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Bocas is primarily a base for exploring the wonders of the surrounding archipelago, the most impressive of which are the acres of colorful coral reefs. More than a dozen dive spots are within five minutes to one hour by boat from the town's several good dive centers. Snorkeling excursions usually cost $20-$30, depending on the destination and number of passengers, and depart at 8 or 9 am. You can guarantee a lower rate for everyone if you organize a small group. Two-tank boat dives cost $75-$150, depending on distance.
Bocas Water Sports. The town's original dive shop, Bocas still maintains the best reputation. Diving is offered at a dozen sites, and you can take enriched air nitrox and certification courses. The company also offers daily snorkeling tours to the Cayos Zapatillas and other spots. Snorkeling equipment and kayaks can be rented. Calle 3, 1 block south of Parque Bolívar, Bocas del Toro. 507/757–9541. www.bocaswatersports.com.
Dive Panama. This multilingual Dutch-owned outfitter offers inexpensive boat dives, snorkeling excursions, and PADI certification courses. Avenida Norte, betwen Calles 3 and 4, Bocas del Toro. 507/6567–1812. www.thedutchpirate.com.
La Buga. La Buga offers diving and snorkeling trips to outer reefs, ship wrecks, and Tiger Rock, as well as the complete slate of PADI courses. Calle 3, next to Farmacia Rosa Blanca, Bocas del Toro. 507/757–9534. www.labugapanama.com.
Starfleet Scuba. Starfleet Scuba offers various two-tank boat dives and snorkeling excursions, and has open-water certification courses for $250. Calle 1, Bocas del Toro. 507/757–9630. www.starfleetscuba.com.
For many a traveler, the submarine wonders of Bocas del Toro's extensive coral reefs are the number-one reason to visit. Though Bocas lacks the spectacular schools of fish you might see at Panama's top Pacific dive sites of Isla de Coiba and Islas Secas, the region has greater coral diversity and hundreds of fish and invertebrate species. You can see dozens of colorful coral and sponge species, and such delicate reef denizens as bristle sea stars, peppermint shrimp, anemones, and sea horses. You may also spot spiny lobsters, moray eels, damselfish, angelfish, spiny puffers, spotted eagle rays, and hundreds of other creatures. Visibility varies, but the water is always warm. The best diving conditions are usually in March and between September and November.
The closest dive spot to town is Hospital Point, where an impressive coral and sponge garden extends down a steep wall into the blue depths. This can be appreciated both by snorkelers and scuba divers brave enough to descend the wall. Olas Chicas, on the north shore of Isla Bastimentos, is a good snorkeling spot, with coral, sponges, and sea fans clinging to volcanic rocks off the beach. Cristobal Light, 5 km (3 miles) southeast of Bocas town, is a good spot for snorkeling and scuba, with a coral garden spread across a platform some 15 feet below the surface. The most popular snorkeling spot in the archipelago is Crawl Cay (Coral Cay), an extensive reef on the east side of Isla Bastimentos, which has plenty of coral and invertebrates but fewer fish than nearby Cayos Zapatillas. The most famous snorkeling and scuba spot in the archipelago is Cayos Zapatillas, and for good reason; the two idyllic islands are surrounded by more than 1,000 acres of coral reef that is inhabited by an array of marine life. While the area around the islands offers excellent shallow snorkeling, the barrier reef has some good scuba spots, including caves. Unfortunately, the sea is often too rough to dive there. The most spectacular dive site in the archipelago is Tiger Rock, east of the Cayos Zapatillas, which offers a deep dive along an impressive wall.