Costa Rica feels like paradise because of its lush jungles, spectacular beaches, abundant wildlife, and varied landscape – all for less than you’d pay for a trip anywhere in Europe. But for gay and lesbian travelers in particular, Costa Rica has gained a well-earned reputation as a comfortable place to visit. True, its discos won’t rival those of New York or London, and its gay scene isn’t as big as the one in Amsterdam or Sydney.
But where else can you climb a volcano with your partner during the day, then kick the dust off your boots and find a place to watch a drag queen lip-synch at night?
You could spend years here and not see everything, but there’s a great itinerary that’s popular with first-time visitors. It’ll give you a taste of several different parts of the country – a bit of urban life, a bit of jungle, and a spell on the beach. You’ll have opportunities to flex your muscles if you’re the athletic type, or time to take it easy if you’re not – or if you’re traveling with kids. Tour operators offer all-gay tours, but it’s easy enough to set one up on your own, and you’ll meet plenty of gay people along the way. Most importantly, nobody will bother you in Costa Rica; the local motto is “pura vida,” which means “pure life” but loosely translates as “life is good, so don’t sweat it.”
When you come, fly into San Jose, the temperate capital. It’s got some charming architecture downtown, a lively gay scene by night, and a couple of worthwhile museums by day. Next, rent a car and drive a couple hours to Lake Arenal, high in the rainforests of central Costa Rica, with easy wildlife-viewing opportunities. It’s cooler here, but there are natural hot springs to warm you up at night. Next, drive four or five hours to the Pacific Coast to Manuel Antonio, where it’s hot and sunny during the dry season. Here there are sandy beaches, easy hikes through the national parks, and a hundred different tours that bring you face to face with monkey, sloths, butterflies, frogs and any number of insects you never wanted to meet. There’s a bit of gay life here, and a gay beach, too, so you’ll have plenty to do when the animals are asleep. When you’re done on the coast, you can drive or fly back to San Jose and head home.
But be sure, San Jose is worth a day or two of your time: Earthquakes knocked down most of Costa Rica’s oldest building, but the National Theater is a surviving gem, just off the busy pedestrian mall downtown. The Gold Museum and Jade Museum are worth a visit, too, if the weather isn’t cooperating. Sign up for an organized day tour to check out a nearby coffee plantation, visit a colonial town (Sarchi is notable for its artists’ markets), or drive right up to the crater of Poas Volcano (no need to hike this one). At night, inspect the city’s diverse gay nightlife, including clubs like Pucho’s, La Avispa, top and Al Despiste. Then kiss the capital good-bye and head for Lake Arenal!
Looming over the eastern end of Lake Arenal is Arenal Volcano, an active volcano in a perfect cone formation that shoots off smoke and glowing lava nearly all the time – although some nights it’s hard to see through the fog. At the foot of the volcano are the hot springs at Tabacon. Some people prefer to stay right there, while others prefer to stay further along the awful lakeside road at a quieter but more private guesthouse near the botanical gardens. (Most everyone avoids the nearby town of La Fortuna, which has little to recommend it.) You’ll be hard-pressed to find better birdwatching anywhere, and Costa Rica’s tropical species are dazzling. And simply look in the trees around you to spot howler monkeys, or watch for anteaters and raccoon-like coat is walking across the road. Welcome back to nature.
Insider’s Tip for Arenal: Visiting the hot springs at Tabacon is a must, but you don’t have to break the bank. The main resort offers dozens of manicured thermal pools, clean locker rooms, a restaurant, swim-up bar, water slide, massage sessions…but it can be noisy and expensive, running about $30 just to get in. Across the parking lot, there’s a second entrance, where you gain entry to a much smaller group of thermal pools – same water, same scenery, same views of the nearby volcano – without the frills or the crowds, for less than $10.
Manuel Antonio is a string of hotels and restaurants lining the hill between the spectacular national park of the same name and the unremarkable port town of Quepos. The main attraction here is the park, which offers endless possibilities for hiking and sunbathing on the Pacific. Monkeys, sloths, coatis and giant iguanas abound; take a boat tour through the mangroves to see herons and turtles, or take a powerboat into the ocean to spot whales and dolphins. Ride up the coast to Jaco to surf. There’s a bit of gay life in evidence – a few hotels, a couple of bars, even a gay beach. It’s not South Beach, but South Beach doesn’t have capuchin monkeys chirping at you while you soak up rays.
And yes, there’s a gay (and clothing-optional) beach at Manuel Antonio, but you need to watch the tides carefully. Facing the water on the main beach at Playa Espadilla, turn right and walk about 20 minutes until you see a rock formation jutting into the water. The gay beach, La Playita, is on the other side, offering shady palm trees and a cooling waterfall. At low tide, it’s an easy walk between the boulders; at high tide, it’s dangerous and near impossible. Ask the locals, who pay attention to daily tides, when it’s safe to go, and when you’ll need to come back. Men and women welcome.