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Snorkel? Dive? - Coiba Island offers the best in Panama.

The Coiba National Park - The Best Diving and Snorkeling in Panama.

Best Diving and Snorkeling
The Coiba National Park

So, you are a diver and/or enjoy snorkeling? Now, you're researching things to do for your upcoming trip to Panama. If you search for the top attractions in Panama, Coiba makes the list. It is considered the best diving and snorkeling along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Colombia. It gets honorable mentions as well for its bird and terrestrial life. Coiba is fairly remote, but definitely ticks all of the boxes for a serious underwater adventure.

The Coiba National Park is 4,300 square's huge! Coiba Island itself is the largest island in all of Central America. There are 38 islands in the park system that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The animal, plant and marine life are so very unique at Coiba because it is part of the Eastern Pacific Marine Corridor which is a specific underwater system for migrating megafauna from the Coco Islands in Costa Rica down to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. This makes for some of the most unique and memorable diving and snorkeling on the planet.

dive Coiba

To see some of the most exotic marine life like whale sharks, giant manta rays, sharks and other large species, diving in Coiba obviously has some advantages over snorkeling. With group dynamics and price considerations, snorkeling also has advantages. Let's go through some practical information for these two activities and help you figure out that portion of your Panama trip: Coiba.

You'll need to figure out the town from which you'll launch to Coiba and accommodations to stay. There is a remote town called Pixbae that is closest to the island, but doesn't have any of the amenities and activities that you and your group may find attractive. Boca Chica, in Chiriquí is also a possibility, but the boat ride is very far and costly. Most would agree (including myself) based on proximity and infrastructure, that Santa Catalina is the best starting point for Coiba. .

The main attraction around the Santa Catalina area is, of course, the island park of Coiba (don't tell surfers that). Surfing is also huge. Incredibly Santa Catalina consistently makes the top of Panama's list for both surfing and diving. Dining is also a nice factor. There are several high-quality international restaurants in and around Santa Catalina that are outstanding. Other daily activities include: yoga, kayak, paddle boards, horseback riding, and most anything associated with getting together and playing on the beach. Although an active town, Santa Catalina is more known for sport rather than a 'party place'. Most come to enjoy the exotic nature and the outdoor activities.

How to get to Coiba?

Getting to Santa Catalina is possible by bus ($20/person and approximately 9 hours), rental car ($40-$80 per day with a 7 hour drive), hired car (around $300 per leg with a 7 hour drive) or charter flight to Lago Bay (approximately $250/person with a 45 minute flight from Albrook). If your budget permits you can find more information for charter flights at

There are plenty of comfortable hotels in the Santa Catalina area. If you and your group prefer the idea of a vacation home rental, Lago Bay also offers homes with shuttle service. You can fly in to your Lago Bay home with a stocked kitchen then shuttle back and forth for your Coiba tour. Lago Bay offers covered parking if you prefer to make the drive. The home selection for Lago Bay is also found at

Let's get back to snorkeling and diving at Coiba:

Diving and Snorkeling in Panama

Snorkel and Dive Tours

Although there are a few more activities like hiking, bird watching, kayaking and surfing (yes on Coiba... if you don't mind navigating the salt-water crocs), or just beach crawling (going from beach to beach with your cooler); most groups can divide themselves into two categories... divers and snorkelers.

We can start with commonalities of both dive and snorkel tours:

Most tour agencies will ask you to fill out a general form. Checking in the day before the tour is advised in order to at least pick up your form and confirm for the following day. To access the park, you'll need a park permit. The fee is $20 for visitors and $5 for Panamanians and residents. The tour group will always get this for you, but it's a good point to clarify.

For your tour, it's recommended that you pack some sunscreen, sandals, take a tight fitting hat and have a dry bag where you can store any electronics and your passport (you'll need it for park ranger check in). If you plan on taking one of the hikes you'll also need some walking shoes and bug repellent. If you have an extra hungry or thirsty group, it's a good idea to bring snacks and extra beverages. You can take a cooler or the boat crew can usually put cold products on ice in one of their coolers.

For diving or snorkel equipment, you are welcome to bring your own or the tour company will provide whatever equipment you need...included in the price. With divers, a wet suit is important. Temperatures near the surface are always warm, but the fluctuations below in some of the currents are impressive. Even from site to site this can widely vary from pleasant to bone-chilling cold.

All tours come with experienced guides. Usually there are two in the crew, the captain and the guide. Many times for diving, there can be more in the crew...especially if it's for multiple days. Nowadays, the pangas (local-style tour boats) also all come with canvas tops to help protect you from the sun. The boats always have enough life jackets for everyone on board.

The boat ride to the park from Santa Catalina is slightly over an hour. The ride can be very calm and live up to its name (Pacific) or, at times, you can feel like you're getting pounded. Sitting towards the back of the boat really helps on a rough day if you're not into that full experience.

Lunch is similar for most Coiba diving and snorkeling tours as well. All guides offer lunch included that is usually a choice of fish, chicken, veggie or vegan. You can always expect some seasonal fresh fruit and plenty of water. If you want different beverages, the crew can always pack it in with their coolers or you are welcome to bring your own. If you have a hungry group, you may want to also pack snacks. Either water activity burns plenty of calories.

dive tour coiba

Time of the year to go:

You're going to see incredible marine life any time of the year...but seeing a certain preferred creature is really mostly a matter of luck. However, dry season (December-March) is when whale sharks are more frequently spotted. Whale season (June-October) is also popular. You'll also tend to have a better chance to see dolphins on the boat ride during these months.

Age Restrictions

The dive shops don't offer tours for children. Snorkel tours are fine for kids two years and up. For seniors, the only restrictions are based on an adventurous spirit.

First Time?

For divers, the dive shops can offer an open water certification that will usually require four or five days.

For snorkelers, if you or anyone in the group don't have much experience, the guide will pay special attention to make sure that everyone feels comfortable in the water with their equipment.

Fair warning, Coiba is not the docile Caribbean. There are plenty of underwater currents that can be unpleasant if you aren't prepared to 'go with the flow'. Divers have many options on sites that are geared towards less experienced to very challenging. Once company is aware of everyone's experience level, the captain can figure out the best strategy for the group. Underwater currents also apply to the snorkel groups (although much less). In both cases, the boat will gauge the best route so that you dive or float with the current and arrive at the boat when you're finishing up.

Visibility can also vary greatly. Conditions can be great one day and challenging the next. This can also be the case from one dive site to another on the same day. Luckily tour operators communicate among each other and help to find the best visibility for their groups.

The underwater life that you'll see is truly amazing. The marine life is one variable of the Coiba tours that is consistently impressive. Coiba has over 750 species of fish, many species of whales (especially the humpback), turtles, dolphins, giant rays, and 33 species of sharks including the largest and most sought after in the world...the whale shark.

Coiba National Park is unique from a biological perspective because the Eastern Pacific is one of the most unexplored regions of the world. Coiba is right in the center of it, in a marine corridor that starts in Mexico, goes down through Costa Rica and ends in the Galapagos islands.

History Coiba Prison

Coiba used to be a penal colony from 1919 until 2004. As a prison, it was kept well preserved to evolve intact (80% primary) as a national park and UNESCO Heritage site. If requested, your tour can also involve a quick tour to the old prison ruins for an extra fee. If you're a history buff it may be worth it. It does feel a little creepy and you can hear about the macabre stories of the prison days. If you're main interest is happy, shiny and underwater, I'd recommend that you stick to the snorkeling or diving.

Video of a Lago Bay 'Creepy Coiba' excursion (history of the prison colony).

Diving can be two or three tanks/dives depending on your appetite. The cost also changes for the third tank. Snorkel as well is usually two to four different sites (usually three) depending on the group dynamics. Anyone can opt out and choose to hang out on one of the pristine beaches.

Your first stop will usually be on or around Isla Canales. Pristine white beaches and relative calm water and location make this area a natural first stop. After the first dive or snorkel site, you'll have a pretty good idea how the day is shaping up and if you'll want to be more underwater or explore the land. Usually the park ranger station at the main island of Coiba is next where you will check in (passport) then relax for a while on the beautiful beach, learn about the history of the island (a small museum) or walk one of the trails. This is a good place to have your snack or refill a water bottle. There is also usually a salt water crocodile, a monkey or an exotic bird to get a good shot for your fans back home.


From there, the tour will usually have another nearby dive or snorkel site. Isla Cocos is very popular for both beach and snorkel. For divers, I'll list a few of the most popular sites on another blog. But now... it's lunch time. That's usually on Rancheria Island where there are make shift tables and chairs, an incredible white sand beach and some mangroves on the back side. If you didn't get a chance to see a salt-water crocodile at the ranger get another chance here. Rancheria Island is a great spot to relax and...if needed, let the group go on to another underwater excursion while you or others opt for extra beach time. Usually after seeing so many different and exotic marine animals, most are ready to rally and see what else they can find.

Even after going to Coiba for many years, the experiences are always unique. Being underway is such a healthy activity on multiple levels. If you like to dive or snorkel or you're finally ready to give it a try...make sure that you put Coiba on your Panama travel itinerary.

Hopefully this blog has helped to give you an introduction for a very special upcoming Coiba adventure. I'll list a few recommendations of tour operations in Santa Catalina.

Good luck! And Saludos from Lago Bay!!



For Snorkel:

Discover Coiba Coiba Trip with Discover Coiba

For Dive:

Coiba Dive Center interview with Julie

Panama Dive Center interview with Camilo


Fly from Albrook to Lago Bay?  Continue on to Bocas?  Find out which Charter option is best for your group.

The best Diving and Surfing in Central America. Unique recreation for family and friends along their Panama journey.

The drive from Panama City to Lago Bay is approximately 6 hours.  A chartered plane takes about 45 minutes. 

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