How a Former Penal Colony in Panama Became a Biodiversity Hotspot
For decades, Coiba Island was inhabited by prisoners. Now, scientists and adventurous tourists visit a national park teeming with wildlife
When Ezer Vierba first visited Panama’s Coiba Island in 2004, the history teacher at Boston’s private Winsor School was shocked by its size. At 194 square miles, Coiba is the largest island in Central America. A huge swath of largely tropical forest covers 80 percent of the island, which is also brimming with white sand beaches, gushing waterfalls and thermal hot springs, and surrounded by clear, fish-filled waters sporting a ring of protective coral reef—one of the largest in the eastern Pacific Ocean. “As a tourist attraction,” says Vierba, “quite frankly, it’s gorgeous.”
But Coiba also has a dark side, and that’s what Vierba, who has a PhD in Latin American history, had come to see.
From 1919 until 2004, Coiba Island was home to some of Panama’s most dangerous murderers and rapists, as well as thousands of politcal prisoners dubbed “los desaparecidos” (“the disappeared”) who went missing under the dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega. The remoteness of the island—Coiba disconnected from the mainland more than 12,000 years ago, due to rising sea levels, and its last known Indigenous inhabitants left in the mid-1500s—made it an ideal place for establishing an early 20th century penal colony, where prisoners are sent to live and work under forced labor. It was difficult to reach, and even tougher to escape from.
Coiba housed as many as 1,300 prisoners, the bulk of them living in 30 or so agricultural camps spread around the island. “The camps stood so far apart,” says Vierba, “that you couldn’t get by foot from one to another.” In fact, Coiba was the world’s largest island prison after Australia, which served as a penal colony in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Penal colonies were once prevalent throughout the Americas, and it seemed the more isolated, the better. There was one on Fernando de Noronha archipelago, 271 miles off of Brazil’s northeast coast, and another on Ecuador’s Isabela Island in the Galapagos archipelago. Perhaps the most notorious penal colony was “Devil’s Island” in French Guiana, where tens of thousands of its approximately 80,000 prisoners died of disease and abuse. While feared for their brutal conditions and cruelty, governments saw these penal colonies as ways to not only discipline prisoners, but also, says Vierba, a way of widening control by using these prisoners to take over and civilize remote territories.
Vierba studied Coiba extensively for his 2020 book, The Singer’s Needle: An Undisciplined History of Panamá, and says the Panamanian government’s plan was to someday colonize the island. Prisoners were placed into individual camps where they would perform agricultural labor—including at one point, growing bananas—with the hope of eventually transforming the land into a place where non-prisoners would want to relocate. It’s a plan that never materialized. “Just to ship all of the produce from the island to Panama was costly and complicated enough,” says Vierba.
Still, the island’s role as a penal colony and its lack of outside development allowed its forest, and therefore its species, to thrive. Just three years after Panama’s military rule ended in 1989, the country’s government declared Coiba Island and its surrounds—including a total of 38 smaller islands and the marine areas within the Gulf of Chiriqui, which extends along Panama’s Pacific Coast from the Costa Rican border to the Azuero Peninsula—a national park. The prison didn’t officially close until 2004, and when Vierba visited that same year, he saw a lone guard keeping post, and, in one of the prison’s former offices, the files of former prisoners abandoned and scattered across the floor. “The terror there was still very pertinent,” says Vierba.
In 2005, Unesco declared Coiba National Park and its Special Zone of Marine Protection a Natural World Heritage Site, and these days the area attracts tourists that come to snorkel and dive in Coiba’s crystal clear waters, alongside bottlenose dolphins and giant seahorses, as well as hike through a dense jungle brimming with wildlife, including endemic species like Coiban agoutis, howler monkeys and brown-and-while spinetail birds. In fact, Coiba is often called “Panama’s own Galapagos,” thanks to the large number of endemic species that lived and thrived here over the years with relatively little human interference. This past November, researchers actually proved that Coiba is connected to the Galapagos through a 900-mile natural “pipeline” in the Earth’s mantle, making the nickname even more appropriate.
“The variety of researchable flora and fauna here is just tremendous,” says Panama-born Juan Maté, a marine biologist who’s also the manager for scientific affairs at the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). “It’s the hotspot for marine biodiversity, and Coiba’s forested area is filled with unique terrestrial organisms that are evolving into separate species from the mainland.” STRI is dedicated to understanding the past, present and future of tropical ecosystems, and has established a research station on Coibita, the park’s only private island, that’s home to 40 scientists and many visiting researchers each year.Coiba Island acts as a refuge for birds that are no longer appearing on the mainland, like crested eagles, as well as Panama’s last significant population of scarlet macaws. Its waters are home to 800 unique fish species, 33 shark species (including bull and tiger sharks), and nearly 20 cetacean species, such as humpback whales and orcas. Reptiles like giant toads and green iguanas reside on the island, while hawksbill sea turtles forage its waters and nest on its beaches.
According to a World Heritage datasheet on Coiba, 3,500 people visited the national park in 2004, the year before it became a Unesco site. By 2015, the number had increased to 17,200. Still, says Maté, “Support from the community has also helped keep away development and allow the area to remain more rustic. In general, it’s a very pristine place.”
“When I first saw Coiba, I found it to be a sort-of Jurassic Park,” says Michael McKenzie, the owner and director of Fluid Adventures Panama, which has been running small-group camping and kayaking tours of Coiba Island since 2008. “The number of endemic species and diversity of wildlife was unbelievable.”
Coiba is also a haven for hundreds of crocodiles, which reside in its rivers and wander its sands. In the island’s years as a penal colony, these infamous carnivores were just one of several deterrents that kept prisoners from escaping. There was also its shark-infested waters, the island’s extremely venomous fer-de-lance and coral snakes, and the sheer remoteness of the place. “The former penal colony is like Central America’s own Alcatraz,” says McKenzie. “It’s interesting, but also a bit creepy.”
Located 15 miles offshore from Panama’s Pacific Coast, an hour-and-fifteen minute boat ride from its nearest mainland point—Santa Catalina—and another five-hour drive to Panama City, reaching Coiba takes work. It was even more remote during its years as a penal colony. The government had banned fishing in the island’s surrounding waters as another way to keep prisoners—the bulk of whom were free to roam among their camps—from attempting to escape. During its later years, the penal colony became so overrun with gangs that most people steered clear from it anyway. When Vierba visited the island in 2004, transportation to the then-national park remained so scarce that he actually bribed some local fishermen for a ride, offering them fuel if they’d drop him on the island.
Signs of the penal colony still exist. There are some buffalo, once used to tend the land, that have since gone feral (though most of the invasive species have been removed); the ruins of a prison church; and a cemetery filled with unmarked graves. “The government has actually refurbished a few cells for nark purposes if necessary,” says McKenzie, who admits that while for him the island’s draw is its natural history, many of his clients are interested in the stories and history of the penal colony as well. His tours often reflect this. “One of the ranger stations features a natural history museum that provides a lot of information of the colony’s time period,” he says, “and from time-to-time we’ll go and visit the old prison itself.”
In fact, Fluid Adventures Panama hosts what are considered the only “mobile camping and kayaking” tours of the island, as well as day trips. Panama’s National Authority for the Environment (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, ANAM) manages the park, which is accessible via permit, and guests can book overnight lodgings in several air-conditioned cabins next to the ANAM ranger station. Other outfitters include Diving Coiba, which offers PADI diving certification in Coiba’s open waters along with excursions for advanced divers, and Discover Coiba, which runs full-day snorkeling outings to multi-day snorkeling, hiking and camping expeditions.
But while Coiba Island has established itself as one of Panama’s must-see wildernesses, its sordid history is one that’s never too far off. For prisoners, the place was hell. For scientists and adventurous tourists today, it’s heaven.