ISLA SAN LUCAS, Puntarenas – All prisons are islands in and of themselves, separate and cut off from the rest of society. But actually taking a prison and isolating it on a small island seems to generate a special mystique and spawn tales seething with horrifying acts by desperate, hopeless men.
From the inhumane, commemorative lashings of Alexandre Dumas’ innocent Edmond Dantès in the Château d’If, to the daring yet unconfirmed escape attempts from Alcatraz, colonies of penal seclusion are a wellspring for spicy tales that test our sense of justice and sometimes the strength of our stomachs.
In Costa Rica, the infamous fortress that held so many men and was also able to trap the truth behind many of their stories within its shoreline sits quietly on the Isla San Lucas, at the southern end of the Gulf of Nicoya off the central Pacific coast.
Opened in February 1873, the prison was originally commissioned by then President Tomás Guardia to hold the country’s hardest criminals. Throughout its more than 100 years in operation, it produced a haunting number of stories. The prison also boasts the same honor as Alcatraz: No one is ever known to have escaped successfully. While many attempts were made, only two prisoners may have escaped.
“And they disappeared and were never seen again,” said Craig Lapsley, director of Samantha Tours, which now operates a day tour of the island.
Considering that the prisoners wore heavy iron shackles on their wrists and ankles from the time they first set foot on the island, and that the island sits in the middle of one of the gulf ’s strongest currents, Lapsley continued, “I assume they drowned.”
The prison was shut down in 1991 and given historic status four years later, according to the Culture Ministry. Up until December, tour operators had to receive permission from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry for each trip to the island. But in December, the tropical forest- swathed island was opened up so tours could be run more easily. Only a couple of companies have obtained permission so far, of which Samantha Tours is the only one to have set up regular, weekly day trips to the island out of San José.
After a 45-minute trip from the Pacific port of Puntarenas, the boat ties up on an old, concrete dock, which leads up to the main gate: an archway anchored by two small cells, where it is rumored the guards would keep newly arrived prisoners for weeks with nothing but the dark and the concrete for comfort.
The archway opens onto the Calle de la Amargura (Street of Bitterness), now overrun with weeds. The road leads up to the main prison and the church, both covered with stripped paint on rotten wood. Vines wrap their way in and out of windows and broken boards, engulfing the buildings.
The ceiling of the church is collapsing, and, in typical Latin American fashion, it’s the most impressive building in sight.
“There are stories of a priest being murdered, but we haven’t actually been able to prove it,” Lapsley said.
But of all the stories and figures inexorably tied to the island, that of José León Sánchez is probably the most famous, Lapsley said. Sánchez plays the part of both Alexandre Dumas and Edmond Dantès – both author and protagonist – in his autobiographical account of his close to 20-year stay on the island: “La isla de los hombres solos” (“The Island of Lonely Men”). (There’s also a bit of Sean Connery from “The Rock”  in him, with wild white hair and a slightly rebellious attitude: He has a penchant for proliferating rumors about the inhumane punishment of prisoners and extending facts.)
Sánchez was convicted of stealing religious artifacts when he was 19 years old – a charge he’s always denied. In his book, he writes about the inhumanity of both prisoners and guards (TT, Aug. 26, 2005). Grueling forms of punishment, acts of violence and sexual aggression, odd rituals – all based in fact but stretched and morphed by years on the island.
Many of the stories, be they Sánchez’s or not, have been put up on the walls in one of the nine barrack-like cells, where 20 to 30 prisoners would stay at a time, Lapsley said. The walls are covered in graffiti of differing quality and subjects, ranging from Christian to pornographic.
“Some of the cells are better than others,” Lapsley said. “Some are more artistic. There are lots of images of Jesus in them. … The one across the way, we are careful not to bring children to. It’s kind of pornographic. Well, forget kind of – it is pornographic.”
One of the cells reveals two full-sized drawings of scantily clad women. One represents a real-life teacher who came to work on the island but left after being molested. The story of the other, unknown woman – whose likeness has the tail of a devil – goes that she was a nurse who was abused by the prisoners, then killed, and her body dragged into the cell.
There, it’s said, her blood was used to help paint her likeness.
“It’s a widely believed story, and everyone will tell you it’s true,” Lapsley said.
Samples of the “paint” used for the drawing revealed some of it was actually human blood, though the identity of the person is unknown, he said.
The theme infects nearly every story. In early June, an excavation of one of the cemeteries by the NationalMuseum and the University of Miami revealed that nearly every skeleton had signs of syphilis, Lapsley said.
The complex is a perfectly haunting place, and the area surrounding it is doused in an odd silence for a tropical forest full of monkeys and birds. The absence of sound is especially noticeable on the short hike across the island in the afternoon to relax and enjoy Playa El Coco beach on the other side of the island, where birds squawk and monkeys scream. In between, the crew of the “Paradise” – the beautiful boat that charters visitors to the island – serves up a delicious lunch.
At the end of the day, visitors have the pleasure of looking back at the disturbing discomfort in which the island’s previous inhabitants lived, all in a very luxurious and comfortable manner.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Samantha Tours offers full-day tours to Isla San Lucas every Sunday, and can organize trips at other times when demand is high. Tours depart San José at 6:45 a.m. and return at 7 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are included. The price is ¢25,000 ($43) for nationals and residents, $119 for foreigners. For information and reservations, call 2233-2681 or visit www.samanthatours.com.
A captain and boat may also be contracted privately in the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, the departure point for the island.