coiba national marine park santa catalina veraguas scuba dive coiba national park surf in catalina panama playa catalina
Situated in the Gulf of Chiriqui and comprised of 38 islands, Coiba National Marine Park covers 430,825 acres and was identified by UNESCO in 2005 as a World Heritage Site. Once a penal colony, the park is currently managed by the National Authority for the Environment (ANAM) and offers visitors an opportunity to appreciate its pristine natural resources. White sand beaches, lush verdant forests, prolific wildlife, and world-class diving are just some of the many things you will enjoy during your visit to Coiba National Park. Coiba Island, the largest of the 38 islands, is located approximately 30 miles off the Panamanian coast and home to the park’s headquarters, which resides on the westernmost portion of the island and faces north. All visitors to the marine park are required to obtain a permit, which costs $20.00 per person/per day. The ranger station consists of a small beach, visitors/information center, kitchen, and bathrooms.
The island has just one trail—the “Monkey Trail”—which begins behind and to the right of the visitor's center and leads to the top of the nearby hill. The trail is rather steep but well maintained and easy to follow. About a 3-5 minutes walk from the visitor center, you’ll reach an intersection where you'll need to turn right; the remaining portion of your hike should take between 15-25 minutes. Upon reaching the hilltop, the trail levels off and you’ll find two lookout areas offering spectacular views of the neighboring islands. The first, just off to the right, offers views of the ranger station and beach below and nearby islands. The latter, which is just a short distance further ahead, offers magnificent views of distant islands and the Pacific Ocean. And yes, there are monkeys on this trail!
Overnight accommodation on Coiba Island, when attainable, must be coordinated with ANAM (National Environmental Authority) in Santiago. If you are traveling alone or in a small group, there is a chance you will be able to arrange your accommodation upon arrival, but it's recommended you coordinate everything beforehand. You can contact ANAM at (507) 998-4387, or call the National Park office at (507) 998-4271.
The closest access point to Coiba National Park is Santa Catalina, which is approximately 1–1.5 hours away by boat. Along the main road that leads to Estero Beach, there are numerous tour operators that offer snorkeling and dive trips to the nearby islands. Bird watching and fishing tours can also be arranged. Tours to Coiba Island depart from Estero Beach no later than 8:30 - 9:00 a.m. and return between 4:30 – 5:00 p.m. If you do not have a pre-booked tour, you can consult with the different operators to see what they are offering.
Your tour boat will likely consist of both snorkelers and divers. Snorkelers are dropped off at select locations—small, outer islands—before divers conduct their dives, and are then retrieved later in the afternoon. Dive trips to Coiba National Park normally consist of 2-3 tank dives; there are no night dives offered by land-based operators.
The trip to and from Coiba Island can be rough. To reduce exposure to rough seas and heavy winds, tour boats hug the coastline as long as possible. Life vests are provided and required to be worn throughout your trip.
From Panama City, there are no direct buses to Santa Catalina. Mini-buses to Soná depart from the Albrook Bus Terminal throughout the day and stop briefly in Santiago. The trip to Soná takes approximately 4.5–5 hours. From Soná, you will need to take a mini-bus to Santa Catalina, which departs 2-3 times a day and takes an additional 1.5 hours.
As an alternative, you can take a direct bus to Santiago, which takes approximately 3.5 hours; the buses servicing Santiago are larger and more comfortable. From Santiago, you will need to take a mini-bus to Soná.
If you are driving to Santa Catalina, take the Panamerican Highway until you reach Santiago—turn left at the Shell station (Ave. Central.) Continue along this road for approximately 2 miles, passing a church on the left-hand side. At the second crossroad, turn right, and continue until you reach the Shell station. Here, turn left, and follow the sign to Santa Catalina. Upon arriving in El Tigre de Los Amarillos, turn left and follow the sign for Santa Catalina, Lagartero. Continue along this road until you reach an intersection, then turn right, and follow this road until you reach the town of Santa Catalina. The trip from Panama City to Santa Catalina takes approximately 6–7 hours.