Josué visited San Lucas twice while it was still a prison. "I was maybe 10 years old," he told me. "I can't remember if we were visiting a family friend or a relative. But I remember the place really well.
"Later, in high school, I found 'La Isla de los Hombres Solos' at a used bookstore, and memories of the island flooded back. From then on, I wanted to return."
Now, he had found something he read about in the book. "It's the underground solitary confinement cell," he said, crouching next to a big metal disk almost flush with the ground. "Men spent months down there, with only 15 minutes above ground per day." A dank smell wafted up out of the opening, a mix of wet earth and corroding metal.
Suddenly, the prison seemed to close in on me. "Let's take a break from this place," I said, undoubtedly echoing the inmates' sentiments.
The path to Playa el Coco, a white sand beach a short walk from the prison, is shaded by overhanging trees. Ruins of wood-framed shacks are visible through the undergrowth. After the penitentiary became a prison farm in 1958, well-behaved inmates lived outside the main facility, fishing, tending their gardens and selling handicrafts to visitors. "My father bought a little panga made of driftwood," Josué said. "He still has it."
The pre-1958 penitentiary that León Sánchez depicted was a very different place. "I felt with my own flesh," he wrote, "the fire of steel, the long months of the dungeon, my hands chained with irons, the contempt for my condition as a human being. In the penitentiary I found out that a man can descend until he turns into a dog, or less than a dog."
But he also waxed eloquent about the island's beauty, all the more poignant when contrasted with the horror of the prison. "There isn't anything prettier in San Lucas than these summer months," he wrote. "Trees germinate and blossom. . . . The foam on the sea laughs and each wave rears boisterously in the wind. . . . Yellow butterflies appear by the thousands."
For decades, animals and plants were poached and misused, but they're now recovering. In 2005, officials brought to the 2.5-square-mile island a Noah's Ark assortment of species that had once abounded here. Deer, turkeys, parrots, iguana, armadillos and sloths were among the animals released.
Other species needed no help: About 120 howler monkeys call the island home, as well as 40 species of birds, including pelicans, owls and the magnificent frigate; 17 species of reptiles, including boa constrictors and the occasional crocodile; and eight kinds of bats.
We had already encountered bats, scorpions, countless varieties of birds and bugs, and an agouti, which resembles a glossy, dog-sized guinea pig. On the way to the beach, we passed under a troop of howler monkeys. Josué clapped his hands, and they started in with their deep-throated howls, which are produced by a special echo chamber in the throat and carry for miles. They maintain their territory through sound, perceiving rival noise as a challenge.
Josué upped the ante by imitating the call of the white-faced monkey, the howlers' arch rival, and the howlers went wild; one even hurled excrement down onto the path, narrowly missing us.
The path showed signs of recent activity, maintenance done by volunteers from Britain-based Raleigh International, who arrange community service expeditions around the world. The volunteers had been arriving every three weeks to work on trails and collect trash. On the beach, broken flip-flops and limbless dolls reminded us that even uninhabited islands receive the dubious gift of garbage from strong ocean currents. But farther along the island's coast, palms and mango trees arched over clean sand, and the views across the water to the blue and green hills of the Nicoya Peninsula were stunning.
Looking out to sea, I pictured the island prison escapes I had read about and seen on film: The Count of Monte Cristo slipping into a body bag meant for a fellow inmate; Papillon escaping Devil's Island; Frank Morris paddling a raft made of inflated raincoats away from Alcatraz Island.
León Sánchez wrote of an inmate swimming out to sea, maybe from this very beach, with a dead pelican strapped to his head for camouflage. The warden, cruel to humans but a lover of birds, had forbidden anyone from harming pelicans. But he could apparently tell a dead one from a live one, and shot this one out of the water.
Our escape from San Lucas Island was more successful and significantly less dramatic. Before we headed back to the mainland, we said goodbye to Victor Alvarado Montoya, the park administrator. Earlier, Josué had presented Don Victor our letter of permission, resplendent with official seals and signatures. I told the administrator how privileged I felt to have seen this remarkable island before the official park opening.
I stopped mid-sentence, and we both watched as a Costa Rican family -- kids and cousins and aunts and uncles -- ambled toward us. Who knew how they got here, but it was clear they would flourish without a letter of permission. They approached, chatted with Don Victor, then asked whether they could look around. "Sure," Don Victor said with a smile. "Just watch your step. Make sure the kids don't fall through the floorboards or lock themselves in the cells."
Welcome to Costa Rica. Where official permission is needed, unless, of course, you just show up. Which is what the intrepid visitor should do -- before everyone else catches on. Just be sure to watch your step.