A true bi-coastal dive destination. On the Caribbean side, Portobelo and Bocas del Toro have been attracting the backpacker, life-escaper crowd for years. The diving is generally shallow off Bocas and a little deeper off Portobelo, and easy and inexpensive. On the Pacific side, liveaboards access the wild and wooly diving in the protected Coiba National Park, which includes Isla Coiba and the waters off smaller surrounding islands. Pelagics - sharks, mantas, dolphins, and from June to November humpback whales - revel in the warm waters. Rare charters also dive the Pearl Islands (Islas Perlas). Between the Caribbean and Pacific bookends, Panama is full of nature-based adventure, from extensive canopy excursions to jungle and cave hikes to whitewater rafting, mountain biking, wildlife sighting quests and, of course, the Panama Canal, which is a must see.
When to go:
Panama's rainy season lasts from May to November and is considered winter. Summer, the dry season (and tourist season), lasts from December to April.
Marine Life Seasons:
On the Pacific side, winter upwelling caused by oceanic currents brings in nutrients that attract large schools of migrating pelagic fish, such as manta rays, giant pelagic stingrays, tunas, amberjacks and whales. Humpback whales are most frequently spotted in the months of July through September.
When to Get the Best Deals:
May to November.
What to Pack:
3/2 mm wetsuit or rash guard, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, comfortable shoes that can get wet for hiking, DAN card, long sleeved lightweight shirts, long trousers for cool nights, a light jacket for cool evenings, small medical kit.
Seasonal averages: 26°C/78°F in winter and 28°C/83°F in summer.
Seasonal averages: 26°C/79°F in winter and 29°C/83°F in summer.
Balboa (PAB) and the US Dollar (USD); Credit cards are widely accepted.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
Included in your airfare.
What to Eat:
A typical Panama meal includes meat, coconut rice and beans accompanied by local fruits and vegetables like yucca (cassava), squash and plantains. Panama breakfasts often contain deep-fried corn tortillas piled with eggs and fried meat. Seafood is plentiful and you can have it one of four ways - fried, grilled, al ajillo (with spicy garlic sauce), or a la española (sautéed with tomatoes and onions). Try the patacones (fried plantain) as a snack.
What to Drink:
Popular local beers in Panama include Balboa, Atlas, Panamá, Soberana, and Cristal — all light pale lagers. Seco is the most famous drink - a sugar-cane-distilled alcohol commonly served with milk and ice - usually consumed in rural areas and local cantinas. For something really refreshing, ask for a chilled young coconut with a straw in it.
Of course, see the Panama Canal; sea kayak either coast; ziplining in the forest; birdwatching; caving to see crystallized skulls; white water rafting Rio Grande; Chagres River expedition; and native village tours.
Customs and Culture:
As a natural bridge between South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean and the Pacific, Panama's culture is a mix of old and new, indigenous traditions, Latin-influenced customs and a laid-back island-style approach to life. Panamanians are warm, welcoming and happy to help.
Carnaval in February.
Electricity and Internet:
110V/60Hz; Internet is common in tourist areas.
Drink the water?
Bottled water is recommended.
Spanish, but English is widely spoken.
Amazing Marine Life
Ophiad Sea Star:
This bright orange star has narrow, fingerlike arms.
These brilliantly colored fish do, indeed, possess remarkably parrot-like beaks that they use to grind coral structures so they can eat the soft coral animals inside.
Growing up to a meter/several feet across, these rays are identifiable by their protruding square snouts.
This enormous baleen whale, growing up to 15 meters/50 feet in length, feeds on small plankton, and migrates annually to breed in warm waters.
Yellowline Arrow Crab:
Mostly seen on night dives, these spindly crabs with pointy noses seem to grow especially beefy here.
These small spiky swimmers puff themselves into big round bladders when they feel threatened.
This small fish sports dramatic markings — white and chocolate-brown stripes along its body, and white spots on the brown dorsal fin which runs the length of its body.
A favorite among sport fishermen, this pelagic fish can grow up to 3 meters/9 feet long and 90 kilograms/200 pounds, swim up to 105 kilometers per hour/65 miles per hour in open water, and are noted for their sword-like noses and their tall blue dorsal sails.
With their curling tails and iconic chess-piece profiles, seahorses are not prolific, but can be spotted by the watchful diver.
Hawksbill and green turtles can be found swimming in leisurely fashion or napping under ledges on most reefs.
Top Dive Spots
Formerly a penal colony, this island is now home to a national park with pristine diving waters, often compared to the Galápagos. This is one of the largest coral reefs on the Americas' Pacific, and although only a few species of coral are present, those species are abundant. Jagged volcanic pinnacles are home to angelfish, butterflyfish, wrasses, surgeonfish, triggerfish, parrotfish, moray eels, frogfish, seahorses, turtles, pipefish, nudibranchs, and small shrimp operating cleaning stations for reef fish. Keep an eye toward the deeper water for white-tip or black-tip reef sharks, sailfish, manta rays, dolphins, schooling snappers, jacks, grunts, barracuda, rainbow chub, stingrays, eagle rays, cow-nosed rays, Pacific spadefish, jacks, and tuna, as well as the occasional humpback whale (July through September), pilot whale, orca, tiger shark, bull shark, hammerhead shark or whale shark.
Enchanted Forest, San Blas Archipelago:
Plan to dive here during the rainy season (April through November), when visibility is at its best. This well-preserved reef boasts a wide diversity of hard coral species and sponges. Look for rays, moray eels, parrotfish, nurse sharks, mantas, barracuda and the occasional porpoise.
A prime destination for fans of human history as well as natural history, Portobelo Bay was the site of a Spanish colonial fort and a busy port town, of course with its attendant pirates. Divers still keep an eye out for the lead coffin of Sir Francis Drake, who was laid to rest here in 1596. Underwater you'll find a wide array of hard and soft corals, giant barrel sponges, sea fans, banded coral shrimp, arrow crabs, seahorses, turtles, lobster, spotted drums, angelfish, butterflyfish, damsels, wrasses, gobies, hawkfish, trumpetfish, snapper, grouper, jacks, moray eels and the occasional shark.
Hospital Point, Bocas del Toro:
With a massive rock outcropping extending over the reef, this site includes a shallow seagrass bed and a small wall encrusted with lettuce corals and vase sponges.
The Playground, Bocas del Toro:
A shallow sand flat hosts pillow starfish, conch, sea cucumber and other invertebrates, leading to the reef where divers will see surgeonfish, parrotfish, damselfish, channel clinging crabs and giant barrel sponges.
Punta Manglar/The Wreck, Isla Colon:
A sunken car ferry here creates an artificial reef encrusted with file clams, corals, and sponges, feather duster worms, spaghetti worms, arrow crabs, hard and soft corals, and sponges. Look for grouper and snapper alongside the multihued reef fish.
Gatún Lake, Panama Canal:
Formed by the installation of the Panama Canal, this lake provides a unique diving experience. In its depths you can view remnants of the first trans-isthmian railroad, abandoned dredges that excavated the Canal pathway, and the remains of flooded villages, guarded now by peacock bass, tarpon and snook.
Popular with spear-fishers for its black marlin, amberjacks, and dog-toothed snapper, this secluded site on t he coast of the dense jungles of Darien, can be reached by zodiac or seaplane. Although no formal dive operations exist here, reputable local divers will gladly guide you.
Bona and Otoque islands:
This island pair stands close enough to one another to combine for a multidive destination. Look for parrotfish, angelfish, pufferfish, crevalle jack, snappers, groupers, eagle rays, moray eels, lobsters and occasional manta rays above the rocky bottom habitat.
Contadora, Las Perlas:
Named for the pearl-forming oysters that can still be found here, this archipelago offers numerous opportunities for divers and spear-fishers. Contadora's stony corals host a proliferation of reef fish, notably the large sea bass (that can weigh in at up to 180 kilograms/400 pounds), yellow-bellied sea snake and sharks.