In the hierarchy of tropical fun-in-the-sun vacation destinations, South Central America isn’t typically on top. But increasingly, travelers looking for a unique getaway are turning to Costa Rica, just three hours south of Miami. Spanish for “rich coast,” the country boasts amazing biodiversity, dizzying nightlife and some of the most breathtaking white sand beaches in the region.
Perhaps most importantly, this country of 4.8 million stands out for its growing LGBT travel amenities and culture that has slowly warmed to gays and lesbians—unique in a region rich in conservative, Catholic ideology.
“If you have done ‘Latin Light’ with Mexico, then Costa Rica is the ideal step,” said Colin Brownlee, who has spent a decade welcoming travelers as co-founder of Hotel Banana Azul, an LGBT-friendly spot on the Caribbean side of Puerto Viejo.
More recently, tourism has become big business, contributing $2.4 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2014 alone, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
A tropical paradise
Take a look in any travel brochure and it won’t be hard to understand Costa Rica’s tourist appeal.
Snorkel, jet ski or simply sunbathe at Playa Negra, Playa Avellanas or any of the other more than 300 beaches bordering the sparkling blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Further inland, zipline or enjoy one of many hiking tours through places like the Tenorio Volcano or Corcovado national parks. The former features misty grottos and picturesque waterfalls perfect for sitting and reflecting, while Corcovado is a sprawling nature reserve that exotic birds, monkeys and even the occasional big cat call home.
Nature is huge in modern-day Costa Rica, which shelters 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of the country is comprised of conservation and natural protected territory. The country has more than 20 natural parks, and dozens of wildlife reserves and protected areas. Places like the Tortuguero National Park are legendary for their seasonal sea turtle nesting, as well as for being home to crocodiles, manatees and many other protected species.
Before you visit, however, be warned: Costa Rica is an extremely progressive country when it comes to the environment, and prohibits hunting for sport.
It’s clear that Costa Rica is a lovely tropical gem, with plentiful opportunity for relaxation and rainforest adventure. But does that tropical canopy mask a tense relationship with the LGBT community? The answer is largely no.
Longstanding laws protecting same-gender sex, anti-discrimination laws and recognition of some same-sex couples place Costa Rica head and shoulders above its Central American neighbors in terms of LGBT rights. But there is still a long way to go: A recent bill to legalize same-sex marriage has stalled after religious lawmakers tacked on hundreds of amendments, The Tico Times, an English-language daily online newspaper, reported in April.
Central America remains a region steeped in the Latin attitude of “machismo” – a hypermasculine cultural relic that strictly governs gender behaviors. Brownlee said it’s toned down in Costa Rica, but the country has seen its fair share of high-profile homophobia, including a widely publicized 1990 incident where government officials barred suspected lesbians from entering the country.
Two decades later, attitudes have warmed considerably, with openly gay and lesbian destinations scattered across the country and even a June Pride celebration.
“When people ask me about what Costa Ricans think about LGBT community, I always tell them that ‘Costa Ricans find gays & lesbians mildly amusing!’” said Brownlee, who also operates a handful of gay-friendly touring companies.
Travelers can bed down at the gay-owned Hotel Villa Roca, where boys frolic in an infinity pool as the sun sets over the Manuel Antonio National Park in the distance.
At San Jose’s Colours Oasis Resort, LGBT people can enjoy deluxe accommodations situated closely to some of the country’s most popular nightclubs, bars and gay bathhouses. More active travelers can schedule a tour with Gecko Trail, an LGBT-friendly touring company that sells multi-city treks.
All in all, Costa Rica has a little ways to go before it’s the perfect place for the LGBT expat. But for now, when it comes to week-long, rainbow-soaked getaways, it’s a sure bet.