Plucky little Panama flies under the radar of most North American families interested in a Central American vacation. But it’s a unique, diverse and engaging destination that deserves a good look when considering where your family wants to go next. Here are six (of the many) reasons why your family should consider a trip to Panama.
The Panama Canal presents kids with jaw-dropping, entirely tangible, ‘saw-it-with-my-own-eyes’ lessons in engineering, commerce, global citizenship, history, and even physics. What child (or adult for that matter) can’t stare in wonder as a massive container ship passes through locks just wide enough for it, while towering over nearby structures and thick jungle canopies?
You can see the originally attempted canal, where French workers toiled from 1879 to 1889 trying to build a sea-level canal (one without locks). Eventually that project went bankrupt, then the U.S. took over and completed the canal in 1914. But as ships grew in size, by the early 2000’s the original canal was just too small to allow their passage. Thus, the canal was expanded to allow the massive new container ships to pass. All three canal initiatives are inspiring testament to big dreams, determination and miraculous engineering.
Note that the Miraflores Visitors Center is the most accessible but is often packed with families, school groups and other visitors. By contrast, when we visited the newer, more spacious Agua Clara Visitor Center, it was nearly empty. It also provided spectacular views of the new canal expansion areas and had better facilities (including two dining options).
It’s not surprising but much of the modern history of the nation is wrapped around the development of the canal. Once the U.S. stepped in, it developed a ‘Canal Zone’ that bifurcated the small nation with a 10-mile wide strip of land that was actually U.S. territory. If Panamanians wanted to cross from one side of their country to the other, they had to present a passport to cross through ‘The Zone.’ After Panamanians demonstrated and rioted in the 1960’s, the two nations negotiated a new treaty in 1977 and control of the canal reverted to Panama in 1999.
Today ‘The Zone’ is notable for the remains of various U.S. military posts positioned along its length (anyone that grew up on or near a military instillation or who served in the military will recognize the architecture). The notorious former CIA training ground for central American leaders, ‘The School of the Americas,’ is now a posh hotel, the Melia Panama Canal. Its large pool, ample buffets, and access to nearby adventures makes it a great choice for families.
The history of Panama goes back to well before the canal though, from the early history of local native peoples through the first Spanish explorers. Fort San Lorenzo was built in 1587 and is a great spot for kids to romp, run, and explore. Our local guide created a scavenger hunt out of key attributes of the fort that had our kids racing around for a good hour.
Costa Rica is known as a hotspot of diverse and exotic flora and fauna. Well, guess what nation is right next door and has pretty much the exact same wildlife? Panama is rich with more than 220 species of reptiles, 200 mammal species, 160 amphibians, and nearly a thousand avian species. Within those species, there are 125 that are unique only to Panama.
Within the lush, fertile rainforests roam jaguars, lesser-known feline species like the jaguarundis and margays, eight different types of monkeys, sloths, capybaras, bush dogs, and a wild array of frogs, snakes and bats. The sea presents dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks, hammerheads and manta rays, and countless varieties of tropical fish. Be sure to take wildlife tours while you’re there (we took a great wildlife boat tour through the canal itself) and do not miss the wonderful architectural riot and educational center that is the Museum of Biodiversity (“Biomuseo”) in Panama City.
Bocas del Toro
A short flight from Panama City takes you to the quaint, Bohemian, hip-but-still-authentic resort island Bocas del Toro. The bustling little main town is chock full of shops, galleries, and restaurants, as well as a playground that offers a diversion for little ones (and an opportunity to meet some local children too). The town is also a launchpad to adventures in Bastimentos National Park, Panama’s first marine national park.
We took a local water taxi through the park’s red mangroves, to a local co-op chocolate plantation where we learned how cocoa is harvested and chocolate made, visited a local school (and their playground), and took a nature walk. We even stopped at a restaurant on stilts, Restaurante Alfonso, for a quick wade in the shallows for starfish-spotting as lunch was being prepared.
We stayed in the wonderfully rustic, family-owned Bocas Inn, which is right on the waterfront. The rooms were simple, the food was hearty and ample, and the swimming, sunsets, and excursions right from their own dock were extraordinary.
Panama is a blend of jungle and coastline and each offer an array of outdoor activities for families. In the jungle areas, you can hike, take nature walks or enjoy zip lines. Beaches offer stand up paddle boarding, plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and diving, and the always-loved option of simply playing in the surf.
As always, wildlife abounds. While on hikes in places like the Caiman Trail in Bastimentos National Park, you should keep an eye out for white-faced capuchins, three-toed sloths, night monkeys and golden-collared manakins. Nearby lagoons may offer a glimpse of slider turtles and spectacled caimans.
At beaches like Red Frog Beach, you can look for sponges and brightly colored sea fans. Snorkeling through the coral reefs and mangroves in Boca del Drago, search for vibrant colorful starfish.
There are six recognized indigenous groups in Panama; Naso, Guna, Bri Bri, Bokata, Ngöbé-Bugle and Emberá-Wounaan. Meeting with local peoples gives children a broader sense of the world, expands their tolerance for others, often allows them to better appreciate the natural world, and can provide them with more perspective in life (including an appreciation of everything that they have at home).
We were fortunate to get to travel to an Embera village on the Chagres River, just outside Panama City. We boarded a ‘piragua’ dugout canoe, which took us through the rainforests of Chagres National Park to their village. Our arrival was greeted with dancing and music then we settled in to learn about their customs, relationship with nature, and daily lives. We purchased some handicrafts, engaged in a native dance, and were painted with the traditional ‘jagua’ dye that the Embera use to adorn their bodies.
Numerous flights on reputable airlines, like American, Delta and United, regularly fly into Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. We flew first to Atlanta and then direct to Panama City from there.
We used Journeys International, a small, family-owned tour operator out of Ann Arbor. Check out their Pure Panama Adventure for Families itinerary to learn more.