I felt like I had been transported back in time to a long lost world as my helicopter hovered over the dramatically lush Cocos Island. Located 340 miles southwest of Costa Rica, the UNESCO World Heritage site has been part of Costa Rica since 1832, and is filled with a dense, tropical rain forest. I had always been enchanted by the island having heard so many pirate tales, and I figured I would make the journey to get a firsthand look. The tropical island is as mysterious and compelling as it appears.
Author Michael Crichton was so enamored by the island that he modeled his famed “Jurassic Park” Isla Nublar after it, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel “Treasure Island” catapulted Cocos Island to fame. I can understand the fascination as we hovered over the sheer 300-foot cliffs, black sand beaches, numerous rivers, and streams, and approached the stunning waterfall at Wafer Bay.
I expected to see dinosaurs roaming freely, but the only actual creatures on the island are the 400 species of insects and 90 bird species. The real dangers lie below the surface and have often proved deadly as the island is surrounded by large populations of Tiger and Hammerhead sharks. The large extensive underground caves and volcanic tunnels provide for massive amounts of marine life.
THE TREASURE OF LIMA
The mystery that has confounded explorers for centuries are the estimated $1 billion worth of treasures hidden throughout the island. It all began in 1820 when Peru started a war against the Spanish Empire colonizing the Americas. The Argentine General Jose de San Martin planned to invade Lima, and the Spanish Viceroy decided it would be best to remove all of the areas riches out of the war zone for safekeeping and return when safe.
The Spaniards commissioned respected British Captain William Thompson and his vessel Mary Dear to safeguard what is known today as the Treasure of Lima. A haul filled with gold coins, silver, diamonds, and a solid gold life-sized Virgin Mary statue. Captain Thompson and his greedy men ultimately killed all the Spanish Soldiers and Priests on board and headed towards Cocos Island where they buried the massive bounty.
A Spanish warship hunted them down, and the crew was convicted, except for Captain Thompson and his first mate who both agreed to cooperate by locating and retrieving the treasure loot. But they both escaped once they landed on the Island and were never recaptured. Hundreds of explorers have since tried to locate the treasure but have failed. Early expeditions were mounted by a man named John Keating in 1844, who was supposed to have befriended Thompson. On one trip, Keating was said to have retrieved gold and jewels from the treasure location after receiving a map from Thompson. Upon his deathbed, it is rumored that he shared the following inventory that was documented of the treasure.
*One chest containing altar trimmings of gold cloth with canopies, monstrances, chalices all coated with gem stones of up to 1,244 pieces.
*One chest with 2 gold relic containers weighing 120 pounds with 624 topaz, carnelians, emeralds and 12 diamonds.
*One chest containing 3 relic containers of cast metal weighing 160 pounds with 860 rubies, 19 diamonds and other gem stones.
*One chest containing 4,000 doubloons of Spanish Marked 8, 124 swords, 5,000 crowns of Mexican Gold, 64 daggers, 120 shoulder belts and 28 round shields.
*One chest containing 8 caskets of cedar wood and silver with 3,840 cut stones, rings offering plates and 4,265 uncut stones.
*Seven chests with 22 candelabra in gold and silver weighing 250 pounds and 164 rubies.
*One 7-foot Solid Gold Statue of Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus. Weighing 780 pounds, rolled on her gold chasuble adorned with 1,684 jewels including 4-inch emeralds, 6-inch topazes and 7 crosses made of diamonds.
When German adventurer August Gissler became the official governor of Cocos Island in 1897, he was not interested in the small group of tobacco growers living there, most of whom he had brought over from his home country. He was obsessed in locating the solid gold Madonna and also the treasure of pirate Benito Bonito, and over the years had dug out an extensive system of underground tunnels in his quest. He ultimately left the island in 1908 after assembling clues as to where the treasure was located, but only walked away with a few random coins.
THE DEVONSHIRE TREASURE
Pirates hiding treasures in Cocos Island started a long time before the famous Treasure of Lima happened. In 1818, British Naval Officer Captain Bennett Grahame commanded the HMS Devonshire for a coastal survey in the South Pacific. He ended up changing careers to be a pirate after hoarding over 350 tons of gold from Spanish Galleons he raided during his duty. The Captain and most of his crew were ultimately arrested and executed for their actions.
One of the ship’s surviving crew members Mary Welsh, who was sent to a penal colony but was later released, said she saw Captain Grahame and his men bury the treasure on Cocos Island. With location bearings and memory of the exact location, Welsh led an expedition to Cocos Island, but after many storms, the landmarks she remembered were long gone.
PIRATE BENITO BONITO’S TREASURE
With a career of pirating over 350 tons of gold and burning Spanish Galleons in 1818, Benito Bonito is rumored to have buried his treasures in a deep tunnel in the Wafer Bay area on Cocos Island.
His biggest mistake was when he allowed two Englishmen to join his team of pirates. Several years later the two men were captured and sent to prison, and in exchange for freedom they promised that they would offer up the West Indian hideout of Benito Bonito which resulted to the end of Bonito’s pirate life.
Explorers have conducted over 500 expeditions on the island but with no success before the government finally banned entry. In 2012, British and Canadian media extensively reported that adventurer/engineer Shaun Whitehead would be carrying out a major archaeological survey of the island using Ground Penetrating Radar and snake camera. That expedition fell apart and never happened.
I spoke with Whitehead who told me, “Members of the team did visit the island, and we had permissions to carry out the more comprehensive archaeological- zoological survey. However, the permissions only last for six months, and while we waited for the TV production company to get their end of things sorted out, the permission lapsed. When we re-applied, the Costa Rican government decided that there was too much publicity related to the treasure aspects (rather than the serious archaeological/zoological survey) and so refused to grant further permission.”
There have been reports that the alleged Treasure of Lima has been found and recovered but they are all considered to be a hoax created to divert attention away from the island. There are also reports that the treasure is in an alternative location but those have been unfounded. And many skeptics are quite vocal that there is no treasure at all and that it is all a fabulous pirates tale. I choose to believe in the mystery of the island and we will truly never know the truth since further exploration is permanently banned.
I spoke with Genna Marie Davis with the adventure diving company Undersea Hunter Group, who told me, “It’s tricky writing about Cocos Island treasures because there is so much hearsay, lore and conflicting information all tangled up that it’s difficult to discern the truth. The stories are very fun, but you have to take them with a grain of salt. There was even a lot of misinformation purposefully spread by treasure hunters trying to throw other treasure hunters off the track.”
The presence of overnight visitors is strictly prohibited on the island, and the area can only be accessed by expensive scuba diving live aboard boat trips. Only park rangers living in ranger stations are authorized by the Costa Rican government to stay on the island while performing their duty in protecting the Nature Reserve.
This article was originally sourced from here.