Santa Catalina is a one street village. The recently paved road ends in the Ocean passing improvised shacks that rents boards and snorkels. But the relaxed atmosphere where everybody salutes each other and the proximity of Coiba National Park converted it in a surfing and diving community that makes its entire living by catering to foreigners. The place looks like dropped from the map, being so hard to get to and once here even the Internet is a hit and miss affair. After I had a good cappuccino at the best place in town for this, Panaderia Vieja held by a probably French married with a Spaniard, I joined the group to Coiba National Park in a snorkeling trip with some exploration in the jungle. For $50/person to get to Coiba the boats get full fast. We were about 12 Europeans, Canadians and US, this being roughly the number of tourists that the boat can take. The boat is a solid fiber glass and the ride is not as bad as described in the guide book, mainly because the ocean was not as rough today. We got to Coiba in about 90 minutes and we started with a snorkeling through corals and colorful fish, the park having the best coral area in the entire Pacific coast. It was beautiful and so close in crystal waters, very attentive not to touch and get a deep cut. Besides the jelly fish were not happy of guests in their waters so they stung seriously if you touch them.
Coiba National Park had a very limited contact with humans. It was started as a Penal Colony in 1912 and used also during the Cold War by the CIA to train Panamanian Forces in jungle combat and survival techniques. The prison part was always a high security one. If an inmate wanted to escape he had to choose to deal on land with the crocodiles rot to get in the Ocean and deal with the sharks. Not a nice choice for sure. More recently most of the enemies of Noriega were kept here. After his fall the prison was closed and the place was converted into a National Park some parts, like Isla Rancherita being private property of the Smithsonian Museum for doing research.
The park charges a $20 entry fee that is on top of the boat charge and is paid at ANAM, the park administration where we stopped next and followed with a jungle tour, looking for monkeys and birds. Leaving from there we stopped in front of Playa Coibita for an amazing snorkeling in deep blue waters where fish of different colors were filling the ocean behind us. It was mesmerizing to be carried by the current and watch this fascinating show behind you. It was like being on top of a giant fish tank absolutely full. The drawback was that the current was strong and it was hard to return to the boat that came around to pick us up, everybody returning completely exhausted. At least for me I was completely wasted by the effort and stood put on a rock till the boat came to pick me up.
Playa Coibita is the classical palm tree beach you may see in the post cards. From there we took a walk in the jungle and came to see the Smithsonian area and the airstrip. Unfortunately this tour did not have a visit to the old prison facilities that was in a different part of the island.
At 3pm we departed to Santa Catalina where I ended up chatting with Chris and Vanessa, two Canadians from Montreal I met on the boat, till about 10pm. We stayed on the deck of Il Pinguino, the restaurant palapa right on the city beach, admiring the sunset shrouded in clouds that brought a downpour over us making the roof to charmingly leak.