Santa Catalina is a small village on the pacific coast, 362 km from Panama City. There’s no direct way to reach it, so if you travel by bus, you’ll have to make a transfer to a local bus in the city of Sona. There, you’ll be crammed with locals who went to Sona to run errands and other wandering travellers. In total, the entire trip taking about 7 hours. This was the reason we had to leave Panama City so soon – Central America it takes you a day to get from one destination to another. No matter if you’re traveling for just 200 km or 2000 km, it’ll take a day, no doubt about it.
Why would someone go through such an ordeal, you ask? Well, if you want to go scuba diving in one of the most amazing bio-diverse spots on earth, you have to.
Coiba island is the biggest island in the Central American Pacific, 30 km off the shore from Santa Catalina. The little town itself is small and not spectacular. It hosts two standard Pacific beaches and is mostly visited by surfers and divers, giving it a quaint, relaxed vibe. There’s also quite a few expats who have settled there and run small hotels and restaurants, guaranteeing interesting encounters wherever you stay. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Boarders Haven with John, an ex coast guard from Alaska who, when not enjoying his retirement in the US, runs this small hostel together with a few friends and helps local kids make some pocket change by helping him paint and decorate the outside of the house and garden.
Speaking of Alaska, we also met Ray and Jennifer, a super friendly couple living there who shared their many stories of diving, hunting and enjoying the Alaskan outdoors, putting it on our wish list of places to visit.
Diving at Coiba Island
But back to diving. The main road in Santa Catalina on the way to the beach is dotted with dive centers. You just need to take a short walk down the main road and choose the one you like best. We went for a trip with Coiba Dive Centre and were super satisfied.
The island has a very interesting history of being a prison which worked in keeping it almost intact. There is a very small part of the island that is “cultivated” for human dwelling, with a few ranger huts where you can sleep over and spend a couple of days on the island. This is certainly something we missed this time around, but as we’ve already decided we’ll go back to Panama some day… If you decide to sleep over on the island, expect no luxury – the huts are basic and there is very limited running water on the island. However, when you’re chilling in your hammock on a pristine beach with maybe only 20 other people on the entire island, you won’t need any man-made luxury. It’s nature in almost its purest form.
The scuba diving is world-class. If you’re a certified diver, you’ll love all of the the marine life. If you’re not, it’s a great place to get certified. The prices are pretty okay, mid-range from what we’ve experienced so far (120 USD for a day of diving). This is taking into account the 2 hr ride it takes to the island. All of the centers we visited were professional and kept a high standard, so you can’t really go wrong. Since this is a big dive spot it attracts some of the best dive instructors so it’s definitely a great place to learn. Not to mention your certification dive will most probably entail reef sharks and turtles, does it get any better than that? I doubt it, but would love to hear if it does!
Here are some more photos from the dive. Apologies for the quality as they’re all screenshots from our little Xaomi camera video we took. Obviously apart for the first two spectacular ones taken by a professional underwater photographer and dive instructor, Kristina.