It used to be that there were a couple handfuls of LGBTQ+ friendly destinations scattered around the world—Palm Springs, Provincetown, Miami, and Greece immediately spring to mind. As the world continues to evolve its views around the gay community (though at a sloth’s pace) and more and more destinations become more queer-friendly, it begs the question, where to next?
Costa Rica is a scenic, semi-tropical oasis tucked near the bottom of Central America known for its superior surfing and organic coffee. But the country is attempting to put itself on the map as a hub for gay travel.
What exactly makes a destination a good place to travel for gay people? Obviously, it’s hard not to resist the beauty and escapism that Costa Rica offers, but is it even welcoming to gay travelers? This was the question I hoped to answer.
In navigating homegrown racism, bigotry, and sexism here in the states, I found that there were always places I knew I’d feel safe. But when traveling to a foreign country, you might not always know where those places exist. You have to go off of how the country treats its own “othered” communities. A.K.A. Googling: “How safe is _____ for _____ people?” “Are there any _____ in _____?” “Are there gay bars in ______?”
When I arrived in Costa Rica, I learned that the country is demilitarized, and has been for over 60 years. No warfare, no extremist, military-grade guns, and no guard dogs sniffing my toiletries at customs all made me sigh with relief. I also found out that Costa Ricans take human rights issues seriously, and welcome refugees from neighboring countries, like Nicaragua, setting them up with stipends and job opportunities upon arrival.
But how does the country stack up on gay rights specifically?
Gay marriage finally became legal in Costa Rica in 2020, making it the first Central American country to do so. A surprising feat, seeing that a poll conducted in 2014 showed that only 28.2% of Costa Ricans were in favor of same-sex marriage. But activists pushed for the same protections allowed for refugees and the poor to be extended to the gay community and successfully got President Luis Guillermo Solís to sign the legalization of gay marriage into law. While a national triumph, there is still work to be done on both the local and global levels to uplift and champion the LGBTQ+ community of Costa Rica.
Enter Julio Cesar, locally and lovingly known as Mr. Gay Costa Rica, titan of gay commerce and community in the country. Julio is President and Founder of Gay Costa Rica, a travel company focused on attracting the LGBTQ+ community to the country. He is also the Founder of the Gay Chamber of Commerce, a local collective of Costa Rican businesses with queer owners or owners focused on supporting the gay community.
Aside from his work on the local level, Julio works within the hospitality industry to train staff on diversity and inclusion, so tourists and foreigners alike can feel comfortable whether they’re flying solo, with a partner, or with their families. It was Julio who invited me to Costa Rica to see his work in action, and after my crash course in Costa Rican history, it was time for some adventure.
Welcome to the Jungle
After an overnight stay in San Jose, where the real-life-sound-machine of frogs and gentle rain lulled me to sleep, I enjoyed breakfast Costa Rican style (a yogurt parfait studded with macadamia nuts and incredibly fresh, juicy tropical fruit.)
Then Julio and I hopped into his slick, black pickup and sped off into the country. I held on tight as we whipped around winding roads, climbing higher into the hills. We nimbly avoided teeny motorbikes zipping past us, and enormous trucks carrying unruly livestock. Julio cranked the A/C, then set the radio to an ‘80s dance station, and laid out his master plan.
By starting at the ground level, making businesses, destinations, and resorts more queer-friendly, the country not only beckons gay travelers, but changes the hearts and minds of the local population.
For instance, Julio envisioned our first stop on the trip, Peace Lodge, envisioned as the Costa Rican answer to a family-friendly gaycation.
Over lunch at the resort, Julio explained that while many popular gay destinations are known for their revelry, he doesn’t want the country to be “just another place to party.” The aforementioned P-town as well as places like Fire Island and Cancun already cater to that audience.
Julio deliberately puts the focus on high-end experiences and hotels, saying, “A lot of people come here and think we’re just wearing loincloths in the jungle.” I thought about asking about non-wealthy queer people, like some of my friends at home, who might not be able to afford such lavish and luxe stays. But I realized the answer would likely involve a complicated mix of class, race, and perception of the American gay community.
And it’s true, the “money” unfortunately does come from single or coupled, financially-stable, likely white gay travelers. And because of their access, they’re able to “crown,” so to speak, the next gay hot spot. Could Costa Rica earn the title? Was it fair that only those with access get to deem it worthy?
After an evening spent with a giant bowl of pasta in an equally giant bed, I woke up early to grab breakfast with Julio. We set out for a cross-country drive to an area known as La Fortuna, a buzzy, touristy part of the country known for its active volcano, Arenal.
Our first stop was Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, an attraction built into a national park with prime views of the volcano. Johnny, the General Manager of the park, greeted us at the gates and patted Julio on the back, commending his hard work in the community and thanking him for training his staff. Julio immediately turned red.
While Johnny waltzed off to grab our tickets and usher us into the park, Julio turned towards me and whispered, “I have the biggest crush on him.”
We set off into the park, where things quickly got very dark and very damp. The fresh rainforest air filled my lungs and after a year in my tiny apartment, in the dank, polluted L.A. air, I finally felt like I could breathe again. Make no mistake, I was also terrified. The park is home to 20 suspended bridges, some reaching heights of almost 80 feet. I pushed myself to wander deeper into the jungle, digging my claws into Julio’s arm for safety. While Johnny pointed out species of exotic birds and frogs I (mistakenly) let my eyes wander towards the jungle floor and locked eyes with a spider the size of my head, camouflaged into tree bark. I let out a yelp that echoed through the jungle and Julio and Johnny belly laughed. “The spiders don’t want you,” Julio said, patting my head lovingly.
Harrowing spider encounter out of the way, it was time for some serious R and R. We headed back down the winding jungle roads to Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa.
After a relaxing day spent spa-hopping I joined Julio for dinner at one of Tabacon’s gorgeous and intimate restaurants, Tucanes, where we feasted on mussels and a trio of crème brulee. Blissfully full, I did a double-take, realizing there was something scurrying nearby at the bar. “Get a photo! Get a photo!” Julio shouted with glee. A wild coati, essentially a Costa Rican raccoon, ran by the dining room floor and into the jungle night, while fellow diners raced to get a shot.
This turned into Julio taking photos of me to send back to my boyfriend at home, which quickly turned into tales of Costa Rican dating culture, and a swip-swapping of our own dating disasters.
I asked what it’s like for out couples in public in Costa Rica, and the similarities to the U.S.’s cultural shift were surprising. Major Costa Rican cities, like San Jose and Liberia, used to be the only places where couples could be out and comfortable. But now, both in the country and more remote areas, especially with the influx of tourists and American ex-pats, the tides were changing. It was another reminder of why the tourism industry, especially in countries that rely on the tourist economy, have the power to shift culture for the better.
A Costa Rican Goodbye
The last leg of my road trip with Mr. Gay Costa Rica took me to a region called Guanacaste, located on Peninsula Papagayo. Andaz Costa Rica is a designer resort built into the region’s hills with sweeping views of the bay.
Andaz means “personal style” in Hindi and the resort takes that sentiment to heart. It doesn’t just apply to the property’s gorgeous environment, but to its staff and laissez-faire flair. Julio told me that guests of nearby, upper-crust resorts often sneak over to Andaz for an evening of indulgence.
At my own evening of indulgence, Julio and my last dinner of the trip, we were joined by the jovial and upbeat Randle Roper, co-founder of VACAYA. The experiential travel company for the LGBTQ+ community (and their allies) is hosting a resort takeover at Andaz in 2022. VACAYA charters entire ships and resorts, offering the chance for the community to connect, celebrate, and be themselves in safe (and stunning) spaces.
Roper chose Andaz specifically for its inviting and liberating feel, citing its “authenticity and individualism.” It’s a place where queer people could just “be.” And that rang true. Among the obvious honeymooners and retired couples in Andaz’s tapas restaurant that evening were gay couples, out, visible, and just having fun.
When I got to Costa Rica, I hoped to answer the “why” of what made it the next “it” site for gay travel. I balked at the idea of its potentially expensive price tag and questioned if it was actually for all gay people. I think those are fair criticisms, but ultimately it isn’t for me to decide.
Gay-friendly? Ultimately, yes. And in some ways, many ways even, Costa Rica is more so than America. No military and free healthcare are two major liberties we can’t even accommodate.
Into the wee hours, our group drank and poked fun at the not particularly good live band in the restaurant until Randle and I called it quits. Julio tried to convince us to stay for shots of chiliguaro, a spicy shooter similar to a Bloody Mary, but I was tapped.
In Costa Rica, there’s a phrase called Pura Vida, which translates literally to “pure life.” It’s an all-encompassing greeting, a farewell, a catch-all term that I heard non-stop during my trip. But it also encompasses the Costa Rican spirit. It’s a culture that respects the land, respects others, and celebrates the joy in living a full, authentic life. It’s the vibrance and passion that I felt from Julio the entire trip.
Full, exhausted, and ever-so-slightly tipsy, I kissed him goodnight, and shouted, “Pura Vida!”