This past Thursday, my sister and I were finally able to check out this pretty cool, “Off The Beaten Path” spot in Costa Rica I had been wanting to see for a while.
Located just 7km North of Cartago, and under an hour drive away from San Jose, El Sanitorio Duran was constructed in 1918 by Dr. Carlos Duran Cartin to treat Tuberculosis patients as well as an asylum for the mentally ill. The location was chosen due to its high altitude, intermittent winds, cool temperatures, and of course, its isolation. At its peak, Sanitorio Duran had 300 beds available for patients, different sections for men, women, and children, and a Religious Convent where Nuns came to bless and pray for the patients.
Unfortunately, well, rather fortunately, treatment for Tuberculosis worldwide saw great improvement during the mid 20th century. Due to a lack of patients, the sanitorium was shut down in 1963, and fully abandoned in 1970.
As a push to promote tourism in the area, the Sanitorium was opened for public touring in 2010 and the once abandoned building gets hundreds of visitors each month for a small fee of 1200 colones (roughly $2.50). My sister and I hand the gate attendant, who looks absolutely thrilled to be working this day (heavy sarcasm), our money and proceed to drive into the parking lot.
Being a Thursday, we didn’t expect too many people; however, only seeing one other car in the dirt parking lot was a bit unnerving. With a smile on my face, I looked over at my sister who was wearing the “I can’t believe I’m going inside” face a bit too loudly.
At the base of the steps to enter The Sanitorium, there was a tour guide, standing, waiting for what appears to be her only visitors for the day. She is dressed in all black business casual attire with a wooden rosary worn around her neck. She asks us our names, where we are from, and if we’ve ever been here before. Being the jokester that I am, I always like to give a very ethnic name when I’m asked that by strangers I’ll probably never see again. “Alejandro Fernandez, I’m Tico but I live in Canada.” My sister, having heard this one too many times simply shakes her head and just says, “Really Alejandro?”
The lady then asks us to leave all smart phones and iPads in the car so we don’t deface property. “How can we deface property with an iPhone?” my sister rightfully asks. “Well, we’ve had a serious problem with graffiti ever since we opened to the public for tours. Kids will “tag” the walls with spray and put it on facebook live as some sort of bet. They do worse things, but unfortunately, graffiti is much more permanent.” “Ah, I understand,” replies my sister, as she turns her head to me, “Ok, A-Le-Han-Dro, would you mind taking my phone to the car along with yours?” A bit embarrassed that my sister may have just informed the tour guide that Alejandro isn’t my real name I smartly reply, ” Ok. Herrrr-Maahhhh-Nahhhh (“sister” for the Spanish troubled)….”
Walking back to the steps after dropping our phones off in the car, a couple walks out of the exit to The Sanitorio. Of course, Costa Rica being as small of a country as it is, my sister just happens to the know the girl in the group. “OMG!!! Hey!!!!How crazy is it running into you here!? How was it!? Scary?! How are the kids!? Yada yada yada….”
After patiently waiting for what seemed like an eternity, I politely ask if we can see the sanitorium any time soon. My sister, scowling, tells me to just go in by myself and she’ll catch up later. “Yeah, but then the tour guide is going to have to explain everything twice, and I’m going to have to see everything twice, and….wait, are you just trying to get out of going inside? We drove all this way.” “Absolutely not,” she replies, “I havent seen Jennifer in months. I’ll be quick, I promise. Just start without me.” I look at the tour guide who gently shakes her head, pressing her lips up “It wont be a problem, we’re not that busy today.”
The tour guide hands me an electronic scanner card to use to get in and out of the building, I’m assuming to combat the graffiti issue when the tours are closed. She explains that after she gives me a tour of the main building, I’m free to walk around to the adjacent buildings and take pictures as I please with my camera or just stroll around.
We walk in and the first thing you notice is the graffiti. Different names in spanish fill the walls, robbing the place of some of its natural beauty. There are a few Carlos, David, even a few Alejandros, my borrowed name for the day. The next thing you notice is the paint peeling on every single wall and the breeze that blows through the windowless building definitely calling for a sweater, something I did not bring with me.
The tour guide, who I just now realized never introduced herself, begins explaining the history of the building. How Dr. Duran’s daughter contracted tuberculosis in the early 1900s, inspiring him to build the estate. She explained how construction began in 1915, and was scheduled to finish in 1917; however, a death on the property delayed work for an entire year.
According to her, (and believe me, I was skeptical), one of the construction workers building the Sanitorium was in a ridiculous amount of debt back in San Jose due to his gambling and drinking problems. In order to pay off his debt, he agreed to “sell” his wife to his creditors whenever they requested it in exchange for reducing some of the debt he owed. Apparently, he was laughing, telling one of his construction-mates about his easy method for getting out of payments and one of the nuns that was helping to prepare the Convent, overheard, and demanded that he bring his wife to the site for her safety, or else she threatened to tell Dr. Duran, an upstanding man by all accounts, of his sins. The man, being the upstanding man that HE was, spat in her face and told her “Some secrets are better kept between God and his devils.”
The Nun stormed off, determined to have this man fired, jailed, and perhaps excommunicated from the church. The next day, everyone came to work and noticed that this guy never showed up to work. The Nun, normally seen blessing everyone for doing God’s work, never arrived on site either. The weeks went on with no signs of either, and everyone kept asking questions, but no one had a definitive answer. It was everyone’s assumption that the man had killed the nun, but no news of it ever came. That was until construction called for a new well to be drilled, just outside the proposed entrance to The Sanitorium. A handful of innocent, unexpecting shovels started penetrating the dirt. Slowly and suddenly, a rancid smell swept through the entire construction site. The local priest, San Jose Police, and Dr. Duran were called to the scene. It was, of course, the nurse that was found, buried, strangled to death, with her ears cut off and jammed into her teeth in a most gruesome fashion.
Construction was put on an immediate halt until the City of San Jose Police could conduct an official investigation. After a year of searching, all of the evidence pointed back to the man in debt, but, he and his family were never seen or heard of again. According to the tour guide, ever since then, a woman has appeared various times in The Sanitorium. Interns reported hearing a women that would appear on cold and windy nights to bless the patients. During especially dark nights, patients would believe they saw a figure at the corner of their room that would whisper, “Believe.” Even today, during the later hours of the afternoon, on cloudier days, visitors report seeing shadows at the end of hallways that disappear after a few seconds.
I didn’t believe ANY of it, and I think the tour guide could see it on my face. “Do you believe in the supernatural Alejandro?” “Not. At. All. I’ll watch a good scary movie and be a bit shaken afterwards, but I’m not one to believe in non-scientific,un-proven things.” “Well Alejandro, do you believe in God?” she impolitely asks. I let out a half chuckle to convey my slight irritation, “No, I went to Catholic school, but no.” “I see,” she responds, clearly offended. I knew I was in a Latin American country with less tolerance for agnostic beliefs, but….she asked….
“Well, that’s the end of the tour, feel free to see anything else you like,” she said with a smile on her face. I thanked her sincerely for the tour and the attempted spook as I walked off. The rest of the building looks interesting enough. You can see what used to be showers and sleeping areas, as well as what used to be nice garden areas outside. I use my electronic scanner card to gain access to the stairs that lead to the second floor. I look back at the tour guide to make sure I’m not trespassing on any off limit areas, and she simply smiles and waves.
I get to the top of the stairs and I realize that my sister, is still, not, in, the damn building. I poke my head out of the second floor window, and what do you know, still, talking. I yell, “That better be an important conversation, you’re missing out on quality family time.” She looks up and says “I knowwww I knowww, I’m almost finished, I’m sorry!” As I start to pull my head back from the window, I see the tour guide walk outside and join the conversation with my sister and her friend. “They obviously aren’t that concerned with graffiti,” I mumble to myself.
I continue to explore the rest of the paint peeled, graffiti filled Sanitorium and I realize that I’m actually a bit spooked out. I wasnt sure if it was the gaps in the murder/haunting story that I was filling in for myself, or if it was the fact that I was the only one in the building that was spooking me out more, but I knew I was ready to get out. The only problem was, I hadn’t really taken that many pictures since I felt rude taking them while the tour guide was talking, and I wanted to get some before leaving.
I pick up the pace a bit, and start looking for interesting rooms to take pictures of down this long hallway on the second floor. The wind continues its howl through the building, at times shaking the wooden frame. I hear a door close and I KNOW it’s the wind, but I would be lying if I didn’t picture the Nun in my head closing doors behind me. I check back outside, hoping to ease my mind by not being able to see my sister and the tour guide, but nope, everyone is still outside. I try to yell, but I have no idea what I would say. Nothing needs to be said, and I’m afraid a small tremble in my voice would betray my attempt to not be afraid. I decide I’m going to take two more pictures and get the hell out of there.
I see two pictures that I want to take. I take the first picture, then quickly take the second picture. As I pull my face away from my camera, I see the tour guide standing in the room across the hall in her black business attire with her wooden rosary clenched in her hand. I greet her, partially relieved that I’m not alone anymore, partially creeped out that I didn’t hear her come in. “How’d you get in without making any noise?” I nervously ask her. She smiles and calmly replies, “I don’t recognize you Mario.”
Mario? Well, I guess my sister somehow mentioned my real name while she was outside. I laugh “I guess you found out my real name huh?” ……No response. Her eyes dig into mine as she lowers her chin and moves closer to the doorway. I look around awkwardly, thinking this is pretty corny to try to take the spook factor this far. “Okay, well, I think I’m going to head out now. Thanks for everything, really.” Again…..No reply.
My palms are beginning to sweat a little. I can feel my breathes shortening as I try to rationalize this crazy woman standing in front of me. I for damn sure know it’s not a ghost, but who’s to say I’m not about to be murdered at a tourist attraction by some psycho woman who needs entertainment. As to be expected from a crazy woman, she suddenly throws her wooden rosary down the hall. What. The. Fuck. My skin begins to get prickly, I rush back towards the window in fear, heart about to explode out of my chest and yell out my sisters name. Three people look up. My sister, her friend, and the god, damn, tour guide. I turn back around and see no one.
At this point I’m sweating, I poke my head out into the hallway. The wooden rosary is on the floor, broken into little pieces. I sprint down the hallway. Out of the corner of my right eye, I can see a shadow in the corner of every room I pass on the right. I slam into the door leading to the stairs. It won’t open. I try to swipe my card. It won’t work. I can’t control the shaking in my hands. I start slamming my body into the door. I feel a presence on the back of my neck. I wipe the sweat away. I can feel her watching me when I’m not looking. Every second or third slam, I turn around to see if anything is there. I don’t see anything but I can feel her getting closer. I try to swipe my card again. Nothing. I slam my body into the door.
I can feel her standing right behind me and I dare not look. I start pounding on the door. I hear a whisper “I don’t recognize you Mario.” Tears fill my eyes. The hairs on my neck stand up and I feel a hand on my shoulder. I bang on the door harder, screaming for help in between breathes. Suddenly, finally, the tour guide opens the door, looks right past me. She allows her eyes to widen momentarily in shock before catching herself. She looks at me with concern and asks , “Alejandro, Is everything ok?” Tears in my eyes, I start to stammer, “I..” but I can only get one word out at a time in between breaths. I inch myself towards the exit and slowly turn my head around. Nothing. No woman. No broken rosary. Nothing.
I walk downstairs and exit the Sanitorium. Sweat all over my shirt and face, and hands still shaking, my sister asks “Dude are you ok?” “Lets just get out of here,” I tersely reply. My sister says bye to the tour guide and her friend and we get in the car and head back towards the city. It wasn’t until I got home that I looked through my pictures and I saw her, in my last picture, standing at the end of the hallway.