When people think of Costa Rica they picture its toucans, monkeys, volcanoes, and pristine beaches with amazing surfing locations up and down the coasts. They see in their minds the flora, the fauna, ad infinitum. It is a country so extraordinarily rich in biodiversity that eco-tourism is naturally a large part of it’s economy. The wonders of the natural world thrive here, giving tourists to this land the opportunity to connect with the best nature has to offer.
But even more, it is a land that consistently ranks high in the Happy Planet Index, even coming in at number one two years in a row. It is a country without a standing military and is home to the United Nations University for Peace. The people are friendly, happy, laidback and everything operates at the slower, more relaxed pace of “tico time.” You can come on the cheap or live like a crown prince in the lap of luxury for however long you wish; it’s all up to your budget.
Certainly, Costa Rica offers a long list of appealing options to the most discerning traveler. But there is one option available to the tourist (and to locals alike) that you won’t see advertised in glossy brochures with the ubiquitous green frog stamped in the corner.
Don’t be alarmed; sexual tourism isn’t the seedy underbelly of Costa Rica. No, it’s just another part of the economy. How big a part of the economy it is, it’s difficult to say. But with sexual tourists coming from the US and Canada (primarily) week in, week out, I think it’s safe to say it isn’t negligible.
One of the more curious facets of Costa Rica is that prostitution is legal. Pimping isn’t, but it’s perfectly legal for a woman to make money selling sexual services. Prostitutes are money makers for Costa Rica. Tourism is tourism; dollars are dollars. And those dollars are flowing hard and fast into the not-so-sleepy little beach town of Jacó; a town conveniently located along the central Pacific coast which is quickly becoming (if it isn’t already) THE epicenter for sexual tourism in Costa Rica.
There’s a popular meme that is a sort of running joke to people inside the country. It’s a very candid photo of an older white man (in his fifties, perhaps) wearing a floral print shirt and a smile on his face. The caption reads: “Tells his wife he’s going to Costa Rica to fish, goes to Jacó to pickup hookers.”
It’s not a hidden or discreet industry by any means. Aspects of it enter into everyday conversations with friends and even during my first week here, without even trying, I stumbled upon hookers making the hard sell. In deciding to see what the sexual tourism industry looked like in this town, I went online and did a little research to find out where and when exactly to go to experience it firsthand. That research took all of about two minutes.
Hotel Cocal on a Saturday Night
It was while browsing through the very publicly accessible ticaland.com, that I identified Hotel Cocal as THE place to find prostitutes in Jacó. And while ticaland.com offers its paying members discounts to the hotel, I didn’t see any value in joining their site since I wouldn’t be staying the night at the hotel. Nor would I be an active participant on their site.
I did a quick cross-reference of the Cocal on TripAdvisor.com to see if I could learn anything, coming immediately upon a review with this headline:
“Beware this is the central location of prostitution in Jaco”
And then a couple of reviews later, this:
“It is what it is !”
Clearly, this was the place to go. And so it was one Saturday night in Jacó that I ventured out alone, into the seductively warm arms of this sexually-charged city.
To match the “style” of the sexual tourist, I present the account of my evening out in a format not too dissimilar to any number of “trip reports” easily found on sites promoting the mongering lifestyle. Mongering, for the unaware, is the act of seeking out and retaining the services of prostitutes, usually in a foreign land.
At 8:15pm, after putting on a button-down linen shirt and jeans (“There, I look good enough”), I catch a taxi to the Cocal. I walk in and find the bar immediately. Being the socially awkward butterfly that I am, I’ve found that alcohol eases the nervousness that comes with interacting with people. Three women (who, if they aren’t prostitutes, are certainly dressed the part) sit at the bar. I order a gin and tonic.
Halfway into my drink, I ask the bartender where the pool (which is where all the “action” is supposed to be) is located. As I make my way through the small casino, the pool area comes into view. My mind tries to make sense of what my eyes are seeing.
Suddenly, everything sparkles. It’s not magic, though; just a lot of sequins. In front of me, standing around the bar beside the pool are 50 to 75 young women dressed in short skirts and tight tops; flesh pushed up, tucked in, and popping out in all the spots appropriate to seduce the male of the species.
It looks like a convention of hookers. I am totally unprepared for this. Immediately, I stop another hotel employee and ask where the back patio is so that I might smoke a cigarette. As I quickly slip past the back of the bar to make my way outside, I inadvertently make eye contact with one of the women walking the other direction. Attractive, long blond hair pulled back, little black dress, high heels, Latina. She says something which I don’t quite hear. I smile and press forward with even more anxiety.
“Crap. I need a way out. What’s my story? This is going to be very disappointing for whichever of these women make the mistake of speaking with me,” I think.
Before going out for the evening, I had asked a friend for his advice on how to gently let down a prostitute who may be interested. He suggested I say that I was married. I don’t know what sort of crack he was smoking that day but that’s like dropping blood in the shark tank. I wasn’t here to purchase services. I was here to have drinks and… and what? Mingle? It was immediately evident in glancing around the bar that I was alone in my interests; everyone who had come to the Cocal on this Saturday night did so solely to buy or sell sex.
Two men, four women are laughing as they stand in the back of the hotel at the end of the walkway where the patio meets the sand of the beach. I light a cigarette and stare out at the moonlit ocean, waves crashing one after another. I think about the proper etiquette for the moment that will most certainly come. How do I say “No thanks, I’m not interested” to a woman who is standing right next to one hundred other women selling the exact same services and then just remain there? It would be one thing if I were just going to walk out after declining, but I intended to stay for a while. I think for a moment that surely others must have wondered this same thing. It seems awful. I mean, I’ve worked in the porn industry and business is business, but this just seems harsh.
And then I’m awash with guilt. I’m lost. Not only do I face that dilemma but it’s clear that I’m going to waste the time of at least one woman tonight who is here to make money. Maybe more.
Sigh. I finish my drink and head in.
As I head back inside, it was if I were standing under blue lights, covered head to toe in white and smiling with all of my teeth showing; the young woman who spoke with me during my hasty exit to the patio honed in on me instantly, making fast tracks over my way.
She strikes up a conversation. How am I doing, what am I doing here, where am I from, what am I looking for. All of the small talk one would expect at a vendor booth at a convention.
I ask if she wants a drink. Mine is gone and another one will most certainly help. We make our way to the other side of the bar. If I were in the market for sex, this would be game over, I suppose. Or perhaps game starting if I was mongering. I don’t know. Regardless, I wasn’t in the market.
I lean in to hear what my female companion is saying and as I do I notice, surprisingly, that a familiar face is there in the staff. This is the sexual tourism industry at work, feeding the local economy. This is the person that works at the hotel that takes home the pay that buys the groceries from the locally owned market that feeds the kids that go to the school that on and on and on. More prostitutes came into the hotel when I was outside smoking my cigarette, more came still as I stood there talking to this young Nicaraguan woman.
Without asking, she rubs her hands on my shoulders. She comments on my tension.
She then begins to show me, one by one, the various lubricants in her purse, while at the same time (and very oddly) assuring me that she’s both honest and a good person.
I reflect back to a conversation with a local female acquaintance who was telling the story of a friend who robbed some poor gringo blind while he slept. She laughed equally loud when stating very matter-of-factly that NO girl in Jacó pays for her cellphone. That some gringo back in the States or Canada pays for it.
“She never answers the phone. Tells him, ‘Oh, my battery died,’ or ‘Oh, I couldn’t get service!’”
Even the girls who aren’t prostitutes hop on the money train to ride it. Because why not? Gringos are here for a good time. Go for the free drinks and party the night away. “Sometimes, guys want regular girls,” is a statement I’ve heard more than once here.
Back at the bar,
“$100 and I give you sex, massage, blowjob…”
“$100,” I ask.
“$80. No rush. I’m very honest. I’m an honest person. No rush. Two hours.”
Costa Rica is a country all about the barter, often before you even negotiate. From speaking with locals, I knew beforehand that prices for prostitutes ranged from between $100 to $150.
“How much for just the massage? Because that actually feels really good.” Too much tension.
“$50 for just the massage. $80 I give you everything. The sex, massage, blowjob.”
Crap. Now what?
“I’m so sorry. Maybe later. How long are you here for?”
It has to be now, it has to be tonight. Like so many other prostitutes, she’s traveled down from San José for the weekend to make money. Guilt presses in. You need to end this, Marcel.
When the woman holding my arm realized that she wasn’t going to make a sale, the arm dropped and the conversation came to an abrupt end. The warmth and kindness shut off like a valve that had been turned tight. After a couple of moments of awkward silence, I said that I was going to go smoke another cigarette. I smiled to the woman staring blankly back at me and walked out.
Back on the patio, smoking another cigarette, I went back in my mind to an evening in my youth wandering through the red-light district of Amsterdam. I remember seeing lines of men, each of varying length, assembled outside the drawn curtains of windows behind which women were busy fulfilling the sexual urges of men. The more physically attractive the woman, the longer the line of men outside her window. Sometimes, you could stand in the street and never see the woman, just one man after another going in.
Today, you have mongering websites giving full reports (first names and photos included), advising its fellow member not only which prostitutes to visit – which line to stand in – but how this particular girl will do this or this particular girl will do that, and if you really act like you’re going to leave and not pay to have sex with her, then yes, she’ll cave and give you what you want: that blowjob without the condom. Data sharing in the modern mongering world.
Social Hour, take two
I finish my cigarette and drink and head back to the bar. More women have come in, the music is louder and my female friend has, not surprisingly, vanished. I grab another drink and find what looks like a safe seat at one of the tables around the pool. Safe being a spot where I can just sit without having to talk and therefore avoid wasting anyone‘s time. Immediately, a tall and rail-thin woman slinks over to me. Small talk, a couple of questions, and she dances herself away to the rhythm of the music. Awkward.
For the first time, I take in this scene in its entirety. For the hundred or so women who are now here, there can’t possibly be twenty men present. It’s early still, but this is just absurd.
An older gentleman sits close to the bar and seven women surround him and fawn over him, one leaning in and whispering in his ear. Logic dictates that either he’s dropped a lot of cash already or he’s an established regular known for dropping a lot of cash. I blink my eyes, to break my stare, and look elsewhere.
The women run the gamut in appearance. Blondes, brunettes, redheads. Fair skin, dark complexions. Everything in between. Skinny, fit, voluptuous, full-figured. There are any number of women here who could easily be runway models, a number of exceedingly beautiful women (by generally defined Western standards of physical beauty), and then a number of very cute young women. A few of the women, dressed in cotton tops, denim shorts, and flip-flops seem strangely out of place.
As it happened, an adorably cute young woman was standing next to me suddenly as I am taking this all in. Sweet smile. We talk a little. I genuinely compliment her on her very pleasant and nice smile but the sincerity, I’m sure, was lost. Another girl from Nicaragua and once more, here for the night from San José. She comments to me that it’s a slow night.
It strikes me instantly as an absurd comment and I echo her statement back to her as a question. And then I realize that, from her perspective, it is a very slow night. There aren’t enough men here and I am certainly not helping.
I stand up and walk around a bit. I begin to feel slightly nervous again. I don’t want to keep being seen talking to women and then standing alone. I worry that I’ll somehow be marked as a window shopper and then nobody will want to talk to me and… what? Have I not seen enough? I go out for another cigarette.
Under the Moonlight Again
A young woman walks up behind me, speaks to me in Spanish. Lo siento. Hablo un poco español. A brief conversation in English follows. She tells me her grandfather is here for some sort of competition and that she came along with him. From San José. Suddenly, a man who knows her walks up from behind. Giggling, conversation. Inhale. Exhale. The waves keep crashing.
A crowd begins to form on the edge of the patio. Two girls stand slightly behind the small crowd. Soft laughter. One girl takes a photo of the other with her cellphone. I try to picture the image on Facebook. Slightly blurry, overexposed. Duckface. Pumped-up cleavage. Caption: “Good times with my bestie in Jaco jajajaja”
My eyes turn their focus back to the foreground. I shake my head inside at the amount of energy I exerted into making myself presentable for the evening as a man in a ragged tank top, board shorts and a grungy pair of flip-flops (his toes, with uncut and filthy toenails, dangling over the end of them) stands near to me chatting up one of the prostitutes presently in the area. Nothing about her appearance indicates that she is one of the higher-end ($150) prostitutes, but clearly, dressing to impress is unnecessary. Still, it seems like a courteous and respectful thing to do. And cut your damn toenails.
Inside, still more women and by this point, it’s just ludicrous. There must be somewhere close to 150 prostitutes standing around the pool area. The hotel staff stand by the sidelines, waiting to serve the less important needs of its patrons.
I shuffle up to the bar for another drink. What is this? My 3rd? 4th? Irrelevant.
“What’s your name,” he asks after spilling his beer in front of me and apologizing profusely. Youngish fellow, full of energy, here to party.
“Marcel? I’m John,” he yells this over the music.
“Of course you are,” I think. John. Perfect.
“Where you from, Marcel?”
“New Jersey,” he comes back.
“You here on vacation, Marcel?”
“No, I live here.”
“You are living the dream, man! This place is heaven!”
“You’re here with one of the groups hosting bachelor parties,” I ask.
Some more small talk yelled to each other as we sit at the bar.
The fiance is celebrating her bachelorette party somewhere in the US. (“No, everything is normal here, honey,” he repeats with a laugh to me an earlier conversation with his soon-to-be wife.)
Bachelor parties. That’s a whole segment of the industry here unto itself. Groups of guys fly down, retaining the services beforehand of one of any number of companies whose sole business is to provide the party with everything they need ranging from music to housing to dining to standard entertainment. What they, of course, do NOT provide them with is prostitutes. They are, however, aware of the hotspots. Like the Hotel Cocal. Which is where this particular bachelor party is living it up on this particular Saturday night.
I get up and walk to the edge of the pool, to the edge of the crowd. The DJ continues to spin his mix of light American club fare and Latino dance music. The girls dance beside me, smile, and engage me in conversation one by one until they learn that I’m not quite ready yet to make a transaction.
A final young woman comes over and makes her pitch, her fingers running up and down my back.
“Well, the problem is that there’s really nowhere to do this. I don’t have a room here and…”
“8,000 colones and we can do it at my place. For the rent.”
$16 for a room. I have no idea if this is a reasonable rate for a room or not.
I know that right around the corner from the panaderia, in an alley not far from here, is another hotel that rents rooms by the hour. Or so I would assume based on the number of hookers standing around it on weekend nights. But none of this matters. I decline, she walks away and I decide it is time to leave.
End of the Night
I snake my way back through the casino and head out to the street. Red taxis transporting even more prostitutes line the driveway.
On the corner, I light a cigarette. A young man inquires as to my drug needs. No, I’m good on cocaine. Fine on weed, thanks. Then a woman who I frequently see around town appears.
“You have a cigarette,” she asks
I hand her a cigarette and light it.
“You want a blowjob? $20.”
“No, not really.”
“You have $10?”
“No, I’m going to pass. Thanks.”
Her wrist bent at almost a right angle, cigarette clenched between her fingers, she blows smoke into the air and sashays off.
I flag down a taxi and head home. My night is over.
Saturday nights at Hotel Cocal are but one small part of the sexual tourism industry here in Jacó. Initially, I had what seemed reasonable reservations in writing this account. In a country where a conservationist protecting sea turtle eggs was brutally beaten and murdered by poachers, the prospect of covering and writing very openly about the sexual tourism industry seemed like a risky proposition to me. It´s been said that if you mess with a man´s livelihood, it´s not going to end well. Sexual tourism isn’t the livelihood of any one man in Costa Rica, though; it is, in part, the livelihood of the country, regardless of whether it’s the rainy season or not.
As for the Cocal itself, the four-star reviewer summed it up most accurately: it is what it is.
All of this said, I’m not promoting nor condemning the Cocal (nor any person or business, for that matter) with this article. Nor am I passing judgement, critiquing, or in any way commenting about the very business of sexual tourism within this country. I’m not knowledgeable enough of the industry and it’s effects both inside and outside of the country to offer any commentary of note. While I do hold personal opinions that likely aren’t favorable to those in support of the industry, my opinions are, for now, wildly inconsequential.
One closing note: Hotel Del Rey (which for years within the mongering community has been considered to be ground zero in San José) will be opening up a sister hotel in Jacó. Exactly when it is scheduled to be built and opened is not clear. There are a couple of large complexes (that I’ve seen) being built around town right now. I’m sure more informed and interested parties will stay on top of this continuing development.
Depending on whether or not I am murdered or, more likely, simply banned from all local establishments in Jacó, there may or may not be a followup to this story.