The Great Escape

Remote Coiba Island Is One Tropical Paradise You Probably Don't Want To Get Stranded On

Forty miles off the southern tip of Panama's Pacific Coast lies perhaps the most eloquent proof that the country still offers unorthodox adventures for audacious travelers. Coiba Island is home to virgin jungle, the eastern Pacific's second-largest coral reef, Panama's last cluster of scarlet macaws—and approximately 850 convicted murderers, rapists, and thieves.

Though Coiba and its surrounding waters were declared a national park in 1991, the 300-square-mile island's more traditional purpose, since 1919, has been to provide a home for an unfenced penal colony. These days, about ten "model" prisoners work at the park ranger's station. A few are murderers who have earned the trust of their guards—so much so that they're even allowed to lead tourists on snorkeling trips to nearby coves. (Just ask, and they'll tell you stories of escape attempts and the years when Noriega and his cronies vacationed in some of the beachfront thatch huts now inhabited by prisoners.)
To the great relief of the handful of tourists who now make the trip, the best diving and snorkeling happens offshore, amid a half-dozen tiny outlying islands. Thanks to the nearby Humboldt current, divers are almost guaranteed to see very large underwater creatures: manta rays as well as white-tipped hammerhead, and tiger sharks. (During the June-to-August migration season, you may also see orcas and humpback whales.) The purple coral ledges off Isla Jicarón drop 120 feet and draw huge schools of amberjack, snapper, and grouper. And Isla Montuoso offers the chance not only to see marlin and other billfish in the water, but also to loll on some of the most secluded beaches in the country.

Currently, the only regularly scheduled trips to Coiba are aboard the luxurious confines of Coiba Explorer's 115-foot yacht. Aimed at scuba fanatics, the weeklong tours run $2,500 per person and include unlimited diving, meals, and round-trip transport from Panama City. (Call 800-733-4742 for reservations.) Ancon Expeditions can arrange more reasonably priced, four-day group tours (about $530 per person, including meals, lodging, guides, and round-trip transport from Santiago). Since you'll be bedding down in the inmate-staffed ranger station, you might want to request veteran guide Hernán Araùz—and his trusty Colt revolver.

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