Frommer’s calls Coiba Island “one of the 500 places to see before they disappear”.
The uninhabited Coiba National Park (Nacional Parque Coiba) is 80% ocean and contains the largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific. The park is made up of 38 islands 30 miles off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Chiriqui Bay, including Coiba Island, the largest island in Central America with 503 square kilometers (194 square miles). Snorkeling is popular here with crystal clear water where you will see hundreds of brightly colored fish flitting among the coral. It is also known as one of the best diving spots in the world to see big fish, including huge plankton-eating whale sharks, tuna, manta rays and the rare pantropical spotted dolphin.
For landlubbers, Coiba Island is sometimes compared to Galapagos. The flora is lush and abundant. There are a few hiking trails and navigable rivers, but most of the interior remains unexplored. The island is home to 147 species of birds and 36 species of mammals. You will probably hear howler monkeys and see a good variety of birds and animals during your visit. Sea turtles are
frequently observed and certain beaches are used as nesting areas from April through August. This island is also one of the few remaining places where you can see a “Guacamaya,”, or scarlet macaw, now endangered in mainland Panama. The island even has its own resident crocodile known as ‘Tito’, who is sometimes seen hanging out in the mangroves behind the ranger station!
Now, time to reveal the dark past I referred to above. From 1919 to 2005, there was a penal colony on Isla Coiba. Appropriate location since it is difficult to get to and from the isolated island. It is said that this is where former military dictator Manuel Noriega interrogated prisoners. Many Panamanians have memories of torture and death associated with Isla Coiba. Locals sometimes refer to the place as “la isla del diablo” which translates as Devil Island. The ruins of the prison are in Damas Bay and there is an eerie feeling when you visit the remains of the prison today. It is slowly being reclaimed by the jungle and is dilapidated, with no roof, old concrete bunks and rusty jail bars. In 2005, when the last convict was released, the site became a Unesco World Heritage Site. How did a penal colony on Coiba lead to a bright future? Fear of the prison kept people away and resulted in preservation of the largest untouched rain forests in the Americas!
There are a range of options for visiting Coiba Island.
All visitors must check in at the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM) station, on the westernmost portion of the island facing north. There is a small visitor center, bathrooms and several cabins at the site. All visitors are required to get a permit which costs $20 per person per day for foreigners and $5 for Panamanians.
- If you have a boat, the trip is about 90 minutes each way from Santa Catalina, in the Veraguas province. You can also get to the island by boat from Puerto Mutis, which is about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Santiago. Add the price of gas and sustenance to your park permit and you’re in for the day. If you want to extend your visit and spend the night, there is no camping allowed on the island (you may be able to sleep on your boat, but should confirm that first) and the only accommodations are 6 – 2 bedroom/1 bath rental cabins at the Ranger Station. You will have to coordinate your reservation ahead of time with ANAM in Santiago at (570)998-0615. There is an additional fee of $20 per person per night for the cabins and you must bring all food, water, and any other essentials you need with you. There is electricity and air conditioning in the cabins.
- Some local hotels and tour operators in Santa Catalina offer day trips and overnight trips to Isla Coiba. These companies generally include the boat ride both ways, all food and beverages, the lodging (for overnight stays), snorkeling gear, as well as a tour guide and use of kayaks for exploring. The tour guide is a worthwhile addition since they know the best spots to go and can help locate and identify wildlife along the way. Here is a sampling of tours I found and the $20 park fees are usually not included in the price.
Santa Catalina Boat Tours has day trips that cost $300 per boatload holding up to six people, so a full boat will cost you $50 per person.
Fluid Adventures Panama offers day trips for $105 per person with a 4 person minimum.
Coiba Dive Center offers full day dives to the park starting at $105 per person.
An all-inclusive overnight excursion ranges from $150 each up to $329 per person.
- If you prefer a more ‘pampered’ experience, try a top of the line excursion with Coiba Adventure, which includes fishing trips and offers their own comfy beds, a chef, and maid service. Five-night tours start at $14,900 for up to four people, including charter flights to and from the island.
For more information about Coiba Marine Park, visit their website at http://www.coibanationalpark.com/.
Debbie Fishell has been a full time resident in thewww.visitPuertoArmuelles.