It was my first big adventure in Panama. A month later, after living in Panama City, I was already back. Coiba Island is the largest island on the Pacific coast of Central America. With 38 other islands and islets over a marine area of more than 1,700 km², they form the Coiba National Park. Officially created in 2004, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site only a year later. Before my trip, everyone told me diving in Coiba was the best in Panama. After three months of diving in Panama, there is no denying it.
An alternate title for this article could have been “the accidental marine paradise”. If you wonder why you have never heard about Coiba Island as a world-class diving destination, there is a good reason for it. From 1919 to 2004, it was one of the most violent penal colonies in the world. The stories of the blood-thirsty criminals, creepy ghosts and man-eating sharks were enough to put off people from approaching. From 1968 to 1990, the prison island lived its darkest hours as not only dangerous criminals but more and more political opponents to the military dictatorships of Torrijos and Noriega were sent to “disappear” on Coiba.
In 2021, Panama joined forces with Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Colombia to set up the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, a mega marine protected area of more than 500,000 km². Including the famous islands of Galapagos, Cocos and Malpelo. Coiba is somehow the most accessible of all from the mainland. Still, only the most resolute of us will uncover the wonders and underwater secrets of Coiba. After spending 8 days trying different styles of exploring Coiba National Park, let me share everything you need to know to dive into this jewel of Panama.
Diving in Coiba at a glance
How good diving in Coiba is?
My top 5 dive sites of Coiba National Park
Located in the Gulf of Chiriquí but belonging to the Province of Veraguas, Coiba and the 38 islands forming the National Park, it is a delight for passionate and experienced scuba divers. However, most of the dive sites visited by the dive centres of Santa Catalina are not next to Coiba itself. They are mainly around Rancheria (also called Coibita Island), Canales (Afuera and Afuerita Islands) and Contreras (Uva and Brincanco Islands. While the first group of islands can be visited as a day trip from Santa Catalina, the latter needs an overnight stay in Bahia Honda, closer to the park, like on a 2 or 3-day expedition. Without surprise, my two favourite sites were during such an expedition.
You will note in my dive parameters a significant variation of average temperatures: this is due to the steep thermoclines and strong currents found in Coiba waters. While the water was between 28 and 30°C at the surface, the water was 17°C at the deepest point of my deepest dive (36m). But due to the currents, sometimes the thermocline could be as shallow as 5 m as the masses of cold waters move with the currents. When you go from 30°C water to 25°C in the blink of an eye, I can assure you it suddenly feels colder than it looks.
This cold water is murkier due to the amount of plankton it contains. Sometimes, pushed by currents, it would come right to our buddy team before engulfing us. But remember, this water full of nutrients is why we see so much marine wildlife in Coiba National Park.
1 – Sueño del Pescador (Fisherman’s dream), Brincanco Island
My dive parameters:
- max depth 32 m – dive time 60 min – average water temperature 18°C
The dive sites of the Contreras Islands (Brincanco & Uva) are located in the northern part of Coiba National Park. Due to the depths and currents, including the necessity to make a negative entry in the water (backroll without inflating BCD), I think you already guessed that it would only be for experienced divers. My recommendation would be advanced divers with a deep specialty and about 100 dives below their belt. Besides, due to the distance, you’ll need to book at least a 2-day diving expedition with a night in Bahia Honda to dive there.
All these efforts paid off. I was in the water for less than a minute when giant longtail stingrays and loggerhead turtles swam around me right above a murky thermocline full of plankton at 10m. I lost my dive buddy for a minute, the time to cross that murky thermocline. Below, the visibility was suddenly clear again, but it felt like night diving.
It was an underwater Eden garden in the area between 20 and 30 m. Colourful sea fans and gorgonians were dancing with the currents with king angelfish swimming above. These soft corals cover scenic landscapes of boulders, walls and canyons. I also spotted two giant spiny lobsters, a couple of white-tip sharks and an entire collection of pretty starfish.
As we returned above the murky thermocline between 5 and 10 m for our safety stop (including 2 minutes of decompression), it was again an underwater festival with jackfish, grunt, spadefish, longtail stingrays and white-tip sharks coming from all sides. This is a dive I will never forget.
2 – Punta Peligro (Danger Point), Uva Island
My dive parameters:
- max depth 36 m – dive time 50 min – average water temperature 17°C
Which adventure diver would resist the appeal of a dive site named like this? We stopped the boat where the surface conditions were rougher than near Brincanco Island. Meters away from us, waves were crashing onto Punta Peligro. 1, 2, 3, negative entry once again!
There wasn’t any murky thermocline. But it doesn’t mean there is never any; the current might have pushed it when we were scuba diving. I could then readjust my BCD and stabilise my buoyancy calmly in clear water. While doing so, I caught a curious scene: a giant damselfish fighting and poking a decent size octopus. Ah… those damselfish, never afraid of anything!
Once everyone was ready, we gave a few more fin kicks to find three colossal nurse sharks napping next to each other. As we carefully approached, one decided to leave, and the two others were like, “Nah, I’ll stay here sleeping, do whatever you want”. Trying to make as few bubbles as possible not to scare them away, I could see their head was about 50 cm wide!
Punta Peligro was my deepest dive in Coiba National Park as between 35 and 40 m, on the sandy bottom, there is a possibility to see bull sharks. Unfortunately, no bull sharks, but again, as we ascended in the 30-25 m zone, there was a dense sea fan garden on large boulders with starfish here and there. This time at the safety stop, we were welcomed by a school of bluefin trevally.
3 – Punta Faro (Lighthouse Point), Afuera Island
My dive parameters:
- Dive #1 – max depth 8 m – dive time 44 min – average water temperature 25°C
- Dive #2 – max depth 24 m – dive time 57 min – average water temperature 24°C
- Dive #3 – max depth 20 m – dive time 54 min – average water temperature 22°C
- Dive #4 – max depth 19 m – dive time 57 min – average water temperature 22°C
This is the dive site I dived the most, and you will surely visit it even if you go on a day diving trip from Santa Catalina. The Canales islands (Afuera and Afuerita) are the most visited area by scuba divers and snorkelers to explore the waters of Coiba National Park. It takes an hour and a half of “lancha” (boat) to reach these islands, the closest to Santa Catalina.
Punta Faro is a popular dive site in the Canales islands. I liked it because it never disappointed me. I saw something cool every time I went there, including sharks and turtles. On the contrary, Buffet was a bit of an all or nothing kind of dive.
This gentle drift dive usually starts above a sandy bottom where many garden eels hide. There, I saw a couple of white-tip sharks on every dive. After saying hello to the sharks, stick with the dive guide as he may take you to a cool swim-through canyon. As you continue swimming above a rocky reef, there are more opportunities to encounter sharks.
At the deepest point of the dive, between 18 and 20 m, where the divemaster makes a turn to the left, there is an incredible concentration of rainbow wrasse, razor surgeonfish, black nosed butterflyfish, white-spotted pufferfish and king angelfish swimming over small gorgonians and sponges. Unfortunately, I spotted more than a few coral devouring crown-of-thorn starfish, which may explain the worrying state of the coral reefs of Coiba.
We ended each dive in the blue, hoping for a whale shark to pass by, but doing your safety stop among a massive school of jackfish is still a fabulous way to end a dive!
4 – Wahoo Rock, Afuera Island
My dive parameters:
- max depth 20 m – dive time 59 min – average water temperature 26°C
Wahoo Rock is the twin dive site of Buffet; they are next to each other. While Buffet is about going in the blue, Wahoo Rock is mainly a wall dive. I preferred Wahoo Rock to Buffet since there are still many things to see if you don’t cross paths with a marine giant, like a whale shark or a ray.
The king angelfish are in numbers at about 15 m deep. If you inspect the walls and rocks carefully near it, you’ll see many tufted tube blennies pop in and out their head to hunt for plankton in the current. At about 10 m deep, the part above Wahoo Rock is a white-tip shark spot. Since it was my last dive in Coiba, I had learned to blow as few bubbles as possible to get a close-up portrait of these sea puppies.
It wasn’t a giant school of fish but three large loggerhead turtles that came to check us out during the safety stop! Even if I didn’t see it, Wahoo Rock is the dive site where frogfish can usually be spotted in Coiba National Park.
5 – Iglesia, Rancheria Island
My dive parameters:
- max depth 14 m – dive time 57 min – average water temperature 22°C
This site made me regret not taking my macro lens on this trip. Most of my dives during my long trip in Latin America were supposed to be all about wide-angle. Iglesia is THE dive site for those who love inspecting for long minutes a wall or the inside of an antler coral.
Our divemaster, Luis, wanted to show us a Pacific seahorse, but instead, he found a harlequin shrimp! I was over the moon. I don’t have pictures of seahorses in Coiba National Park, but seeing my first harlequin shrimp ever was everything to me. After taking enough photos and videos of this elegant shrimp, I saw a few white-tip sharks, a lovely snowflake moray eel swimming out of its den and a school of bluefin trevally as I made my way to the safety stop.
The other dive sites worth mentioning
There are 14 main dive sites in Coiba National Park. I didn’t have the time to test them all, but here is a glimpse of the other dive sites I visited.
Buffet, Afuera Island
My dive parameters:
- Dive #1 – max depth 14 m – dive time 50 min – average water temperature 22°C
- Dive #2 – max depth 19 m – dive time 42 min – average water temperature 26°C
- Dive #3 – max depth 22 m – dive time 58 min – average water temperature 23°C
Buffet is the dive site where you may have the opportunity to cross paths with whale sharks in the season (January-March). Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any while scuba diving in Coiba in February and March. On my second dive there, Divemaster Luis took a turn to the right and found a real white-tip shark nest!
Bajo Piñon, Afuerita Island
My dive parameters:
- max depth 18 m – dive time 59 min – average water temperature 26°C
A dive site near Punta del Faro, but on the Afuerita Island side. The main highlight of this site was the interesting sponge formations and many moray eels. Otherwise, I had many opportunities to approach white tip sharks. Even if this site didn’t make it to my top 5, this is where I got in the middle of an enormous school of Pacific spadefish, which made the cover picture of this article!
Pacora, Afuera Island
My dive parameters:
- max depth 17 m – dive time 46 min – average water temperature 28°C
My only night dive in Coiba National Park during my 2-day expedition. There were beautiful colourful sea fans but not much action apart from a porcupine pufferfish and a giant hermit crab. However, I must say the bioluminescence of plankton when we were shaking our hands underwater was pretty cool.
What to see underwater in Coiba National Park?
Diving in this part of the Pacific Ocean is mostly about seeing sizeable pelagic fish and marine mammals, less about colourful reefs and fish. Due to the fact I was diving during the whale shark season, I had high hopes to see one but had no luck. I still saw the largest nurse sharks I have ever seen, without counting impressive schools of stingrays, spadefish and jackfish. On every boat ride to the Coiba National Park, I got to see either pantropical spotted dolphins or bottlenose dolphins.
However, the variety of tropical fish was way wider than I expected. Look at this list below I built based on my pictures. Besides, to my biggest surprise, my most incredible encounter was a macro critter: my first harlequin shrimp.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the fascinating marine species you may be able to see underwater in Coiba. I divided it into three parts, the large marine animals, including the pelagic species such as sharks, the tropical fish and the macro critters.
Large marine animals
- Whale sharks
- Hammerhead sharks
- Whitetip sharks
- Nurse sharks
- Mobula rays
- Spotted eagle rays
- Longtail & Halle’s round stingrays
- Bottlenose & Pantropical spotted dolphins
- Hawksbill, Loggerhead & Leatherback turtles
- King & Cortez angelfish
- Black nosed & Three-banded butterflyfish
- Yellowfin & Razor surgeonfish
- Longfin bannerfish
- Cortez rainbow wrasse
- Giant & Longfin damselfish
- Pacific Spadefish
- Bluefin trevally
- Stone triggerfish
- Porcupine & white spotted pufferfish
- Coral hawkfish
- Pacific seahorse
- Harlequin shrimp
- Tufted tube blenny
Which scuba diving centre to choose to go diving in Coiba?
I went twice to Coiba National Park and mostly used the services of Expedicion Coiba, a dive centre managed by Maria and Fredy, both from Colombia. If you speak a bit of Spanish, you will get the best experience (they can also give briefings in English). I cannot recommend them enough, thanks to their level of professionalism and the super positive vibe shared by all their team members. Kudos to Luis, their Panamanian divemaster, who has been diving in Coiba National Park for more than 18 years and knows each dive site by heart. If you ask him, he’ll tell you the stories of when he started diving when there were still prisoners on Coiba Island, and you needed a special permit to approach the island.
On my last diving day, I also tried the services of Coiba Dive Center. I joined a buddy team led by Damian, a divemaster from Belize. In case you don’t know, Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America (it’s a part of the British Commonwealth). Indeed, Damian is perfectly bilingual in English and Spanish. It could be a better option for those who don’t feel comfortable in Spanish. Damian has been diving for more than 13 years in Coiba National Park, so his experience is excellent.
Note about scuba diving gear:
For my first two dives in Coiba, as it was part of a 2-day multi-activity expedition, I decided to leave my wetsuit behind in Panama City. I was given what was supposed to be a 3mm full wetsuit, but I think it was closer to 1mm (neoprene crushes over time). Because of the significant water temperature difference between the surface and the underwater thermocline (losing sometimes as much as 10°C), I was freezing. I couldn’t go below 8 m on my first dive.
When I came back to Coiba National Park, I finally had all my scuba gear. Sure, it was tough to put on my 7mm wetsuit in the hot Panamanian summer, but below the surface, I was the only one who enjoyed crossing these thermoclines. Dive centres don’t offer anything above 3mm for their rental wetsuits, so if you can, bring your wetsuit to make your dives way more enjoyable, at least a 5mm, like you would for the Galapagos Islands.
Finally, if you travel with a DIN regulator, don’t forget to bring your DIN Adaptor. Dive centres only have yoke tanks in Santa Catalina.
Is Coiba a good place for beginner divers?
Yes and no. It depends on the experience you have as an Open Water diver. I saw some open water divers with between 10 to 30 dives who did just fine in the dive sites of the Canales Islands. However, whether you consider a discovery scuba dive or passing your Open Water certification in Santa Catalina, it could be frustrating since you won’t likely see what Coiba National Park is famous for. I would wait to be an advanced Open Water diver before going diving in Coiba.
On the other hand, the snorkelling tours in Coiba National Park can be incredible. I should have joined one during my stay in Santa Catalina. Every day, I asked snorkelers what they saw, and many mentioned baby white-tip sharks and dozens of sea turtles. Ironically, it might be during a snorkelling tour, which goes to different spots, that you’ll get more chances to see a whale shark than while scuba diving.
Other activities in Coiba National Park
On my first trip to Coiba National Park, beyond two dives, I had the opportunity to go kayaking to a remote paradise islet and hiking in the rainforest at dawn. It might have been the most intense two days of my life, but I loved every second of it. To do this kind of multi-activity trip without returning to the mainland every day (1h30 by boat), you must camp near Coiba Island (see below). It will only be possible through a travel agency with a permit, such as Balanea Travel or Pacific Adventure.
Hiking in Coiba National Park
There are six hiking trails on Coiba Island. They will allow you to spot some of Coiba Island’s incredible and sometimes endemic wildlife. These trails can only be accessed by boat, so I recommend getting in touch with a travel agency which can organise it for you. Besides, having a naturalist guide will dramatically improve your experience as it’s not always easy, especially at the beginning, to know where to look or understand what you are looking at.
Our group had to wake up at 5.30 am on Rancheria Island to start our hike on the Sendero de los Monos (the Monkeys’ Trail) at sunrise (6.15 am). This is indeed the best time to spot wildlife in the rainforest. As its name suggests, this trail is ideal for spotting monkeys, especially the capuchin monkeys and the endemic howler monkeys of Coiba. We did hear the howler monkeys but could only see one capuchin monkey. The trail is only 1 km; it takes 40 minutes to one hour, depending on how many pictures you take.
During my time on Coiba Island, near the old prison or at the ranger station, I also had the opportunity to spot scarlet macaws and sea crocodiles. Around Coiba National Park, you will also see pelicans, iguanas and many hermit crabs.
Kayaking in Coiba National Park
I had used kayaks in the past, but it was my very complete kayak adventure. We first went from Coiba Island to Granito de Oro Islet. After a break on Granito de Oro, we returned to Rancheria Island. The total distance was about 10 km. Beyond the pride of achieving this without getting completely sunburnt thanks to my UV protected rashguard and leggings (but why did I forget to put my reef-safe sunscreen on my hands?), it made me realise how kayaking is the perfect combination with scuba diving.
There is no better way to travel between the paradise islets of Coiba National Park than with just the sounds of your paddle gently pushing the water one side after the other. My only regret was not packing my fins, mask and snorkel onto the kayak. Granito de Oro was meant as a surprise; our group was indeed blown away by the pure beauty of this desert tropical islet and the lagoon surrounding it.
When is the best time to go scuba diving in Coiba National Park?
The Panamanian summer, from December to April, is the recommended period. This is the dry season, and next to no rain means better visibility underwater. Besides, this is the whale shark season too. But this year, everyone agreed to say they didn’t see many, while a big pod of orcas was spotted in February, which is unusual. This is how nature works!
In June-July, at the beginning of the rainy season, experienced divers in the know go to the Contreras Islands, in the north of the National Park, to get a chance to see hammerhead sharks.
Then from September to November, this is the whale watching season. Humpback whales come in numbers to give birth to their calves.
Note that the rainy season in Panama can be pretty intense, with heavy rainfall all day long. From June to November, the average number of days of rain per month is above 20!
How to go to Coiba Island?
So, here start the problems. Let’s put things straight if you hope to go to Coiba National Park only for a day, this will not happen. Two days, maybe, but if you consider the travel time to Coiba, it won’t be worth it. I recommend a minimum of 4 days, journey included from Panama City or Bocas del Toro.
If you followed my story in Panama on Instagram, you might have spotted that during my first time in Coiba, I flew directly from Albrook Airport in Panama City in an hour to a grass landing strip on Coiba Island. This is obviously a pricier option, with a small charter plane that can be arranged only through a travel agency.
The most usual way to go to Coiba National Park is to reach first the town of Sona by bus, either direct from Panama City or David, or with a stopover in Santiago de Veraguas. Then from Sona, there is a small bus going to the fishermen’s village of Santa Catalina. It was first a surfers’ hotspot and now, since the National Park opened in 2004, it is also a scuba divers’ hub.
The fare to make the trip is extremely attractive since you can make the 6-7 hours journey for about 16 USD. However, don’t expect high comfort, especially leg space-wise, and storage for luggage might be difficult on the Sona-Santa Catalina bus if you travel with scuba diving gear. This is why many people also hire a taxi in Sona for the last part. Depending on your negotiation skills, it will be between 30 and 50 USD.
Contrary to places like Boquete and Bocas del Toro, there is no regular tourist shuttle service from Panama City. There is a company offering it, Odalis, but it has to be booked in advance, and the price will be 220 USD no matter if you are alone or in a group of four.
With this price level, you might think it will be a good option to rent yourself a car if you travel with other people. From Panama City, it’s possible to find reasonable fares to rent a car if you plan to return to Panama City at the end of your trip (one-way charges are costly in Panama). However, if you decide to opt for that option, you have to know that the last kilometres of the road to Santa Catalina are in poor condition and I don’t recommend renting a small (cheap) car at all.
Once you are in Santa Catalina, it’s easy to hop on a shuttle bus to Boquete or Bocas del Toro to continue your trip in Panama. But you can also take a local bus to David from Santiago de Veraguas if you are travelling on a budget and don’t mind spending the day on the bus.
From Santa Catalina, you will be able to book your scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking or hiking tours, including the boat transfer to Coiba National Park. It is 1h30 each way. The tours usually start at 8 am and are back by 4 pm. Scuba diving centres also offer 2 or 3-day dive expeditions by sleeping 1 or 2 nights in Bahia Honda, closer to the park but only accessible by boat.
Where to stay near Coiba Island?
Following my explanation of how to get to Coiba Island, you should conclude that Santa Catalina is the ideal spot to book your accommodation. What used to be a tiny fishermen’s village now has several quality lodgings options for all budgets. From the hostels to the luxury hotels, I liked how most buildings were nicely integrated with the surrounding nature.
Beyond scuba diving in Coiba, the experience of staying in Santa Catalina is so enjoyable that I would recommend having a day to explore its surrounding at the end of your stay before continuing your trip in Panama. Note this is not a party place; Santa Catalina is all about enjoying the outdoors. I had the opportunity to try seven lodging options (yes!) either in Coiba National Park or Santa Catalina. I sorted them from the most Robinson Crusoe style to the most stylish ones.
Camping in Coiba National Park
If you arrange your trip through a travel agency like Pacific Adventure, they can arrange camping in the direct surrounding of Coiba Island. They will organise all the logistics of bringing the camping gear and all the food (with talented local cooks) you need during your stay! I had the opportunity to spend one night camping on Rancheria Island. There is no denying that glamping below a national park’s stars is a priceless experience. It’s not for every budget, but if you can, just do it!
During my 2-day expedition with Expedicion Coiba, including a night dive and two dives in the Contreras Islands, I slept in Bahia Honda. Expect Spartan conditions, but somehow it is what makes the charm of such an experience (ok, maybe without the tarantula which was right on the chair I was about to take!).
Accommodation in Santa Catalina
It might be challenging to arrive in Santa Catalina, but your stay will be delightful once you are there. The village has a wide choice of accommodation, whether you are a scuba diver or a surfer. The scuba divers usually stay near Playa Santa Catalina, where the scuba diving boats leave in the morning. The surfers stay near Playa Estero and La Punta, Santa Catalina’s top surf spot. I’m pointing this out because if you are looking for budget accommodation, this is in the “surfers’ district” where you will find the best options.
Budget accommodation in Santa Catalina
I spent my first night at Surfers Paradise hostel, right above La Punta, with a breath-taking sunset view, maybe the best in all of Santa Catalina. The Brazilian owner, Italo, was the first to open a surfers’ guesthouse in 1997, so he got the best spot. You can choose between the dorm or a private room; you can even pitch your tent if you travel on a shoestring.
While there is a shared kitchen for guests, all stays come with breakfast in the morning. I could get my breakfast ready at 7 am to go scuba diving early. For information, Surfers Paradise is a 20-minute walk to the nearest dive centre. If you are looking for something closer to the scuba diving centres, there are a few more hostels in Santa Catalina.
Middle range accommodation in Santa Catalina
In the middle range, travellers looking for more privacy like groups and families will like accommodations such as Sherley’s Cabins or Hotel Santa Catalina, which offer large bedrooms with several beds and a small kitchen. Both have rooms for families or groups of up to 6 persons. If you plan to cook to balance your budget during your stay in Santa Catalina, try to bring as many things as possible since the only tiny shop in the village has minimal options.
Both places are halfway between the scuba divers’ and surfers’ sides of Santa Catalina. The restaurant of Hotel Santa Catalina, Pescao, which is open to the public, offers a beautiful swimming pool overlooking the ocean. This is the best place to lounge in a hammock with a customised smoothie.
Luxury accommodation in Santa Catalina
My absolute favourite in Santa Catalina was Villa Coco. Their stylish rooms are like mini villas spread around their lush garden. Each room is tastefully decorated in a minimalistic fashion with a tropical touch. The ensuite bathroom includes an outdoor shower which reminded me of Bali.
Their infinity pool and adjacent bar are the perfect spot to unwind after an adventurous day in Coiba National Park. And if it wasn’t enough, they may have the best restaurant in all of Santa Catalina. Whether for breakfast or dinner, they offer creative Panamanian cuisine based on local products.
Do you have more questions about exploring Coiba National Park as a scuba diver? Please let me know in the comments!
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This article was written in partnership with the chamber of tourism of Veraguas and the Authority of Tourism of Panama. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
Photo credits: additional drone, kayaking & hiking photography by Daniel Santos for ATTA.
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