Frequently referred to as the Galapagos Islands of Central America for its abundance of rare species in both the water and on land, 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 50 km off the Panamanian coast in the Gulf of Chiriquí.
Coiba is known for its superior diving and was said to have the best diving "to be found along the Pacific Coast from Colombia to Mexico".
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 the last population of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) in Panama.
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. Some of the central offices and cell blocks have been resurrected and can be visited. Others are crumbling away rather rapidly. Nearby, a coast guard station has been built.
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. Coiba is home to several endemic species and subspecies. The Coiba agouti is distinctly different from it s counterpart on the main land. Whether the Howler monkey that occurs on Coiba is a separate species, subspecies or variety is still debated by taxonomists. 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. August is a good time to visit because during this period, humpback whales visit Coiba waters. The females give birth here and mother-calf pairs can be seen frequently.
Eat and drink
There are no restaurants at Coiba National Marine Park.
The ANAM ranger station on Isla Coiba has closed its accommodation for tourists for rehabilitation. There are two tour operators that offer tented accommodation on Coiba Island. Otherwise, Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí offers multiple accommodation options, just a short boat ride nearby.