Coiba Island National Marine Park – A Dark Past with a Bright Future

Coiba Island National Park PanamaFrommer’s calls Coiba Island “one of the 500 places to see before they disappear”.The uninhabited Coiba National Park (Nacional Parque Coiba) is 80% ocean and contains the largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific. The park is made up of 38 islands 30 miles off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Chiriqui Bay, including Coiba Island, the largest island in Central America with 503 square kilometers (194 square miles). Snorkeling is popular here with crystal clear water where you will see hundreds of brightly colored fish flitting among the coral. It is also known as one of the best diving spots in the world to see big fish, including huge plankton-eating whale sharks, tuna, manta rays and the rare pan-tropical spotted dolphin.
Scarlet Macaw Panama Coiba Island
Scarlet Macaw on Coiba

For landlubbers, Coiba Island is sometimes compared to Galapagos. The flora is lush and abundant. There are a few hiking trails and navigable rivers, but most of the interior remains unexplored. The island is home to 147 species of birds and 36 species of mammals. You will probably hear howler monkeys and see a good variety of birds and animals during your visit. Sea turtles are frequently observed and certain beaches are used as nesting areas from April through August. This island is also one of the few remaining places where you can see a “Guacamaya,”, or scarlet macaw, now endangered in mainland Panama. The island even has its own resident crocodile known as ‘Tito’, who is sometimes seen hanging out in the mangroves behind the ranger station!

Coiba Island Prison
Coiba Island Prison

Now, time to reveal the dark past I referred to above. From 1919 to 2005, there was a penal colony on Isla Coiba. Appropriate location since it is difficult to get to and from the isolated island. It is said that this is where former military dictator Manuel Noriega interrogated prisoners. Many Panamanians have memories of torture and death associated with Isla Coiba. Locals sometimes refer to the place as “la isla del diablo” which translates as Devil Island. The ruins of the prison are in Damas Bay and there is an eerie feeling when you visit the remains of the prison today. It is slowly being reclaimed by the jungle and is dilapidated, with no roof, old concrete bunks, and rusty jail bars. In 2005, when the last convict was released, the site became a Unesco World Heritage Site.

How did a penal colony lead to a bright future? Fear of the prison resulted in the preservation of the largest untouched rainforests in the Americas!

For more information, visit the park’s website at Coiba National Park.

Jackie Lange

Jackie Lange is the founder of Panama Relocation Tours and lives in the highlands of Boquete Panama. She has helped thousands of people relocate to Panama.

Reader Interactions


  1. Faustina,crisler says

    Do u have houses for vacaccion as a group package

    • Jackie Lange says

      no, sorry, we do not have vacation rentals for groups.

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