3D-printed homes along the outskirts of the property. Between the 3D-printed accommodations and the relocated tents and yurts from the old site, the new El Cosmico will include around 120 hotel units — roughly doubling its current number of units.

The announcement has elicited some concerns from locals, particularly those who live in or near the Antelope Hills subdivision, about the impacts the development and accompanying traffic may have on the area’s water infrastructure, roads, noise pollution and more. Most recently, the question of how best to divert hotel traffic from the poorly-maintained Antelope Hills Road has been a topic of discussion at Presidio County Commissioners Court meetings — a proposal to put a road through Vizcaino Park as an alternative, recently presented at court, has been met with resistance by some.

Liz Lambert herself was present at Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting to advocate for the plan, which would pull traffic away from Antelope Hills Road and onto the state-maintained FM 1112 and provide an easement through the park. In response to fears the road would interfere with the park, she said she hopes the plan leads to its “revitalization.” 

County Commissioner David Beebe, who first placed the proposal on the agenda, said his concern was monetary — Antelope Hills Road is county-run and difficult to maintain. Diverting traffic to the state-maintained highway would keep heavy traffic off of Antelope Hills and would be in the county’s best interest. “We have a budget crisis, and the reason I’m concerned about this project at all is we have a budget crisis that’s going to get worse every year,” said Beebe on Wednesday.

Though the plan to relocate El Cosmico is steadily moving forward — the sale of the land has closed, and the team still anticipates breaking ground in early 2024 — these questions around infrastructure are still being explored, said Lambert. Road access aside, her team is still in talks with the City of Marfa about potentially extending water supply to the site (residents had been concerned about impacts to their wells) but with no resolution. 

The Trans-Pecos Festival is inherently a part of these discussions — though not El Cosmico’s primary reason for being, it is the event that draws the most visitors to the grounds annually. By extension, it brings in some of the largest crowds that Marfa sees all year.

The festival has grown considerably since its early days — in fact, said Lambert, the inaugural Trans-Pecos was really more of a party, with just around 200 guests. They had passed out flyers to neighbors to rally attendees. It was in the early days of El Cosmico, when she was toying around with different ideas for hotel units. She had concocted a plan to help fund the project by drawing folks to an event where they could opt to buy renovated trailers as condos. That plan quickly got thrown to the wayside, she said. But the party remained.

El Cosmico has grown “organically” since those early days, she said — distinct from her other hotel projects. “In this case, because we’ve been able to add tipis or yurts or different sorts of dwelling structures over the years, we’ve just been able to grow the footprint over the years,” she said. “I mean, we really did begin with two trailers.”

As the resort, and the annual festival, has grown in size, it has in some ways remained the same. The relative smallness of the festival not only has a regular cast of local musicians who turn up to play, but keeps bringing out regular visitors to its stages.

“We have many musicians who come play the festival every year, which is unusual, and stay for several days — most music festivals, most of the time people are in and out really quickly,” said Lambert.

“We’re not trying to recreate Trans-Pecos,” she added. “It serves us well for what it is … if it’s not broke, I don’t think we should try to fix it.