Isla Iguana is a small, narrow island that, along with its surrounding waters, was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1981. It’s accessible by boat from Playa Arenal in Pedasí.
Isla Iguana is a popular spot for snorkeling since it has the biggest (15 hectares) and oldest (500 years) coral reef in the Gulf of Panama, and it’s the only one that’s nominally protected. It contains more than a dozen species of coral and attracts about 200 species of reef fish.
Among the dozens of bird species drawn to the island, the most important is a colony of 5,000 magnificent frigate birds, the largest colony in the eastern Azuero.
Sadly, the island and its waters are far from pristine. The current brings garbage from as far away as Panama City, as do some thoughtless visitors who junk up the beach, drop anchors on the coral, and take back souvenirs.
Also, the U.S. military used this island for target practice during World War II, as evidenced by the craters in the middle of the island. More than half a dozen bombs have been found and detonated on the island since then; there may be more that haven’t been discovered, so don’t wander off the trail.
Still, there’s lots of natural beauty left that humans and coral-damaging El Niños haven’t yet destroyed.
Snorkeling is best off the west side of the island, where the longest beach is. Known as Playa El Cirial or simply La Playa, it’s a pretty, long, light-sand beach, as long as you ignore the motor-oil bottles, tires, plastic buckets, and so on that can wash up and spoil the scene. Swimmers should not venture out past the reef, as the water quickly turns rough.
Divers may be able to find moray eels off the north end of the island, octopus and large jewfish around the rocky outcroppings on the southern end, and big schools of fish among the mushroom coral fields off the southeast side. Note that the waters around the island can get quite turbulent.
The boat ride takes about 20 minutes from Playa El Arenal, 30 minutes if the water is choppy. Be prepared for one hell of a bouncy adventure on a windy dry-season morning; it feels more like a watery roller-coaster ride than a boat trip. On those days, the return trip can be much faster, as the wind and waves practically blast the boat back to shore.
Since Isla Iguana is a government wildlife refuge, there’s a US$10 charge to visit, collected on the island.
Getting to Isla Iguana
Fishermen charge about US$40 round-trip for the boat ride to Isla Iguana from Playa Arenal. Iguana Tours (tel. 226-8738, www.nvmundo.com/iguanatours/index.htm), specializes in trips to the island from Panama City and may be able to tell you about current reef conditions.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition