Numerous coasts, islands, and islets to explore along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts

Panama is a narrow strip of land (in places less than 60km wide) that separates the Caribbean Sea to the north from the Pacific Ocean to the south. The country, therefore, offers the opportunity to explore two completely different marine ecosystems, each with specific underwater landscapes and unique species.

Snorkeling Coiba National Park, Panama
Some of the most beautiful spots along Panama’s Pacific Coast can be found in Coiba National Park (left: a hawksbill sea turtle in Granito de Oro; right: a guineafowl puffer in Isla Coco).

On the Pacific side, Isla Coiba National Park is often considered as the best option for snorkeling. The crystal clear waters that surround these paradisiacal islets (particularly Granito de Oro and Isla Coco, which can be reached by boat tours) are visited by many hawksbill turtles, whitetip reef sharks, and a wide variety of reef fish. Isla Parida (in the Gulf of Chiriqui) is also a good destination, as is, in the Gulf of Panama, Isla Iguana.

On the Caribbean coast, at the western end of the country, the Bocas del Toro archipelago and the San Blas archipelago are often cited as the most enjoyable destinations for snorkeling.

Caribbean cushion sea stars
The cushion sea star is abundant along Panama’s Caribbean coast; here, photographed in well-named Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach).

Composed of 9 main islands, around fifty cays, and several hundred tiny islets, the archipelago of Bocas del Toro offers numerous snorkeling possibilities, diversified and easily accessible. Barrier reefs made up of hard corals (as in Cayo Zapatilla), reefs dominated by soft corals and sponges (an environment that can be discovered for example in Cayo Coral), mangroves or seagrass dotted with starfish (for example in Playa Estrella, at Restaurante Alfonso or in Bocas Town), or wrecks (Barco Hundido), each spot is a different experience. Much of the reefs in the Bocas del Toro archipelago are protected by the Parque Nacional Isla Bastimentos, and most spots can be reached by boat (many day-trippers offer to take you there from Isla Colón). Be careful though, because underwater visibility is very variable throughout the year, and the reefs tend to deteriorate rapidly under the effect of mass tourism.

Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama
Shared between mangrove swamp (left: Restaurante Alfonso) and coral reefs (right: the spot of Cayo Coral), the seabed in Bocas del Toro can be uncommon.

Further east, the San Blas archipelago is made up of more than 350 coral cays, of which only 60 are inhabited. These tiny, remote islands, with their few coconut palms and their white sand licked by the Caribbean Sea, look like a lost world. Most of the San Blas Islands are fringed by pretty coral reefs that are accessible from the beach (eg at Isla Diablo) and are also home to a few shallow wrecks, such as at Isla Perro Chico. The islands are in fact inhabited by the Kuna people who have established their own regulations on each island, close to that of an integral marine reserve: scuba diving, spearfishing, and fishing are prohibited. Only angling for the islands inhabitants is allowed, as well as snorkeling for visitors.

Whitetip reef shark in Panama
Encounters with whitetip reef sharks are frequent in the Pacific coast protected areas (here, in Granito de Oro).

The Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Panama each have a specific underwater atmosphere. On the Caribbean side, you’ll mainly explore mangroves and small coral and sponge reefs. The gray angelfish, spotted moray eel, spotfin butterflyfish, and cushion starfish are some of the most common (and iconic) species in Panama’s Caribbean waters. On the Pacific side, you’ll mainly find rocky bottoms with small hard corals. Many reef fish also live on this side of the country, such as the king angelfish, the guineafowl puffer, or the blacknosed butterflyfish. However, it is the presence of numerous hawksbill turtles and whitetip reef sharks that attract snorkel enthusiasts to the region.

When to go snorkeling Panama?

Snorkeling is possible all the year round in Panama, where the climate is tropical and temperatures vary between 75 and 86°F (24 and 30°C). The Caribbean coast is more humid than the Pacific coast, rainfall is more frequent and heat is omnipresent (86-95°F/30-35°C).

During the dry season, from January to April, the heat and humidity are less pronounced than during the rainy season. During the rainy season (or green season), from May to December, it rains almost every day.

The water temperature is constant (about 82°F/28°C) on both coasts, with variations according to the season and the weather.

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