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Feb 2004 | Costa Rica

Feb 2004 | Costa Rica

Chad Allen and two 20-somethings in an SUV take on this Central American hot spot

Chad Allen, an actor and free-spirited bohemian (whose show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, still airs daily in Central America), and Nicholas "Frenchie" Bru, a 22-year-old fashion student from Paris, joined me in Costa Rica for eight days to experience the opulent treasures it has for the adventurous spirit. I'm a network news producer and had been living in Costa Rica for six months on a Rotary Foundation fellowship.

We were determined to find adventure off the beaten path and not travel to specifically gay areas. Costa Rica's popular destinations are the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Arenal Volcano, and Manuel Antonio National Park. We would travel to none of them. Manuel Antonio, on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast, is a gay-friendly beach that attracts many gay tourists, but it was not on our agenda. Although you can drive across Costa Rica from the Caribbean to the Pacific coast in five hours, it would take much longer to discover all its rain forests, volcanoes, beaches, rivers, small towns, and hidden waterfalls. My posse would have to move stealthily and efficiently.

Chad wanted to camp on the beach under the stars, Frenchie preferred some civilized amenities, and I wanted decent nightlife. We agreed that we'd hit beach spots with bohemian atmospheres that had some tourist infrastructure, deciding on a loop through the northwestern beach region of Guanacaste, down the Pacific coast through the Nicoya Peninsula, across the Gulf of Nicoya, and over to the Caribbean on our last day. We had a rented Kia SUV, and we brought along several rolls of film, Frenchie's array of high-end grooming products (including designer suntan lotions and a prized Prada towel), and healthy libidos.

Chad arrived before Frenchie, so we took a day trip to Iraz? Volcano, at 11,260 feet one of four major volcanoes in San Jos?'s Central Valley (the others are Po?s, Barva, and Turrialba). Two faults, one tectonic and one volcanic, define the geography of the valley, making for dramatic landscapes. Situated near colonial Cartago, south of San Jos?, Iraz?'s summit jets up from the valley like Costa Rica's version of the Empire State Building. From its ashen peak, a clear day offers views to the Caribbean coast. It's hit or miss as to whether you'll get a view of the volcano's sulfuric craters, because of cloud cover, fog, and haze. We got lucky.

When Frenchie arrived we picked him up at Juan Santamar?a Airport and headed directly to the beach. Traveling anywhere with Frenchie is a treat. Although he prefers life's more expensive delicacies, he possesses the critical quality of being able to go with the flow. Frenchie would regularly be caught voguing in our backseat.

Our destination was Playa Tamarindo, the most popular surfing destination in the Guanacaste province. Tamarindo had a bit of what we all wanted: Rustic potholed roads provided the sense of ruggedness Chad sought, yet our hotel, Zully Mar, had a well-kept pool where Frenchie could lounge and air-conditioned rooms for after the sun. It featured great seafood restaurants (the Lazy Wave and Gecko's), exciting nightlife (the big bazaar every Saturday night), surf camps with foosball tables (Witch's Rock), and incredibly gorgeous men wearing next to nothing.

The white beach here is long and beautiful--not too crowded but not deserted. The warm water offers waves not so punishing as to discourage the beginning surfer but strong enough to challenge advanced riders. On our first day we met a group of six hot guys on break from Yale. We had all just learned to surf at Tamarindo (lessons are $35 for three hours, Yale students not included), and if you don't stand up on your board, you'll receive a full refund.

Besides la Isla del Coco (300 miles from Costa Rica's Pacific coast, renowned for its schools of hammerhead sharks), the country's best diving is on the Catalina Islands in the Gulf of Papagayo, easily reached from Tamarindo. Chad, who has dived his whole life, insisted that we go. With 30 to 50 feet of underwater visibility, this area is known for its mobula and cow-nosed manta rays. Frenchie and I had never tried scuba, so while we struggled to learn basic concepts associated with breathing underwater at a "resort course" in a hotel pool, Chad stole the SUV for an off-road adventure. After getting the car stuck in jungle mud, he happened upon a beach where he helped three local boys capture a giant iguana. Despite their dinner invitation we opted for conventional offerings and had one of the best meals of our trip at the Lazy Wave. The following day Frenchie and I joined Chad diving. We saw two giant rays during what Chad considered one of the great diving moments of his life.

Leaving Tamarindo, we drove to Malpa?s. Although Costa Rica is the most developed country in Central America, it has the worst roads. However, it does have some of the best '70s and '80s radio stations. While backed up in traffic in the small town of Carmona, Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park Suite" was broadcast in its entirety--18 minutes.

Foreigners refer to Malpa?s as one of Costa Rica's last untouched spots. Think Leonardo DiCaprio's movie The Beach: sexy bohemian surfers in tent camps and ramshackle cabanas, tattooed bartenders with ripped abs who double as circus performers during bonfires at bars at the tide's edge, and long stretches of empty sand. Malpa?s is a place of intense mystery with the secret, dangerous spirit of a corner of the world that has yet to be spoiled. Waves of blue and red crabs scurry across the roads, and the surf can be frightening--no place for a beginner.

Nine miles from Malpa?s is the popular small town of Montezuma. Hiking trails to beautiful waterfalls start from both ends of town. One walk heads along the beach beside the ocean while the other hugs a tranquil creek heading from town to a higher elevation. Montezuma has outstanding food, bountiful hotel options, and evening performances in the town square by troubadours (we saw an amazing Brazilian capoeira group). There are no high-end resorts, but for $80 a night, four people can rent a private cabin on a semiprivate beach or a couple can rent a comfortable room at a full-amenity hotel.

In Montezuma we took a requisite Tico canopy tour, which involves zipping through the treetops on wires wearing harnesses and helmets. As we hiked back from the tour, fans bombarded Chad. This time the autograph seekers were a group of kids and their mothers who had gathered at the trail's head. The locals were in love. But it was Frenchie who fell in love with Montezuma during a horseback ride along the beach. While I took a yoga class in a pagoda overlooking the ocean, Frenchie and Chad rode with a guide to the beach waterfall. This was what Frenchie had come here to do. He was finally, literally, riding on his own terms.

Finally we hiked from Montezuma through the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, Costa Rica's first national park. With no humans in sight and more than one encounter with wild antelope, sloths, and monkeys, our five-kilometer trail spilled out upon a pristine white beach at the tip of the peninsula, where we skinny-dipped under the high noon sun.

Two nights before Frenchie flew out, we drove back to San Jos?. Our young French companion's sunscreen must not have worked, because the poor kid got sick and couldn't join Chad and me for our final day: white-water rafting on the Pacuar? River in the Caribbean region. Rafting is one of Costa Rica's specialties, and one- or two-day trips leave from any hotel in San Jos? at 6 a.m., bringing you back either late that night or the next day after sleeping in a riverside lodge.

On Chad and Frenchie's final night we decided to go out in San Jos?, a decent city that many travelers opt to skip. Gay life is not invisible, but don't look for pride flags in the gay neighborhood's windows. It has about four mixed gay and lesbian bars with monthly international DJs. We ate at the trendy Caf? Mundo restaurant, housed in a former diplomatic mansion, and swung by the hip French-owned lounge Caf? Loft. But our destination was La Avispa ("The Wasp"), the oldest gay disco in Central America, dating to 1979. We drank and danced the night away, reflected on our adventures, and laughed about the memories. We had traveled Costa Rica on our own terms, and the only question left unanswered was to decide which parts of the country we'd visit next year.


In San Jos?: El Bochinche, Avenida 10/12, Calle 11; La Avispa, Avenida 8/10, Calle 1; D?j? Vu, Avenida 14/16, Calle 2; Pucho's, Avenida 11, Calle 11; Caf? Loft (mixed), in the Barrio Amon District. In Manuel Antonio: Bar Cocatoa in the Jungle Room at the Casitas Eclipse.

In Tamarindo: Expensive: El Diri?, +506-653-0031; Hotel Capit?n Suizo, +506-653-0075; Best Western Tamarindo, +506-653-0114. Inexpensive: Cabinas Zully Mar, +506-653-0140; Pasatiempo, +506-653-0096. In Malpa?s: Hotel Milarepa, +506-640-0023; or for the real Malpa?s experience, stay at any beachfront surfer campground. In Montezuma: Hotel Luz de Mono, +506-642-0090; Hotel Tajalin, +506-642-0061; Hotel los Mangos, +506-642-0076; Las Cabinas de Sano Banano, +506-642-0068; In Manuel Antonio: Expensive:Si Como No, +506-777-0777; La Mariposa, +506-777-0355; Makanda by the Sea, +506-777-0442. Moderate: Hotel Costa Verde, +506-777-0584; Villas Nicolas, +506-777-0481; Casitas Eclipse, +506-777-0408. In San Jos?: Costa Rica Marriott, +506-298-0000; Hotel Alta (in Escaz?).


In Tamarindo: The Lazy Wave, Gecko's. In Montezuma: Playa de las Artistes, Colores. In Manuel Antonio: El Gran Escape (in Quepos), Caf? Milagro, La Cantina. In San Jos?: Caf? Mundo, Avenida 9, Calle 15; Delicias del Maiz (in Alajuela, near airport).

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