Isla Coiba began its human history as a penal colony—it was Panama's version of Devil's Island—where 3,000 convicts toiled on farms carved out of the dry forest, growing food for the country's entire prison system. The Panamanian government declared the island a national park in 1991, but it took more than a decade to relocate the prisoners. Parque Nacional Coiba now protects 667,000 acres of sea and islands, of which Isla Coiba itself constitutes about 120,000 acres.
The marine life of the park is as impressive as that of the Galápagos. The extensive and healthy reefs are home to comical frog fish, sleek rays, and massive groupers. The national park holds more than 4,000 acres of reef, composed of two-dozen different types of coral and 760 fish species. The park's waters are also visited by 22 species of whale and dolphin, including killer whales and humpback whales, fairly common there from July to September.
The wildlife on Coiba doesn't compare to that on the
Galápagos, but its forests are home to howler monkeys, agoutis (large rodents), and 150 bird species, including the endemic Coiba spinetail, the rare crested eagle, and the country's biggest population of endangered scarlet macaws. Several trails wind through the island's forests; the Sendero de los Monos (Monkey Trail), a short boat trip from the ranger station, is the most popular. Crocodiles inhabit the island's extensive mangrove swamps, and sea turtles nest on some beaches from April to September. The most popular beach in the park is on the tiny Granito de Oro (Gold Nugget) island, where lush foliage backs white sand, and good snorkeling lies a short swim away.
Options for visiting Isla Coiba range from a day trip out of Playa Santa Catalina to one-week tours, or small-ship cruises that include on-board lodging. The National Environment Authority (ANAM) offers accommodations ($20 per bed; five beds per building) in air-conditioned cement buildings with communal kitchen—you have to bring your own food—near the ranger station. There is also space for 15 campers ($10 per two-person tent). Reserve at least a month ahead of time during the dry season.