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

Panama is a narrow strip of land, in places less than 40 miles wide, that separates the Caribbean Sea to the north from the Pacific Ocean to the south. The country offers the opportunity to explore two completely different marine ecosystems, each with specific underwater landscapes and unique species.

Check out the best places to experience Panama snorkeling!

Aerial view of Granito de Oro, Coiba National Park
Some of the most beautiful spots along Panama’s Pacific Coast can be found in Coiba National Park (aerial view of Granito de Oro).

Snorkeling on Panama’s Pacific Coast

The Pacific side of Panama features approximately 1000 miles of coastline, but due to underwater visibility issues near shore, the best snorkeling is found around the islands offshore.

Coiba National Park, a group of 39 islands about an hour and a quarter boat ride from Santa Catalina, is considered one of the best snorkeling areas in the country. Crystal clear waters surround these beautiful islets. Two very popular islets are the Granito de Oro and Isla Coco, both of which can be reached by boat tours.

Not only do their reefs offer a wide variety of reef fish to see, including one of the most colorful fish in the Eastern Pacific, the King angelfish, but they are also a great location for hawksbill sea turtle and whitetip reef shark encounters.

A hawkbill sea turtle in Granito de Oro
Hawksbill sea turtles are a common sighting in Coiba National Park. Here, at Granito de Oro.

West of Isla Coiba is the Gulf of Chiriqui National Park, another underwater haven. Established in 1994, it features 25 islands and 19 coral reefs.

In addition to the many reef fish calling the island’s waters home, you may occasionally spot sea turtles while snorkeling the location. Parida, Gámez, Bolaños, and Bolañitos are the most visited spots, and all of them can be reached with day tours from Boca Chica.

Blacknosed butterflyfish at Isla Bolanos
A blacknosed butterflyfish at Isla Bolanos coral reef.

On the eastern section of the Pacific Coast, several islands lie in the Gulf of Panama. Isla Taboga, facing Panama City, is very popular with day-trippers. You can easily reach the island by ferry or catamaran tours from the capital city.

The Pearl Islands, on the eastern side of the gulf, has plenty of snorkeling locations, but for some of the best snorkeling in Panama, head instead to Isla Iguana, on the opposite side of the gulf. This small island near Península de Azuero boasts the only white-sand beach in the region, and most of the time there is great underwater visibility.

Jewel moray at Isla Bolanos
Close encounter with a jewel moray in Isla Bolanos.

Snorkeling on Panama’s Caribbean Coast

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

Composed of 9 main islands, around fifty cays, and several hundred tiny islets, the archipelago of Bocas del Toro offers numerous snorkeling opportunities, all of them located in a diversity of underwater environments.

Coral reef at Cayo Coral, Bocas del Toro
Cayo Coral is one of the most popular snorkel spots in Bocas del Toro. It hosts an uncommon but colorful coral reef.

Bocas del Toro has a few hard coral reefs, such as the two islets of Cayo Zapatilla South and Cayo Zapatilla North), while most of the reefs in the inner archipelago are made of soft corals and sponges.

These very specific environments can be snorkeled in Cayo Coral, which is the most popular and visited, but also in Hospital Point and Old Bank. Expect colorful sponges, fields of sea plums, fire coral, and a diversity of reef fish.

Snorkeling at the edge of a mangrove in Panama
Snorkeling at the edge of a mangrove in Restaurante Alfonso.

Bocas del Toro also hosts extensive mangrove and seagrass areas which are worth snorkeling. These are the places where you will encounter bright-colored cushion sea stars and many critters including crabs, shrimps, pipefish, puffers, and cowfish.

At the edge of the mangrove, you will notice that the immersed roots are covered with sponges, sea anemones and sabella, and they attract lots of small fish. Playa Estrella and Bocas Town are some of the most easily reached locations to explore these fascinating environments.

Mangrove reef life
There’s a lot to see in the mangrove. Here, at CocoVivo Guesthouse.

Many 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.

Be aware though, because underwater visibility is highly variable throughout the year and nearly zero during the rainy season. The state of the reefs can also vary rapidly due to climate conditions and over-tourism.

School of Atlantic spadefish at Cocovivo
A school of Atlantic spadefish at CocoVivo Guesthouse.

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 washed by the Caribbean Sea, can 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.

A shipwreck at Isla Perro Chico
The shipwreck at Isla Perro Chico.

While the islands may look scarcely populated, the islands are in fact inhabited by the Kuna people. They have established their own regulations on each island. The regulation’s are close to that of an integral marine reserve: scuba diving, spearfishing, and fishing are prohibited. Only angling for the island’s inhabitants is allowed, as well as snorkeling for visitors.

A school of blue tang at Isla Diablo
A school of blue tang at Isla Diablo.

What will I see while snorkeling in Panama?

The Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Panama each have a specific underwater environment. 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.

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

On the Pacific side, you’ll mainly find rocky beds with dull 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 mainly the presence of numerous hawksbill turtles and whitetip reef sharks that attract snorkeling enthusiasts to the region.

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

If you are planning a trip to Panama and want to bring a fish ID guide with you, we recommend the excellent Reef Fish Identification – Florida Caribbean Bahamas (also available in ebook) for the Caribbean Coast, and Reef Fish Identification – Baja to Panama (available in ebook too) for the Pacific Coast. These two books are invaluable reference guides to ID the fish you will encounter snorkeling in the country.

What is the best time of the year to snorkel in Panama?

Snorkeling is possible all 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).

Mangrove roots covered with sponges and sabella in Bocas del Toro
A mangrove root covered with sponges and sabella in Playa Estrella, Bocas del Toro.

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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