Isla San Lucas, a lush tropical island on the remote west coast of the Golfo de Nicoya in Costa Rica, looks like paradise but has a notorious history. The island has been a penal colony from the time of the conquistadors in the 16th century and served as Costa Rica’s Alcatraz until the prison was finally closed in 1991. Nowadays it’s a national park and the prison is open to look around. The graffiti on the cell blocks is well known for it’s artistry and interesting subject matter.
The graffiti really was remarkable! Not surprisingly much of the art featured religious images and naked women but there were other drawings of boats, houses, animals, sports and a host of other things that the prisoners were longing for.
I was fascinated by this drawing of chained hands and feet each shackled to a ball and chain. Yet the manacled prisoner is not drawn. Is it unfinished or symbolic? Maybe suggesting prisoners were “invisible” men, insignificant and forgotten, or that the men may be bound in chains but their souls are free? The ball and chain were finally ditched in the 1960’s – truly the age of liberation!
Tourists from the mainland visit Isla san Lucas at weekends; the prison is legendary and the painting of the girl in the bikini is famous on the internet. It has been recently vandalized as images on the web show it to be more colourful and intact without the scratches which deface it now.
In his memoir “Island of Lonely Men” Jose Leon Sanchez describes his thirty years of incarceration on Isla San Lucas. He was imprisoned for stealing some jeweled treasure from a basilica, but was innocent or so the story goes. He was set up by the father of his girlfriend who obviously was unhappy with the match and adopted rather extreme measures to remove him.
Visiting the prison at night was a completely different experience. Neil was keen and initially I was very reluctant, but having been there twice during the day I began to feel more comfortable with the idea.
The arched gatehouse looked like a ruined abbey at night as we passed through to the prison yard.We lit four candles which we placed in the cistern in the centre of the yard. The cell blocks lit-up by the candlelight seemed more mellow at night, the mould and and rot so visible in daylight was hidden in the shadows.
We turned off our torches and the world reduced to the range illuminated by the candles; the prison yard, the cell blocks and the governors house. With only pain, misery and despair all around and no hope for the future this would have been the entire world for the prisoners incarcerated here.
It was a clear night and the stars were bright in the sky, looking up I could see the Big Dipper pointing towards Polaris, the north star. The stars must have given the prisoners a way of measuring time and maybe also a connection with the outside world; seeing the same stars as loved ones left behind. Maybe the prisoners also enjoyed watching the fireflies, their luminous green lights bouncing around the prison walls.
Visiting the prison at night was a moving and surprisingly undisturbing experience. Evenso I was glad to see Distant Drummer’s anchor light beckoning us as we paddled back through the phosphorescent water.
More from Nicoya soon