Situated in the Gulf of Chiriqui and comprised of 38 islands, Coiba National Marine Park covers 430,825 acres and was identified by UNESCO in 2005 as a World Heritage Site. Once a penal colony, the park is currently managed by the National Authority for the Environment (ANAM) and offers visitors an opportunity to appreciate its pristine natural resources. White sand beaches, lush verdant forests, prolific wildlife, and world-class diving are just some of the many things you’ll enjoy during your visit to Coiba National Park. Coiba Island, the largest of the 38 islands, is located approximately 30 miles off the Panamanian coast and is home to the park’s headquarters, which is situated on the westernmost portion of the island—facing north. All visitors to the marine park are required to obtain a permit, which costs $20.00 per person/per day. The ranger station consists of a small beach, visitors/information center, kitchen, and bathrooms.
The island has just one trail, the “Monkey Trail”, which leads to the top of the nearby hill and begins to the right of and behind the visitors center. The trail is rather steep but well maintained and easy to follow. About 3-5 minutes walk from the visitor center you’ll reach an intersection, where you'll need to turn right—the remaining portion of your hike should take between 15-25 minutes. Upon reaching the hilltop, the trail levels off and you’ll find two lookout areas with each offering spectacular views of the neighboring islands. The first, just off to the right side of the trail, offers stunning views of the ranger station and beach below and nearby islands. The latter, which is just a short distance further along the trail, offers terrific views of distant islands and the Pacific Ocean. And yes, there are monkeys on this trail!
Overnight accommodation on Coiba Island, when attainable, must be coordinated with ANAM in Santiago; if you are traveling alone or in a small group, there is a chance you'll be able to arrange your accommodation upon arrival.
The closest access point to Coiba National Park is Santa Catalina, which is approximately 1–1.5 hours away by boat. Along the main road that leads to Estero Beach, there are numerous tour operators that offer snorkeling and dive trips to the nearby islands. In addition, bird watching and fishing tours can also be arranged. Tour boats depart Estero Beach normally no later than 8:30/9:00 a.m. and return between 4:30–5:00 p.m. If you don’t have a pre-booked tour, you can just walk around and consult with the different operators to see what they’re offering.
Your boat will most likely accommodate both snorkelers and divers, in which case the snorkelers will be dropped off at select locations (small, outer islands) while divers complete their dives. Dive trips to Coiba National Park normally consist of 2 or 3 dives; there are no night dives offered by land-based operators.
The trip to and from Coiba Island can be a rough one; it all depends on weather and sea conditions. The tour boats tend to hug the coastline as long as possible because helps protects them from unfavorable sea conditions. Life vests are always provided and required to be worn during your trip.
There are no direct buses to Santa Catalina from Panama City. There are, however, direct buses to Soná from the Albrook Bus Terminal. Buses to Soná depart daily, throughout the day and stop briefly in Santiago before continuing; your trip to Soná will take approximately 4.5–5 hours. From Soná, you'll need to take a mini-bus to Santa Catalina, which takes an additional 1.5 hours.
From Panama City, you can also take a direct bus to Santiago, which takes approximately 3.5 hours; the buses that service Santiago are larger and more comfortable than those servicing Soná. From Santiago, you'll need to take a mini-bus to Soná, and then another to Santa Catalina.
If you're driving to Santa Catalina, take the Panamerican Highway until you reach Santiago and turn left at the Shell station (Ave. Central.) Continue along this street for approximately 2 miles; passing the church on the left-hand side. At the second crossroad, turn right and continue until you reach the Shell station. Here, turn left and follow the sign to Santa Catalina. Upon arriving in El Tigre de Los Amarillos, turn left following the sign for Santa Catalina, Lagartero. Continue along this road until you reach an intersection, then turn right and follow this road until you reach Santa Catalina. The trip from Panama City to Santa Catalina takes approximately 6–7 hours.