pura vida

This gay playground in the jungles of Costa Rica is an untouched gem

two men in the water at the beach
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

After months of what seemed like endless rain at home, my husband Michael and I decided it was time to trade the gray skies for tropical vibes. We didn’t make any fancy plans, just a craving for sun-soaked days and a break from the cold. Little did we know, this impromptu escape would turn into a laid-back adventure, blending relaxation with some unexpected discoveries. Here’s a glimpse into our journey for a little Vitamin D along one of the most surprising coastlines in the world.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica’s gay playground

Man on a bridge in a jungle
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

Nestled along the Pacific side of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is a destination that’s synonymous with paradise. With its lush rainforests, pristine beaches, and abundant wildlife, it’s no wonder why it’s often considered one of the country’s most alluring destinations. The anticipation had been building for weeks, and as I stepped off the shuttle onto thick jungle soil, I knew my first visit to Manuel Antonio would be nothing short of an adventure.

With the scent of tropical flora in the air and the warmth of the sun on my skin, I couldn’t help but wonder about all that I’d heard of the coastal rainforests. It’s certainly a popular destination that many strive to explore, but will it match up to its reputation? After all, along the route, I couldn’t help but notice the miles and miles of palm oil plantations. Fields of identical palm trees stood where some of the world’s most biodiverse jungles used to preside.

I realized that visiting Manuel Antonio would not only be a great vacation but also a lesson in environmentalism. To visit Costa Rica is to enter into a world of ecological restoration. Since many corporations have taken advantage of the lush coast over the last century, this inevitably led to the depletion of many Pacific jungles. Despite this history, Manuel Antonio stands as an untouched gem amongst the ruins. It’s a reminder of what the Pacific Coast used to look like, and the region acts as inspiration for conservation efforts near and far. The scarlet macaw once occupied 85% of the country. Now, they have almost completely vanished and would be extinct from Costa Rica if not for the conservationists actively rebuilding their habitat.

Man standing on a pathway in a jungle.
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

Accommodation at Gaia Hotel & Nature Reserve

Grabbing our bags, we checked into Hotel Gaia, an adults-only, luxury LGBTQ+ friendly resort. As we approached the lobby, we spotted a couple of scarlet macaws flying overhead. If anything, this felt like an optimistic “hello” from the jungle, reminding us that the coastline is indeed returning to its green roots.

Red Macaw
Image courtesy of Gaia Hotel and Nature Reserve

From our quick tour of the grounds, we learned that Hotel Gaia is well known for its scarlet macaw rehabilitation program.

The species was reintroduced back to the country’s central Pacific Coast over the last few decades. The macaws in rehabilitation can be visited within the park through Hotel Gaia’s daily nature tours.

Exploring Damas Island & Manuel Antonio National Park

Man on a kayak
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

Manuel Antonio acts as a departure point for a plethora of adventurous tours, from zip-lining through the rainforest canopy, to waterfall hikes and thrilling ATV tours, there are nearly endless options to explore outdoors. But, as much as I love a good zip line, I was keen on trying something I’d never experienced before, and the mangroves of Damas Island were calling my name. By kayak, we cruised down the web of rivers and canals where curious capuchins greeted us from the treetops and exotic birds took flight. I recommend the tour as an absolute “can’t miss” for anyone looking to widen their Costa Rican sense of adventure; it’s an incredibly different experience from what you may see in the National Park.

Man in a jungle holding a camera.
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

While Damas Island was certainly a treat, it’s incomparable to Manuel Antonio National Park. The ecological wonder encompasses a rainforest, pristine beaches, and a diverse range of wildlife. Armed with binoculars and cameras, we embarked on a guided hike through the park’s meandering trails. Within moments, I was face to face with the captivating Costa Rican wildlife: elusive sloths camouflaged in the canopy, howler monkeys providing a melodic soundtrack, and colorful toucans perched above.

Soaking up the sun at Manuel Antonio’s gay beaches

Man at the beach
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

After the tour, we were left to enjoy the last hours of sunlight taking in the peace of Playa Manuel Antonio. Nestled within the national park, palm trees laden with coconuts and a backdrop of lush rainforest bordered the crystalline waters. The scene resembled something that must have been plucked straight from a postcard. We waded into the tepid salt water to allow our feet to rest, glancing back at our bags on the sand from time to time to ensure no mischievous monkeys were trying their luck at nabbing anything grabbable.

Beach in Costa Rica.
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

Although Playa Manuel Antonio is the most well-known beach in the region, these other spots along the coast offer a quieter locale for an afternoon of fun in the sun:

  • Playa Espadilla, the main public beach has gentle waves and an enormous stretch of soft sand, perfect for lounging.
  • Playitas Beach, west of Playa Espadilla, is a cozy queer-friendly stretch of sand nestled up against the rocks and trees of a small peninsula. This beach tends to be less crowded, making it a great place to lounge privately or grab a bite at the restaurant nearby.
  • Biesanz Beach, opposite Playitas on the Northern end of the peninsula, is most popular amongst the locals. Its extra calm waters feel more like the waves of a lake than an ocean.
Man on a beach
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

At Biesanz, you’ll find families barbequing, couples enjoying a drink or three, friends swimming, and perhaps a vendor or two selling freshly cut coconuts. I particularly loved my time at this beach because it felt like I finally got to see a more authentic side of Manuel Antonio. Geographically, Biesanz is very close to its crowded counterpart Espadilla Beach, but it feels worlds away.

Where to drink and dine in Manuel Antonio

Man holding a coconut
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

One of the most surprising aspects of Manuel Antonio is the variety of cuisines the town offers. Of course, I wanted to try as much freshly caught seafood as possible, but I also was interested in trying some of the other flavors. We first tried Emilio’s Café and Agua Azul, both of which gave us charming ocean views and our fill of delicious seafood. Then we decided to venture into trying more unexpected eateries like El Avión, which features a converted cargo plane transformed into a cocktail bar. We loved the blended cocktails and the wide assortment of Costa Rican classics.

Man sitting at a table eating a meal.
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

Our favorite meal happened to be from the Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar. Unexpectedly, the falafel was some of the best I’ve ever had the chance to try. In Costa Rica, of all places! The restaurant is unassuming, hip, and it serves great food. The cocktails were sweet, strong, and fantastic. On receiving our bill, we realized that the Falafel Bar is also more budget-friendly than the majority of the surrounding eateries, which was a nice and welcome surprise.

Saying “See you later” to Costa Verde

Sunset in Costa Rica
Image courtesy of Michael and Matt

My experience in Costa Rica is one I’ll never forget. Though there are many sunny escapes to choose from around the world, Manuel Antonio was the perfect blend of natural beauty, wildlife, and relaxation. As I reluctantly left, I promised myself I would return one day to bask in its beauty once again. Until then, the memories of my first visit to this remarkable destination will continue to inspire my appreciation for the Pura Vida life.

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