Sunlit coral reef with diverse fish underwater.

The Coiba National Park is very close to Santa Catalina, in fact, if you want to get there, you will have to stop in this quiet surfing village.

This island, Coiba, is still, fortunately, a paradise for several reasons.

The main one is that until recently, in 2004, there was a prison.

So only prisoners and jailers inhabited the island.

The prison

This prison on a remote island, difficult of access, did not lose its condition of nature’s paradise, and adopted that of hell on earth for its inhabitants.

The history of this prison on the island of Coiba dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, more specifically to 1919.

At first this was the fate of the worst and most dangerous criminals in Panama.

But with Noriega’s dictatorship, this prison gave way to another type of prisoners, those opposed to this dictator’s regime.

What happened there was terrible, as these political prisoners were tortured, dismembered, and in some cases, their remains were given to the sharks around the island.

These prisoners were called The Disappeared, since once they went there, they were never seen again.

Just terrible.

World Heritage Site

Since 2005, this island has been declared a World Heritage Site, and it’s no wonder.

Coiba is the third largest marine reserve in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, no more and no less.

Reason enough to visit it.

The coasts of the islands of this National Park are preserved in their natural state.

And I have to say that was something that impressed us.

To see during the journey from Santa Catalina to Coiba, a virgin coast.

Something we thought we’d seen on our previous trip to Borneo, which we didn’t.

So in Panama we made up for it and were able to see virgin areas, where the hand of man has not intervened.

And that was a real joy.

The National Park and the islands that make it up, the largest of which is Coiba Island, are a true marine and biodiversity sanctuary.

As for the forests, we were in the tropical forest of Coiba Island.

Except for the road that crosses the island, everything was totally virgin.

It is true that where the old prison is, well, what is left of it, that idyllic image must be diluted.

And I say this, because we didn’t get to see the prison.

We enjoyed a short walk in an unspoiled area, and we could also see and hear a howler monkey, telling us that we were in its territory.

Snorkeling and diving in Coiba

We did some snorkeling, since we haven’t been diving for a few years, we didn’t feel like doing the soda.

Anyway, I always say the same thing, if the diving is excellent, the snorkeling is excellent too.

And that’s because the richness of Coiba is not so much on the surface, but in the waters where it is found.

The marine biodiversity is incredible, but there are some species that you can only see at certain times of the year.

There are whale sharks and tiger sharks that we didn’t see.

The first ones, because it was not the right time (we were in November), and the second ones did not appear, I also think they did not take us where they usually are.

But we did swim and snorkel with whitetip sharks.

Over a dozen of them swimming under us.

Manta rays, and green turtles, a real wonder.

Watching them swim, their movement, slow but sure reminds me of the way giraffes run.

In addition to all this, which is not little, we saw dozens of colorful fish, a pristine sea bed, a real joy.

And it must be said, clean of plastic, places like this are increasingly difficult to find.

That is what we expected to see in the Semporna Archipelago, Malaysia.

In Mabul and the surrounding islands, but we get a lot of plastic out of the sea.

This time absolutely nothing.

Visit Coiba

If you want to go on your own to Coiba, forget it, you have to do it with some of the agencies in Santa Catalina.

There are several reasons why you can’t go on your own.

On the one hand, you enter a National Park, and you will have to register your entry.

But also, to get there, you have to do it in an outboard boat, and it takes about an hour and a half.

If you do it on your own, it will be very expensive.

Our trip to Coiba had several visitors.

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Crossing the island

We cross the island of Coiba in about 5o minutes.

A very quiet trek, and as I said before, we saw a howler monkey.

Also, these monkeys, are endemic to the island, so you won’t see them anywhere else in the world.

The landscape is wild, and I personally loved being in a place like this.

Untapped by humans, almost intact, almost.

Isla Granito de Oro

A small speck of gold, by the color of the sand, in the middle of some crystalline waters.

That was the scene of our first snorkel.

And as soon as we entered the water, we saw the first green turtles, huge in size.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that Coiba is an island where turtles lay their eggs, but we were not lucky enough to see that show.

We also swim with fish of all colors, beautiful, swordfish.

And above all a living, healthy coral in pristine waters.

Visitor Center

We stopped here for lunch.

In this part of the island, a few years ago there was accommodation where visitors could spend the night.

Fortunately, and in order to limit the impact of tourism on this privileged and delicate ecosystem, it is forbidden to spend the night in the National Park, except for the rangers and scientists who are there.

In this Visitor’s Center there is another luxury inhabitant, Tito, the crocodile Tito.

We did not see him, but several signs warned us to be careful, since it is an area of crocodiles, and one of them is Tito.

Coco Dos

This was another snorkeling spot, and certainly the best.

This is where we swam and snorkeled with whitetip sharks.

It was amazing to see a dozen sharks about four meters below us swimming in circles.

We also swam with rays, green turtles, and millions of colorful fish.

Again, the coral was intact, a joy.

I certainly enjoyed this snorkel a lot, but there was more to it than that.

We snorkeled all the way to a postcard beach, Rancheria Island.

Rancheria Island

This island is a paradise, if they leave me a tent, I’ll stay there and spend a few days Robinson Crusoe style.

We swam in, and took a walk inside.

It was all palm trees, and mangrove.

And inside the mangrove we saw a crocodile, crouched among the roots.

We saw its eyes sticking out, and because the water was so clean, we could see the silhouette of this crocodile.

Perhaps it was familiar to Tito.

This Ranchería Island invited us to swim, and well, to drink a coconut and its meat.

Yummy, fresh from the palm tree, fresh fresh!

And since this island is a paradise, and the researchers know it, there is a small community of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, I’m so envious!

From 4 p.m.

we returned to Santa Catalina.

After about an hour and a half, we left early to avoid the night coming over those waters.

How to get to Coiba

Get to Coiba by plane

From Panama City you can get flights to Santiago in 20 minutes.

Get to Coiba by road

It takes 5 hours to get from Panama City to Santiago (245km). Then take the road that leads to Puerto Mutis where you will be able to take a boat to the island

Get to Coiba Islands renting a car

If you want to take a road trip from Panama City to Coiba, and have the freedom to visit other destination at your own pace, a good idea is to rent a car. Here you can compare the available offers and rent a car at the best price.