The Chiriquí Gulf National Marine Park is one of Panama's best-kept secrets -- but it won't be for long, given its proximity to Boquete and the wave of retirees and expats moving to that area every year. At Boca Chica, the closest town to the park, there are no high-rises, golf courses, or gated communities, just a couple of lodges and a tiny fishing community -- and a lot of thick vegetation and crystalline water. The Marine Park was founded in 1994 to protect 14,730 hectares (36,400 acres) of extensive coral reef, mangrove swamps, and marine meadows -- the park's most salient characteristics. Another significant feature of this park is its dozens of picturesque rocky outcrops sprinkled across the gulf, as well as its idyllic islands carpeted in forest and lined with slender coconut palms. Several of these islands boast tropical-paradise white-sand beaches lapped by turquoise waters (unlike the Pacific Coast beaches on the mainland), especially Isla Gámez and Isla Bolaños. While out in the gulf, you can see the purple silhouette of Volcán Barú rising high in the background. The air is fresh and balmy, unlike the interior humid lowlands.
The sea is rich in marine life, providing scuba divers and snorkelers with the opportunity to see huge schools of colorful tropical fish, as well as large pelagic fish like white-tipped sharks. Scuba divers and snorkelers will need to book a boat tour to get to the offshore islands, where visibility is better than it is near shore (expect up to 15m/50 ft. off shore). The shore near Boca Chica and the pier is shrouded in mangrove and the water is cloudy, not suitable for underwater sports.
As with Coiba, the sport fishing in the Chiriquí Gulf beyond the national park is legendary, especially around Islas Ladrones, Islas Secas, and Islas Contreras. Islas Secas is a cluster of 16 private islands that are part of a luxury ecolodge, one of the most gorgeous in all of Panama.
Boca Chica fronts a large island called Boca Brava; here two lodges and a restaurant share space with howler monkeys, agoutis, raccoons, and other wildlife, and there are walking trails through the forest. You can reach the island via a $1 (50p) water-taxi ride from shore.
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