Isla Coiba is not only the best place to scuba dive and snorkel in the area; it's the best place to dive and snorkel in all of Panama. Day excursions to this island and its surrounding waters are available only from local operations based out of Santa Catalina. It's not cheap, and it takes nearly 1 1/2 hours to get there -- which is why you might want to check into spending the night on the island at the park-ranger station. (Both outfitters mentioned below can organize this.) Local boat operators will do the round-trip to Isla Coiba for about $250 to $300 (£125-£150), but that's without rental equipment, and drivers are not schooled in even rudimentary first aid, nor do they carry radios or much safety equipment. It's a long, bumpy ride over open water, so it pays to play it safe. Closer to Santa Catalina is Isla Cebaco, which offers excellent diving and snorkeling around an extensive coral reef; it only takes about a half-hour to get here, and the fare is less.
Scuba Charters (no phone; www.scuba-charters.com) is owned and operated by two Americans who are fully certified and boast years of diving experience (they hail from Florida). The company offers day trips to Coiba aboard their rigid inflatable tunnel hull, including two-tank dives for $95 (£48) per person, and snorkeling for $75 (£38) per person. Local diving trips near Santa Catalina cost $60 (£30) per person, and $40 (£20) per person for snorkeling. They'll put together an eco-tour combined with scuba diving at Coiba, too. They're also dive instructors and offer PADI-certified instruction courses for travelers spending 4 or 5 days in the area. You can buy snorkel gear, underwater camera cases, and other marine-related goodies from Scuba Charters.
Scuba Coiba (no phone; www.scubacoiba.com) is a local operation run by an Austrian expat named Herbie Sunk (yes, it's true), with scuba diving, snorkeling, and eco-tours to Isla Coiba. Using local panga boats to get to the island gives Scuba Coiba a by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel to the operation, and though Herbie is way laid-back to the point of being unenthusiastic, he is fully certified and he offers 2- and 3-night-stay packages on Isla Coiba that include eco-tours to the interior of the island. Two-dive trips to Coiba cost $95 (£48) per person; 2-day all-inclusive packages with stays on Coiba (six dives total) are $390 (£195) per person.
Two companies can plan multiple-day tours to a variety of surf spots, including Santa Catalina, with transportation included: Panama Surf Tours (tel. 6671-7777; www.panamasurftours.com), a respected company with flexible 5- to 8-day tours that range from economical to luxury; and Panama Surf Expeditions (tel. 6582-0402; www.panamasurfexpeditions.com), run by a group of Santa Catalina locals who build custom surf tours for travelers.
Otherwise, if you're interested in surfing with a guide or need lessons, you'll want to book with a surf camp such as Punta Brava or Oasis .
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.