For the most incorrigible misbehavior, like killing another prisoner, inmates at the San Lucas prison island were lowered into “the hole” — literally a hole in the middle of a big concrete disc on top of what was designed to be a cistern to hold rainwater.
This underground dungeon actually did hold water, sometimes up to a man’s midriff, so the unfortunate souls condemned to this gruesome punishment were unable to sit, much less lie down and sleep, for however many days and nights they had to endure this torture.
“You had to stand for days, and sometimes they had people in there for like a month, and they came out either dead or crazy,” said Vigdis Vatshaug, the Norwegian tour guide who led my family on a fascinating and disturbing tour of one of the most brutal prison islands on earth — right here in the happiest country in the world, in the Gulf of Nicoya, a short boat ride away from Playa Naranjo.
San Lucas Island is best-known as the setting of “La isla de los hombres solos” (“The Island of Lonely Men”), a novel written by the former inmate José León Sánchez, a Tico accused of stealing religious icons from the Basilica of Cartago who spent 30 years imprisoned here.
In this case, the truth is every bit as strange as the fiction. As soon as we disembarked from our boat at the rusty old pier, we climbed the steps to the “Camino de Amargura,” the “Road of Bitterness” that greeted new inmates upon arrival during the years the prison was open, from 1873 to 1991.