A strange chapter in the history of Costa Rica’s most famous island

Those who have traveled extensively in Costa Rica or are interested in its books and writers have probably heard of the “Isla de los Hombres Solos.” A memoir by that name, penned by José León Sánchez, the most famous inmate of the former prison on Isla San Lucas in the Gulf of Nicoya, made the penitentiary part of Costa Rica’s literary history. Sánchez was imprisoned there after the infamous robbery of the Basilica de los Angeles in 1950; he was accused of the theft by his father-in-law, and became known as “the Monster of the Basílica.” (He was declared innocent of the crime in 1988).

What fewer people might know is that before San Lucas was home to a penitentiary, an even more famous island was home to the prison: the Isla del Coco, that extraordinary natural gem 342 miles southwest of the Costa Rican mainland. For two years (1879-1881), the island was home to a penal colony. However, the high costs of maintaining the colony so far from the mainland resulted in the transfer of all its prisoners to San Lucas, an event whose anniversary was yesterday. The move took place on June 15th, 1881.

Today, the Isla del Coco is home to a happier set of people: the park guards that take care of its terrestrial and famed underwater wildlife.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.

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