At the height of the dry season, Amanda Black awoke in her hotel room to another radiant blue sky. She started the morning of Feb. 28, 2013, walking Jacó beach on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast with her father and sister, followed by a dip in the hotel pool. At 10 a.m., a beautician showed up to do her makeup, and the photographer arrived an hour later. At noon, Black met her extended family in the lobby of the Hotel Club del Mar, and they all boarded a bus.
But Black’s 30 guests didn’t head for a church or a synagogue or even a courthouse. Black and her fiancé Will McMonnies didn’t want the same milquetoast ceremony in the usual venue. They wanted something different.
So they got married on Tom Cat II — a pontoon boat.
“We were all looking forward to a fun party cruise,” recalled Black, now married nearly a year. Once the attendees had climbed the gangplank to Tom Cat II, they were treated to a full day of lunch, champagne, snorkeling and a cruise along the coast.
“We all enjoyed one of the prettiest sunsets that night on the boat – some of the brightest shades of orange and pink seemed to glow above the water,” Black said. “We got to see a family of dolphins swim by. It really seemed magical.”
Back in Philadelphia, where the couple lived, the day had a high of 46 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky was overcast with passing rain.
Destination: Costa Rica
The union of Black and McMonnies wasn’t a typical wedding, but it represents an exploding industry – the non-traditional destination wedding – and Costa Rica is among its epicenters. Along with hotspots like Mexico and Jamaica, Costa Rica attracts thousands of U.S. couples every year, and is gaining global attention. According to the Wall Street Journal, Costa Rica’s wedding industry has grown about 24 percent each year since 2010.
“The couples who get married here are very diverse,” said Randy Gritz, who has worked as a wedding planner in Costa Rica for more than eight years. “But I think it has to be somebody with more of a sense of adventure. There are all kinds of reasons people come down here. First off, you don’t need a blood test. You could show up today and say I want to be married tomorrow, and it can be done. Getting married here legally is a lot easier than in other countries.”
Another reason: economics. “When you’re at home, you’re forced to invite a lot of people. They’re friends of your parents, and your parents are insisting that they get invited. At a destination wedding, usually the guests pay their own way. The people who come are usually going to be closer to you.”
Another reason? The land itself: “Getting married at a volcano, getting married at a waterfall. You have all these possibilities in Costa Rica.”
It was Gritz who coordinated the Black-McMonnies wedding, as well as 200 other ceremonies throughout her career. Gritz sees Black as part of a growing demographic: the “Millennial Bride.” She’s inventive, self-sufficient, and often pays for the wedding without parental assistance. Instead of brides designing the wedding with their mothers, fiancées often collaborate mainly with their fiancés. “I’m finding that I’m speaking more with the bride and groom,” Gritz said.
Many of the couples are young, others are marrying for a second time or even renewing their vows, but some traits they all have in common: They want to escape their normal lives, and they want the freedom to do things their own way. Sometimes these ceremonies are simple, for instance, an unaccompanied couple on the cove of an all-inclusive resort, witnessed mostly by sunbathers. Other times they’re complex, held inside hotel ballrooms or on mountaintops. No matter what they desire, ambitious couples can choose from hordes of wedding planners, photographers and venues. They can orchestrate the entire event by Internet or Skype. Some places, like the Hilton Papagayo, have drag-and-drop menus, allowing couples to organize their matrimony in minutes.
This is all new. When Gritz moved to Costa Rica 22 years ago, the country was much calmer, and the industry hardly existed.
“It was a time when I could bring two suitcases, and one of them was filled with books,” Gritz said. She spent 10 years as owner of a bookstore chain, and when she finally sold the business, she was ready for something radically different. A friend invited her to help with wedding planning, which seemed like a cottage industry. Although Gritz had little wedding experience, the industry exploded, and “within two months, I was booking my own weddings,” she said.
Romance is serious business
“I was Costa Rica’s very first professional wedding planner,” boasts Aimee Monahan, proprietress of Tropical Occasions. “That was in 1996, before the Gringo gold rush.”
Monahan is a supersonic conversationalist, which matches her energetic lifestyle: Years after cutting her teeth at Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Monahan’s company plans about 85 weddings a year. She spent many years working in Costa Rica, but her husband struggled to find work, so they moved to the U.S. city of Denver, Colorado. Yet her business is still based in sunny Central America, where three full-time and three part-time staffers do work on the ground.
“Every time I come down here, it’s like a reunion,” Monahan said. “I know the entire country. I know all the resorts. When I’m here, I am constantly touring properties. I want to see what’s out there for my clients. I’m a huge believer that no wedding should be the same.”
Indeed, both Monahan and Gritz have organized a mind-bending variety of weddings and receptions. Beach ceremonies are the norm, especially in scenic regions like Guanacaste and Manuel Antonio, but couples may also opt for bonfires, horse rides, jugglers, stilt-walkers and human statues. Monahan once arranged a 140-person Hindu wedding with an eco-friendly vibe (materials included recycled tin cans). Another favorite client: a NASCAR driver and his intended.
Because the destination weddings are so lucrative for specialists, and because the profession seems so glamorous, Monahan has seen plenty of would-be wedding planners come and go.
“I welcome them,” Monahan said. “I help them. I want everyone in Costa Rica to have a good experience. But I’ve seen four companies pop up in the last year, and now they’re gone. You have to be good at what you do, and you have to be consistent.” Some planners fail because they arrive with tourist visas. “If you’re living here, and your business is based here, you have to be legal,” Monahan said firmly.
Elysian as they seem, Costa Rican weddings aren’t all sea turtles and doilies. Bridezillas still show up, and many are surprised by the 13 percent sales tax, the price of flowers, and the drawbacks of marrying in an actual jungle (mosquitoes, mud, rain and so on). Some practices are less streamlined: Where U.S. venues universally require insurance, Costa Rican venues often scrimp.
“Even putting a votive candle on a table is a fire hazard,” cautioned Gritz. “There’s a lot more leeway here.”
There are also technical concerns: Couples must secure an attorney and often a priest. They must assign two witnesses for their paperwork, usually family members or friends. The couples must sign an affidavit, usually written in Spanish, which promises that they are not currently married; a past divorce requires an extra step. When paperwork is not “letter perfect,” it may get snarled in Costa Rican bureaucracy. If all goes well, U.S. citizens can expect their documents to take a few weeks to properly file; Canadians require a notary. Other nations have unique regulations.
Costa Rica, mi amor
Many professionals suggest that unpredictability is part of Costa Rica’s charm, and the foreigners who get married here must embrace the pura vida mentality. Micromanagers should find a nice little chapel in their own neighborhood.
“When I work with a client who is uptight about every detail,” Gritz said, “something will always go wrong. Other people, when they’re just kind of laidback, everything seems to be perfect. When all is said and done, you’re not going to remember the flowers on the table. What you’re going to remember is maybe your grandfather dancing with your grandmother.”
“What does pura vida mean to me?” Monahan said. “It means ‘slow down.’ If everyone was as laidback [as Costa Ricans], the world would be a much better place. If you’re a New Yorker and you want everything in a New York minute, you shouldn’t come down here. These are some of the happiest people. They’re proud of their country. They really care that you have a good time here.” Monahan is a self-described yogi and she is conversational about chakras. “I think Costa Rica was my yoga before. It was making me present, making me breathe. In [the U.S.], things are so fast-paced, I do yoga to keep myself focused.”
“I think this is my destiny,” she said. “I tell my staff all the time: When you stop loving this, tell me, because you can’t work for me anymore. It’s emotional.”