The best places in Central America to snorkel and dive

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Between the Pacific islands of Panama, the Caribbean reefs of Costa Rica and the Blue Hole of Belize, Central America offers an aquatic adventure like no other. And there’s something for every budget and skill level, from novice divers to master divers.

If you dream of diving with whale sharks, snorkeling with sea turtles, swimming alongside spotted eagle rays, or simply floating above kaleidoscopic tropical fish, you’ll find it here.

All equipment can be provided by a decent dive shop, but if you have it, bring your mask and snorkel, a light rash vest and reef-friendly sunscreen – and don’t forget the underwater camera. Marine.

When is the best time to snorkel and dive in Central America?

Central America is a year-round snorkeling and diving destination, but conditions depend on the country, season (rainy or dry), and whether you’re on the Pacific or Caribbean coast.

For a quieter and less expensive experience, avoid the region’s high season from December to April. But if there’s something you’re diving to see, you’ll have a fixed window.


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Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef, Belize © QArts / Shutterstock

Caye Caulker – Belize

Dive and snorkel in the second largest barrier reef in the world

In pocket Belize, Caribbean sun-drenched Caye Caulker is the perfect jumping-off point for some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world.

Head south to the iconic Blue Hole Natural Monument at Lighthouse Reef, a sea sinkhole approximately 122m (400ft) deep and 300m (1,000ft) wide. Made famous by Jacques Cousteau, its mysterious depths and stalactite-studded caves still draw crowds.

Or try Turneffe Atoll, a biodiverse mix of mangroves, lagoons and coral reefs, with snorkeling and diving sites for all levels. Keep your eyes peeled for the endemic white-spotted toad.

Getting There : It’s a 45 minute ferry ride from Belize City.

Coiba National Park – Panama

Dive the spectacular reefs off Panama‘s former penal colony

In the not so distant past, Coiba – the largest island in the US Pacific – housed around 3,000 inmates. Today, along with some smaller islands, it is a national marine park protected by Unesco and is part of a project with Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador to safeguard the main migratory corridors.

Willing captives – certified divers of all skill levels – can swim with whitetip reef sharks, devil rays, turtles and a host of colorful fish. And you can often spot giant mantas and whale sharks, as well as humpback whales from July to September.

Getting There : To access the park, you will need to book through a dive shop, such as the Panama Dive Center in the Santa Catalina surf spot. It is a 75 minute boat ride to Isla Coiba.

Above landscape with a school of tropical fish in a coral reef and a beach with coconut trees and a house on the horizon
Underwater landscape with a school of tropical fish in a coral reef and a beach with coconut trees and a house on the horizon © Vilainecrevette / Shutterstock

Bocas del Toro – Panama

Savor the sun, surf and snorkeling around this tropical archipelago

A string of laid-back Caribbean islands and islets, Bocas del Toro isn’t just a backpacker party hub, it’s home to some of Panama’s best snorkeling spots, with crystal clear water and colorful coral.

Admiral Bay’s protected reefs are great for snorkeling, and at Hospital Point, beyond the shallows of the northern tip of Isla Solarte, there’s a deep reef wall ideal for night dives. .

For a different view, snorkeling in the mangroves brings you up close to a tangle of algae-covered roots, vibrant sea sponges and juvenile fish scurrying around their nursery grounds.

Getting There : It’s a 45-minute flight from Panama City to the capital of Bocas, Isla Colón, or about 11 hours by bus and ferry.

Girls play music in the sun on a Utila dock with divers in the blue-green water behind them
Washed by warm, gin-clear water, Utila’s backpacker haunt is a cheap dive destination © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

Bay Islands – Honduras

Learn to dive in one of the cheapest – and best – places on the planet

Bathed in warm, gin-clear water, the backpacker haunt of Utila – the smallest of the three main islands in the bay – is a cheap dive destination, with no shortage of dive shops and snorkeling spots. essential diving. And you can spot whale sharks here all year round, whether you’re a beginner or aspiring divemaster.

In Roatán, there’s world-class snorkeling right off the white sands of West Bay Beach, while Mary’s Place draws divers to its shallows to spot eagle rays and sea turtles, and experienced divers to its vertical reef walls.

Getting There : Catch a ferry from La Ceiba, or there are direct international flights to Roatan.

Cahuita National Park – Costa Rica

A paradise for snorkelers and divers on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Cahuita National Park’s underwater playground is home to more than 120 species of fish with evocative names – jewel fish, frog fish, butterfly fish – and about 35 equally exotic types of coral, such as elkhorn, brains and leather – without forgetting lobsters, sea urchins and moray eels.

Its crystal clear waters have been awarded Costa Rica’s eco-friendly blue flag, and you can get up close to loggerhead, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles during the March through October nesting season.

Isla del Coco – Costa Rica

Dive with schools of hammerhead sharks off this remote jungle-covered island

jurassic park meets Jacques Cousteau on the volcanic Cocos Island, some 550 km (340 miles) off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The French oceanographer dubbed this Unesco World Heritage site the most beautiful island in the world, and it also served as inspiration for the fictional 1993 dinosaur film Isla Nublar.

This underwater spectacle is only for experienced divers and it’s not cheap to get there. But you’ll be rewarded with schools of hammerhead sharks (at their peak between June and October) and countless white tip sharks, rays and whale sharks.

Spotted eagle rays swimming close
The seas surrounding Nicaragua‘s Little Corn Island are a favorite haunt for reef sharks, rays, barracuda and more © Martin Strmiska / Getty Images

Little Corn Island – Nicaragua

First-time divers should head to this relaxing, car-free Caribbean island

Most of Little Corn’s 20-odd budget dive sites are a short boat ride from its powder beaches. The reefs are generally shallow – no wall dives here – but the elkhorn and staghorn coral forests teem with kaleidoscopic fish.

For more experienced divers, the Tarpon Channel is the perfect place to spot hammerhead sharks, and Blowing Rock, about 60 minutes away, will blow your mind. This spiky rocky pinnacle rising out of the sea is a favorite spot for reef sharks, rays, barracuda and more.

Getting There : Fly from Managua to Big Corn Island and take the twice-daily 30-minute public boat to Little Corn.

A huge lake with tree branches in the foreground and a peak in the distance
Diving at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala reveals otherworldly lava formations, sunken villages, petrified trees and hydrothermal vents © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Lake Atitlan – Guatemala

Dive into a high-altitude volcanic crater lake

Watched over by three active volcanoes, shimmering Lake Atitlán is an unusual diving destination. But what Central America‘s deepest lake – it reaches depths of 340 m (1,115 ft) – lacks in technicolor fish, it makes up for with otherworldly lava formations, sunken villages, trees petrified and hydrothermal vents.

ATi Divers in Santa Cruz La Laguna is the lake’s longtime dive shop. In addition to fun dives and PADI certifications, they offer a one-day Altitude specialty course.

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