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Scuba Diving & Snorkeling

The waters off Portobelo do not provide divers with the rich diversity of marine life found in places such as Coiba in the Chiriquí Gulf, but diving is one of the main draws to this area beyond touring the ruins in town. One of the most well-respected dive operators, Panama Divers (tel. 314-0817, 6613-4405, or 6744-2437; www.panamadivers.com), has a base at the Octopus Garden, about 10 minutes before Portobelo town, close to the Coco Plum Cabanas. They offer day trips, multiday trips, and PADI instruction courses. The good news about diving off the Central Caribbean Coast is that it is surprisingly accessible, even if you're lodging in Panama City; the bad news is that visibility is poor when the sea gets churned up (Dec-Feb), or when it rains. On a good day, expect visibility depths of about 40m (131 ft.). Popular dive spots include Drake's Island, with sponges in a rainbow of colors, Buffet Reef, and Iron Castle. Divers can also visit a submerged plane. Panama Divers is a competent, fully licensed, and insured operation with professional guides and travel assistance.

Farther away from Portobelo, heading east toward the San Blas Archipelago, is the relatively undiscovered island Escribano, with superb diving opportunities -- "Discovery Channel" stuff, as they like to say. Dives in this region require lodging at the Coral Lodge. Contact them for more information, or for custom packages. Panama Divers includes a tour of the ruins at Portobelo as part of their scuba excursions. For snorkeling, the best place in the area is Playa Blanca, reached by a 20-minute boat ride from the pier.

If you're just looking to rent snorkeling or diving equipment, try Scubaportobelo (tel. 261-3841 or 261-4064; www.scubapanama.com), located before Coco Plum. It's an a la carte operation whereby equipment and boat rides are charged individually. Prices are cheaper than nearby Panama Divers, with snorkel rental for $10 (£5) a day and diving-gear rental for about $30 (£15) per day. Tank refills are $4 (£2). They have a cafe here and a couple of basic cabins, too, for $35 to $50 (£18-£25) a night.

Beaches & Boat Tours

Local boatmen operate at the pier near the Castillo Santiago de la Gloria, ferrying passengers to the empty Playa Blanca, located on the coast north of Portobelo. It's one of the best beaches in the area -- if you're looking for a little beach time, this is your place. The cost to get there is about $15 to $20 (£7.50-£10), though this is changing quickly due to increasing gas prices. There is a two-person minimum.

Land-based Activities

An upstart tour company run by a couple of friendly locals, called Selvaventuras (tel. 442-1042 or 6680-7309) takes visitors on hiking trips through the rainforest in neighboring Portobelo National Park, visiting the waterfall at Río Piedra, among others. They can even put together a horseback-riding trip, or any custom itinerary, but they speak limited English. A half-day trip averages $15 (£7.50) per person.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.