This Central American National Park Is Home To One Of The Top-Ranked Diving Spots In The World

Panama is a country in Central America that treasures its natural beauty and biodiversity. It's also home to five UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Coiba National Park in the Gulf of Chiriquí. Made up of 38 islands, Coiba National Park has pristine waters filled with coral reefs and wildlife. This makes it a premier place for diving and is one of several reasons Panama should be your next travel destination. The park's largest island was an isolated penal colony for decades until its closure in 2004. As a result, Coiba was left practically untouched and spared from development, allowing its ecosystems to thrive.

Although it is now a renowned tourist attraction, getting there is a journey. There are several options, but the most direct involves traveling to the coastal town of Santa Catalina and taking a 1.5-hour boat ride to Coiba. For reference, Santa Catalina is about five hours away from the country's capital, Panama City. If you want to dive in the national park, you must be certified, obtain a permit, and pay a $20 entrance fee. While these stipulations may sound complicated, one thing's for sure: Diving at Coiba is an unforgettable experience and worth the effort.

How to dive at Coiba National Park

There are 50 diving sites to be explored at Coiba National Park. With this in mind, divers can expect to encounter plenty of animals as they explore the region's waters. It's possible to see dolphins, manta rays, eels, barracudas, sea turtles, whales, and octopuses among a plethora of colorful fish. Water temperatures can range anywhere from 68 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the time of year.

So, how can a certified diver get this opportunity? Simple: you can go with a tour group. Several companies provide this service, such as Panama Dive Center. They charge $145 for two dives or $170 for three and include transportation from Santa Catalina to Coiba, lunch, and equipment. The $20 park entrance fee is not included in this price, and divers are also required to find their own accommodation in Santa Catalina. Scuba Coiba offers the same deal. They also have affordable multi-day packages with hostel accommodations close to Coiba for those who want to stay longer. A two-day overnight excursion will cost $489. 

The Ark Divers Lodge in Pixvae is 20 minutes away from Coiba. The upscale hotel caters explicitly to divers and offers special packages. Prices vary depending on the duration, but tourists can expect to pay more than $1,000 for these tailored experiences. There are also opportunities to earn your PADI certificate if you're new to diving.

Other activities at Coiba National Park

If you're not a certified diver, don't fret; Coiba is also considered one of the best snorkeling destinations in Central America. Like divers, snorkelers can expect to come across a plethora of marine life and beauty. 

Visitors can take a $90 snorkeling day trip from Santa Catalina through Discover Coiba. This company also takes visitors on unique overnight camping trips on the island, which include snorkeling and hiking for $265 per person. Monkey and king vulture sightings are common when hiking through Coiba's lush forests, among other diverse wildlife.

Fluid Aventures Panama in Santa Catalina takes guests to Coiba for kayaking. These trips include the opportunity for snorkeling and cost $140 per person. Travelers looking for more laid-back activities can go whale watching, take a tour of the island, or visit the Coiba Prison. Although Santa Catalina is relatively small, guests will find several options for accommodation. A top-rated choice is Hotel Santa Catalina Panama, a luxury beachfront hotel that offers guests the use of kayaks and paddle boards at no extra charge. Rates start at $105 a night.