Escape to a tropical Alcatraz
San Lucas Island, Costa Rica
“If you have nothing to do,” says the graffiti engraved on the cell block wall, “don’t come here to do it.
That would have been great advice from 1883 to 1989, when this San Lucas Island penitentiary was synonymous with cruelty and isolation. The inmates worked in the tropical sun, breaking rocks and collecting salt from the sea, dragging their shackles on their legs and dreaming of escape.
Costa Rica: A caption with a photograph accompanying an article in Sunday’s Travel section of San Lucas Island, Costa Rica, identified the beach as San Lucas. The beach pictured is Santa Teresa Beach, on the nearby Nicoya Peninsula. –
I have wanted to come here for years. I am always on the lookout for unusual wonders in a country that I know quite well, having lived here and having written about it. Beyond that, there is something about a former prison that draws me like an inmate in the exercise yard.
I visit the cells and imagine how I would hold out, or scan the layout, making an escape plan. And escaping from an island prison is all the more evocative. Judging by the popularity of Alcatraz and other old prisons, others also share my fascination.
San Lucas is one of the newest attractions of its kind. A 2001 decree declared the island a wildlife refuge and historic monument, preventing it from becoming a mega seaside resort. This was great news for the old prison, the island’s eight pre-Columbian archaeological sites and its inhabitants of monkeys, armadillos and parrots.
Visit the island
From the time the prison closed until the island opened as a national park in December, it was almost as difficult to get into San Lucas as it was before getting off.
Just before the official opening, however, I disembarked at the barnacle encrusted dock where, for a century, inmates arrived to spend time at the Costa Rican version of Alcatraz. We had hired a lancha (a small boat) in Puntarenas, a town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This is a 20 minute jaunt on the water to Isla San Lucas.
Two park officials, my local friend Joshua and I were the only souls on the island. The only living souls, that is to say. The place is full of ghosts.
It’s in the bat-infested prison church, the upstairs offices where you walk on the beams or fall through the rotten floors, the old dining room overgrown with strangling fig trees and especially in damp and dilapidated cells. We feel the weight of the expectation of former prisoners, their caniando – do your time.
The “ghosts” have left graphic messages on the walls. Footballers score winning goals, knives are dripping with blood, and a jaguar walks towards a tiny cell window. A smiling cat declares: “Sonria al canaso ” (Smile while you do your time). Crosses abound, as do the sad-faced Jesus and the beatific Virgins, one with her robe flaring out like a river delta.
But above all, there’s hand-drawn porn, from scribbled soldiers to fully rendered multi-body scenes. Near the dark background of a cell, a larger-than-life woman staggers in beautifully detailed high heels, her rust-colored bikini supposedly bloodied.
These rectangular cells, a little larger than my studio in San Francisco, could have held 60 to 80 men. At first, the inmates slept on the floor. Later, they had iron box springs with thin mattresses. The ceilings were low and the windows few; cross ventilation must have been almost non-existent.
“Hey!” Joshua called from outside a cell. “Come and see what I found.”
The midday sun flooded the inner courtyard. The fallen leaves of a guaramo tree littered the cracked concrete. I could smell the ocean in the breeze and hear the waves crashing on a nearby beach. What a relief it must have been for the prisoners to come out here, if only for a few minutes.
Joshua, a former nature guide who now works at the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, was a great companion on this trip. When we met two years ago in a hotel in the jungle, we discovered a common fascination with this prison island. I learned about it from a book by a former detainee, José León Sánchez, known for 19 years as Prisoner 1713.
León Sánchez entered prison barely literate in 1950, but became a published author 20 years later, printing his early works here on a press he made following instructions from an issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. He had over two dozen books to his credit, but his best-known work remains the novel based on his stay here: “La Isla de los Hombres Solos” (The Island of the Lonely Men); (“God was looking elsewhere” is the English version out of print).
Joshua visited San Lucas twice while it was still a prison. “I was maybe 10 years old,” he told me. “I don’t remember if we were visiting a family friend or a relative. But I remember the place very well.
“Later, in high school, I found ‘La Isla de los Hombres Solos’ in a second-hand bookstore, and memories of the island came back to me. From there, I wanted to come back.
Now he had found something he had read in the book. “This is the underground solitary confinement cell,” he said, crouching next to a large metal disc almost level with the ground. “The men spent months there, with only 15 minutes above the ground a day.” A damp smell escaped from the opening, a mixture of damp earth and corroded metal.
Suddenly, the prison seemed to close in on me. “Let’s take a break in this place,” I said, no doubt echoing the feelings of the inmates.
The path to Playa el Coco, a white sand beach a short walk from the prison, is shaded by overhanging trees. Ruins of half-timbered huts are visible through the undergrowth. After the penitentiary became a prison in 1958, well-behaved inmates lived outside the main facility, fishing, tending their gardens, and selling handicrafts to visitors. “My father bought a little driftwood panga,” says Joshua. “He still has it. “
The pre-1958 penitentiary that León Sánchez describes was a very different place. “I have felt with my own flesh,” he wrote, “the fire of steel, the long months in the dungeon, my hands chained in irons, the contempt for my condition as a human being. In the penitentiary, I discovered that a man can descend until he turns into a dog, or less than a dog.
But he was also eloquent about the beauty of the island, all the more poignant in contrast to the horror of the prison. “There is nothing prettier in San Lucas than these summer months,” he wrote. “The trees sprout and flower. . . . The foam of the sea laughs and each wave rears loudly in the wind. . . . Yellow butterflies appear by the thousands.
For decades animals and plants have been poached and abused, but they are now recovering. In 2005, authorities brought to the 2.5 square mile island an assortment of Noah’s Ark species that had once abounded here. Deer, turkeys, parrots, iguanas, armadillos and sloths were among the animals released.
Other species did not need help: about 120 howler monkeys made their home on the island, along with 40 species of birds, including pelicans, owls and the magnificent frigatebird; 17 species of reptiles, including boa constrictors and sometimes crocodiles; and eight kinds of bats.
We had already encountered bats, scorpions, countless varieties of birds and insects, and an agouti, which looks like a shiny guinea pig the size of a dog. On the way to the beach, we passed a troop of howler monkeys. Joshua clapped his hands, and they started with their deep throat howls, which are produced by a special echo chamber in the throat and carry for miles. They maintain their territory through sound, perceiving rival noise as a challenge.
Joshua raised the bar, imitating the call of the white-faced monkey, the great rival of the howlers, and the howlers were unleashed; one of them even threw excrement on the path, narrowly missing us.
The path was showing signs of recent activity, with maintenance being carried out by volunteers from UK-based Raleigh International who organize community service expeditions around the world. Volunteers arrived every three weeks to work on the trails and pick up the garbage. On the beach, broken flip flops and limbless dolls reminded us that even uninhabited islands receive the dubious gift of trash from strong ocean currents. But further along the island’s coast, palm and mango trees arched over the clean sands, and the views across the water to the blue and green hills of the Nicoya Peninsula were breathtaking.
Looking out to sea, I imagined the prison escapes on the island that I had read and seen on film: the Count of Monte-Cristo slipping into a body bag intended for a fellow prisoner; Butterfly escaping from Devil’s Island; Frank Morris paddling a raft made of inflated raincoats away from Alcatraz Island.
León Sánchez wrote about an inmate swimming in the sea, possibly from this same beach, with a dead pelican strapped to his head for camouflage. The keeper, cruel to humans but lover of birds, had forbidden anyone to harm the pelicans. But he could apparently distinguish a dead from a living, and pulled the latter out of the water.
Our escape from San Lucas Island was more successful and significantly less dramatic. Before returning to the mainland, we said goodbye to Victor Alvarado Montoya, the administrator of the park. Previously, Joshua had presented Don Victor with our letter of permission, resplendent with official seals and signatures. I told the administrator how privileged I felt to have seen this remarkable island before the park officially opened.
I stopped in the middle of a sentence, and we both watched a Costa Rican family – children, cousins, aunts and uncles – walk towards us. Who knew how they got here, but it was clear they would thrive without a letter of authorization. They approached, chatted with Don Victor, then asked if they could look around them. – Of course, said Don Victor with a smile. “Just watch your steps. Make sure children do not fall through the floor or lock themselves into cells.
Welcome to Costa Rica. Where official clearance is needed, unless, of course, you just show up. This is what the intrepid visitor should do – before everyone else gets the idea. Just be sure to watch your steps.