Panama - A Marathon Swimmer's Paradise

Posted by Scott Zornig, 2 April 2013

I have two business ventures in Central America which are headquartered in the country of Panama. As a result, I travel to Panama several times a year. During my business trips, my days are usually full as my time is limited, but I occasionally find time to do an ocean swim on the weekends. Unfortunately, I usually have to swim alone as there are very few Panamanian open water swimmers and only one distance swimmer that I am aware of.

Although Panama is a small country about the size of South Carolina, it has the potential to be marathon swimmer’s paradise. Panama not only has two oceans which are within 40 miles of each other, but it also has more than 1000 islands. These islands are located anywhere from ½ mile to 50 miles off the mainland. I believe swims have occurred from only 1 or 2 of these islands. There have been some attempted swims of the Panama Canal which can be read about at this link:

The major challenge for a successful marathon swim in Panama is actually the water temperature. The water in the Pacific Ocean can range from 72 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit while the Caribbean Sea is a more consistent 78 to 83 degrees. There is some sea life to consider when contemplating a marathon swim such as jelly fish, sharks, sea snakes and caimans. The sea snakes are only found on the Pacific side of the isthmus while the caimans can be found at river mouths which empty into either ocean. There have been 27 known shark attacks in Panama since 1928 with most of the attacks occurring on the Pacific side. There have only been a few fatalities. The risk of an encounter is very low, but swimmers should always know the lay of the land prior to their endeavor. Additionally, foreign swimmers should always inquire about permits. I heard about a Canadian who swam across a major shipping lane in Panama without a permit, only to be arrested after her swim.

The reward of swimming in Panama is incredibly clear, deep blue water (especially on the Caribbean side) and some of the most beautiful Islands on the planet. The islands can range in size from a few hundred feet with a single palm tree to the 503 square kilometer Coiba Island which is the largest in Central America. Most of the 1000+ islands in Panama are uninhabited. Indigenous tribes of the area such as the Kuna, live on the occupied islands in grass huts and sleep in hammocks.

Panama has only 3 million residents and half of those live in Panama City. Panama is an easy flight from the United States or any country in the America’s. Many people think the skyline of Panama City closely resembles Miami, Florida. There are only two seasons (wet and dry) so swimming can be done year round. The country is amongst the safest in the America’s and Panama uses U.S. currency. If you are looking for an exciting adventure, you may wish to consider Panama for your bucket list of marathon swims.

©2023 Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association