A Panama Family Vacation
Nothing makes me happier than when a fellow family traveler comments on one of my posts. I feel a certain camaraderie and connection towards these adventurous travelers looking for a unique family vacation experience. When mother of two Colleen Sullivan sent me an email asking me a few questions about our trip to Panama with kids, I simply could not wait to weigh in.
Often in such cases, once the family is off and on their way, I don’t hear from them again. Colleen, however, was kind enough to send me an update upon their return. This had me thinking that this information needed to be shared. Planning a family trip to Panama, comparatively speaking, is not that easy. Hours, and even days of research can go into finding family friendly hotels, tours, and transportation. I liked the fact that Colleen’s one week Panama itinerary, centered around Panama City, was quite different than our 12 day trip to Panama with kids, where we hopped around the country quite a bit. I asked Colleen if she would mind sharing her itinerary on this website to help other family travelers plan their trips. Lucky for me, she obliged.
1 Week Itinerary for Panama with Kids
Why Panama? My husband, 2 kids (ages 8+9) and I live in Chicago and had just 7 nights, so were looking for somewhere not too far, with a non-stop flight, warmer weather (easy to find warmer than Chicago!), with longer days. Panama, with a 5-hour nonstop flight, sunny, 90 degree temperatures and same time zone fit the bill. My husband and I love history, so the Panama Canal was a draw for us as well.
Our best vacation recipe includes some tours, some free days and lots of outdoor activities. In initial planning, I searched ‘Panama with kids’ and cross referenced info from travel blogs (such as Pint Size Pilot!), travel sites such as Travel & Leisure, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, etc. and travel company itineraries, such as Thomson Family Adventures, Classic Journeys, etc. as well as reviews on specific hotels and tours on TripAdvisor.
Here is a daily digest of our adventures, followed by restaurant/hotel/transport details.
Day 1: Arrived at Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Settled in, kids swam in the pool (they didn’t love it, said the water was difficult to see through!), we had dinner and then took the resort’s complimentary ‘Night Safari’. They drive you around the area w/ a large spotlight searching for animals. It was fun to explore the area at night, safe in a truck. We did see a capybara and a sloth that night.
Day 2: Toured the resort’s orchid nursery, sloth sanctuary and small wildlife rescue center. We were able to watch 4 sloths eat and move (slowly!) in the sanctuary. We also saw ocelots and monkeys in the rescue center. Then, we took a 1-hour boat ride on Gatun Lake and to Monkey Island. We saw a howler monkey and capuchins, which came right onto our boat. We were also on the lake with enormous ships making their way through the Canal. Shortly after, we took the aerial tram through the rainforest, walked a short way to a tall observation tower and were able to see in every direction. We also saw more monkeys and many birds. Back to the resort to relax, have dinner and took the night safari again. We didn’t see any animals that night but still enjoyed it. All 4 of us loved the boat tour and the aerial tram.
Day 3: We took a short, 5 minute boat ride to a nearby Embera village. They gave us and another family an overview of their handicrafts (woven baskets, carved wood), then a tour of the village and a short hike through the rainforest. Then they played music and did some traditional dancing, topping it off with a lunch of fried fish and plantains served in a banana leaf. It was hot and the kids liked shopping for handicrafts and hiking but did not love the dancing or lunch. My husband and I felt like we were exploiting the natives but agreed it is good for the kids (and us) to see how other people live. There are much longer, all day tours into the rainforest to other Embera villages but we were glad we did the short one as it was enough for us. After the village, we left Gamboa, took a taxi (booked by the resort) into Panama City and checked into the Hilton.
Day 4: We took a city/canal tour, starting with the Canal’s Miraflores Locks. We loved watching the ships go through (be sure to check times – they only go at certain times each day). We went on a Tuesday at 8:00am and hardly anyone was there. When we were leaving around 10:00, it was packed. The history of the canal, how it was built and its present-day importance is fascinating. Panama would not be Panama without the Canal.
Our tour guide also took us through Casco Viejo, the old city that is being rejuvenated with bars, restaurants and shops. (We returned there to eat on our own – more later about the restaurants.) Casco, with its narrow streets, many shops and restaurants, is fun to explore. The best time to explore is mid-afternoon to early evening. Most of the shops are open and, for the most part, the seedy side isn’t showing yet. At night, some of the blocks are dark and a less-than-desirable crowd can be found.
We ended the tour at the Smithsonian Punta Culebra Nature Center on the Amador Causeway but thought it was a snooze and wouldn’t recommend.
Day 5: We took a 15-minute Uber ride from the Hilton to Metropolitan Park for a leisurely 1 hour hike to the highest point. We heard many animals rustling but only saw a few (sloth and coati). We saw many birds. We loved it because very few people were around, it was quiet/nature and was 2 hours total (good for our family). On our return hike, we saw many people going up, so morning might be better for a quieter time. We had lunch at our hotel (Sequella in Hilton), kids swam in the pool, I had a massage and then we went to Casco for dinner. It was a really wonderful, easy day.
Day 6: Caribbean Adventure Tour with Ross Alford from Barefoot Panama. Ross picked us up and we drove from Panama city to Portobelo on Atlantic/Caribbean side. Ross told Pirate stories all day that captivated both our kids (ages 8+9) and us. We absolutely loved the tour because of Ross. We snorkeled, had lunch at a quaint seaside restaurant, boated around a bit and walked around ruins in Portobelo. We also zip lined (I didn’t like it/quit after the first one) at La Granja. My husband + kids did all 5 lines and said it was okay but they wouldn’t do it again. Unless you’re a big fan, I’d skip the zip lining but otherwise this day was a trip highlight.
Day 7: We rented bikes at GetOneBike ($5/hour, $20/day) and biked along Avenida Balboa (on ocean side) and around the Cinta Costera (coastal beltway). There are many playgrounds along Balboa and even some swings along the path under the Costera (shade!). We were out mid/late morning and were virtually the only ones around (probably because it was sunny and 90 degrees). We biked to Casa Viejo, had lunch and biked back. Beautiful bike ride and fun family activity (although Costera may be crowded on weekends?). This was another relaxing, very enjoyable day.
Panama Family Restaurants:
- Tantalo – we loved the rooftop for a drink. Clubby atmosphere but early (5:00ish) okay for kids). Food looked good in restaurant.
- Casa Casco – same as above – loved the rooftop drink and food looked good but didn’t eat there. Again, we went early (5:00ish), so fine with kids.
- Pizzeria Barrio – we loved it b/c was fast, reasonable ($50/4 of us) and delicious.
- Ocho y Medio – Fun decor and food was good for adults but not so great for kids. Service slower here, too, more of a date night. We went when it opened @ 6:30, so it atmosphere was fine for the kids but slower service and no specific kid food.
- Granclement – delicious gelato, unusual flavors. Went 2x!
- American Trade – had lunch here, food was okay but beautiful hotel. We also tried the famous ‘Geisha’ coffee in the adjoining coffee shop. $9 cup but delicious and fun to try.
- Segundo Muelle – came highly recommended from several people but wasn’t for us. Fancy Peruvian food, slow service. Nice view but we thought food was just okay.
Panama Family Hotels:
The first 2 nights, we stayed at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort and the last 5 nights, we stayed at the Panama Hilton. I prefer large, American-brand hotels when possible as I like to have a fitness center and the kids like to have a pool. It is also nice to have at least one restaurant for the inevitable night we are too tired to go out.
Gamboa’s rainforest location is perfect for exploring the rainforest, Gatun Lake, an Embera village. There is nothing nearby so we booked the all inclusive ‘Meet Gamboa’ package with the room, so breakfast and dinner buffets, plus a 1-hour boat tour on Gatun Lake and the aerial tram were included.
NOTE: If possible, book/reserve all activities in advance through the tour desk in the lobby. It can be confusing but keep trying! The room and resort itself are dated but the kids loved it and 2 nights was a perfect kick off to the trip.
Panama Hilton: Good location on busy Avenida Balboa. We walked in the neighborhood a few times but mostly Ubered to other places. I liked it for the views of the Pacific and the aforementioned amenities. We booked rooms on the ‘executive floor’ which came with continental breakfast in a room on the lower level.
Panama Tour Company:
Barefoot Panama: We met 4 people from Barefoot Panama. By far, the best guide was Ross Alford. We could not have had a better day and I would highly recommend him. However, the other 3 people were not impressive and, had we not had Ross as a guide, I would have been disappointed with Barefoot. To reach Ross directly, email email@example.com.
- Barefoot Panama picked us up from the airport. When traveling internationally, we like to have a car service scheduled to pick us up. It is really a nice way to start the trip, rather than trying to navigate the airport, taxis, etc. Cost: $80.
- We took a hotel car from Hilton back to the airport. Cost was $65.
Getting Around Panama:
We used Uber any time we needed to drive somewhere. They are inexpensive (rides to Casco were $5-$7) and convenient. You can see on the Uber app how many rides the driver has given. All of ours were 2,000+. Drivers were courteous. Not all spoke English but we showed the address/place on map and they had no problem understanding where to take us.
Before You Go:
Book Recommendations: We like to read about our destination before we go. Here are some book suggestions for Panama:
- What is the Panama Canal by Janet Pascal
- The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough
- Lives of the Pirates: Swashbucklers, Scoundrels (Neighbors Beware!) by Kathleen Krull (if you spend any time in Caribbean/on pirate tour)
- We also read books from the ‘Panama’ section of the children’s department in the library. Many were dated but the additional information was good.
Panama Wildlife Guide by Rainforest Publications:
We had this in our backpack and referenced it every day during our trip. Several guides and other tourists admired it and asked if we bought it there. Great for the kids to reference, too!
Things We Considered But Did Not Do:
- San Blas Islands: The photos and reviews of San Blas look and sound dreamy but we could not fit it in this time. The 3+ hour drive from Panama City is, by all accounts, stomach churning and we only had 1 day to spend there.
- Chiriqui/Boquete: Cloud forests, coffee plantations and white water rafting didn’t make our list this year either because we decided not to take any in-country flights.
Thank you Colleen for sharing your photos, itinerary and suggestions with my readers. I am so glad that you enjoyed your family trip to Panama – Tara
Further Reading for a Panama Family Vacation:
- Panama with Kids – A 12 Day Itinerary
- Panama Family Vacation – 1 Week Itinerary
- A Guide to Casco Viejo, Panama
- Bocas del Toro – La Loma Jungle Lodge
- Unique Hotel – Jungle Land Panama
- Sailing the San Blas Island, Panama – with Kids
Legal Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or position of Pint Size Pilot Services Inc.