Thanks to contributing author Mark Sullivan for sharing his experience being LGBTQ+ in Costa Rica. He’s a travel writer who has been to Central America about a dozen times and is excited to share his perspective and advice with students studying abroad. On his last family trip to Costa Rica he introduced his favorite country to a college-aged cousin who had just come out.
Before I went to Costa Rica, I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s not that I had heard anything bad about what the country is like for LGBTQ+ people. I hadn’t heard people talk about it one way or the other. I’m pretty fearless when it comes to letting people know who I am, but not knowing made me a little nervous.
When you’re going to study abroad, you know that you’re going to spend a lot of your time with other students. They are all probably going to be cool with having queer kids around. But when you’re out in the community, how are people going to react?
In Costa Rica, the answer is that being LGBTQ+ doesn’t seem to make a difference to people at all, at least in my experience. I’m a gay travel writer and by this point been to Costa Rica many times, so I can say that when it comes to queer people, locals have seen it all before. If they haven’t, they don’t see any reason to get upset. After all, there are LGBTQ+ friendly resorts across the country. The beach town of Manuel Antonio is one of the most welcoming places in Central America for LGBTQ+ people.
That’s not to say that there isn’t homophobia in Costa Rica. There’s still a macho culture here, just as there is in the rest of Central America. But it’s nowhere near as prevalent as in neighboring countries like Nicaragua and Honduras. People might have pretty homophobic attitudes, but they usually wouldn’t express them to someone they don’t know.
There’s a Spanish phrase that I heard during my first few minutes in Costa Rica, and then probably at least half a dozen times a day after that: pura vida. It literally translates as “pure life,” but in reality it means a lot more. It means “what can you do?” and “no problem” and “everything’s going to be fine.” And there are probably many more shades of meaning that I haven’t picked up on yet.
I think that the “pura vida” culture explains a lot about why locals are so cool with LGBTQ+ people. They pride themselves on the fact that they don’t sweat the small things. They don’t get upset when things don’t go as planned. When they encounter something new, they don’t overreact. You’ll see the phrase on T-shirts and billboards and colorful murals across the sides of buildings.
That attitude is reflected in the rapidly changing laws. In 2018, Costa Rica’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Two years later the legislature strengthened the statues banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Trans rights have also made tremendous strides in the last couple of years. In 2018, the government removed birth gender from identification cards so that there would no longer be a stigma against trans people.
There’s still a long way to go, but in many ways Costa Rica is ahead of countries like the U.S. In 2019, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada marched in the annual pride day parade in the capital city of San José. More than 100,000 onlookers cheered.
So what’s my advice to LGBTQ+ students who are going to be studying abroad in Costa Rica? Be open to getting to know locals, as most will think who you are is no big deal. As you get to know someone, you might realize they have less open-minded attitudes. It’s up to you if you want to educate them or end the friendship — both are totally valid options. But don’t let the fear that someone might be homophobic keep you from sharing who you are.