Panama is bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, two radically different but equally fascinating marine ecosystems. The best snorkeling spots are located in the many islands and archipelagos scattered along the coasts of the country. From coral reefs to rocky drop offs, from mangroves to stunning shipwrecks, there’s so much to experience when snorkeling Panama. There, you can get up close to sea turtles, nurse sharks, stingrays, angelfish, starfish and innumerable other marine species.
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, therefore, 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!
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 fifteen-minute boat ride from Santa Catalina, is considered one of the best snorkeling areas in the country. Crystal clear waters surround these paradisiacal islets, in particular the very popular Granito de Oro and Isla Coco, which can be reached by boat tours.
Not only does its reef offer a wide variety of reef fish to see (including the King angelfish, one of the most colorful fish in the Eastern Pacific), but it is also a great location for hawksbill sea turtle and whitetip reef shark encounters.
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.
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 with 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 great underwater visibility.
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, located in a diversity of underwater environments.
If Bocas del Toro has a few hard coral reefs, such as the two islets of Cayo Zapatilla, most of the reefs in the inner archipelago are made of soft corals and sponges.
These very specific environments can be snorkeled for example in Cayo Coral (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.
Bocas del Toro also hosts extensive mangrove and seagrass areas which are worth snorkeling. These are the places to 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 attract lots of small fish. Playa Estrella and Bocas Town are some of the most easily reached locations to explore these fascinating environments.
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.
Be careful though, because underwater visibility is very 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 overtourism.
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 island’s inhabitants is allowed, as well as snorkeling for visitors.
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 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 snorkel enthusiasts to the region.
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 the reference guides to ID the fish you will encounter snorkeling in the country.
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).
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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On the Caribbean coast only. You can’t miss them in Bocas del Toro, especially at Playa Estrella and Restaurante Alfonso
Frequently sighted in Coiba National Park, in particular at Granito de Oro and Isla Coco
Found on every snorkeling spot of the Caribbean coast; a very similar species (Abudefduf saxatilis) occur on the Pacific side
Found on the Pacific coast; abundant at Granito de Oro and Isla Coco
Juveniles are frequently sighted in Bocas del Toro, especially at Playa Estrella and Cayo Zapatilla
Common on all spots of the Caribbean side
Common in Bocas del Toro, for instance at Cayo Coral
On all spots of the Caribbean side
On all spots of the Pacific coast
On all spots of the Caribbean coast
Rocks and coral reef with turtles and colorful fish
Rocky seabed with turtles, sharks and reef fish
Shallow lagoon with seagrass meadows and hard coral
Rocky beds with a diversity of fish
Coral and sponges reef with lots of fish
Seagrass and small corals with reef fish and critters
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