SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Costa Rica’s sex tourism industry used to be the exclusive province of graying gringos groping their way through their final throbs of virility.
Elderly American sex tourists — or “mongers,” as they call themselves with a touch of pride— travel to San José for catch-and-release “fishing trips,” only not the kind you're thinking of. Instead of heading out to sea, most mongers spend their days and nights sweating on barstools in Costa Rica’s landlocked capital, casting amorous lines at young sex workers in hopes of reeling in a curvy “Tica” in a low-cut cocktail dress.
San José’s Hotel Del Rey and Casino is sometimes called the most famous brothel in Costa Rica, or —in more breathless moments— the world. That superlative might be a bit of a stretch, but the Del Rey certainly has a far-reaching reputation as an international house of tryst.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, but pimping is not. That makes meet-up places like the Del Rey and the neighboring Key Largo bar so popular. On any given night of the week, legal-age sex workers from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Panama, and occasionally Eastern Europe mix it up with beer-breathed gringos in their 50s and 60s and —thanks to the wonders of pharmaceutical advances — occasionally guys in their 70s or 80s.
But that scene is starting to change. Recently a newer generation of prurient 20- and 30-somethings are starting to elbow out the geriatrics at the bar. They aren’t exactly unsung heroes of their day, but these younger sex-minded tourists are breaking the generation barrier and tearing down old prejudices that have long made Costa Rica's mongering scene an old white man’s game.
“The U.S., with its Puritan roots, looks down on this type of behavior. But it’s normal in many parts of the world,” says Michael, a 31-year-old sex-tourism proselytizer who brought five buddies to Costa Rica for a vacation in late January — his sixth such trip in seven years. “I have some friends back home who don’t like the idea, but the vast majority do, even if they think they’re not going to at first. Once they try it, they get over their preconceived notions pretty quickly.”
Michael, a surprisingly sober and good-looking lad who claims he has no problem “getting girls” back home, says he likes sex tourism because it’s “convenient” and “straightforward.” Then he blathered some crap about how he “loves and appreciates women, so it’s an artistic thing” and how “more successful people — athletes and actors — do this all the time.”
Michael’s friend Bob, also from New York, leans on the bar next to him, wearing an ill-fitting Spanish league soccer jersey that makes him look openly unathletic. Bob says he's on his first sex tourism trip, but he boasts with a hint of adventurous pride that he's already taken four prostitutes up the elevator to his room.
“It’s awesome," Bob says, a little louder than necessary. "When you walk into the bar, every girl checks you out. Now I know what it feels like to be a girl.”
Bob whips out his iPhone and, with the pride and slight awkwardness of any collector, shows me the photos of the sex workers he's been with over the past week. Then he opens his WhatsApp and shows me the ongoing chats he's maintained in strained Spanglish with his new sex-worker friends. “Look, one of them even let me make a video.”
I nodded companionably.
It’s not only young gringos who are dabbling in sex tourism. In other Latin American countries, where attitudes towards prostitution are more relaxed, paying for sex is just not that big of a deal. In fact, it's not uncommon for young Latin American men to have their first sexual encounter with a sex worker, paid for by dad, who is eager to test his son's “manhood.”
And for those who lost their virginity in the rented embrace of a sex worker, going back for more doesn't require a suspension of morality.
“Am I a sex tourist? Yeah, I guess so,” laughs Ruben, a 27-year-old banker from Mexico City. “Ecotourism was part of the attraction to Costa Rica, but I knew about the prostitution here and I wasn’t going to leave without doing it.”
Ruben said that Mexico doesn’t have the same “stigma or prejudice” about prostitution found in the United States. Still, it’s not something he partakes in at home, “because it’s dangerous and you don’t know which ones are transvestites.”
Ruben said he hired a Dominican prostitute in a bar at Costa Rica's Playa Jacó, which has quickly become the main coastal hub for Central America's sex tourism industry. On any given night, a throng of 80-100 sex workers — mostly Colombians and Dominicans — press up against young American surfers in tightening board shorts.
Ruben says he doesn’t have any regrets about going for it, although he admits it took a bite out of his daily budget. “It cost $100, but was worth it,” he said. “I’ll tell my parents and friends about it, but will probably leave out some of the details.”
Sex workers acknowledge that their clients are getting younger and younger. On a recent weekend visit, I polled several dozen sex workers at the Del Rey and Key Largo— let's call it Fusion’s Unscientific and Slightly Salacious Sex Survey (FUSSSS). Invariably, they all reported that their youngest gringo clients were somewhere between the ages of 18-22. In fact, some of the johns are getting so young that even the sex workers are starting to feel a little uncomfortable with the situation.
"A lot of the young guys come in here looking for older women," said Nuria, a fit-looking sex worker north of 40. "Personally, I won't go with anyone as young as 18 or 19; I have no interest in boys. Just like I won't go with drunks or men old enough to die in bed."
"So what age do you like?" I asked, immediately wishing I hadn't.
"Your age," Nuria replied with a bedroom wink. Then her friend gently touched my forearm and mentioned the possibility of something called a "club sandwich," to which I valiantly doffed my cap and repaired in haste to the comfortable anonymity of another bar.
So why are sex tourists getting younger? Could it be that dating apps like Tinder have conditioned young men for a more transactional approach to hooking up? Conceivably. Could it be that this article is entirely overwritten and struggling to find a meaningful conclusion? Perhaps.
"I do believe that Tinder has propagated the idea of consequence-less sex, but I do not think it has become a tool that has mobilized the acceptance of prostitution among young men and women," says Aditi Paul, a PhD candidate at Michigan State University who last year published a study about online dating behaviors.
Instead, Paul says, the "sexcapades" of young men in foreign brothels is probably something more akin to the Vegas effect.
"They might approach the whole thing as, 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas'," Paul said. "So even if they participate in such an activity that they might consider as debauchery in normal situations, since they are in a foreign land it becomes acceptable. This kind of mentality, together with their preconceived idea of casual sex, could lead to higher participation in prostitution."
Whatever it is, it can quickly become a thing for guys like Michael from New York.
"Yeah," he says, looking around the room at the batting eyelashes that meet his gaze. "I'll be back."