San Lucas: Here’s one prison in Costa Rica you might actually want to visit

October 7, 2016

In Costa Rica it’s best to avoid going to prison — except in this case.

San Lucas Island in the Gulf of Nicoya was once home to a prison so infamous it made Alcatraz look like Club Med. This being Costa Rica, of course it’s a national wildlife refuge and a tourism destination today.

Tours are currently being promoted by Teatro Espressivo, which is staging a play based on the book “La isla de los hombres solos” (“The Island of Lonely Men”), a Costa Rican bestseller based on author José León Sánchez’s 30-year imprisonment there. For $100, the theater is offering round-trip transportation from San José, a tour of the island and a ticket to the play.

"Street of Bitterness."

At a special session Monday morning the board members of Costa Rica's Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) voted to fire Javier Vargas Tencio from his post as general manager after an investigation revealed he allegedly falsified a document to annul  wage garnishments stemming from a debt to a public bank.

Vargas owes the Bank of Costa Rica ₡17 million ($34,000) in credit card debt, according to an investigation by Telenoticias Channel 7, aired in a series of stories last week.

"This board considers it appropriate and convenient to the institutional interests to terminate the services of Mr. Javier Vargas Tencio," AyA stated in a press release. The decision was made by a majority of board members.

Judicial Investigation Police agents last Friday raided AyA facilities in Pavas, west of San José, to search for evidence related to the alleged forged document.

Later that day, AyA’s Executive President Yesenia Calderón convened a board meeting to discuss the manager’s dismissal.

The press release was sent shortly after President Laura Chinchilla sent a memo asking board members to expedite a resolution to Vargas’ case.

(Courtesy of Espressivo Theater)

A 40-minute boat ride from Puntarenas, San Lucas was chosen to be a prison island by the dictator Tomás Guardia in 1873. For over 100 years, the worst of the worst of the country’s criminals (and apparently some innocents too), were banished to this Costa Rican Devil’s Island to endure brutal tortures and inhuman conditions. It finally closed in 1991.

And then this hell on earth, like a well-behaved prisoner, became successfully rehabilitated as a wildlife refuge. For tourists today, it’s a chance to explore both the natural riches of a Costa Rican island and a dark but fascinating history.

You’ll take a stroll down the appropriately named “Street of Bitterness” (Calle de la Amargura) when you first arrive on the island. You’ll see the medium- and maximum-security cells, whose walls are home to countless drawings depicting the pain, hatred and despair of its former tenants.

José León Sánchez, author of "The Island of Lonely Men," on a tour of San Lucas Island.

Hotels, restaurants and other tourism businesses will be on the hunt for workers Wednesday at a job fair at Universidad Latina’s Heredia campus, north of the Costa Rican capital.

Companies will be looking for 500 workers in the university’s auditorium from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Among the 20 companies looking to hire are Marriott Corporation, Sheraton Hotel, Wyndham Hotels, Moyo Ice Cream Parlors, Chilis Restaurant, Grupo Pampa, Holiday Inn Escazú, Restaurantes El Barril, Four Seasons Costa Rica and Gaia Hotel, among others.

Interested applicants must be over 18 and should bring digital and printed résumés, original and photocopies of school degrees and printed references.

Admission is free.

(Courtesy of Espressivo Theater)

You can even see the old torture chambers — deep holes or tiny cells where misbehaving prisoners were forced to spend days immersed in rainwater, sewage and lime.

Sánchez, one of Costa Rica’s greatest writers, was convicted at age 20 of stealing jewels from the Basilica de Cartago, home to a statue of the country’s patron saint, “La Negrita.” He was sentenced to life in prison but was exonerated after 30 years. He says he was innocent.

The Teatro Espressivo is currently staging the theatrical version of Sánchez’s book, and offering tours to the island every Saturday until Nov. 12, plus Wednesday, Oct. 12.

What's left of the old prison.

The less-than-stellar performance by Mexico’s National Football Team means "El Tri" could face New Zealand for a final shot at the World Cup if the Mexican team can at least draw against Costa Rica’s National Team tonight.

Mexico usually breezes through qualifying rounds, but this year has been different. El Tri's performance has been dismal, and now Mexicans must face the reality that their team might not make Brazil in 2014. 

On Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m., El Tri faces Costa Rica's La Sele, a team that already qualified and is undefeated at home. The match takes place in the National Stadium in western San José's La Sabana Park. 

In the past four matches, La Sele has scored eight goals and conceded just one. In away games, Mexico 's El Tri has drawn three and won one, while scoring just three goals and giving up two.

To secure a place in the playoffs, Mexico needs a tie, but they also still have a chance to win one of the three direct spots for the Concacaf region, if they beat Costa Rica with a one-goal difference and if Honduras loses to Jamaica.

The Jamaicans, however, have not won a single game in qualifying play, and the team is in last place in the division with four draws and five defeats.

El Tri will be eliminated with a loss to Costa Rica, and if Panama – playing at home – beats the United States by more than one goal. The Panamanians are undefeated at home, although they have only won one game.

Costa Rica is playing for pride, showing that they deserve a spot in Brazil.

La Sele's loss last Friday in Honduras didn't go over well with Tico fans. Beating Mexico also has a special element of revenge, as Mexican players, coaches and members of the media often disparage Central American teams.

During a press conference last Friday, a Mexican reporter asked Tico striker Joel Campbell, who plays for Olympiacos in Greece on loan from England’s Premier League Arsenal, “if he was surprised by Mexico’s current situation.”

Campbell replied, “It is time for Mexico to start showing some respect for their rivals. That’s why you are suffering now, you should be more humble, that is the reason why you are in trouble. […] You think you are Spain [current world champions] and you never show any respect for your opponents.”

On Monday another Mexican reporter infuriated Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto when he asked if "Costa Rica had helped Honduras in order to eliminate Mexico." 

Pinto responded that “anyone who thought that was absolutely wrong."

“I have met very professional journalists in Mexico, but now I see that there are two or three clowns disguised as journalists who must learn respect. […] These are the kind of things you are paying for now. … It's not Costa Rica’s fault that Mexico could be eliminated from the World Cup," Pinto said.

Heading into tonight's match, Pinto said his goals are to finish undefeated at home, and break a losing streak to El Tri at home. La Sele’s last win over Mexico was in 1992.

Pinto also hinted that his roster for tonight mostly will be the same as the one that defeated the U.S. on Sept. 6, meaning he’s going full-throtle with his offensive. "We're at home and we will attack," he said.

Concacaf standings

Courtesy of FIFA

(Courtesy of Espressivo Theater)

“We rarely have the chance to really live a complete experience through art, allowing us to contextualize what we are seeing, and also in the same place where the events occurred,” said Natalia Rodriguez, project coordinator for Espressivo. “This is the first time the tourism and culture sectors come together to present a different and educational option that contributes to the growth of both.”

The tour is divided into three parts. The first allows visitors to see the holding cells, the “Street of Bitterness,” the dispensary, the medium- and maximum-security cells, and of course the very place where “La isla de los hombres solos” was born.

The second part is a walk through a forest to Cocos beach, the penal colony and an old electrical generator.

A yacht carrying tourists to San Lucas Island.

Hoxton, a British retro-indie club in eastern San José, has booked two sonic treats that few could have seen coming: bassist Andy Rourke of the legendary alternative band The Smiths and bassist Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order – three bands that helped define an entire generation of music.

Over the last 30 years, these giants of the Manchester music scene have been influencing bands across the planet. But this is the first time either of them will be performing in Costa Rica – Rourke on Oct. 26 and Hook on Dec. 14.

While deejaying isn’t the same as thrashing about onstage with the likes of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, in an interview with Boston’s daily Metro, Rourke promised that fans wouldn’t be disappointed.

“I’m still a musician first and foremost, but [DJing] is something I just have fun with. I don’t do anything fancy, like ‘wicky wicky,’ ‘Wheels of Steel’ and all that. I just play some songs that I’ve grown up with and I love and hope people enjoy it. So far, so good,” Rourke told Metro’s Luke O’Neil.

Rourke’s bass lines are frequently praised by fans as melodic, stunning and brilliant, but his creativity as a DJ has helped him have a go in the 21st century club scene and as a radio DJ.

Rourke, 49, hosts a weekly radio show, Jetlag, on East Village Radio in New York every Monday. Jetlag also is the name of his collaboration with DJ Olé Koretsky.

Rourke was living in Manchester eight years ago when a friend, British DJ Tintin, convinced him to play some records at a club. “I said, ‘I don’t DJ.’ He said, ‘Bring some CDs and have fun,’ and it all started from there.”

Costa Rican DJs Vladimir, Fran Soto and Javier Portilla will be spinning from 9 p.m. to warm up a select Hoxton’s crowd lucky enough to get tickets for the exclusive show. Rourke’s set will last about two hours.

Hoxton co-owner Neil Ryan said tickets are on sale at LOU Store and at Hoxton for ₡6,000 ($12) or ₡5,000 ($10) for Hoxton cardholding members.

Andy Rourke

The Smith's bassist Andy Rourke won't be playing any of that "wicky wicky" stuff at the Hoxton. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hooky for December

Both Joy Division and New Order have been regarded as iconic musical pioneers for the last three decades.

The evolution of their sound from the raw, post-punk of Warsaw and Joy Division to the more electronic sound of New Order was heavily based on the use of analog synthesizers and sequencers, which earned them a place of honor among dance fans throughout the late 1980s and most of the ’90s.

But their sound also relied on the melodic and rhythmic lines of Peter Hook’s bass. As a bassist, Hook, now 57, has played and recorded with several bands, including The Duruti Column, Revenge and Monaco, and after leaving New Order for good, he led a three-bassist project called Freebass, along with Mani of The Stone Roses and, coincidentally, Andy Rourke. He also performs as lead vocalist and bassist for Peter Hook and The Light.

In recent years Hook has produced fellow Manchester greats Inspiral Carpets and The Stone Roses.

Now, he alternates DJ gigs with performances of The Light, the band he formed in 2010, and which is currently touring Europe and the Americas.

Peter Hook 1

Legendary bass player Peter Hook comes to Costa Rica's Hoxton for a special DJ set on Dec. 14. Courtesy of Rodrigo Jardon Ache Productions, Cynthia Flores, Indie Rocks and Carlos Vargas

Behind the decks, Hook’s DJ set is a mash-up of tracks that defined a musical generation he helped to form, and for Costa Rican fans, the December show is not to be missed.

Hooky – as he is widely known – arrives in Costa Rica from Colombia for a Joy Division/New Order set at Hoxton on Saturday, Dec. 14. He then heads back to England to resume his tour with The Light.

Limited tickets are available at LOU store for ₡12,000 ($24), and ₡10,000 ($20) for Hoxton cardholders. Resident DJ Vladimir will be opening the night.

More to come at The Hox

Getting these two stars was a mission accomplished by Hoxton co-owners Thomas Dalby and Neil Ryan, who moved to Costa Rica seven years ago with the idea of opening an authentic English club – fish-n-chips and Guinness included.

The process for booking the shows “was pretty easy actually,” said Ryan, who originally hails from Manchester. “A friend of a friend” got them in contact with Peter Hook’s manager, “and the rest was industry connections, I guess.”

In their current location in Los Yoses, east of San José, Hoxton aims to keep loyal customers happy and offer more musical variety than Chepe is used to, which includes bringing more bands next year.

Dalby, from London, and Ryan are working on “some big names from England and the U.S.”

One thing’s certain, San José nightlife just stepped it up a notch.

(Courtesy of Espressivo Theater)

For the third, visitors sail around the island for a broader perspective, and a view of Tumbabotes Beach, site of several escape attempts, some of which were reportedly successful.

Espressivo’s tour includes round-trip transportation from various parts of the capital to Puntarenas, where visitors board an all-inclusive Bay Island Cruises yacht to the island. The package costs $100, and includes a ticket to the play, which can be used before or after the tour.


For more info: Visit Teatro Espressivo’s website, or write to

Contact Amanda Zúñiga at


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