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Short Description and History of Coiba National Park

My history with Coiba began in 2005...just one year after it was announced as a park. Tourism, in the strict sense, existed but nothing was very planned or coordinated. In Santa Catalina, there was only one dive shop that existed, Scuba Coiba with only a few boats going out to the island per week. Today, during high season in Santa Catalina, it's common to see up to 40 pangas (local-style outboard motorized boats) coming and going. There are many reasons for this surge in visits.

History of Coiba National Park

Coiba is the largest island in all of Central America with just over 120,000 acres. The Coiba National Park consists of 38 islands in total and is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of the unique biodiversity and the pristine, undeveloped nature of the island; it is considered as one of Panama's treasures for tourism and exploration.

Terrestrial life on Coiba holds its own as an attraction. The scarlet macaw, easily found on Coiba, is now rare on the mainland. The park also has its own monkey, the Coiba Island Howler. Also the Coiba Island white-tailed deer is endemic to the park. The Crested Eagle is another rare species that can be found at Coiba. Another remarkable predator is the American Crocodile. These saltwater animals can reach lengths of over 20 feet. The Pacific Leatherback Turtle also calls Coiba home with a remarkable number of nesting sites for this endangered species.

American Crocodile

More than 800 species of fish have been identified inside the Coiba National Park. Here at Lago Bay, we have housed on several occasions visits from scientists working with the Smithsonian Institute. One group was identifying new species and were able to record several new regional finds. They also discovered two fish that had never been photographed. Another group had concentrated on the salt-water crocodiles. Amazingly able to handle the species while collecting blood samples. Another group of marine biologists worked on migratory patterns of various fish species. The work from the Smithsonian at Coiba has truly been great for general advancement in marine biology.

fish Coiba

Perhaps the single biggest marine life attraction at Coiba is the whale shark. Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, are year-long residents. Although rare in the world, whale sharks are frequently spotted inside the park. Although you'll need to dive to have a better chance of meeting a whale shark, I've spoken with many snorkelers that have also had encounters. Luckily the world's largest fish is also among the most friendly.

Because the underwater topography is linked to the Galapagos Islands, many marine species are of the same rare quality and quantity for a spectacular diving scene. The corral and ocean plant life is extensive with thousands of acres that are unique to the planet. Humpback whales, dolphins and giant manta rays are other animals frequently sited at Coiba.

Humpback whales

Coiba Island Prison

In 1919, Coiba Island Prison was built by the Panamanian government. Although not lucky for the human inhabitants from 1919 until 2004, this was the single most important factor for environmental preservation of the island. There are many horror stories that have been written about both the prisoners and the authorities that oversaw the prison. When I first started going to Coiba, the memories were still fresh with some of the park rangers that had been prison guards during those troubling times.

If asked about the history and their experience, they would impart some stories that were truly horrific. Hopefully, in my view, the stories were embellished...but unfortunately, I've only come across more and more confirmation of some of the horrors. From gang warfare cannibalism, torture and murder, the macabre history of the island in the 20th century was something you'd expect in a Stephen King novel. Lord of the Flies comes to mind...but with adults instead of kids. Luckily this twisted history led to one of the greatest park success stories of all time. Almost 80 percent of the island is made up of virgin rain forest as a result. Animals and marine life were left practically untouched. Fisherman during that century stayed clear of the island for self preservation. Certainly many stories about the prisoners on the island were able to circulate among the lore of the natives.

Coiba as a National Attraction

Coiba Panama

Coiba is one of Panama's main attractions. There is no better preservation of many of her indigenous species. With over 200 dive sites, Coiba is clearly credited with the principle dive destination of Panama. The incredible white sand beaches and excellent snorkeling make the island park attractive to just about any ocean loving visitor. The island has transformed the surrounding area. Today the locals around Santa Catalina are conscientious of the park's laws regarding environmental preservation. Tourism, for the most part, has supplanted fishing/poaching. As Coiba gains more and more popularity, that surge is met with a growing involvement, both internationally and locally with healthy conservatism for the enjoyment of generations to come.

How to get to Coiba Island?

Coiba Panama

Here at Lago Bay, we help get visitors to their Coiba destination. Our airstrip makes flights to the region a lot easier. The 7 hour drive for many divers and travelers just isn't realistic. With the 45-minute flight from Albrook, the accessibility of Coiba is made possible for many visitors under a time constraint. More information about the Lago Bay Airstrip can be found here.

Our vacation homes at Lago Bay also create great space for groups of all sizes. Lago Bay works with different tour operators for both dive and snorkel tours to Coiba. Our shuttle bus adds good connectivity directly to the tour operation with a 15 minute drive. If you have a group interested in a Coiba tour, Lago Bay can help organize logistics, tours and supplies. For more information about our Coiba Tour Pack and vacation homes.

Saludos from Lago Bay!  


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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