Plenty of superlatives come to mind in writing about Panama's natural wealth, but in a country where there are more examples of the planet's flora and fauna than there are adjectives to describe them, perhaps "abundant" is sufficient. Panama means "the place of abundant fish," but there are lots of other things found here in exuberant quantities. There are 765 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean and 425 miles on the Caribbean Sea; off both shores, 1,600 islands are strung like bracelets of sea glass. From the country's mountainous interior, 500 rivers and streams empty into both oceans. Millions of acres of primeval rain forest sweep down from the mountains to the lowlands. There are 2,000 species of flowering plants (1,000 different types of orchids alone, including the national flower, the Holy Ghost orchid), more than 700 species of birds like the brilliantly plumaged quetzal and 350 kinds of reptiles, including the endangered golden frog.
The bounty continues under water, too: 250 species of reef and game fish, 52 different kinds of coral, more than a dozen species of turtles and a diverse and dramatic reefscape and bottomography. Panama's varied underwater possibilities are the result of a privileged geographic location. Like a graceful curved wrist, Panama links Costa Rica in Central America to Colombia in South America. Only 50 miles wide at its narrowest point, it is not only possible to hike up the 11,400-foot-high Volvan Baru, a long-extinct volcano, and see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, it's possible to dive both oceans on the same day.
Divers will find plenty of everything in Panama's waters, from the pulse-hammering drama of the Pacific--sharks, whales, dolphins, black marlin, 400-pound jewfish, abyssal drop-offs and volcanic formations--to the calm and clear Caribbean Sea, where three-quarters of the world's types of corals and more than half of its tropical fish species thrive on shallow and varied fringing reefs.
There's more. It's even possible to dive the famous Panama Canal and see the remains of the first trans-isthmian railroad, the trains that ran on it and the 19th century dredges that excavated the canal.
The Pacific Coast
Contadora (Islas de las Perlas)
Islas de las Perlas--the Pearl Islands--are located south of Panama City. Taboga is probably the best-known diving destination in this archipelago, but because it's fairly close to the mainland, it gets crowded with day-trippers, especially on weekends. Contadora is less visited and farther out--here's where you'll find open-ocean diving and big pelagic action.
What You'll See: Be prepared to see barracuda, hundreds in a single dive, white-tip sharks muscling in for a better look, and jewfish that top the scales at more than 350 pounds. When your pulse has stopped racing, you can explore unique rocky formations and seamounts that harbor smaller fish, like wrasses.
Where You'll Stay: The accommodations on Contadora are more exclusive than in other areas--you can choose to stay in a large, all-inclusive beach resort or at another property that has waterfront villas.
How You'll Get There: Contadora is accessible by boat or plane from Panama City (Allbrook Airport).
Coiba Marine Park encompasses a group of islands, including Coiba, Rancheria, Jicaron, Jicarita, Afuerita, Canal de Afuera, Uvas, Contreras and Brincanco; Coiba is the largest.
What You'll See Diving: This is open-water, get-your-motor-running diving—sailfish, all kinds of turtles, whale sharks (in December and January) and white-tips. If you're lucky, you'll be in the water when hundreds of dolphins chase boundless schools of tuna. It's not uncommon on one dive to see several large sea turtles pass by in a stately glide.
Where You'll Stay and How You'll Get There: Coiba is accessible by live-aboard boat only, the MV Coral Star and the Coiba Explorer II.
The Caribbean Coast
Bocas del Toro Archipelago
Off the northwest coast of the mainland is the Bocas del Toro archipelago, some of which enjoys the protection afforded by the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. Shore diving is possible everywhere, and at least four dive operators offer daily trips to the main reef, about 45 minutes from the archipelago.
What You'll See: Shore diving is on the fringing reefs that start in shallow water and slope down. The aquarium is open: Huge schools of parrotfish, angelfish, wrasse, blue and brown chromis and butterflyfish flash by, in ever-changing directions. These shelf-like plateaus are rich and dense with tube and fan worms, anemones and colonies of bryozoans. In deeper water, look for spotted eagle rays and healthy boulders of brain coral.
Where You'll Stay: Colon and Carabinera islands offer accommodations that are moderately priced, ranging from small resorts to cottages on the water. You'll find decent restaurants and bars at these lodgings.
How You'll Get There: Both Colon and Carabinera are accessible by plane or boat from Panama City or David.
Portobelo / Isla Grande
Portobelo is a very small, unspoiled town located on the north central coast. Here you'll find the ruins of old Spanish forts and ancient cannons, evidence of the attempt by 16th century Spaniards to protect its substantial booty from marauding pirates.
Purely Caribbean, charming Isla Grande is just east of Portobelo. The island's lighthouse is a 30-minute trek along a coastal path, and worth the hike.
The dive operations here are located just outside Portobelo.
What You'll See Diving: Wrecks galore. All those battles between the Spanish and pirates led to quite a few scuttled galleons, from the 17th and 18th centuries. The wrecks are teeming with thick schools of colorful tropicals, including sergeant majors, yellowtail snappers, schoolmasters and blue tangs.
Where You'll Stay: There are very clean and comfortable properties in or near Portobelo and Isla Grande.
How You'll Get There: From Panama City, you can take a bus or rent a car.
Diving the Panama Canal
Gatun Lake, next to the Panama Canal, makes for a unique diving destination. The diving here is not for everyone--the vis is only so-so and it can be kind of spooky to hear an ocean-going vessel rumbling overhead, its enormous props creating considerable turbulence. If you decide to try the diving--this is, after all, the Panama Canal, a heroic engineering effort that stands as testimony to human ingenuity--it is here that you can see the remains of the first trans-isthmian railroad and the dredges that excavated the Canal. Peacock bass thrive in the lake's warm waters.