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SE Gulf of Chiriquí

Once the haunt of pirates, and in recent times an island feared by convicted criminals who were sent there, Isla Coiba (tel. 998-4271; www.coibanationalpark.com) is now a treasured national park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and nature lover's, fisherman's, and scuba-diver's dream destination. Given Isla Coiba's astounding natural diversity, rich sea life, and rare species, it is frequently referred to as the Galápagos of Central America. Isla Coiba is the largest island in Panama, but the national park spreads beyond the main island, encompassing 38 islands and islets and marine waters for a total of 270,128 hectares (667,500 acres). The area is home to the second-largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific, at Bahía Damas, and its waters teem with huge schools of colorful fish, hammerhead and nurse sharks, dolphins, manta rays, tuna, turtles, whales, and other gigantic marine species. Onshore, there are 36 species of mammals and 39 species of reptiles, including saltwater crocodiles. Beyond these impressive numbers, Coiba is one of the last places on earth where it is possible to see a scarlet macaw in the wild. Indeed, few places in the Americas are as wild, remote, and full of life as Isla Coiba National Park.

The island and its surrounding waters owe their pristine state to a notorious penal colony that existed on the island from 1919 to 2004, which kept tourists and developers at bay. Panama sent its most hardened criminals to the island, who considered the isolated penal colony the most punishing sentence the government could hand down. There's talk that the government might reopen the prison for Alcatraz-style tours. Having only recently opened itself to tourism, the island takes a little work to get to for the day, or an expensive all-inclusive package to spend a few nights in the area. The majority of visitors to the island are "temporary" travelers who descend en masse from small to midsize cruise ships to spend a couple of hours snorkeling around Granito de Oro, or for a quick walk through the island's jungle trails. Granito de Oro is a tiny island whose waters offer outstanding snorkeling and a picture-postcard white-sand beach, but the waters surrounding Coiba are still virgin territory, and snorkeling and diving outfits have yet to discover all of Coiba's treasures. Expect new "hot spots" to come to the public's attention soon.

The park is administered by ANAM, which has a ranger station (tel. 998-0615) and the only lodging on the island, consisting of several basic air-conditioned cabins on a glorious white-sand and turquoise-water beach. The cost to visit Coiba National Park is $10 (£5) per person. The cabins are used by fishing, diving, and snorkeling tour outfitters (or by those with a private boat). Day visits to Coiba go through operators in Santa Catalina. There is a landing strip on Coiba, but for charter flights only.