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Escape to a tropical Alcatraz

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San Lucas Island, Costa Rica

"If you don't have anything to do," says the graffiti scratched into the cellblock wall, "don't come here to do it."

That would have been excellent advice from 1883 to 1989, when this penitentiary on San Lucas Island was synonymous with cruelty and isolation. Inmates labored in the tropical sun, breaking rocks and harvesting salt from the sea, dragging their leg irons and dreaming of escape.


FOR THE RECORD:
Costa Rica: A caption with a photograph accompanying an article in Sunday's Travel section on San Lucas Island, Costa Rica, identified the beach as on San Lucas. The beach pictured is Santa Teresa beach, on the nearby Nicoya Peninsula. —


I've wanted to come here for years. I'm always on the lookout for out-of-the-way wonders in a country I know pretty well, from living here and writing about it. Beyond that, there's something about a former prison that draws me like an inmate to the exercise yard.

I visit the cells and imagine how I'd hold up, or I scan the layout, hatching an escape plan. And escape from an island prison is all the more evocative. Judging by the popularity of Alcatraz and other former prisons, others share my fascination too.

San Lucas is one of the newest such attractions. A 2001 decree declared the island a wildlife refuge and historical monument, saving it from becoming a mega-resort. That was great news for the old prison, the island's eight pre-Columbian archaeological sites and its inhabitants of monkeys, armadillos and parrots.

Visiting the island

From the time of the prison's closure to the island's opening as a national park in December, it was almost as hard to get onto San Lucas as it once was to get off.

Just before the official opening, however, I disembarked at the barnacle-encrusted dock where for a century, inmates arrived to do time at Costa Rica's version of Alcatraz. We'd hired a lancha (a small boat) in Puntarenas, a city on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. It's a 20-minute jaunt across the water to Isla San Lucas.

Two park officials, my local pal Josué and I were the only souls on the island. The only living souls, that is. The place is rife with ghosts.

They're in the bat-infested prison church, the upstairs offices where you walk the beams or risk falling through the rotting floorboards, the old dining hall invaded by strangler fig trees and, most of all, in the dank and dilapidated cells. You can feel the weight of the former inmates' waiting, their caniando -- doing time.

The "ghosts" left graphic messages on the walls. Soccer players make winning goals, knives drip blood and a jaguar stalks toward a cell's one tiny window. A grinning cat declares, "Sonría al canaso" (Smile while you do your time). Crosses abound, as do sad-faced Jesuses and beatific Virgins, one with her robe flaring out like a river delta.

Most of all, though, there is hand-drawn porn, from scrawled privates to fully rendered multibody scenes. Near the shadowy back of one cell, a larger-than-life woman totters on lovingly detailed high heels, her rust-colored bikini purportedly drawn in blood.

These rectangular cellblocks, a little bigger than my studio apartment in San Francisco, would have held 60 to 80 men. In the early days, prisoners slept on the floor. Later, they had iron bedsteads with thin mattresses. Ceilings were low and windows few; cross-ventilation must have been almost nonexistent.

"Hey!" Josué called from outside a cell. "Come see what I found."

Midday sun flooded the interior courtyard. Fallen leaves from a guaramo tree littered the cracked concrete. I could smell the ocean on the breeze and hear waves break on a nearby beach. What a relief it must have been for prisoners to come out here, if only for a few minutes.

Josué, a former nature guide who now works at Costa Rica's tourism institute, was an excellent companion for this journey. When we met two years ago at a jungle hotel, we discovered a shared fascination for this prison island. I learned about it through a book by a former inmate, José León Sánchez, who was known for 19 years as Prisoner 1713.

León Sánchez entered prison barely literate in 1950 but emerged 20 years later a published author, printing his first works in here on a press he made following instructions in an issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. He had more than two dozen books to his credit, but his best known work remains the novel based on his time here: "La Isla de los Hombres Solos" (The Island of the Lonely Men); ("God Was Looking the Other Way" is the out-of-print English version).

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."

Menagerie

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.

travel@latimes.com

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