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.

French angelfish at Cayo Zapatilla, Panama

How to get there?

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.

Water entrance

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.

Cayo Zapatilla snorkeling map, Bocas del Toro

Exploration

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.

Coral reefs at Cayo Zapatilla, Panama

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.

Peacock flounder at Cayo Zapatilla, Panama

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.

Restaurants & accommodation

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).

Species you may spot while snorkeling Cayo Zapatilla
COMMON NAME SCIENTIFIC NAME ABUNDANCE FISHBASE WIKIPEDIA
French angelfish Pomacanthus paru  
Atlantic blue tang Acanthurus coeruleus  
Doctorfish tang Acanthurus chirurgus  
Ocean surgeon Acanthurus bahianus  
Bluehead wrasse Thalassoma bifasciatum  
Spotfin butterflyfish Chaetodon ocellatus  
Bar jack Carangoides ruber  
Schoolmaster snapper Lutjanus apodus  
Jewel damselfish Microspathodon chrysurus  
Sergeant major Abudefduf saxatilis  
Spanish hogfish Bodianus rufus  
Peacock flounder Bothus lunatus  
Live sharksucker Echeneis naucrates  
Ocean Triggerfish Canthidermis sufflamen  
Sabella Sabella sp.  

 

  • Level required Intermediary
  • Protected areaParque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos
  • Maximum depth10ft/3m
  • Water entranceEasy, from a sandy beach
  • Potential DangersUsual precautions
  • LifeguardNo
  • Visitor numbersMedium
  • Access costsNational Park entrance fee (10$ pp.) + snorkeling tour price (approx. 25$ pp.)
  • Restaurants nearbyNo
  • Public toilets & showersYes, at National Park office

MAP Spot

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.