Known as the Crossroads of the Americas, Panama is a beautiful country that has recently emerged on the world’s top-rated tourist destinations lists.
Panama is one of the few locations in the world where you can dive two oceans in one day.
The Caribbean waters are home to many colorful reef fish and corals, and the abundance of marine life and unique, relaxing spots, allow for practically unparalleled diving.
The Pacific side, on the other hand, is known for cooler waters and currents, and divers can have encounters with several species of sharks, whale sharks, humpback whales, dolphins, and much more.
The Best Scuba Diving in Panama
1. Bocas del Toro
Located on the Caribbean side of Panama, it’s one of the premier sites for scuba diving. Bocas del Toro is sufficiently isolated from large cities, it’s well outside the Caribbean’s hurricane zone, and its reefs have some of the best preserved hard and soft corals.
It’s home to a large abundance of different marine life: nurse sharks, stingrays, crabs, lobsters, snapper, rat fish, moray eels, to name a few.
You can comfortably dive all year round, and that includes training. The best months for diving are considered to be from February through March, and from September through October – during these months the sea conditions allow for more remote diving spots to be accessible.
Dive sites around Bocas del Toro
Hospital Point situated on the northern end of Isla Solarte, only a short five minute boat ride separate Hospital Point from the town Bocas del Toro on the archipelago’s main island Isla Colon. The reef starts at two meters and is consisted mainly of cauliflower and brain coral, gradually descending until it becomes a wall 16 meters deep. Various marine life lives in the numerous cracks in the wall. When the tide is right divers will be drifted along the entire site. There’s an enormous rock outcropping extending over the reef that provides shelter for silversides.
Buoy Line similarly to Hospital Point, Buoy Line is also situated at the northern end of Isla Solarte. The dive begins at a deep water channel marker buoy which is placed in the most convenient spot for the descent to begin at. At a depth of 7 meters, flat sands slope gradually to the reef at a 12 meters depth, which ends up falling away to more than 20 meters. Buoy Line is an inshore site where currents are more common and many types of pelagic fish and larger marine species are present because of that.
Manuel’s Wall –discovered by a well-known Divemaster, Manuel’s Wall is just inside the deep channel off Isla Solarte. The site is formed by two walls, at a depth of 14 and 22 meters respectively. The spot has a depth of more than 30 meters, making it one of the few inshore sites where such depths can be reached.
Coral Garden –situated on the western side of Isla Solarte, it’s considered one of the most beautiful locations due to some of the best corals in the entire greater region. It’s a must-see for visiting divers, and it’s also beginner friendly, with a depth of 4-8 meters.
The Log – the namesake for this location is because a bough from an old tree used to protrude the surface of the water, but now rests at the bottom at around of 9 meters. The site itself is home to a wide variety of coral formations, which stretch for more than 2 kilometers at a depth of 6-18 meters.
Crawl Cay –situated on the southern end of Isla Bastimentos, Crawl Cay is known for its fantastic coral formations, and is one of the most visited dive spots. It has a maximum depth of 20 meters.
San Cristobal –located twenty meters from the town Bocas del Toro, and between Isla Colon and Isla San Cristobal. It centers around marker 19 on the deep shipping channel, where the sea bed crests towards the surface creating a circular reef. Filled with unique and wonderful marine life, it has a diving depth of 9-20 meters.
The Whorehouse –the calmest dive spot in the entire region, it’s located in the seas of Isla Colon near the airport runway. The biggest attraction is the sloping reef that stretches around the base of the island, which is home to all sorts of unique marine life.
Tiger Rock –arguably the best dive spot in the entire greater region. It’s located 40 kilometers away from Bocas Town, plenty of beautiful pinnacles dot the spot, which are constantly surrounded by an abundance of marine life. Among its many species you can encounter large schools of fish, sharks, huge parrot fish, and many more. Visiting this dive spot is only done if sea conditions are calm, and last throughout most of the day. Tiger Rock is recommended for more advanced divers, as its maximum depth is 35 meters.
Zapatillas Cay – slightly further away from most other dive spots, it’s considered one of the most beautiful dive spots, and many divers are urged to visit it at least once. With a maximum depth of 12 meters, and many species of marine life, this is a local favorite of many divers.
How to reach Bocas Del Toro
There are several ways you can reach Bocas del Toro.
Traveling from Panama City to Bocas del Toro is pretty straightforward. The airport is located on Isla Colon International Airport (BOC), and from there you can take another flight to Bocas del Toro, or take a bus to Almirante and then take either a boat or ferry to Bocas del Toro.
You can also reach it from its neighboring countries. You can take a flight from Costa Rica, or take the bus route through Sixaola.
Located on the northern parts of the Isthmus of Panama, scuba diving in Portobelo can be done throughout the entire year.
There are many different sites to dive in Portobelo, and the entire area is teeming with life, like yellowtail snappers, sergeant majors, different species of turtles and lobster, among the many types of coral.
Dive sites in Portobelo
Terry’s Reef – a unique dive spot, Terry’s reef is visited as often as other places. It’s a wreck site from hundreds of years ago around which a coral reef has formed that’s now the home to lobsters and numerous schools of fish. The corals are strikingly beautiful, and have formed a unique sight.
Aiplane Wreck – located just off the coast of Portobelo, this is a dive spots that’s suite for more advanced divers. It’s only reached by a boat, and even though the visibility is almost always great, the average depth is 20 meters, and is a bit more difficult to dive than other dives in the region.
Coral Reef Labyrinth –a great spot to learn how to dive, the Labyrinth is located off the coast of Portobelo. It’s only reachable by boat, and after a 30 minute ride, you reach the spot. Its depth is from 7-23 meters, and has high visibility, and warm waters, making it excellent for beginner or returning divers. Because of its pretty topography, Coral Reef Labyrinth allows for some stunning underwater photography.
Parchesito –another great first dive spot, Parchesito is easily reachable by a 10 minute boat ride, and it’s a high-quality dive spot with a rich tapestry of marine life. Besides diving, snorkeling and underwater photography are great side activities, because the spots average depth of 12 meters allow for some relaxed diving. It has great visibility and low currents, among the many species of unique marine life.
How to reach Portobelo
Reaching Portobelo from Panama City is easy and straightforward, because it’s a short ride away. You can rent a car, preferably from the airport because traffic can get hectic in Panama City, or you can take the bus, or the train to Colon and then take a boat trip.
There are plenty of choices, and because Portobelo is relatively close to Panama City, every option is safe and fast.
3. Coiba National Park
The archipelago of Coiba National Park consists of 28 islands, the largest of which is Coiba Island – the largest island in Pacific Central America.
It boasts staggering biodiversity, and was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 after being the most notorious prison in Panama.
Unique species of fish such as the Pacific Rubinosis are only found in this area, as well the extremely rare Black Coral that is practically extinct because of its popularity as jewelry.
Best Dive Spots Coiba National Park
Mona Lisa – a popular night dive, the Mona Lisa is a cleaning station that is naturally protected from currents by large slopes of sand and rocks. One the southern slope divers frequently see large schools of Butterfly fish, while King Angel fish hover over the reef. Its maximum depth is 30 meters, at a depth where encounters with rare marine life are often.
Hill Rock – the best time to dive this spot is high tide, because of the surge that comes from the south. Hill Rock is known for its unique topography, and the large juts of volcanic rock that form the habitat of thousands of schools of fish and pelagics. Divers can see Triggerfish, Grunts, Spadefish, plenty of Barracuda, and other amazing species of marine life. Visibility is not that great, but not because of the clearness of the waters, but because of the sheer quantity of fish. Otherwise the waters are clear, and the maximum depth is 22 meters, with regular rest stops.
Cathedral Rock one of the most popular dive spots in the entire greater area, the namesake for this dive are two colossal pinnacles that appear like the entrance to a gigantic cathedral. The entire dive spot is totally covered in corals, making it one of the most dynamic ones in the region. The dive starts at 13 meters and proceeds to a depth of about 25 meters. Because of the corals and the sporadic light allowed in the region, all sorts of marine life can be seen in the cracks and crevasses of the corals.
The Pyramids –Located to the northwestern part of Jicaron, three pinnacles with the shape or pyramids rise out of deep waters to 18 meters. Because of the currents and unique geological positions, this spot is a congregation site for marine life of all sizes. This attracts predators, like the hammerhead shark and the Galapagos shark.
How to reach Coiba National Park
After flying in to Panama City, the best way to reach Coiba National Park is by car. Renting a car at the airport is the most preferable way, but the national park isn’t close.
There’s a 7 hour drive from Panama City on a highway, or on regular two way roads from Santiago to Santa Catalina.
Another method of reaching the park is by a two hour boat ride from Santa Catalina.
Panama is definitely an under-visited tourist destination, even though some of its locations are considered popular. Scuba diving in Panama is not as widespread as it could be, but the PADI schools and resorts all operate at consistent decent levels.
It does have many dive shops, and many fine diving experiences. Almost every dive spot is unforgettable, and many divers have returned time and time again to what many consider to be one of the world’s best diving locations.