Islands evoke feelings of relaxation, not death, torture and imprisonment. However, Coiba Island off the coast of Panama was actually used by the country’s former military dictatorship as a prison. Now, Coiba Island Prison has undergone a unique transformation into Coiba National Park. The park encompasses 38 islands and their surrounding reefs in the Gulf of Chiriqui. A bio-diverse paradise now replaces memories of imprisonment.
In 1919, Coiba Island was established as an offshore penal colony. It housed approximately 3,000 political prisoners—known as “Los Desaparecidos” —under the dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega.
After Panama’s military dictatorship ended, the prison began closing in 1990 and the last convict was released from the prison in 2005.
In 2005, Coiba National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its evolutionary significance and the inhabitance of at-risk species on the islands.
Coiba National Park is home to 760 species of fish, 33 shark species, and 20 species of whales and dolphins. Endangered, vulnerable, and near threatened species in the park include loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles, tiger sharks and crested eagles.
As would be expected from a prison island, Coiba National Park is difficult to reach. Many tour operators do not visit the island (but NatHab does) and flights and ferries do not transport people here. Travelers arrive on pangas—small boats—from ships or from the shore via nearby Santa Catalina.
Because it was secluded as a prison, Coiba Island remained virtually untouched and undeveloped, allowing endemic species to evolve on the island, including the Coiba Island howler and Coiba Island agouti. Eighty percent of the forest is primary, or old-growth.
Coiba Island is surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs on Americas’ Pacific coast. The reefs act as refuge for species escaping the effects of El Niño.
Coiba is birder’s paradise with 147 bird species on the island, including 21 endemic species and subspecies. The island is the only area in Panama where the scarlet macaw is found in significant numbers and the easiest place to spot the Panama-endemic brown-backed dove.
Coiba Island is part of the same underground mountain chain as the Galapagos Islands.
Coiba National Park is taking preemptive action to protect the island’s ecosystem. No more than 60 guests are allowed on the island each night. Island staff protects the wildlife from poachers and the reefs from irresponsible fishing.