San Lucas prison island boat tour
The former prison on San Lucas Island was the roughest jail in the country. Being sent to San Lucas Island was a terrible prospect; prisoners’ lives were short and often spent in torture.
We take you on a boat tour to the San Lucas prison island, that for 117 years was home to the most vicious criminals in Costa Rica. Since it was shut down in 1991 the former prison has only housed the remnants of inmate graffiti scrawled across cell walls.
Today the prisoners are gone. San Lucas Island has been transformed into a national wildlife refuge to protect the island’s ecosystem, its wildlife, the historic buildings of the penal colony, and indigenous archaeological sites.
San Lucas prison island | a brief look at the history
Akin to San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, San Lucas Island was a place where dangerous criminals could be locked up out of sight, and out of mind. The island was first set up as a penitentiary during the presidency of Thomas Guardia in 1873. The same president who later abolished the death penalty in Costa Rica (in 1882). A network of prison cells held society’s undesirables, who ran the community, fished, farmed and did domestic chores.
Indigenous people once lived on San Lucas and the surrounding islands. There are several archaeological sites on the island that date to between 1,000 and 1,500 AD.
The former buildings of the prison are considered cultural heritage sites. And now this dark past of the prison is recognized, and will hopefully become a symbol for the protection of human rights.
The lonely men’s island
The story of the penal colony is perhaps best immortalized in the book “The lonely men’s Island” by Costa Rican author José León Sánchez. Sánchez served 30 years at San Lucas Prison for a robbery he claims he did not commit. When he entered prison, Sánchez was only 19 and illiterate. He learned to read and write in prison. In the end, Costa Rica’s Supreme Court absolved Sanchez of the crime in 1998.
José León wrote the story of Jacinto while he was at San Lucas, forging the novel out of his own experience and out of those hundreds like him. Scribbled on small pads of paper stuffed in a burlap sack, the book was smuggled out of the prison. It immediately created sensation in Costa Rica.
Now free and living in Costa Rica, José León devotes himself to prison reform.
What to expect on the San Lucas prison island tour
We start our historical journey by boarding our 26ft boat at the Paquera ferry landing. On the 30-minute boat ride to the San Lucas prison island we will take time to pass by some of the vibrant bird islands in the gulf.
We enter the island through the same dock as where the prisoners were brought in. Our guide will provide information and stories from when the prisoners lived on the island. During the walk around the San Lucas prison island, you will learn about the history of the prison and the torture and inhumane conditions the inmates faced.
The prisoners were not provided any artistic tools, but anything they could find that would leave a mark was used to tag the walls of the prison. The words and pictures you will see on the walls, express their anger and depression, along with their loneliness and faith in something outside of the tropical prison.
As part of the tour we walk a couple of the trails that exists on the island. Some of the trails leads to several wonderful sandy beaches. Others to rocky shorelines where the prisoners were brought to work breaking rocks for construction.
We will have lunch in a pick-nick area close to the dock, or alternatively we’ll go back on the boat and embark on one of the beaches on the island for a refreshing swim, and have our lunch on the beach before heading back to the Paquera ferry landing.
San Lucas prison island tour Logistics / Pricing / Booking
– Departure from: The Paquera ferry landing (Link to google map)
– Departure time: 9:00 am
– Duration: Approximately 4-5 hours
– Capacity: Minimum 2 and maximum 12 persons
– Boat transfer
– Guided tour of the former prison
– Multi-lingual guide
– Lunch, snacks and water
What to bring:
– Comfortable sandals or shoes
– Light breathable clothes
– Swimsuit (if you want to refresh on the beach)
– Sunscreen, sunglasses and cap/hat
– Bug spray
Price San Lucas prison island boat tour:
$60 per person (minimum 4 persons)
$70 per person for tour with 2 or 3 persons
+ entry fee: foreigners $12, residents $4