A couple standing side by side.
Pierluigi Longo

Finding My Chosen Family During a Spontaneous Trip to Costa Rica

Every day unfolded like a new “Magic School Bus” adventure, and taught me that strengthening bonds during travel can be life changing. 

This Pride month, we are celebrating travel's capacity for discovery, renewal, and love through a lens of queerness—and its power to open up ourselves to seeing not just the world, but also who we are, in a new light.

The final chapters of 2022 chronicled some of the biggest seismic shifts in my personal life. In other words, I absolutely got my shit rocked. By the time October rolled in, I’d been isolated in my Brooklyn apartment for several weeks while recovering from two overdue gender-affirming procedures: surgically removing both my breasts, and my toxic relationship with my mother.

Unlike my top surgery, the white-hot pain of being estranged from my only living parent sliced through me without any anesthetic. Forced to make the impossible choice between being close to my mom or being true to myself, I fell into an intense depressive episode. I was convinced that, for me, embodying trans joy would always come at some devastating price. Finding myself on the brink of a total meltdown, I reached out to my friend Orion for support. 

“I just need a retreat from reality,” I told them. Fortunately, Orion took my venting very seriously, and quite literally. 

“What are your thoughts on Costa Rica?” They’d sent along a profile for Soul Life Travel, a small woman-run agency curating tours that celebrate Afro-Costa Rican culture. My thoughts were conflicting. On one hand, planning a luxurious vacation while working through so much guilt and grief made me feel a little self-indulgent. But on the other, maybe Eat, Pray, Love-ing my way across Costa Rica would be the perfect salve for an orphaned heart. After all, it worked for that white lady.

“Fuck it,” I eventually messaged back. “Let’s set up a call.”

On January 2, Orion and I were trekking through the jungle.

“Have you guys been friends since childhood?” asked Tito, the handsome eco-tour guide from Green Cahuita leading us past a row of towering cacao trees. He was taking us on a chocolate making tour in Bribri, a town in the heart of Costa Rica’s Limón province. Bribri was named after the Indigenous people who fiercely protected their lands from Spanish invaders in the 16th century. Though the town of Bribri is undergoing rapid industrial development, many of the Bribri people still choose to live completely secluded from the encroaching outside world. 

Some, like our host Catato and his family, open up their homesteads to eager travelers looking to learn about Bribri heritage and traditions. Orion and I felt blessed to be walking through the sacred rainforest that enclosed the cluster of hand-built houses where Catato’s community lives. As descendants of displaced and colonized peoples, we were both in awe of the ancient energy that emanated from the forest.

“We actually met at a bar in March,” I answered Tito as we stepped through a lush patch of wild ferns, “but it feels like it's been a lifetime.” Tito had picked Orion and I up earlier that morning from our hotel in neighboring Puerto Viejo, and we'd found an instant kinship with the kind and open-hearted guide. While we rode into Bribri, he told us that uncovering his African heritage inspired him to learn more about other oppressed peoples in Costa Rica, which later led to the relationships he built with Bribri elders like Catato. 

“My best friend and I are kind of the same!” Tito laughed. “I challenged him to a dance battle at a party and we’ve been close ever since.”

Though our story didn’t involve dancing, Orion and I did fall into our friendship the way only two sapphics could—at U-Haul speed. After being introduced by a mutual friend that fateful March night, we quickly bonded over a shared love of astrology, plant medicines, and ancestral healing work. We were two peas in a witchy woo-woo pod, and getting to know Orion reminded me that the intimacy of a queer friendship can be just as life-altering as one shared between lovers.

Deciding to escape together for a ten day homie-moon was the ultimate test of our still-fresh friendship, and even though we knew that traveling during Mercury retrograde could present its challenges, we were committed to fully embracing the Costa Rican credo of pura vida—pure life. We landed at San José Airport a few days after Christmas, and despite a rough start to our trip (the airline lost Orion’s luggage during a layover at El Salvador International Airport), we were thrilled to be embarking on this transformative journey together. 

“The universe must have really wanted you to leave your baggage in 2022,” I teased Orion when we finally made it to our hotel. “You’re probably right,” Orion said. “There’s no way we’re going back to Brooklyn as the same people.”  

Every day in Costa Rica unfolded like a new Magic School Bus adventure. We’d get picked up in the morning by a different guide, each of whom would teach us something inspiring. Our itinerary included walking food tours, tropical cooking classes, hot spring soaks, jungle hikes, and an afternoon zip lining through Arenal Volcano National Park. We got to play and explore like two carefree kids, and that childlike wonder was a necessary reminder that joy and laughter are potent antidotes to heartbreak. 

Towards the end of our trip, we rang in the New Year in Puerto Viejo, an idyllic Afro-Costa Rican hub along the Caribbean coast of Limón—grabbing drinks at Johnny’s Place, where a back patio led all the way out to the sea. Most of the town was there with us, every square foot of beach occupied by hundreds of partygoers of all ages. As Orion and I stared out at the slivers of moonlight reflecting off of the water, a deep sense of peace had settled into my bones. In that moment, it dawned on me that by opening my heart up to new experiences with them, I had allowed myself to be transformed into something new. Something worth living and fighting for.

“Thank you!” I shouted to Orion over the sounds of premature fireworks and blaring Reggaeton. 

“For what?” They shouted back. 

“For showing me what it really means to be loved.”

For more queer love stories, head here.