San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Low Tide Opens Way to Cabuya Island Cemetery

CABUYA, Puntarenas – For three hours every day, twice a day, the ocean parts on the coast at Cabuya, revealing a stony footpath into the land of the dead.

This island cemetery near the southern tip of the NicoyaPeninsula is one of the region’s most fascinating and peculiar sights. The graveyard can be reached only by foot at low tide.

The grave site has been in use since the 1700s, and funerals still occur here several times a year. These magnificent ceremonies sometimes take place in the black of night as mourners transport the body from the town of Cabuya to its final resting place on CabuyaIsland.

Minibuses traveling between the beach town of Montezuma and Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve can drop off those curious about the island at a trail that leads to the Cabuya shoreline. The hulking mass of CabuyaIsland is visible from shore. If it’s low tide, a path dotted with dull-colored stones materializes from beneath the waves.

Buzzards hang out at the entrance of the passageway. The gloomy scavenger birds help ferry visitors to the other side, flying overhead as guests cross the bridge of rock, pebbles and sand – a chilling premonition. Fishermen also dole out warnings for those venturing toward this oddity.

“In the night, there are times when I hear voices coming from there,” Cabuya fisherman Wilber Méndez said. “The sounds are not birds; they are something else.” Indigenous tribes used the island as a burial place long before the area was colonized and even before the Pacific Ocean divided the landmass from the rest of Costa Rica, Méndez said.

It’s a small island; to circumnavigate it takes about a half-hour. Tide pools around the outer edge make it a popular place for tourists looking to snorkel. A wooded area in the island’s center encloses the graveyard.

The island itself is appropriately eerie. Several trees have a bleached, hollow appearance, like monolithic bones buried in the sand. A chalky arch welcomes visitors into the cemetery. Crossing under the arch, guests walk between two rows of pointy cabuya (agave) plants, for which the island is named.

Hermit crabs skitter in every direction on the walkway, collapsing into their shells hen people trudge by.

The first plots appear 50 meters down the path. These are simple graves, varying in size. Grass encases some of the more unkempt graves. Colorful flowers garnish the tops of gray concrete tombs. Crosses are rusted or snapped in half on some. Tombstones are chipped. One of the more elaborate graves near the entrance is a rectangular granite crypt adorned with hundreds of sparkly seashells.

Several elaborate plots, obscured by the foliage, can be found to the right of the entrance. This area contains the most intricate tombs in the cemetery. Locals invoke the structures seen on these grave sites when discussing the legends behind the island. “Many things happen during the night,” said César Benavides, a tour guide for Proyecto Montezuma, based in that town to the north. “I do not know a person who has spent a night on CabuyaIsland for that reason. They are afraid because of stories of ghosts.”

A granite bust of a man’s face, blotched with green moss like a spreading disease, eyes closed, has an unsettling quality. The feeling is amplified by a second bust of the same serene face fastened to the back of the man’s head. Several foreigners also have plots in the cemetery. A large plane propeller marks the grave site of a dead war veteran. In the middle of this quarter of the island, a massive crypt serves as the burial ground’s stunning centerpiece.

Funeral processions to CabuyaIsland occur every few months. The elegant ceremonies accompanying burials are worthy of such a unique graveyard. The night burials take place only during a full moon. On those rare occasions, a hallowed scene illuminates the darkness.

“They put lights on the entire path, like candles,” Benavides said. “When the moon is full and the tide is low, they bury the person under the full moon.

“It is very beautiful.”

After the funeral rite ends, the mourners return to Cabuya. Tidewaters wash over the rocks. The path between the living and the dead disappears.

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