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At San Lucas Island, Costa Rica creates its 30th national park

August 24, 2020

Costa Rica on Monday celebrated the 50th anniversary of its national parks system by creating another national park.

During a ceremony at Casa Presidencial, President Carlos Alvarado signed decree No. 9892, converting San Lucas Island from a protected wildlife area into Costa Rica’s 30th national park.

The island, located in the Gulf of Nicoya, reopened Saturday to visitors as part of the “San Lucas Island Reactivation Route” led by First Lady Claudia Dobles.

“We are certain that San Lucas will be able to continue with the preservation of its cultural and historical heritage, as well as the conservation of its natural heritage,” she said.

As part of the recent renovations, San Lucas Island has new trails and better sanitary services to attend to guests.

Island was once ‘hell on earth’

San Lucas Island was the location of a prison “so infamous it made Alcatraz look like Club Med,” as The Tico Times wrote in a 2016 story. As we explained then:

A 40-minute boat ride from Puntarenas, San Lucas was chosen to be a prison island by the dictator Tomás Guardia in 1873. For over 100 years, the worst of the worst of the country’s criminals (and apparently some innocents too), were banished to this Costa Rican Devil’s Island to endure brutal tortures and inhuman conditions. It finally closed in 1991.

And then this hell on earth, like a well-behaved prisoner, became successfully rehabilitated as a wildlife refuge. For tourists today, it’s a chance to explore both the natural riches of a Costa Rican island and a dark but fascinating history.

You’ll take a stroll down the appropriately named “Street of Bitterness” (Calle de la Amargura) when you first arrive on the island. You’ll see the medium- and maximum-security cells, whose walls are home to countless drawings depicting the pain, hatred and despair of its former tenants.

You can even see the old torture chambers — deep holes or tiny cells where misbehaving prisoners were forced to spend days immersed in rainwater, sewage and lime.

In addition to learning about the island’s not-so-pleasant history as a prison, visitors to San Lucas can spot plenty of wildlife. A 2006 visit from Universidad Nacional (UNA) researchers found dozens of native species, including monkeys, snakes and anteaters.

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