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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 offers decent snorkeling, despite the occasionally strong current.

Gray angelfish at Cayo Zapatilla, Panama
A juvenile gray angelfish in Cayo Zapatilla shallows.

How to get to Cayo Zapatilla snorkeling 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 operators organize full-day tours from Isla Colon, often combined with stops at other snorkeling spots, such as Cayo Coral.

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 found in the street (sometimes at discount prices), but you should opt for agencies with an office.

Cayo Zapatilla snorkeling map, Bocas del Toro

Getting into the water at Cayo Zapatilla

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 won’t have to swim against the current.

Cayo Zapatilla snorkeling tips and recommendations

The snorkeling area 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
Cayo Zapatilla is home to small coral patches attracting many fish.

Starting from the beach, you first cross a dozen or so meters of seagrass (where surgeonfish and jacks live) before coming across the first coral patches (↕3-6ft/1-2m). You then follow the current 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, juvenile French angelfish and gray angelfish.

Try to find the blue-green sea anemones attached to the seabed. Near the islands, the coral is in better condition. Around it circle large numbers of sergeant majors, several species of damselfish and the colorful 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
A peacock flounder in Cay Zapatilla meadows.

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 the National Park office about conditions at the spot and follow your guide’s instructions. Because of the current, you should use swimfins.

Restaurants & accommodation nearby

There are no restaurants on the site. You will generally have the choice of taking your own picnic or having lunch during a stop in a nearby restaurant. In any case, ask your tour guide what is included in the price.

 

  • Level required Intermediate
  • 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.