Though often celebrated for remarkable biodiversity both on land and in the water, Panama and Costa Rica rarely get tapped as prime snorkeling territories, but these Central American eco-tourism hubs shouldn't be overlooked when it comes to subaquatic exploration. Extensive reef systems line the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines of both countries, where coral colonies and rocky, volcanic outcroppings undulate with marine life. Christian Mata, expedition leader and local expert aboard UnCruise Adventures' Safari Voyager, shares eight spots where the underwater world shines.
Island-hop through paradise in the Las Perlas archipelago, a chain of more than 250 mostly uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Panama. Located about 30 miles from the mainland, Isla Contadora serves as the jumping off point for snorkeling the idyllic castaway cays on nearby Chapera, Boyarena and Mogo Mogo. June through October brings migrating humpbacks to the area, making the Pearl Islands prime whale-watching territory.
Hire a panga (boat) from Playa Arenal in the sport fishing hub of Pedasi and motor just a few miles offshore to tiny Isla Iguana. A protected wildlife refuge, the island offers a safe haven for Panama's largest colony of magnificent frigatebirds, as well as brown-footed boobies, black and green iguanas and hoards of hermit crabs. A short swim from the white-sand beach leads to a sprawling reef, where more than 350 species of fish make their home among 17 different varieties of colorful coral.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005, the 38 untouched islands that comprise Coiba National Park harbor the second largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific, making it a vital marine conservation area. Hop aboard a boat in the nearby surfing town of Santa Catalina for a 90-minute jaunt to dreamy locales like Granita de Oro, Rancheria and Isla Afuera, to snorkel with an array of tropical fish as well as sea turtles, rays, and white-tipped reef sharks.
The San Blas archipelago, a collection of 365 coral atolls off Panama's Caribbean coast, invites a true escape from reality. Take a two-hour boat trip from Panama City to reach these islands, an indigenous territory that falls fully under the control of the native Guna Indians. Isla Perro (Dog Island) remains a popular destination for day-trippers, but lesser known snorkeling spots and sublime beaches can be found on Isla Aguja, Isla Diablo, and the Cayos Holandeses (Dutch Cays).
Nine inhabited islands accompanied by about 300 tiny, deserted islets make up the Bocas del Toro archipelago, known for its perfectly clear Caribbean water and vibrant coral reef. Set up shop in Bocas Town on Isla Colon, the area's bustling tourist hub, where you can swim among the sea stars at Playa Estrellas or set out by boat to the remote reefs and sugar sand beaches of Coral Cay and Cayos Zapatilla, unspoiled snippets of paradise within the Bastimentos National Marine Park.
Discover Costa Rica's only surviving Caribbean corals in Cahuita National Park, where a rich marine ecosystem flourishes within 787-acres of protected reef. Book a tour with a local guide and head to Punta Cahuita to swim in a real-life aquarium surrounded by vibrant, coral polychrome. Less than an hour south in Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, follow the shoreline trail toward Punta Mona through the rainforest and snorkel numerous hidden coves along the way.
Lush jungle edged by rocky shoreline and golden beaches make up Ballena Island Marine Park, which protects one of the largest collections of coral in Costa Rica. Slip below the Pacific's surface and paddle through extensive reef surrounding Ballena Island, the Tres Hermanas islets, and fascinating Punta Uvita — an odd quirk of nature, the entire point unfurls to resemble a whale's tail. Afterward, head north and kick back on mostly deserted beaches like Playa Dominicalito and Playa Matapalo.
Search the translucent Pacific for dolphins, humpback whales, and sea turtles en route to Tortuga Island, Costa Rica's answer to a tropical paradise. After a short jaunt by boat from the Curu Wildlife Refuge, a veritable octopus' garden awaits, especially in the rocky reef around the smaller Motero islands, often considered to offer some of the best snorkeling on the eastern Nicoya Peninsula.