Gorgona Island: from prison to paradise in the Colombian Pacific

Gorgona Island: from prison to paradise in the Colombian Pacific

Bats swirled frantically above my head and a monkey gave a piercing shriek from the surrounding forest as I deliberately picked my way through the prison ruins of Gorgona Island. A slippery carpet of deep-green moss absorbed the sound of my footsteps on the cracked concrete and everywhere around me the fecund jungle was calming spreading its tendrils, probing and poking for signs of weakness in the crumbling shell of the prison. Giant tree roots clung to splintering window frames like clenched fists and the family of monkeys haunted my every step as they peered out at me from forgotten alcoves and bare, rusted roof beams.

I ducked into a narrow cell, disturbing a small, blue-tailed lizard, which skittered wildly past my feet across the white tiled floor. The former inhabitant of this tiny cell had scratched his name into the wall and alongside it the telling abbreviation ‘M-19.’1 There was total silence, broken only by the mournful whistling of a distant bird high up in the canopy. I ducked back out into the open and hurried to catch up with the guide ahead as the rain began to fall and the light started to fade in the dense undergrowth.

gorgona island colombia prison

Visiting Gorgona Island had been a dream of mine since I first started travelling in Colombia in 2011. Something about the contrast between the island’s dark history and its remarkable biodiversity really struck a chord with me and it became permanently enshrined on my ‘to visit’ list. Sadly, a surprise attack on the island by the FARC in 2014 put paid to my travel plans for a few years as Gorgona closed to tourism and outside visitors were banned. Luckily, in the wake of the 2016 Peace Agreement, the region has since opened up to tourism once again, and the island reopened in mid-2017.

The history of Gorgona Island is a long and strange one, encompassing everything from shipwrecks and pirates to prisoners and guerrillas. The first human inhabitants of the island are believed to have belonged to the Tumaco-Tolita culture, who inhabited the Pacific coastal regions of Ecuador and Colombia (in the modern departments of Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and the Chocó) from around 600 BC. The Guna people (formerly known as Kuna) were also early settlers on Gorgona, and archaeological remains attributed to them have been discovered there dating back to 1300 AD. Ancient petroglyphs discovered on the island can still be seen around the National Park ‘museum’ within the modern hotel complex.

capuchin gorgona island colombia

The first evidence of non-native visitors to Gorgona is from 1524 when the Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro ‘discovered’ the island on his way down the South American coast from Panama. He named the island San Felipe before continuing south on a scouting mission of modern-day Peru; a voyage which would help to lay the groundwork for the ultimate conquest of the Incas. Three years later, in 1527, Francisco Pizarro arrived on Gorgona from Gallo Island to the south (located off the coast of the modern Colombian city of Tumaco) – stuck on Gallo, facing a stark choice between returning to Panama in disgrace or continuing in his dream of conquering Peru, Pizarro literally drew a line in the sand and asked the remaining men to pick a side. Those who crossed the line joined him and relocated north to Gorgona, deemed a more favourable location.

Pizarro and his men would remain on the island for seven months, awaiting the arrival of provisions. During this time many men were lost to snakebites2, and Pizarro made his greatest contribution to the island’s history: he renamed it ‘Gorgona’; taking his inspiration from the Gorgons of Greek mythology, three sisters whose hair was made of living, venomous snakes.  After seven months a Spanish captain named Bartolome Ruiz arrived on the island to rescue the remaining 13 men, and they continued south to conquer Peru.

fer de lance gorgona island colombia

Fast-forward more than 400 years – during which time the island was variously inhabited by an Indigenous Cacique named Yundigua, the English pirates Bartholomew Sharp, Woodes Rogers, and William Dampier, and the Wars of Independence hero Federico D’Croz – to 1959 and Gorgona was turned into a penal colony by the Colombian government. This island prison lasted for a quarter of a century and was witness to some of the most appalling prison conditions imaginable. The prison was designed following the model of Nazi concentration camps, and abuse of the inmates – a collection of Colombia’s worst murderers and rapists – by the guards was rife. Escape was almost impossible – venomous snakes in the interior and sharks patrolling the offshore waters made it an unattractive option anyway – and only one inmate ever escaped Gorgona.

The island became a National Park following the closure of the penal colony. The astounding level of biodiversity to be found on the small island and in the surrounding waters surely makes Gorgona one of the best places in Colombia to observe a large number of species in a short amount of time. In just a few days on Gorgona, I couldn’t believe the wildlife I encountered. I was immediately welcomed off the boat by a noisy troop of capuchin monkeys, and as I walked across the bridge to the lodge, basilisk lizards scattered from the path into the stream below. One morning I came out of my room to find a young boa constrictor curled up outside my door, a small bulge in its midsection suggesting that a Gorgona Spiny Rat (also common around the lodge) had come a cropper the night before. I was even lucky – or unlucky, depending on your perspective – enough to spot a large fer-de-lance (one of the most dangerous snakes in the Western Hemisphere3) curled up in the undergrowth during a jungle hike.

Whale-watching is really what brings people to Gorgona, though, and with good reason. I must have encountered at least 40 humpback whales during my visit, and they put on quite a show; leaping from the water, slapping the surface with their tails and large dorsal fins, raising their giant heads from the ocean as if they were giving us a quick once over. I was even fortunate enough to witness what appeared to be a female birthing a calf while walking along the beach early one morning. However, the real whale-related treat on Gorgona is not a visual experience: while snorkelling off Yundigua Beach4, when I held my breath and was quiet, I could hear the whales singing; an underwater symphony of moans, groans, and squeaks that vibrated through my body and made me smile so wide that I swallowed quite a large quantity of seawater.

humpback whale gorgona island colombia

But during my time on Gorgona, in spite of the myriad natural wonders surrounding me, my mind kept wandering back to that foreboding prison in the forest. I could hardly stop imagining how it must have been to be incarcerated there and even thinking of those eerie ruins – the hunting ground for the fer-de-lance in the inky black darkness – while lying in my comfy beachside bed made it that much harder to drop off.

In many ways the ruined prison is like the ghost at the feast; a malevolent spirit hovering in the background of the wonderful ecotourism experience. But then, Gorgona is an undeniably sinister place to begin with: a jagged spine of jungle and rock thrusting up from the bed of the wild Pacific, almost permanently wreathed in dark clouds, sheltering thousands of the world’s most deadly snakes. It’s no wonder it was chosen as the site for a prison containing the worst criminals in Colombia.

Yet, as the speedboat taking me back to Guapi and the mainland crashed and bounced over the rising waves, I couldn’t stop craning my neck back to stare at the island until it finally disappeared from view, nothing but darkening skies and the churning ocean in its place. They say that, when it came time to relocate the inmates from the prison when it finally closed down, many were reluctant to leave and begged to be allowed to remain on the island. And sitting there, awash with salt spray as one last humpback whale rose out of the water in the distance, I could certainly see why.


Footnotes

  1. Members of the M-19 guerrilla movement were incarcerated on Gorgona Island
  2. Gorgona is home to a large number of snake species for such a small island. The three known venomous snakes are the fearsome ‘bothrops asper’ (also known as the fer-de-lance), and two species of coral snake: ‘Micrurus durmerili’ and ‘Micrurus mipartitus.’ Non-venomous snakes include the boa constrictor and parrot snake
  3. The fer-de-lance is the most commonly used name in the English language, but in Colombia this highly venomous pit viper is known as ‘talla equis’ due to the X-shaped markings along it’s back. See the image above.
  4. The beach is named after an Indigenous Cacique who once resided on the island

Chris Bell has been exploring Colombia and writing about his experiences since he first moved to the country in 2011. He has travelled extensively throughout Colombia and has now visited all 32 of the country’s departments. When he’s not birding in the depths of the jungle (over 1000 species now!) or exploring little-known regions of Colombia, he can usually be found enjoying a cup of coffee at home in Manizales.

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