Golden sand, luxuriant vegetation, palm trees hanging over the turquoise Caribbean Sea… The two small islands of Cayo Zapatilla, listed as a National Park, contain probably the most beautiful beaches of the Bocas del Toro archipelago. The water is partly sheltered by a barrier reef, and guarantees fine snorkeling, despite the occasionally strong current. This spot file deals with the island further south (Cayo Zapatilla Sur), the more sheltered and most popular spot.
Cayo Zapatilla is a group of two islands at the eastern tip of the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and is only accessible by boat. Many agencies organise full-day tours from Isla Colon, often combined with stops at other snorkeling spots, as Cayo Coral, to see dolphins and sloths. The price is $30 to $40 per person, including admission to the National Park ($10 for adults), for a full-day tour. A large number of tour sellers can be find in the street (sometimes at discount prices), but you should opt for agencies with an office. It takes about thirty minutes (15mi/25km) by boat (known here as “lanchas”) from Bocas del Toro to reach Cayo Coral.
You will usually be dropped off on the landing stage to the east of the island. This is the northern limit of the spot. The prevailing current is sometimes strong, running from left to right as you are facing the sea. Get into the water near the landing stage so that you don’t have to swim against the current.
The area to explore stretches between the island’s main beach and the (partial) barrier reef about 200 yards from the shore. Keep your distance from the barrier, since the current is stronger as you get nearer to it, and there is a real risk of being carried out to sea. The spot includes two small islands (with a few palm trees) on the tip of the island.
When you leave the beach, you first cross a dozen or so meters of sea grass (where surgeonfish and jacks live) before coming across the first groups of coral (↕3-6ft/1-2m). You then follow the current (but without letting it control your movements) and make your way slowly to the islands. In this area, it is easy to see bluehead wrasse, several species of butterflyfish and, with a bit of luck, young French angelfish. Try to spot the sea anemones with their blue-green colour, attached to the sea bed. But the real spectacle is to be seen when you arrive near the islands. The coral is thicker and better preserved. Around it circle large numbers of sergeant major fish, several species of damselfish and highly colourful Spanish hogfish. In the deepest areas (↕6-10ft/2-3m), impressive shoals of grunt come and go between the reefs.
Cayo Zapatilla, at the far east of the archipelago, is open onto the sea and is more subject to waves and currents than the other spots in the archipelago. Ask at the National Park office about conditions at the spot and follow your guide’s instructions. Because of the current, you should use swimfins. Other spots inside the archipelago (Cayo Coral or Barco Hundido) are better adapted to beginners and children.
There are no restaurants on the site. You will generally have the choice of taking your own picnic or having a meal during the stop at Cayo Coral (most excursions go there – $15 per dish), which is itself an interesting spot (see spot here). Some excursions include meals. In any case, ask your tour guide what is included in the price. At the least, bring water and snacks along with you, and take away trash (no trash cans on site).
Snorkeling spots are part of a wild environment and their aspect can be significantly altered by weather, seasons, sea conditions, human impact and climate events (storms, hurricanes, seawater-warming episodes…). The consequences can be an alteration of the seabed (coral bleaching, coral destruction, and invasive seagrass), a poor underwater visibility, or a decrease of the sea life present in the area. Snorkeling Report makes every effort to ensure that all the information displayed on this website is accurate and up-to-date, but no guarantee is given that the underwater visibility and seabed aspect will be exactly as described on this page the day you will snorkel the spot. If you recently snorkeled this area and noticed some changes compared to the information contained on this page, please contact us.
The data contained in this website is for general information purposes only, and is not legal advice. It is intended to provide snorkelers with the information that will enable them to engage in safe and enjoyable snorkeling, and it is not meant as a substitute for swim level, physical condition, experience, or local knowledge. Remember that all marine activities, including snorkeling, are potentially dangerous, and that you enter the water at your own risk. You must take an individual weather, sea conditions and hazards assessment before entering the water. If snorkeling conditions are degraded, postpone your snorkeling or select an alternate site. Know and obey local laws and regulations, including regulated areas, protected species, wildlife interaction and dive flag laws.
These spots are accessible to anyone with basic snorkeling skills, and feeling comfortable in the water and with his snorkeling gear. You will enter the water from the shore (beach, pontoon, ladder, rocks) or from a boat. The water height in the sea entrance area is reasonable, but you will not necessarily be within your depth. Moderate currents can occur in the area, even when the sea conditions are good. The distance to swim to reach the most interesting snorkeling areas of the spot does not exceed 200 meters.
This level only apply when the spot experiences optimal sea and/or weather conditions. It is not applicable if the sea and/or weather conditions deteriorate, in particular in the presence of rough sea, rain, strong wind, unusual current, large tides, waves and/or swell. You can find more details about the definition of our snorkeling levels on our snorkeling safety page.
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