San Lucas Island, Puntarenas, Costa Rica | CruiseBe
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San Lucas Island

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San Lucas Island (Spanish: Isla San Lucas) is an island located off the Pacific shore of Costa Rica in the Gulf of Nicoya. It is part of the 11th district of Puntarenas Canton of the province of Puntarenas. Formerly serving as an island prison, it is now a National Park.


San Lucas Island located in the Gulf of Nicoya off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, about 40 minutes in boat from Puntarenas. The island has an area of approximately 4.6 km².

Indigenous culture

Indigenous groups lived on San Lucas and the surrounding islands. There are eight known archeological sites on the island, including apparent houses where stone tools and a metal object were found in the late 1970s. The excavation sites date to between 1,000 and 1,500 AD.


From 1873 to 1991, San Lucas Island was a penal island for some of the worst criminals in Costa Rica. It is often erroneously cited as the largest prison in Costa Rican history. It was founded by the dictator Tomás Miguel Guardia Gutiérrez. Being sent to San Lucas Island was a terrible prospect as prisoners lives were short and often spent in torture. Ironically, Guardia abolished the death penalty a year after establishing the prison.

The former buildings of the penal island are considered "Patrimonio de Cultura," or cultural heritage sites. The buildings include a historic dock that is still in use after the first dock was destroyed, a church, a medical building, temporary holding cells, a three story main office, a large concrete disc used to hold a water tank, and water pumps. In addition, there are prison cells of varying security levels depending on the prisoners' crimes. The prison cells contain the typical graffiti of older Latin American prisons, such as religious phrases, pornographic images, signatures, and drawings. There are also several water pumps and a cemetery under excavation on the island.

José León Sánchez, a prisoner of the island, wrote "La Isla de Hombres Solos," translated into English as "The Island of Lonely Men," based on his time in the prison at San Lucas Island. León claimed that he was unjustly imprisoned for a robbery that he did not commit. Other prisoners included Beltrán Cortés Carvajal, the famous killer of the doctors Carlos Manuel Echandi Lahmann and Ricardo Moreno Cañas.


In 2008, Costa Rica declared the island part of the national wildlife preserve, a ceremony which featured a speech by former prisoner León.

The island includes a wide variety of wildlife, such as howler monkeys, spiders, snakes, deer, and pheasants. There are also at least 8 species of bats on the island. The waters surrounding the island are home to hammerhead sharks, rays, and turtles.


The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo began planning to invest money into tourism on the island by developing commercial spaces for restaurants, beaches, and tour operators. The volunteer organization Raleigh International occasionally sends young volunteers to help rangers clear beaches to make the island more attractive for tourism.

Now it is a full-fledged tourist destination, with several companies offering charters to the island. There is great concern that the tourist activities are destroying pre-Columbian sites and the prison's archeological significance, as well as the wildlife habitats of the area.

Volunteer work

The Island benefits from the charity Raleigh International, who work with the rangers on the Island to improve the surrounding area. Over the years the island has been visited from many volunteering groups with the aim to improve access and protect the island. One notable volunteer was Mylo Kaye, an entrepreneur from the United Kingdom.

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