Wildlife sanctuary in lush tropics of Costa Rica was once a penal colony
Costa Ricans call it the "Island of Horrors." The palm-fringed chunk of volcanic rock in the Gulf of Nicoya is as infamous as Alcatraz and Devil's Island. The penal colony of this tiny Central American country was so dreadful, that no other place in Costa Rica bears the name San Lucas. It was in a bookstore that I chanced upon the island's evocative past - a concentration camp where the indigenous population was slaughtered by the Spanish conquistadores, a penal colony from 1873 to 1958, and a prison farm until it was closed in 1991.
It wasn't the book title, The Island of the Lonely Men, that caught my interest, but the fact that the author spent 20 years chained to the lava rock plunked into the Pacific Ocean about 15 kilometres from Puntarenas, Costa Rica's main port. The original English title of the book was God Was Looking the Other Way. Both versions are out of print.
Jose Leon Sanchez was 19 in 1950 when he was sent to San Lucas for allegedly committing murder while stealing jewels from the nation's religious shrine, Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles in Cartago. He maintained his innocence and was paroled in 1969, but it took another 30 years for Sanchez to hear the country's highest court declare him "innocent."
Prisoner 1713 arrived on San Lucas an illiterate felon. He spent his day chained, harvesting salt from the sea, breaking rocks, and dreaming of escape. Sanchez slipped away twice, and on another 17 occasions, was caught before he could plunge into the shark-infested currents swirling around the island. Behind bars, he learned to read and write. He self-published his first books after assembling a primitive press from instructions he found in Popular Mechanics.
San Lucas Island is now a national heritage site. Crews of volunteers working with the British-based Raleigh International have cleared the jail site. But in a place where time passed slowly, even the fast-growing tropical undergrowth could not obliterate the brutal and bloody past. The graffiti - lurid images, whimsical drawings and ominous musings - still speak of the "tortured" ghosts who lived and died on San Lucas.
In one cell, there's a crudely drawn, larger-than-life image of a woman, her rust-coloured bikini supposedly drawn in blood. The jailhouse tale is that the image was done after the prisoners savagely murdered a female nurse. Today, the island is an oasis of tropical tranquillity. Two children on a barrel-buoyed raft are paddling in the bay as we approach the concrete jetty and two towering holding cells. Poking out of the sea, near the boys' raft, is a navy ship sunk during a battle after a power-mad prison warden declared San Lucas Island an independent republic.
Halfway up the cobblestone path leading to the three-storey building that housed the administrative staff, the boys' father relaxes in a hammock. He's among the park rangers who spend a month at a time here, guarding an empty prison. His wife is hanging out some laundry. The steep stone path, reportedly constructed by a lone prisoner who was promised his freedom once he finished the task, took 20 years to complete. As we walk among the ruins, Cristian Madrigal, our Varso Travel guide recounts a litany of horrors that are synonymous with the cruelty and isolation of every penal colony of a bygone era.
We pause behind the dilapidated administration building, and he points to a huge concrete disc covering the prison's water tanks and pumps. A nearby smaller hole in the stone-solid ground was used for solitary confinement. A man who murdered a highly respected doctor is said to have spent his entire sentence in the hole. "A prisoner could not stand up in this hole, and after spending too many days in there, some were never able to walk erect," Cristian tells us. Some of the buildings are boarded up; the graffiti is too offensive, said Cristian. San Lucas was declared a wildlife sanctuary and historic site 10 years ago, he said. The diverse ecosystem on the island's 540 hectares supports 40 bird species, local and migratory; 17 species of reptiles, including boa constrictors; and eight species of mammals, such as howler monkeys and white-tailed deer.
"The local people see a lot of tourism potential and want the island opened up to more visitors, but there are others who see San Lucas as a national shame," Cristian said. "They prefer that all this be swallowed up by the tropical forest.
"You can't forget the pain, misery and many needless deaths associated with San Lucas, but that is no reason we should ignore the past. And we should never let this unique architecture crumble and disappear."
Last March, a month after we visited San Lucas, the island was opened to tourism. Oscar Arias, the two-time president of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace laureate, made the official announcement on the island. The government committed $3 million US to restore the chapel, cells and other buildings that are still standing.
Sanchez was appointed an official adviser. So, former Prisoner 1713 and the author of more than 20 books, who now resides in Mexico, is back on San Lucas - his conditions much more favourable this time around.
Boats to San Lucas and all the other islands leave from Puntarenas, a spit of land that is five blocks wide and stretches five kilometres into the Pacific.
One side of "Sandy Point" is all beach, with waves rolling and swooshing over the grey sand. Cruise lines dock here almost daily during the summer. Visitors can stroll through Puntarenas or take a variety of jungle, volcano and zip-line excursions. But you want to end your day somewhere along this spit of land and watch another splendid Costa Rican sunset.
The water on the other side of the spit of land is a foamy cafe-latte colour. The sea and river swirl and twirl, flowing and ebbing along the mangrove estuary around the boats, past the fish plant and market. At low tide, a croc or caiman lingers on the sandbar near the fish plant. The mangrove backs onto farmland dotted with majestic Guanacaste trees. But rain or shine, the port stink sticks to the place like barnacles to a ship.
Cristian and Armando Alfaro, the boat pilot, picked us up at the Puntarenas Yacht Club, next door to Hotel Porto Bello where we were staying. The boot took 40 minutes to reach San Lucas. The excursion, including a picnic on one of the island's five beaches, took four hours and cost about $75 US. The price varies, depending on the tour operator and number of passengers.