San Lucas Island was used as a prison from 1873 to 1991. Modeled after Devil’s Island, it housed Costa Rica’s worst criminals, kind of like Alcatraz with a Papillion twist. The prison is often referred to as “The Island of Lonely Men,” based on the book of the same name (La Isla de Los Hombres Solos) written by Jose Leon Sanchez, a prisoner who claimed his innocence and tried to escape multiple times.
The island is located 8 kilometers and 40 minutes by boat from the tip of Puntarenas. The former buildings of the penal island are considered “patrimonio de cultural” (cultural heritage sites). During the tour, you will see the historic waterfront with original dock, the church, a medical building, a former office, and of course, the prison cells, complete with graffiti typical of prisons in Latin America.
San Lucas Island was designated a national wildlife refuge on February 12, 2001. Its 1156 acres (470 hectares) are home to howler monkeys, snakes, deer, pheasants, and at least 8 species of bats. The waters surrounding the island provide habitat for manta rays and turtles.
Another important aspect of the island’s history is that, from 1500 to 800 BC, indigenous groups lived on San Lucas and used it as a burial place. There are 8 known archeological sites on the island. San Lucas is one of only two islands in the Gulf of Nicoya with fresh water on it.
We went on a San Lucas Island Tour, and it was fascinating! It started with a boat trip through the Mangrove Forests near Puntarenas. We saw huge crocodiles sunning themselves near the water and lots of different birds including my favorite, pelicans. Then we continued on to San Lucas Island where we toured the grounds, buildings, and prison cells of the penal colony.
Here’s our video of the San Lucas Island Prison tour. You can see the prison cell walls covered with graffiti — signatures, drawings, and religious phrases — which tell a story of their lives there.