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San Lucas Island National Wildlife Refuge Costa Rica was declared on February 12th 2001, to protect an island in the Gulf of Nicoya, just offshore from Puntarenas, approximately 550 km (340 mi) from the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, the largest of the islands in the Gigante Bay.
San Lucas Island has held a fascination on people for many years. Indigenous groups lived on San Lucas and the surrounding islands. In fact, the indigenous people used the island as a burial place from around 1,500 to 800 B.C. There are eight known archeological sites on the island, including apparent houses where stone tools, jade, gold, clay and metal pieces were found in the late 1970s.
The island continues to fascinate, it is a remote and peaceful island. Although, there are many poignant reminders of the brutal past when the island operated as a prison modeled on Devil’s Island. The San Lucas Island was founded by the dictator Tomás Miguel Guardia Gutiérrez as a penal colony from 1873 to 1991, for some of the worst criminals in Costa Rica. It had the reputation of being the roughest jail in Costa Rica, which is why its 117 year history is rich with tales of violence. Being sent to San Lucas Island was a terrible prospect as prisoners lives were short and often spent in torture. Ironically, Guardia was the one who abolished the death penalty a year after establishing the prison. Today the prison walls are crumbling in ruins and a lonely caretaker might let you go around on the island.
The former buildings of the penal island are considered “Patrimonio de Cultura,” or cultural heritage sites. The buildings include a historic dock that is still in use after the first dock was destroyed, a church, a medical building, temporary holding cells, a three story main office, a large concrete disc used to hold a water tank and water pumps. In addition, there are prison cells of varying security levels depending on the prisoners’ crimes. The prison cells contain the typical graffiti of older Latin American prisons, such as religious phrases, pornographic images, signatures and drawings. There are also several water pumps and a cemetery under excavation on the island.
In 2008, Costa Rica declared the island part of the national wildlife reserves, a ceremony which featured a speech by former prisoner León. (José León Sánchez, was a prisoner of the island, who wrote “La Isla de los Hombres Solos,” translated into English as “The Island of Lonely Men,” based on his time in the prison at San Lucas Island. León claimed that he was unjustly imprisoned for a robbery that he did not commit).
It is one of only 2 islands in the gulf of Nicoya with natural fresh water, and this has encouraged the biological diversity you can enjoy today. The island includes a wide variety of wildlife, such as howler or congo monkeys, spiders, pheasants, raccoons, anteaters, peccaries, armadillos, squirrels, skunks and other mammals. Similarly, they have recorded around 17 species of reptiles, including snakes such as the becker (Boa constrictor), the “guardacaminos” (Conophis lineatus) and the Loxocemus bicolor. In addition, over the mangroves you can observe crocodiles.
About 40 species of birds have been identified, 9 are migratory and 31 resident, as the frigate (Fregata magnificens), the pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), the tailed dove (Columbina inca), and the vulture (Coragyps atratus). Also there are at least 8 species of bats on the island, many of whom live in or near the old prison buildings. The waters surrounding the island are home to hammerhead sharks, rays and turtles.
In the vegetation area, around some 90 species have been found, all native to the area, among which stand the mango and “jocote” trees, the matapalo, the Bursera simaruba, the “carao”, the “cenizaro” and the “ceibo”, which are the preferred site of howler monkeys. Now you can visit the island and see for yourself the beauty and history that keeps this wonderful island. A caretaker lives on San Lucas Island, and is available for tours.
Getting to San Lucas Island National Wildlife Refuge:
From San Jose take the Pan-American Highway to Puntarenas exit, passing through San Ramon and Barranca. Probably the easiest way to see the San Lucas Island is to hire a boat in Puntarenas to take you to the island. Now you can also take the new Caldera Highway, until you get to Punta Morales, passing through the Puntarenas entrance. The Caldera trip takes about 1 hour from San Jose while the other takes about 2 hours.
From Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR), drive south on the Pan-American Highway to Puntarenas. Probably the easiest way to see the San Lucas Island is to hire a boat in Puntarenas to take you to the island.
Take a bus from the route San Jose – Puntarenas, which takes about 2 hours and then hire a boat in Puntarenas to observe San Lucas Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Location: Nicoya Gulf, in Puntarenas province.
GPS coordinates: 9.940639,-84.903817 (9°56’26.30″N, 84°54’13.74″W)
Puntarenas Ferry GPS Coordinates: 9.977431,-84.848553 (9°58’38.75″N, 84°50’54.79″W)
Size: 470ha (1156 acres)
Altitude: sea level
Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT) Telephone: +(506) 2686-4967 / 2686-4968
Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT) Fax: +(506) 2686-4969
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192