Downtown San Jose may not be the most visually appealing city in Central America compared to, say, colonial Antigua in Guatemala, but it is an engaging urban center that bustles with high energy, commerce and moderate tourism. The central business district is dense with daytime pedestrians, shopkeepers, students, office workers, kids on skateboards, families and visitors with cameras.
We made an easy walking tour of the major sites—national theatre, supreme court, legislature, numerous leafy parks with statues of patriotic leaders and the famous 1875 school house whose exterior is made of cast metal. Ubiquitous Catholic churches abound including the towering Metropolitan Cathedral in the central plaza.(photo above)
Perhaps the most outstanding site is the neat and well-organized National Museum (photo left) with its chronological display of Costa Rican history from primitive dwellers through the transformation of the Spanish conquest through modern civil war in the 1940s to relative democratic stability in recent years and the blossoming of ecotourism.
Crowding the narrow streets are literally hundreds of big and small buses, old and new, gritty and shiny, that create and crawl through the nearly gridlock traffic. I have never seen so many buses on city streets anywhere. There are 19 bus stations in this one city, mostly because the majority local people cannot afford (imported and taxed) cars. Red taxis serve to further congest the scene. In front of the majestic Grand Hotel, across from the national theatre, the drivers will happily charge twice the meter rate.
Gay Life in San Jose
But look more carefully and a visitor can find something distinct about this city: Central America’s most thriving LGBT community. Of all the seven countries in this area Costa Rica offers the most amount of tolerance and freedom for gay men and women to live with the least interference from authorities, to open a business, to drink and dance away the night and watch a strip show and to walk about knowing there are legal protections against discrimination and assault.
“Lawsuits seeking to legalize same-sex marriage went before the Supreme Court. In August 2018, the Costa Rican Supreme Court ruled in favor of lifting the same-sex marriage ban, giving the country’s legislators 18 months to legalize same-sex marriage.” (Wikipedia)
Partly because homosexuality was decriminalized way back in 1970’s which somewhat slowed the force of macho homophobia and its snowballing effects as homosexuality came more into social awareness. In Guatemala and Honduras, for example, where homosexuality is also legal, there has been an increase of hostility against LGBT people as they have become more active in demanding rights and equality and protective laws. Aggression has matched visibility.
As well, in CR in recent years there have been some civil cases brought against police for illegal raids and arrests that have been decided against the police by the country’s supreme court. Such influential precedents send out a message that authorities do not have unlimited power with impunity against private citizens.
But it’s not clear sailing as there have been other rulings that limited gay privileges such as civil unions. Gay rights are a mixed bag. See this link to an overview of LGBT rights in Costa Rica.
Add to this the awareness that the pink dollar can make a difference in an essentially modest economy in need of tourist spending. Many LGBT owned businesses have opened (and closed) in the past few years without serious interference. The most popular type of venture is the hotel and bar business, both in San Jose city and the Pacific-view towns of Manuel Antonia and Puerto Quepos, and more recently in La Fortuna near the Arenal volcano.
Tico Times newspaper of San Jose has observed: “Costa Rica has become Central America’s hub for gay and lesbian travel starting around 2000, when the country became more open to Gay and Lesbian lifestyles. One of the main reasons why this has happened is that gays and lesbians tend to be great travelers, well behaved guests, don’t like to get out of hand and most important, have money and love to spend it!… also, government agencies here very rarely hassle a traveler about his/her orientation.”
In his incisive 2001 essay, Costa Rican expat psychologist Richard Stern wrote: “Lawyer Marco Castillo has been involved in gay activism for more than 20 years. He notes that there is now ‘generally much greater tolerance and respect for gays and lesbians than there was 20 years ago. You can see this in the more balanced media coverage, as well as in the fact that politicians are now also talking openly about it. 25 years ago the only news coverage you would find was completely denigrating and sensationalistic.’”
There is a thriving social scene in the city with over 30 LGBT venues and organizations to give real substance to the community. As published in a recent issue of the local Gente10 LGBT magazine, the listings includes nine bar/discos, four hotels, two saunas, and assorted specialty businesses such as massage parlors, hair styling salons and a florist.
We stayed at the gay owned Casa69 B&B (photo left) and chatted with owner (at the time of my visit) Kurt Menn about the scene. (There is a new owner.)
Originally from Germany via the USA, Karl is a seasoned gay man and businessman (PhD in economics) who has been in Costa Rica for the past seven years owning and running Casa69, which is also ‘straight-friendly’.
The experience of these two enterprises—being gay and a Costa Rican businessman—has weathered him into a realist about Costa Rican government (”an oligarchy of rich families”), bureaucratic red tape (“ridiculous forms and excessive fees for renewing a license”), common life (“workers here average only US$5500 a year; the vast majority are poor”) and gay life (“despite legalization homophobia runs high, especially outside the capital”).
Kurt (photo right) is not involved in any gay rights activity since his hotel consumes most of his time. But he does go to nearby Puchos bar twice a week for to socialize with friends, drink a beer and watch the drag performers and go-go dancers. Despite the number of gay bars and discos in San Jose he has no illusions about the city or country being a ‘gay paradise’.
“You can change the law, which was a good thing, from making homosexuality a crime to a legal status but that does not change people’s attitudes,” he declared, sitting in the stylish living room of Casa69. The place was once a private home and has been added on to allow for 17 rooms.
“But I think the passage of the new law had a negative effect on gay activity. That is, once the change happened the activists got what they wanted and they had nothing to fight for. Not that they closed up shop but the intensity dropped. The effect of the law depends on where a person lives. In San Jose gay people gay breathe better (in this pollution!) but in the rural areas the homophobia is still just as high.”
Since the development of a gay scene, many LGBT people come from neighboring countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala or Honduras where homophobia and oppression are high. In all of Managua, Nicaragua there are only 2 gay bars.
Kurt said the only recent changes are an increase in petty crime (he’s been robbed twice) and discrimination against gays (not so much by authorities but personally) because they’ve become more visible. He described how one of his employees, because he was not macho looking or acting, was discovered by his family to be gay and they harassed him so much that he left.
Another friend of Kurt’s, a lesbian, was fired from her job because of her orientation. Now she wants to take her case to court but she can’t find a lawyer to represent her.
“You can get cheap health care here and San Jose is a modern city but it’s not paradise,” he noted.
Manuel Antonio and Puerto Quepos
Said one visitor, “Manuel Antonio is like going home. Besides parts of San Jose, Manuel Antonio is the most gay-friendly place in Costa Rica. And of course a visit wouldn’t be complete without a stroll to the ‘gay’ section of beach , called La Playita (Little Beach), to check out the guys. You used to be able to get naked there but now you risk getting a ticket because the new hotel by the beach has complained about the nudity. Too bad.”
Passport magazine recently said, “By some counts, Manuel Antonio, the nation’s primary gay beach destination, has become a bit less gay. There is now only one gay bar, Tutu Bar, and two gay hotels: Villa Roca and Hotel D’Galah.”
Away from San Jose and Manuel Antonio, another visitor recently said “Abercam Hotel in La Fortuna, adjacent to the Arenal volcano in the north of the country, is an exclusively gay male, luxury villa hotel that is a “Must Experience” if you’re going to visit the Arenal Volcano or Monteverde Cloud Forest. There’s a swimsuit optional pool and two fabulous hosts: Tim & Wayne.” However, in these volatile economic times it’s hared to keep track of the openings and closings. This property closed suddenly on the last weekend of February 2010, giving some registered guests no notice.
Tico Osos (from their website): “Tico Osos is a community of Costa Rican bears. The group has been organized since late 1998. Its main objective is to strengthen friendship and solidarity among its members. “It is a non-profit organization. Over time the group was growing and gaining followers to become what it is today. Also, becoming the most visited bear site in Central America and the Caribbean.
“Tico Osos have become a strong community able to organize mass events of global nature such as the “Sun Bears” at the beaches of Manuel Antonio. Which brings in visitors from as far away and diverse as Mexico, United States, Canada, Spain, Argentina, Japan, Norway, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and of course, our brother countries of Central America.”
Mujer y Mujer (from their website): Women and Women is an organization created by women for women. On this site you will find information about local get togethers, scheduled events, and information on the lesbian scene here in Costa Rica.
Gente 10 magazine for gay men is published in San Jose (and allegedly a version for Manuel Antonio and Quepos area and one for lesbians–?).
Now in its 15th year the glossy magazine spills over with plenty of carnal views and party pics as well as posting monthly events, venue locations and a useful scene map.
Gay Pride (Orgullo Gay)
Each year, for the past 7 years, there has been a gay pride parade and festival in the central district but it draws a very modest crowd.
IlLISA is a medium-size language school located in a suburb of San José, Costa Rica. “Our mission is to give you the language skills you need to help you develop yourself professionally or to allow you to better enjoy your travels. To reach these goals, we offer a variety of well-developed yet flexible programs.”
Unlike many businesses in the Americas, ILISA encourages gay & lesbian travelers to join us. You can count on a respectful and non-discriminating attitude of any of our staff members and teachers. And, should you like to make use of our homestay program, we assure you of a gay-friendly host ‘family’
ILGA The International Gay and Lesbian Association of Costa Rica has regular social gatherings once or twice each month. Their gatherings are mostly in English. If you are interested in finding out more about their group please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (see local website)
Day of Pink is an annual against bullying, discrimination and homophobia, usual held in the springtime.
Gay Radio CR broadcasts programs on one of the local stations.
Christian church for LGBT people: “We believe that God created us gay, lesbian, gay men, bisexual or heterosexual. Scientific, psychological and theological evidence show us what is normal for homosexuality, whether male or female. Contact us: Christ Community for All APDO. email@example.com
In Manuel Antonio and Quepos there are (reportedly) Liquid Lounge bar/disco and Hypnotic Club, but check the latest listings, which means call someone who actually lives there! And there is a women’s surf school in the area Surf Diva Costa Rica Surf Adventure (I presume it’s mostly straight.)
Gay Rights and HIV
Less flashy and boisterous are the diligent LGBT health and human rights organizations in the country all headquartered in San Jose.
The movement for decent human conditions and rights has been a struggle for many decades in this country where political strife essentially ignored general human welfare. But in 1989 things changed with the appointment of a new Constitutional Court (Sala IV).
Professor Bruce M. Wilson researched this change in Costa Rica and wrote: “In 1989, a newly created Constitutional Court (Sala IV) immediately became a highly active court, ending over 160 years of Costa Rican judicial inactivity. The magistrates’ actions breathed new life into the Constitution, ended judicial deference to elected officials, and consequently transformed Costa Rican political life. Simultaneously, the Sala IV magistrates assumed the role of guardians of constitutional rights, giving rise to what is frequently described as a rights revolution. (Read the full analysis here.)
Building on this, in 1992, the first LGBT rights association, Triángulo Rosa, was founded. A few years later it was joined by another association called Movimiento Diversidad. Both associations seek to advance LGBT rights, promote greater education about LGBT issues and promote HIV/AIDS education.
Pink Triangle was the first gay partnership legally registered in Costa Rica and was one of the few Latin American organizations (gay or straight) to publicly defend the rights of any person discriminated against because of sexual orientation.
From their website (translated): “our goal is to raise community awareness on issues such as prevention of HIV/AIDS, alternative relationships, affirmation of LGBT lifestyles, knowledge about STDs, religion and homosexuality, human rights, family relationships, among others.
“Pink Triangle supports the struggle by people infected by HIV-AIDS with as much communal support as they need since the larger society we live in marginalizes them and pushes them aside.
“The gay community of Costa Rica has had been the victim of many human rights violations during the past few decades. For this reason, Triangulo Rosa was also established to advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians, transvestites, bisexuals, and transsexuals.
“The fundamental purpose of Triangulo Rosa is to struggle against any form of discrimination against those persons who are attracted to members of the same sex. We are also interested in helping to coordinate a Central American movement for the rights of sexual minorities.”
Diversity Movement (Movimiento Diversidad) is a movement that develops actions, events, campaigns, research and advocacy for equality to promote and improve quality of life of social groups that face discrimination particularly due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. We work to implement Human Rights with the aim of contributing to the full exercise of citizenship for discriminated groups.
We support and promote the organization and conduct of academic events and/or social national and international meetings focused on the realization of social progress of interest to the target groups in our movement.
The Diversity Movement generates policy actions to combat the causes and effects of social exclusion. We develop events that show how discrimination affects liberal policies and how violations of human rights against LGBT people interrelate with other forms of social discrimination. Our goal is to promote alternative societal standards.”
In 2006 Diversity petitioned the government to ensure equal rights for Costa Rican homosexuals by granting each partner in stable same-sex couples the right to social security and the right to inherit, among others. Ana Elena Chacón, a deputy for the Social Christian Unity Party, one of the congresswomen who presented the draft law in the legislature, said that “Costa Rican law says that individual and collective rights shall be respected, but that has not happened in reality. This initiative will try to fill in some of the gaps left by our laws.”
CIPAC is a NGO national youth center that provides free public workshops, sexual education, resources, books, condoms to organizations including schools, and has a free 24-hour help-line. It also organizes festivals.
“We are dedicated to ensure the rights of all human beings; which is echoed in our cry, ‘Human Rights Must be for Everyone.’ On our site, we will publish the opinions of those advocating, ‘Yes’ to an inclusive society and ‘Yes’ to the Civil Union Act of same-sex couples.”
Aqua Buena Human Rights Association (from their website) “Founded in 1997, the Association was created and has evolved in response to the crisis surrounding the AIDS epidemic in Central America, with a focus on access to medical treatment for People who Live with AIDS. We work to support the formation of strong advocacy groups run for and by People Living with HIV/AIDS throughout the Central American region.
“Our focus is on the need to confront human rights violations against people with AIDS and on the equally urgent need for PWA’s to receive potentially life saving medications in the region. We have visited various countries and published several articles regarding this theme.
“We also work for the betterment of the gay, lesbian, transgendered community in Costa Rica and throughout Central America and we maintain close ties with LGBT groups throughout the region…. more.”
Heterosexuals For Equal Rights (from their website): “Our purpose is intended to express our support for the bill that seeks to legalize civil marriage for same-sex couples in Costa Rica from our perspective of heterosexual persons who without being directly affected by the approval or rejection of the project- we sympathize with the gay community in Costa Rica and their just cause.
“It is the responsibility of everyone to ensure the welfare of minorities and it is our belief that every human being should, and must have EQUAL rights if Costa Rica is to have a more equitable society and move into the 21st century. Our message is that Gays must be given the same respect and rights that many merely take for granted.”
Arco Iris (Rainbow Community) (from their website): “We are an inclusive ecumenical community that respects all faiths without any practice in particular. We are a group of sisters and brothers united in our spirituality, our love and the certainty that our Supreme Being loves us regardless of our sexual orientation.
“We welcome gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans, open-minded heterosexual, and any religion who wish to share their spirituality and their experiences of life based on love and solidarity in the community.”
Grupo Fenix (from their website): “Phoenix Group is a sister group (non-profit) of the Community Rainbow, something like a younger brother, who some time ago initiated a friendly relationship of mutual support. This group meets in the same facility and shares our principles and wish LGTBTI service to the community of Costa Rica.
“It is a support group for the BGLT community that seeks to provide the community an alternative space in which we may receive information about the situations we face every day and topics of interest, directly focused on our personal development and socialization in an environment healthy and friendly.”
Changing Leadership Attitudes
In a published commentary, one analyst observed, “No openly LGBT Costa Rican has run for or held elected public office. Until recently, most Costa Rica political parties and politicians tended to ignore LGBT rights issues. However, this has slowly begun to change. Presidential candidates are now interviewed by the gay press offering they will uphold a position of tolerance and respect toward the gay community.
In 1997, the National Health Care system started providing anti-retroviral medications to people with HIV and AIDS. (For expats health insurance is very inexpensive in Costa Rica.)
On March 27, 2008 the (now former, as of 2010) president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sanchez, signed an executive order designating May 17 as the National Day Against Homophobia, committing Costa Rica to join others around the world in working to eradicate bias against gays and lesbians.
“In 2009, the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) publicly supported the LGBT movement.
This is the first national party to do so in the history of Costa Rica. Presidential aspirant Epsy Campbell, for the Partido Accion Ciudadana, actively supported the GLBT community and is committed to stopping discrimination around the country.” Unfortunatley she did not win.
Prostitution is Legal
Another (shady) reason for Costa Rica’s popularity among visitors is its reputation as a sex-tourism destination.
Prostitution (any interpersonal sex) is legal here for women (and men) over 18. Professionals are supposed to carry a health card showing recent medical checks. But some women don’t bother with the cards (“some sexually transmitted diseases take days or weeks before detection, so recently-dated health cards don’t assure clean health”, warns the Lonely Planet guidebook). And to be sure, AIDS is a growing problem in Costa Rica.
On Discovery World this notice appears: “Sadly, an estimated 2000 under-age teens work as prostitutes in San José, hired both by foreign tourists and Costa Ricans. This is definitely illegal. Some online sites promoting Costa Rica as a sex destination partly because of legal prostitution and partly for pedophiles, which is strongly forbidden by Government officials who do not consider any sex for money to be a tourist attraction. Convictions lead straight to jail.
“Many of the children working as prostitutes have drug problems and no family to turn to. One of the few resources available to them is the Fundación Oratorio Don Bosco de Sor María Romero, a shelter for homeless street kids in San José.”
Heterosexual sex tourism is vigorously discouraged but gay sex tourism remains in limbo; it’s technically legal between consenting (not with underage boys) but authorities don’t want to talk about it. It’s not really an ‘industry’ since it’s not organized or linked to mafia but rather operates on the individual level in or near gay venues at night—and anywhere during the day.
More about LGBT Costa Rica:
Club ranch macho, san ramon, alajuela (Alajuela is a suburb of San Jose)
Passport magazine story on Costa Rica
Latin American Homosexuality book
LGBT Retirement in Cost Rica
Anti-gay Protest against Gay Marriage
Dr. Richard Stern in San Jose
By Richard Ammon
Updated December 2016
Gay Costa Rica News and Reports