San Lucas, an island once known as a gloomy place for criminals, now attracts tourists with its wild beaches and natural reserves.

The island is situated on the country's Pacific side in the Gulf of Nicoya. Legend has it that San Lucas was used to imprison and torture criminals from 1873 until 1991.

San Lucas island, 26 September 2020. / © AFP

The former facility quickly began deteriorating after being abandoned that year. However, in 1995, the prison was declared part of the country's natural heritage and the island a natural reserve in 2001. The island then finally opened for tourists in August of this year.

The island was first used to incarcerate the political enemies of former Costa Rica president Tomas Guardia.

Remains of the prison, 27 September 2020. / © AFP

Island facts

One of the former inmates documented the series of mistreatments experienced on the island over a 10-year-period. José Leon Sanchez later published his autobiography in 1963, which was subsequently turned into a movie.

Former dormitories inside the prison, 27 September 2020. / © AFP

He described a number of atrocities committed by the prison guards, such as malnourishment, solitary confinements, as well as physical torture.


Around 500 hectares of wild forests surround the incarceration facility. Today, the only screams one can hear are those of monkeys swinging from one tree to the next.

Inside the former prison, 27 September 2020. / © AFP

The island also has a notable biodiversity. Apart from monkeys, visitors can encounter white-tailed deer, squirrels, iguanas, as well as different species of tropical rodents.


Due to the pandemic, travels to the island are currently limited to weekends only, with tourist groups not allowed to exceed 40 participants. Despite further limitations, the island has already seen 920 visitors in the month of August.