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Escape to a tropical Alcatraz

Once a notorious prison, San Lucas Island has been transformed into a national park. It's a place of unparalleled beauty -- and ghosts.

October 19, 2008|Erin Van Rheenen | Special to The Times

SAN LUCAS ISLAND, COSTA RICA — "If you don't have anything to do," says the graffiti scratched into the cellblock wall, "don't come here to do it."

That would have been excellent advice from 1883 to 1989, when this penitentiary on San Lucas Island was synonymous with cruelty and isolation. Inmates labored in the tropical sun, breaking rocks and harvesting salt from the sea, dragging their leg irons and dreaming of escape.

I've wanted to come here for years. I'm always on the lookout for out-of-the-way wonders in a country I know pretty well, from living here and writing about it. Beyond that, there's something about a former prison that draws me like an inmate to the exercise yard.

I visit the cells and imagine how I'd hold up, or I scan the layout, hatching an escape plan. And escape from an island prison is all the more evocative. Judging by the popularity of Alcatraz and other former prisons, others share my fascination too.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Costa Rica: A caption with a photograph accompanying an article in Sunday's Travel section on San Lucas Island, Costa Rica, identified the beach as on San Lucas. The beach pictured is Santa Teresa beach, on the nearby Nicoya Peninsula.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 26, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Costa Rica prison: A caption with a photograph in last week's section on San Lucas Island, Costa Rica ("Escape to a Tropical Alcatraz"), identified the beach as San Lucas. The beach pictured is Santa Teresa beach, on the nearby Nicoya Peninsula.

San Lucas is one of the newest such attractions. A 2001 decree declared the island a wildlife refuge and historical monument, saving it from becoming a mega-resort. That was great news for the old prison, the island's eight pre-Columbian archaeological sites and its inhabitants of monkeys, armadillos and parrots.

Visiting the island

From the time of the prison's closure to the island's opening as a national park in December, it was almost as hard to get onto San Lucas as it once was to get off.

Just before the official opening, however, I disembarked at the barnacle-encrusted dock where for a century, inmates arrived to do time at Costa Rica's version of Alcatraz. We'd hired a lancha (a small boat) in Puntarenas, a city on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. It's a 20-minute jaunt across the water to Isla San Lucas.

Two park officials, my local pal Josue and I were the only souls on the island. The only living souls, that is. The place is rife with ghosts.

They're in the bat-infested prison church, the upstairs offices where you walk the beams or risk falling through the rotting floorboards, the old dining hall invaded by strangler fig trees and, most of all, in the dank and dilapidated cells. You can feel the weight of the former inmates' waiting, their caniando -- doing time.

The "ghosts" left graphic messages on the walls. Soccer players make winning goals, knives drip blood and a jaguar stalks toward a cell's one tiny window. A grinning cat declares, "Sonria al canaso" (Smile while you do your time). Crosses abound, as do sad-faced Jesuses and beatific Virgins, one with her robe flaring out like a river delta.

Most of all, though, there is hand-drawn porn, from scrawled privates to fully rendered multibody scenes. Near the shadowy back of one cell, a larger-than-life woman totters on lovingly detailed high heels, her rust-colored bikini purportedly drawn in blood.

These rectangular cellblocks, a little bigger than my studio apartment in San Francisco, would have held 60 to 80 men. In the early days, prisoners slept on the floor. Later, they had iron bedsteads with thin mattresses. Ceilings were low and windows few; cross-ventilation must have been almost nonexistent.

"Hey!" Josue called from outside a cell. "Come see what I found."

Midday sun flooded the interior courtyard. Fallen leaves from a guaramo tree littered the cracked concrete. I could smell the ocean on the breeze and hear waves break on a nearby beach. What a relief it must have been for prisoners to come out here, if only for a few minutes.

Josue, a former nature guide who now works at Costa Rica's tourism institute, was an excellent companion for this journey. When we met two years ago at a jungle hotel, we discovered a shared fascination for this prison island. I learned about it through a book by a former inmate, Jose Leon Sanchez, who was known for 19 years as Prisoner 1713.

Leon Sanchez entered prison barely literate in 1950 but emerged 20 years later a published author, printing his first works in here on a press he made following instructions in an issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. He had more than two dozen books to his credit, but his best known work remains the novel based on his time here: "La Isla de los Hombres Solos" (The Island of the Lonely Men); ("God Was Looking the Other Way" is the out-of-print English version).

Josue visited San Lucas twice while it was still a prison. "I was maybe 10 years old," he told me. "I can't remember if we were visiting a family friend or a relative. But I remember the place really well.

"Later, in high school, I found 'La Isla de los Hombres Solos' at a used bookstore, and memories of the island flooded back. From then on, I wanted to return."

Now, he had found something he read about in the book. "It's the underground solitary confinement cell," he said, crouching next to a big metal disk almost flush with the ground. "Men spent months down there, with only 15 minutes above ground per day." A dank smell wafted up out of the opening, a mix of wet earth and corroding metal.

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