Located on a gorgeous island surrounded by turquoise water, traveling to San Lucas Prison – the Costa Rican Alcatraz – is a challenge. Few companies schedule organized tours and they’re so infrequently offered, private guides with their own boats are almost a necessity. In addition, finding English-speaking guides can be difficult since most visitors are locals. Sure they’re checking out the prison, but the islands pristine sandy beaches are a huge draw.
After much web searching and contacting tour agencies (with no tours scheduled), I found a guide through Facebook. A few days later, Ronald met me in his boat at the bustling Ferry Paquera dock, a 45-minute drive from my hotel. We motored through the beautiful Gulf of Nicoya, past untouched islands covered in towering cacti and nesting pelicans to Isla San Lucas. Between my rusty Spanish and Ronald’s creative English, I was able to learn the island’s sordid, violent history.
Visitors to the island disembark on the same crumbling jetty – then under armed guard -prisoners would have used. A one-minute walk down the dock and up sixteen stairs leads to two holding cells where prisoners were locked up for two days or until receiving their cell-block assignments. Hardened criminals were crammed with political prisoners, murderers, pickpockets, sometimes as young as 14-years old.
(Below are panoramic photos of the cells – be sure to go full-screen.)
From there, they were marched along Calle De La Amargura (the Street of Bitterness) to their assigned wing (minimum, medium or maximum security). Many of the original buildings remain but are in various states of (dis)repair. The crumbling doctor’s office is wrapped in mold while the church and commissary were recently restored – including the latter’s colorful stained-glass windows. Former storage areas and kitchens are succumbing to the ravages of time and bats careen through holes in the walls and 40-foot corrugated ceiling.
The medium security wing is full of collapsed structures and buildings wrapped in tree roots and strangling vines. Many walls are decorated with lewd art but not nearly as disturbing as in the maximum-security wing.
Check out photos of the prison here and stay tuned for a 360-degree walkthrough virtual tour of the prison’s maximum security ward and of its most infamous cell containing the blood-inked “Woman in the Red Bikini” mural.