Visitors on Panama tours interested in either sport will find a multitude of locales to do so on the Pacific, near the capital, in central Panama and at the far western reaches of the isthmus where two marine national parks are located. While staying in Panama City, one idyllic spot is the Archipelago de las Perlas, a day trip from the capital. Snorkeling is divine off the archipelago's Isla Contadora, made famous by the "Survivor" television series, where five coral fields are found. Dive trips from the island are also popular with twenty or so different diving spots of interest in an area frequented by white-tipped reef sharks, manta rays and moray eels.
Heading west into central Panama's Azuero Peninsula, visitors on Panama tours will find the most varied of the country's coral gardens, in an area of almost forty acres off of Isla Iguana. It is reached by boat from the colonial town of Pedasi.
To the west of the Azuero Peninsula lies the Gulf of Chiriqui, home to two of Panama's three marine national parks. In the more easterly of the two parks, Coiba Marine National Park, visitors on Panama tours will find a massive 330,000-acre coral reef on the in Damas Bay on the east side of Coiba, an island off compared to the Galapagos. The park is known for its great diversity of marine wildlife, especially the large species that inhabit these waters including humpback whales, manta rays, hammerhead sharks. On the islet of Granito de Oro, off the north coast of Coiba are fields of brain and fan coral. Other of the park's great snorkeling spots are found around the islands of Rahcheria, Uvas and Contreras.
Gulf of Chiriqui Marine National Park is located east of the provincial city of David and comprises over twenty islands, an area where the reefs contain Porites lobata and fire coral species. Some of the islands closer to shore, including Las Ventanas, Linarte and Saino, are popular with snorkelers on Panama tours. Though some might find the islands further from shore too far to go, snorkelers and divers will be rewarded with clear waters and uninhabited islands.
All of Southern Explorations Panama tours visit Panama City and the eight-day Luxury Panama trip travels to the Azuero Peninsula.
Snorkeling in the San Blas Islands
For snorkelers, the clear warm bio-diverse waters and white sand Caribbean beaches of the Kuna Yala (also called the San Blas Islands) are a highlight of their Panama tours. Snorkeling is a popular pastime in the Kuna Yala, but scuba diving is prohibited.
This idyllic region on the far eastern end of the isthmus is controlled by the Kuna Indians. The coral reefs of the Kuna Yala, were once much more magnificent than they are today. Unfortunately, the harsh reality of survival for the poverty-stricken Kunas has taken its toll on the reefs. Mined to shore up some of the four hundred islands where many of its tribal members live, eighty percent of the coral is now gone. Nonetheless, the Kuna Yala is still home to the Caribbean's widest array of coral species including stag horn, brain, tan and leaf coral as well as some sixty species of marine sponges.
On the western end of the Kuna Yala, reefs stretch some 200 miles. Waters are clear to a greater depth than elsewhere in the region and the coral reef attracts many stunning species, making it a paradise for snorkelers on Panama tours. One of the best spots to snorkel is off the island of Wichub-Wala. Offshore from Nusatupo, lie the Cayos Los Grullos, a group of remote uninhabited islands including Cayos Holandeses and Cayos Limones, where you'll find coral reefs as well as a shipwrecks.
In the more easterly regions of the Kuna Yala, visitors on Panama tours will also find some picturesque snorkeling spots, though more difficult to reach. Mostly uninhabited, Isla de los Perros (also called Isla Achutupu), is popular with snorkelers for its reefs, the clarity of the water and the array of tropical fish attracted here. The Dolphin Island Lodge (the island is called Isla Uaguitupo by the Kunas) offers snorkeling trips to uninhabited islands.
In planning their Panama tours, visitors to the Kuna Yala should note that from December to February, seas are rougher and winds stronger than the rest of the year. In March, when weather is drier and the winds die down in the Kuna Yala, snorkeling visibility is increased. The rainy season, beginning in mid-April is even less windy, but rain and river runoff reduce visibility in offshore areas.
Of its five Panama tours, Southern Explorations' eleven-day Panama Highlights trip visits the Kuna Yala as does the eight-day Panama Coast to Coast trip. A three-day tour extension is also offered to the Kuna Yala with accommodations at the Dolphin Island Lodge.
Snorkeling and Diving in Bocas del Toro
One of the most popular Caribbean destinations for visitors wishing to explore beneath the sea on their Panama tours is the Bocas del Toro archipelago. This scenic region is on the far western end of the isthmus near the border with Costa Rica.
Three hundred different sponges, seahorses, tropical fish and almost eighty coral species are what attract snorkelers and divers to the warm calm seas here. Sheltered areas are found on the south sides of the islands, offering calm snorkeling waters with varied coral reefs to explore.
Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park is located in the Bocas del Toro where pristine conditions are preserved. This archipelago contains many coralline keys. On the southeast coast of the namesake island one finds some idyllic snorkeling areas because the distance between islands is slight, offering protected areas of calm waters, including between Punta Vieja and Coral Cay (also called Crawl Cay). Playa Polo, located in a small lagoon, is surrounded by reefs. Divers here love the cave diving around Cayos Zapatillas. Another popular spot sought out by visitors interested in either snorkeling or diving on Panama tours is Hospital Point on Isla Solarte, noted for the accessible coral reefs.
Southern Explorations' Panama tours visit the Bocas del Toro archipelago, the eight-day Panama Adventure and the eleven-day Panama Highlights trip.