When one recalls the images of the fictitious island Isla Nublar in the film Jurassic Park, it too located off the western coast of Costa Rica, this “Cloudy Island” of the dinosaurs is in fact based upon the real Cocos Island of pirate legend. Far away from heavily frequented shipping lanes in the Pacific, roughly 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica and about halfway to the Galapagos Islands, Cocos Island has been blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an amazing history of pirate legends which date back to the late sixteenth century. And since that time, more than 300 expeditions have attempted to locate the legendary treasures thought to be buried here.
That’s the problem with having a colorful history, isn’t it? What is legend, what is fact? This question is often difficult enough to answer when it comes to well-documented “real” historical events that lie far enough back in the past. But when it comes to extraordinary accounts of pirates and buried treasure, the line separating fact from fiction quickly becomes blurred beyond recognition. And this is definitely the case with the pirate tales of Cocos Island.
Discovered in 1526 by the Spanish sailor Johan Cabeças, Cocos Island soon became an important destination for ships that sailed the eastern Pacific, primarily because of the fresh water source it provided. The only island in this area with a tropical rainforest, the luscious growth here covers practically the entire island and also offered its sailor visitors, of all things, an abundance of coconuts. The island’s appearance clearly stirs the imagination. Some literary experts speculate that Robert Lewis Stevenson used Cocos Island as the model for his adventure classic Treasure Island. And if the striking similarities between this island and the one described in his adventure masterpiece weren’t remarkable enough, others believe that Daniel Defoe used Cocos Island as a model for the island home of the marooned Robinson Crusoe.
But whether this mother of all pirate stories or castaway classic adventure used Cocos Island as a fictional inspiration or not is immaterial, because not long after its discovery Cocos Island became a real hiding place for real pirates in this area. Whalers may have stopped here regularly for supplies and famous explorers like Captain John Cook were known to drop anchor here, but pirates, more than any other group, increasingly made Cocos Island their home.
And with the coming of so many colorful characters, colorful pirate stories about the island also began to flourish. The island can be seen as a type of pirate banking deposit box, a place where pirates hid their stolen artifacts and gold bullion in the densely vegetated, inaccessible hillsides. Many of these outlaws are known to have died or been executed before they could return to the island and reclaim their treasures. It is only normal then to assume that they still lie hidden here somewhere today, in one of the island’s many caves or buried under some long-forgotten marking.
In 1845, for instance, a British explorer found an iron chest in a cave overlooking Wafer Bay which, when opened, contained hundreds of golden Spanish coins. Sir Frances Drake, a well known pirate himself, frequented the island and is said to have stashed treasure here too. In 1793, a mysterious cryptic carving with four branched crosses was found on one of the big boulders near Chatham Bay which read: Look Y. as you goe for ye S. Coco. Another stone was found with markings which were thought to lead to the infamous “Bloody Sword Treasure.” It was reported as late as l931 that a Belgian treasure hunter found a two foot tall golden Madonna which he sold in New York for $11,000.
And stories like these go on and on, some more difficult to believe than others. But there does seem to be a consensus among treasure hunters and historians alike when it comes to some stories. Most believe, for instance, that there are at least three particularly famous treasures still hidden on the island: The legendary “Devonshire Treasure” consisting of some 350 tons of Spanish Gold, an estimated $300 million worth of gold bullion left here by Benito “Bloody Sword” Bonito and “The Great Treasure of Lima”, a tremendous collection of gold and silver bars and solid-gold, gem-encrusted church treasures stolen from the Peruvian mainland, the value for this stolen loot not clear or incalculable at this time.
Of the hundreds of treasure hunters who have made there way to Cocos Island over the years, very few have found anything at all. One famous modern treasure hunter gave it a furtive try and was unsuccessful as well: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited here on three fishing trips between 1935 and 1940 and let his crew have a go at it. And perhaps the most tragic treasure seeker of all was the German adventurer August Gissler. He lived here with his wife on the island from 1889 to 1908 under the harshest of conditions, was even made governor of the island by the Costa Rican government in recognition of his dogged efforts, but eventually left the island after twenty years of searching with a mere six gold coins
Cocos Island has belonged to Costa Rica since 1869. After several unsuccessful attempts to colonize it, plans were made to turn it into a prison colony but the Costa Rican government decided to turn it into a nature reserve instead. It has been a closely watched conservation area since 1978 and was even named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Since then it has become clear to all that not all of Cocos Island’s treasures are buried underground. It is seen by many Costa Ricans as their country’s greatest natural treasure. One reason are the many beautiful waterfalls located on the small, 15 square mile large volcanic isle. And the majority of the annual 1500 hundred visitors who now come to the island come here to go diving or snorkeling. The diving here is said to be the best in the area, the waters abounding with hammerhead sharks, sea turtles and manta rays.
Cocos Island is certainly a fascinating place for adventurous vacationers who want to explore the lush jungles, bathe in waterfalls or examine the mysterious stones scattered near Chatham Bay, where other visitors chiseled their names here as far back as the 15th century. And visitors are welcome here, although the few park rangers guarding the island are continually finding out that certain researchers calling themselves cave explorers have actually come here to search for something else entirely. Old habits die hard, it seems, as do old pirate legends and treasure hunters’ claims: One estimate puts the accumulated treasure on the island, if it is indeed there, at over one billion dollars.