Isla de Coiba, Panama
Credit: Oyvind Martinsen / Alamy

At the northern tip of a jagged underwater mountain range stretching from the Galápagos Islands to Panama, Coiba is a 200-square-mile volcanic outcrop covered in thick, old-growth rainforest. There are no Lonely Planet-approved beaches or trails yet – it's still a secret paradise, raw and unspoiled.

Coiba's pristine beauty has been preserved largely by accident: For almost a century, the island was home to Central America's most infamous prison. After the prison closed in 2004, Coiba was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its biodiversity. Today, the only accommodation is the spartan ANAM ranger station, where electricity is intermittent, moths are the size of your face, and you cook fresh-caught fish by candlelight before crashing on a bunk bed cocooned in a mosquito net. Nearby Granito de Oro (Little Grain of Gold) is a tiny, deserted out-island with a scoop of white sand and a few palms, surrounded by a coral reef.

Coiba's wildlife rivals that of the Galápagos. Diving is one of the biggest draws here, and the Boca Grande Estuary echoes with bird and monkey calls. The ANAM station mascot is a giant saltwater croc named Tito, who visits daily, looking for handouts. Book a snorkel or scuba expedition through the Coiba Dive Center, which has extensive package options throughout Coiba National Park. Prices range from $55 per person for full-day snorkel tours to $650 per person for a 3-day excursion with PADI-certified divemasters.

More information: Fly to Panama City. Drive six hours to Santa Catalina. Ferry one-and-a-half hours to Coiba. Forget you're a tourist – surf and fish like a local in Casa Maya's small, traditional country houses close to the beach and just 10 minutes from town. Each house has a full kitchen, A/C, and can fit up to six people [from $50 per day; santacatalinacasamaya.com]. Something of a local institution of the Santa Catalina dining and nightlife scene, Pizzeria Jamming (located right next to Casa Maya) offers a lively, outdoor atmosphere and a good deal: thin-crust, brick oven pizza with a beer for under six dollars.