Cabuya Island Cemetery
By Matt Levin
At low tide, in the small Nicoya town of Cabuya, a path walkway to the past unveils itself.
Cabuya Island Cemetery is a unique and somewhat eerie historical oddity dating back hundreds of years to pre-Colombian times, which remains in use today by residents of Cabuya. As might be expected, local fishermen like to warn of ghost sightings and strange noises they've heard emanating from the ancient burial ground in the night.
José Moncada, who has lived in Cabuya for 43 years, dismisses foolish tales of phantoms and witches. Instead, he embraces the island as a part of the town's culture and beauty. On some nights, when the moon is bright enough, Moncada and friends enjoy the way the waters of the Pacific turn a flowing shade of silver around the island. The moonbeams reflect off the reefs and create a mystical atmosphere.
"When there's a full moon, sometimes we camp out on the island. We finish a bottle of guaro by the morning," Moncada said. “The island is something natural, and the people that live here don't have any fear of [it], no matter what time of day."
An ashen white arch serves as the cemetery gate. Walk through it and past a row of spiky cabuya plants (the island's namesake), to reach the main burial area on the center of the island, which is populated with lizards, hermit crabs and buzzards. Azure ocean waters just beyond the palm trees lap against the rocky shoreline.
Among those interred are Germans, Swiss, Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans. Only a few of the most recent plots, from the 1990s forward, include dates and information on the deceased. Even fewer contain specific names. Some graves look worn out and neglected, with broken metal crosses and chipped tombstones, while others have more elaborate decorations. Innumerable, colorful flowers cover one stone casket. A large propeller marks a pilot’s grave. Busts of two well-sculpted heads rest with their eyes-closed above two adjacent tombs.
According to Moncada, funerals here are more like a celebration of life than a somber memorial. "We all arrive on the beach and carry the coffin on our shoulders to a tomb in the center of the island," he said. "Then during the burial we listen to music…It's a festival. It's very fun."
Some ceremonies take place by the light of the stars and candles illuminating the path along the shoreline. These rituals serve as beautiful and respectable send-offs for the departed.
Cabuya Island is not just remarkable as a final resting place. It’s also incredible for snorkeling, and it only takes about an hour to circumnavigate the island with fins and a mask. Visitors should take care not to linger for more than four hours,or else tide rolls in and covers the craggy path linking the island to the shore. At that point the only way to return to the mainland is by boat or kayak.