Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio is a queer paradise. Located on the pacific coast in the province of Puntarenas, which is internationally renowned for its national park, diverse flora and fauna, stunning beaches, and the world’s top-rated hotel, it’s a prime queer tourist destination. It’s a locale where LGBTQ tourists find freedom, acceptance, and joy — privileges that aren’t always shared by Costa Rica’s queer locals.
Throughout the Central American country, a combination of mass tourism and lifestyle migration has led to an explosion of gentrification that has displaced locals, created social-environmental change, and widened inequality, disproportionately impacting Costa Rica’s most marginalized communities, like Black, Indigenous, and queer people. In fact, the country of more than 5 million people is a top destination for wealthy migrants from the Global North searching for a better quality of life and a lower cost of living, and it’s the second-largest tourism market in the world. According to data from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, the country received 845,323 international tourists between January and April of 2022. Of those tourists, 461,511 were from the United States and 183,689 were from European countries.
“The gentrification process occurs when people from a different sociocultural level settle down in a space and substitute its original people. It’s happening in almost all of the country’s beaches,” Patricia Fumero, a Costa Rican historian and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, tells Refinery29 Somos.
Like across the Central American country, this is seen in Manuel Antonio, a haven for queer tourists that is often inaccessible to queer Costa Ricans. Since the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when the national government began exploring tourism as a new way to generate capital, leaders in Manuel Antonio began envisioning the hard-to-get-to village as a safe space for gay tourists and a commercial international queer destination.
“The LGBTIQ+ tourism that Manuel Antonio, in particular, receives, which is protected and desired, lives a very different experience than the local LGBTIQ+ population.”
Larissa Arroyo, Costa Rican activist and human rights lawyer
According to José Chaves, the operations manager of Gaytours and the director of its magazine Revista Playita, the first constructions of houses and small hotels exclusively for queer people started in Manuel Antonio during the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Its fame began with stories published in LGBTIQ+ paper magazines around the world,” Chaves tells Somos. “But its explosion was when the Internet became popular. By the end of the ‘90s, Manuel Antonio was an exclusive gay destination.”
It’s important to note that in the ‘90s, Costa Rica did not have laws that protected LGBTQ people, and homophobia and transphobia in the largely Catholic country was widespread. Still, with access into Manuel Antonio difficult due to the lack of roads at the time, copious rocks, and high tides that sometimes prevented people from leaving or entering, the beach town, including its Playa Playita, was a secretive and private space where queer foreigners were safe from the violence and discrimination queer locals experienced outside its borders.
“At the beginning, there were only foreigners [in Manuel Antonio]: Canadians, Germans, and French people that came to Manuel Antonio and didn’t care that everyone knew they were gay,” Chaves says, adding that Playa Playita used to be a nudist beach before the rapid commercial growth of the town.
Today, Manuel Antonio is one of the top tourist destinations for queer people worldwide, with LGBTQ hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars, clubs, tours, spas, and more. However, while Travel Gay calls it a “hotspot of LGBT+ tourism,” many queer Costa Ricans don’t even know that it exists.
“Manuel Antonio is a normal touristic area in Costa Rica, but I didn’t even know it was queer,” Melany Prado, a 20-year-old Costa Rican trans woman living in San José, the country’s capital, tells Somos.
Prado, who was raised in the rural town of Coopevega de Cutris in San Carlos, had long searched for a place in her country where she felt safe being herself. While Costa Rica is the most progressive country in Central America in terms of LGBTQ rights — discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited, same-sex marriage is legal, trans people are permitted to change their gender on some official identity documents, and the first adoption was granted to a queer couple in June — the country remains religious, and queer people encounter violence, or the threat of violence, regularly due to an anti-LGBTQ culture.
“The biggest fear any trans woman has is going out and not coming back due to transphobia, because you can get raped and killed,” says Prado, who is currently undergoing hormonal treatment through the Costa Rican Social Security System, the Costa Rican public health institution. “I receive too much sexual harassment. … It’s traumatizing.”
In a study published in the journal Women & Criminal Justice that explores the structural violence, policing, and incarceration trans women encounter in Costa Rica, researchers determine that rights protecting LGBTQ communities in Costa Rica are not so much a result of popular sentiment as it is because of the country’s commitment to international human rights and economic growth. As a result, a culture of homophobia and transphobia continues to harm queer locals even as it profits from being a sanctuary for international LGBTQ communities.
“Costa Rica has that reputation where LGBTIQ+ rights are respected. From that comes the idea of having a more protected tourism. If someone who’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, trans, or nonbinary comes here, Costa Rica is the best destination because of political, social, and legal security,” Larissa Arroyo, a Costa Rican activist and human rights lawyer, tells Somos. “However, the LGBTIQ+ tourism that Manuel Antonio, in particular, receives, which is protected and desired, lives a very different experience than the local LGBTIQ+ population. There’s a positive response to foreigners who might come from the United States or Europe: white people with money.”
“Those of us who are from Manuel Antonio, we don’t consider it as a queer destination. It’s just another type of tourism, another target to get money.”
Angelina Sunshine, who was born and raised in Manuel Antonio, has experienced this distinction firsthand. While working in the tourism industry in Manuel Antonio as she attends college, the 18-year-old has witnessed how differently she, a pansexual Costa Rican, and her colleagues are treated compared to the LGBTQ tourists they serve. At a job where the staff is tasked to make queer visitors feel safe, some have been discriminated against for appearing too butch. Meanwhile, Sunshine says she has had managers teach her how to distinguish between Costa Ricans and tourists and instruct her to favor the latter.
“Those of us who are from Manuel Antonio, we don’t consider it as a queer destination. It’s just another type of tourism, another target to get money,” Sunshine tells Somos. “We’ve been obligated to accept any type of person because we depend on them. And even if it has been a very nice experience to see people from other countries express themselves and feel comfortable in Manuel Antonio, it’s not my reality.”
For Sunshine, even in the so-called queer haven of Manuel Antonio she hasn’t always been accepted. While coming out as pansexual, she faced rejection from her predominantly Catholic community and began to believe there was something wrong with her. Relatives of her father, who passed away when she was two years old, cut communication with her. Her mother’s family has been a bit more open, but they still pressure her to date cis men and subscribe to gender roles.
The difficulties she has faced has led her to believe that Manuel Antonio accepts queer tourists but not queer locals — regardless of how it markets itself.
“I wish those of us who lived here in Manuel Antonio would be able to say: we’re from Manuel Antonio, we’re Costa Rican, we’re queer, we’re proud, and not feel ashamed of the comments we’ll receive,” she says.
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