Out of Town
10 Days in Costa Rica
Andrew Collins | October 31, 2006
Verdant, mountainous, and unspeakably beautiful, Costa Rica might just be the gay-friendliest nation in Latin America. In fact, Costa Ricans are resolutely cheerful and helpful toward all visitors. This small tropical country, which lies about 1,300 miles due south of the Florida panhandle, makes for a diverting vacation locale – it's close enough to the United States for a long weekend visit, but has enough to see and do to keep travelers entertained for a couple of weeks. Accommodations that enthusiastically welcome gays and lesbians abound in Costa Rica's most appealing destinations, and there are active gay scenes in the capital city of San Jose and the resort town of Quepos, which hugs the central Pacific shoreline.
As you plan a trip here, factor in how you intend to get around (renting a car, flying, or taking buses), and whether you're seeking rest and relaxation, outdoorsy adventures, gay nightclubs and resorts, or some combination. Or better yet, use the following 10-day itinerary of Costa Rica's must-see areas.
Days 1 and 2: San Jose
Spend your first couple of nights right in San Jose, which is just a 20-minute drive from the airport, where you can rent a car. Costa Rica's capital city has a handful of attractions, plus some excellent restaurants and lively gay nightclubs, such as La Avispa and La Metro. It's also home to several gay-oriented accommodations, including the outstanding Colours Resort, which is in a safe, residential neighborhood on the west side of the city, convenient to the airport and beautiful Sabana Park. This handsomely furnished Spanish Colonial-style property has rooms in many sizes and configurations, from cozy standards to lavish suites complete with full kitchens and private terraces. Guests enjoy easy access to a pool, secluded garden hot tub, and inviting bar and lounge where a full breakfast is served each morning. The professional staff goes out of its way to ensure everybody's comfort and can suggest plenty of things to see and do around town.
Other worthy, gay-friendly options in San Jose include Hotel Kekoldi (which also has an outpost in Quepos) and the Canyon House, and there's a perfectly nice and handy Hampton Inn right by the airport.
Days 3, 4, and 5: Arenal
From San Jose, it can take anywhere from three to six hours to drive to the Arenal region. The most scenic but longest route entails a zigzagging drive through the villages of Grecia, Sarchi (known for its many stores selling hand-crafted furniture), Naranjo, Zarcero, and Ciudad Quesada. The terrain along here is alpine in places, reminiscent of Switzerland, and on many days you'll drive literally through the clouds.
Anchoring the region is Mt. Arenal, a live volcano that most nights puts on an amazing show as its spits fiery rivers of glowing lava down its flanks. Countless hotels, lodges, and inns line the main road that curves beneath the volcano – the most luxurious lodging is Tabacon Grand Spa & Thermal Resort. Here you'll find beautifully decorated rooms, most of which afford views of the volcano. And guests receive unlimited use of the hot springs, which consist of myriad natural soaking pools, a full-service spa offering heavenly treatments, a pool and swim-up bar, and a restaurant overlooking all the action. Even if you don't stay at Tabacon, consider spending a day soaking in the hot springs.
Other good lodging options in the Arenal region include Hotel La Mansion Inn and Arenal Lodge. Be sure to spend one evening in the nearest large town, La Fortuna, which is home to some fun (straight) bars and enjoyable restaurants, including Vagabondo, an excellent pizzeria, and Restaurante Luigi, an atmospheric restaurant that serves delicious filet mignon flambeed tableside.
Arenal makes a great base for all kinds of outdoorsy activities, from guided hikes near the base of the volcano to zip-line canopy tours high above the tree tops (on these you're strapped into a harness that "zips" along a series of lines connecting tree to tree). You can also visit the nearby Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Numerous outfitters in the area offer just about every kind of excursion and activity.
Days 6, 7, and 8: Quepos and Manuel Antonio
Leave Arenal by heading west along the beaten-up road that fringes azure Lake Arenal and eventually passes through the cheery village of Tilaran. Then head south toward the coast to the funky village of Quepos, which is the gateway for nearby Manuel Antonio National Park – the drive from Arenal to Quepos takes about five to six hours.
Along the narrow, highland road that twists for a few miles between Quepos and the national park, you'll find a slew of attractive inns and restaurants, many of them with panoramic ocean views. One short stretch contains several gay-popular accommodations, the most inviting of which is Big Ruby's La Plantacion (the owners also have resorts in Key West, Paris, and southern France). Here at this luxuriant, clothing-optional resort, you'll find stunningly furnished rooms with tile floors and large bathrooms, cable TV with DVD players, and breathtaking grounds laced with gardens and streams. There's also a full three-bedroom house with its own pool and ocean views. The other gay accommodations nearby, all of them highly recommended, are Hotel Villa Roca (which underwent a major renovation in early fall 2006), Hotel Casa Blanca, and Hotel Kekoldi, but virtually every property in town is gay-friendly.
At Manuel Antonio National Park and the adjacent beach, there's great nature-watching - you'll sometimes spy playful white-faced monkeys cavorting in the trees just behind the sand. There's also a section of beach that's particularly popular with gay sun-bunnies – it's a little hard to find this section, which becomes inaccessible for a couple of hours at high tide each day, but any local can give you directions. You'll usually find plenty of gay folks along the main beach, too.
There are a handful of excellent restaurants along the main road, most within walking distance of the gay hotels. These include Barba Roja and Bambujam, which both serve creative and contemporary seafood, and Aqua Azul, a casual, open-air bar and cafe with great burgers and mahimahi sandwiches. After dining, plan to have drinks and watch the sunset at the rooftop Tutu bar, which draws a largely gay crowd. Or for serious dancing, head down the road into the town of Quepos, where the Arco Iris disco pulses into the wee hours and attracts a mixed, although mostly hetero, bunch.
Days 9 and 10: Central Highlands
On your ninth day, drive back up the coast from Quepos and ascend the winding but scenic highway into the Central Highlands region, just west of San Jose. Here the air is crisper and cooler than down along the coast, as the attractive hill towns west of San Jose rise to elevations of 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Attractions include Zoo Ave (a wonderful animal preserve where injured or abandoned animals are rehabilitated), La Guacima Butterfly Farm, Irazu Volcano crater lake, and Poas Volcano.
An excellent place to spend your final night (or even two nights) is Vista del Valle, a luxurious small inn perched awesomely on the edge of spectacular Rio Grande Canyon. Mainstream but gay-friendly, Vista del Valle has economy-minded rooms in the main house as well as a series of fancier, self-contained cottages set along a network of meandering pathways - most have private decks overlooking the canyon. In the evening, the inn serves a commendable fixed-price dinner in its open-air dining room, which is cantilevered over the edge of the canyon.
A more economical but still thoroughly appealing alternative is Pura Vida Bed and Breakfast, just north of the San Jose suburb of Alajuela, a 10-minute drive from the airport. This relaxing former coffee-farmhouse has seven elegantly furnished rooms and sits amid fragrant gardens; several larger units have kitchens, fireplaces, and patios. The owners are tremendously helpful and offer excellent advice on touring nearby attractions.
Both of these are such lovely properties that you may feel inspired to postpone your return flight home and hang around for a few more days, soaking up the fresh air and endearing personality of this charmed country.
Andrew Collins is the author of 10 travel guides, including Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA.
Vancouver, British Columbia