San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cleanup crew takes on trashed Nicoya Beach

ISLA SAN LUCAS – The prisoners once held captive on the Isla San Lucas are long gone, leaving behind only lurid drawings and harrowing excerpts on crumbling walls, offering glimpses into their once tormented lives.  

The Isla San Lucas, five kilometers from the port of Puntarenas in the Gulf of Nicoya, was home to the nation’s notorious prison of the same name from 1873-1991. Known as Costa Rica’s version of Alcatraz, the tales of suffering and inhumane conditions on the island prison led to its abandonment 20 years ago.

Since then, only park rangers, howler monkeys and deer have inhabited the densely forested island. Yet despite the lack of residents, mounds of trash have washed ashore the white-sand beaches, marring an unspoiled parcel of land with all of the spoils of human waste.

“We have tourists that come here for a day to visit and enjoy these beaches, though they are always disappointed to find all the trash that has washed ashore,” said Julio Alvarado, an administrator with the Isla San Lucas Wildlife Refuge since 2005.  “They come here expecting to find a perfect beach that has been uncontaminated by people, but that is exactly the opposite of what they find.”

Last month, the nongovernmental environmental organization Terra Nostra, as part of their “I love you clean, Costa Rica” campaign, traveled to the Isla San Lucas with 130 volunteers from Costa Rican tuna company Sardimar to clean up the trash. So far this year, Terra Nostra’s initiative has focused on trash that is ushered out into the Pacific’s Nicoya Peninsula via national rivers, such as the Tárcoles, Barranca and Jesús María. During each of the first seven months of the year, Terra Nostra has paired with a different volunteer company to dedicate several hours to cleaning up contaminated beaches along the Nicoya Peninsula.

Volunteers on July 23 caught an early morning ferry to the island, a 45-minute boat ride from Puntarenas, to put gloves on and dig into the mounds of trash on two of the island’s beaches. Braving the smoldering early morning sun, they briefly toured the former prison’s eerie jail cells and church, before plodding through the jungle to the polluted beaches. After separating into teams, trash collectors went to work, burrowing through the driftwood to extract plastic bottles, sandals, glass, toys and tires, and separate them into categories for recycling or reuse.

After three and a half hours of cleanup, dozens of hefty bags of waste piled up at the center of the beach. The towering mound of trash served as the symbolic landmark of the day, as many of the workers posed next to the mountain of waste and collectively shouted things like “No More” when a picture was snapped.

“Beaches don’t get this dirty by themselves,” said Marvin Herrera, a Sardimar employee that participated in the cleanup. “When people carelessly dispose of trash into rivers and oceans, it eventually gets vomited out somewhere. When you come to a beach like this, it is obvious that there needs to be more understanding of the damage waste causes.” 

San Lucas 2

A dilapidated church on Isla San Lucas.

Adam Williams | Tico Times

At day’s end, some 2,000 kilograms of trash were collected, including 260 kg of plastic, 120 kg of glass and 1,300 kg of non-recyclable trash. Most was delivered to the municipality of Puntarenas to be disposed of, while glass was sent to the bottle distributing company FEMSA, the world’s largest Coca-Cola bottler, and the plastic to the recycling center Misión Planeta.

Terra Nostra estimates that the Tárcoles, Barranca and Jesús María rivers have carried more than 22,000 tons of trash from the Central Valley into the Nicoya Peninsula during the last year and a half. Only about 2,000 tons were recyclable goods.

“We take pride in cleaning Costa Rica’s beaches, but one day of cleaning up a beach isn’t the solution at all,” said Terra Nostra director Nydia Rodríguez. “The solution is working to eliminate the amount of trash that is carelessly thrown away throughout the country and in San José. … The real goal of the campaign is to change the attitude and mentality of people that think they can throw trash anywhere and it won’t cause a problem.”

For more information, email or visit Terra Nostra’s next beach cleanup is at Playa Guacalillo in Puntarenas on Aug. 22.

The Penal Island


The infamous Isla San Lucas prison was modeled after a British penitentiary system that beginning in 1858 used islands as prisons as an alternative to the death penalty. Before San Lucas opened, the Costa Rican government had a penitentiary on the Isla del Coco, approximately 36 hours by boat from the country’s Pacific coast. Due to elevated operating costs from the excessive travel and fuel fees, the prison was moved to San Lucas in 1873.

In 1958, the penitentiary was transformed into an agricultural penitentiary colony, with a cattle farm, school, library, chapel and medical facility. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, investigations revealed that prisoners were being subjected to inhumane conditions and punishment, which resulted in the penitentiary’s closure in 1989. A few remaining minimum-security prisoners remained at the prison until 1991, when the island was completely evacuated.

Torture chambers still stand at San Lucas, such as “el disco” (the disk), a circular, underground cell at the center of one of the prison’s courtyards. Guards allegedly forced non-conforming prisoners into the non-ventilated cell and left them for days in the suffocating island heat. Prisoners referred to a cell adjacent to the medium-security pavilion as “la plancha” (the iron), because it was allegedly covered in metal sheets and sealed tight to produce elevated temperatures; prisoners were burned when they came into contact with the hot metal.

Today, the walls, floors and ceilings of the cells at San Lucas are still covered with graffiti that displays motifs of love, death, sex, religion and despair. One drawing, of a woman in a red bikini, is supposedly colored in blood. A message inscribed on the wall of the maximum-security area reads, “Plague, plague, eight years of prison on Isla San Lucas 17-5-83,” and another, “What misery you see in prison.”

Life at the penitentiary inspired Costa Rican author and former San Lucas inmate José León Sánchez to write “La Isla de los Hombres Solos” (“The Island of Lonely Men”), a novel, translated into 15 languages and published in 1984. University of Costa Rica professor Ilse Marie Bussing-López published an analysis of San Lucas graffiti entitled “Cuando las paredes hablan” (“When the Walls Speak”) in 2004.

In 2001, the island was deemed a wildlife refuge by the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Technology (MINAET). According to Julio Alvarado, administrator at Isla San Lucas Wildlife Refuge, the 472-hectare island once was home to one of the country’s largest deer populations, though the island became a hot spot for poachers from 1991 to 2001. Alvarado said the deer population had fallen to eight in 2001, but conservation efforts have replenished the species.

Source: Mar Viva, the National Biodiversity Institute and the Environment Ministry.

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