Coiba National Marine Park
The park consists of the island of Coiba (the largest island in Central America) and 37 surrounding islands and islets, all of which are about 30 miles off the Panamanian coast in the Gulf of Chiriquí. From 1919 to 1991 this island was a penal colony and quartered political prisoners and some of the most dangerous criminals in Panama. Known as Panama’s Devil’s Island, the government closed the penal colony in 1991, and turned it into the largest marine park in Central America. The central offices and cell blocks have recently been resurrected and can be visited. Nearby, a coast guard station has been built.
UNESCO named Coiba National Marine Park a World Heritage Site in 2005 identifying more than 800 marine species in the waters surrounding the park.
Coiba is also home to various endemic species and subspecies. The Coiba spinetail (Cranioleuca dissita), a small bird, and the Coiba agouti (Dasyprocta coibae) only occur on Coiba island. The Coiba howler monkey (Alouatta coibensis) occurs on Coiba and in the Cerro Hoya National Park. Coiba island is also home of th elast population of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) in Panama.
Though its remote nature has helped to preserve the flora and fauna, it also served to deter visitors. It is about an hour long boat ride from the coastal town of Santa Catalina or two hours from the fishing village of Boca Chica, but most travelers rely on tour operators to reach the island. This journey’s inconvenience is negligible, however, compared to the opportunities for scuba, snorkeling and sport fishing Coiba offers.
Alternatively, you can travel to Mariato or Malena on the west coast of the Azuero peninsula and hire a boat there. The trip on sea will be longer, but you spend less time on the bus from Santiago to Mariato.
There are no roads and few trails on the island. To get from the only camp site to trailheads, dive sites and snorkeling sites, you need a boat. So you will need to hire a boat for your entire trip.
See and do
Scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute have proclaimed Coiba an unparalleled destination for discovering new species. Rachel Collin, a Smithsonian project coordinator said, "It's hard to imagine, while snorkeling around a tropical island that's so close to the United States, that half the animals you see are unknown to science.” Its unique location protects it from the damaging winds and other effects of El Niño, allowing it to sustain the uninterrupted evolution of new marine species including whale and tiger sharks, sperm whales, sea turtles, angel rays and giant schools of fish. It is also the last refuge for a number of threatened terrestrial animals such as the crested eagle and several sub-species of agouti, possum and howler monkey (including a Coiba Island Howler Monkey). The park is gaining a reputation for being what the Moon travel book calls a “Garden of Eden”; touting the second largest coral reef (Bahia Damas Reef) in the Pacific.
To get a good impression of Coiba, you should plan to stay there for at least two days. Snorkel at Granito de oro with White-tipped reef sharks and turtles, walk de Sendero de monos to get an impression of the forest on the island, visit the rehabilitated prison and the mangrove forest nearby and you will have an idea of what Coiba is about. On your way back, stop at Wahoo rock to see of the whale sharks are around.
Eat and drink
There are no restaurants at Coiba National Marine Park. There are a few restaurants in Boca Chica : Wahoo Willy's, located in the town's small port area, and at the local Inns, Gone Fishing and Seagull cove .
The only overnight facility available in the Coiba National Marine Park is at the ANAM ranger station on Isla Coiba . The station has several modest 2 room cabins with air conditioning. There are resorts and hotels close enough to make Coiba a day trip, like Gone Fishing and Seagullcove , located near the fishing village of Boca Chica (considered to be the go-to place for fishing in the Gulf of Chiriqui) that offer comfortable bed and breakfast experiences in moderate price ranges. New luxury resorts are planned for locations in the Gulf of Chiriqui in the next few years, like the Resort at Isla Palenque and Playa Grande .