By Debbie Fishell
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!
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 preservation of the largest untouched rain forests in the Americas!
For more information, visit the park’s their website at Coiba National Park.