Snorkeling the protected waters around Isla Coiba, one encounters colorful parrotfish, red squirrelfish, and yellow pufferfish, along with grouper, rays, and three species of turtle. Located about 15 miles off the southern coast of Panama, Central America’s largest island is encircled by 335 acres of vibrant coral reef, the second largest in the Eastern Pacific. A new species of coral, Pacifigorgia marviva, was discovered here in 2011.
On terra firma, the scenery is equally stellar. Primary growth forest covers more than 80 percent of this biodiverse island, which was never subjected to commercial development. The ancient jungle, home to rare indigenous flora, provides sanctuary for threatened bird species like the crested eagle and scarlet macaw, along with the endemic Coiba spinetail, agouti, and mantled howler monkey. Indeed, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has described Coiba as “an unparalleled destination for discovering new species.”
One species that has become extinct on Coiba: political prisoners.
For nearly a century, this island paradise served as a notorious penitentiary where enemies of military dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega would “disappear.” From 1919 until 2005, the remote penal colony held upwards of 3,000 convicts, who risked escape only to face the waters’ resident crocodiles and white-tip sharks. Locals called Coiba “La isla del diablo”—“Devil’s Island.”
Today it lies as the centerpiece of Coiba National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized as “an outstanding natural laboratory.” The park—which includes the 194-square-mile main island, along with 38 smaller ones—protects nearly 760 fish species, along with dozens of types of whales, dolphins, and sharks, making for some of the best diving in the Americas. Hiking trails lead to a number of waterfalls and a hot springs; remnants of the prison, now roofless and rusted, still stand in Damas Bay on the eastern side of the island.
To reach Coiba, visitors must join a tour or charter a boat from Santa Catalina, as there are no scheduled flights or ferries to the island. Zegrahm guests, however, need only book our Canal to Cuba expedition to call at the spectacular marine preserve, along with Panama’s remote Darien Province and the San Blas archipelago.