Panama with Kids Post Updated: June 2021
Panama with Kids – Intro
“Have you ever been to Panama?” a friend asked me a while back. Well no, we had not been – but we would be on our way shortly. I had been intrigued by Panama for a long time and this friend had a lot of good things to say about this unique country, especially for people looking for a jungle-type adventure as we were. This positive endorsement was just what I needed to encourage me to start making plans.
Why Visit Panama?
Panama intrigued me for several reasons. First of all, I had heard that this country could provide a similar eco-tourism experience to Costa Rica, but a little more economically. When I did a quick cost comparison, it seemed that the per night rate of an eco-lodge in Panama was considerably less than a similar one in Costa Rica (although rates in Panama City itself are comparable to many major cities in the U.S.).
Panama City is a vibrant metropolis with both a modern city and an old center steeped in history (Casco Viejo). There is plenty to see and do in and around the city core, as well as many excellent (and stylish) restaurant options.
For nature lovers such as myself, Panama hosts almost 1,000 species of birds, as well as 220 mammals and 354 reptiles and amphibians.The country is also home to hundreds of islands, many with stunning white sand beaches and large stretches of protected coral reef, making for some great snorkeling and scuba diving. Volcano hikes, jungle tours, river rafting, and ziplining are some additional options for adventurous travelers.
Panama offers a great deal of cultural diversity with its seven native Indian populations, many still living quite traditionally and autonomously.
All in all, it sounded like a worthy trip to me.
Panama Planning Help
After months of planning and agonizing over our itinerary, here is how we ended up spending our 12 days in Panama. Of course, there is much more to see in this beautiful country. We simply needed to make some hard decisions based on our time and budget limitations.
I wanted to share our itinerary with you because I know how time consuming trip planning can be. Hopefully this will provide you with some inspiration on things to do in Panama with kids.
Note: Our Panama family vacation had us doing a fair bit of travel within the country. If you have less time and want to stay just in and around Panama City, please also see this 1 week Panama itinerary.
Panama for Kids Video
Want to get a quick peek at our favourite things in Panama for kids? Start with this 3 minute video.
A Panama 12 Day Itinerary
1. Panama City – Casco Viejo (3 Nights)
Why: This UNESCO World Heritage site within Panama City is in the process of being painstakingly restored, and has many beautiful buildings, hip hotels, award-winning restaurants and quaint plazas. It also provides a great base from which to take day trips to the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway and the Frank Gehry designed Museum of Biodiversity.
Family Hotels – Casco Viejo
While many people may prefer a hotel in the more modern areas of Panama City, we enjoyed a beautiful stay at Las Clementinas – a lovely boutique hotel in Casco Viejo. What you give up in amenities in Casco Viejo (very few properties have pools in this area, for example), you gain in old world charm and proximity to wonderful restaurants.
Note: I do want to mention that Casco Viejo is a little gritty and not the kind of place where you should wander around alone late night (fine for us since we were to bed early with the kiddies anyway).
See more top hotels in Panama City.
2. Gamboa, Panama (1 Night)
Why: Only 40 minutes from downtown Panama City, the little town of Gamboa is located on the north bank of the flooded Chagres River, between the Panama Canal and rain forest of Soberania National Park. Although originally built to house employees working on the Panama Canal, this area now has a second life as a base for nature loving tourists.
Jungle Lodges near Gamboa
I want to preface this section by saying that Panama was our first jungle lodge experience with our kids. I remember how I simply couldn’t wait for my youngest to turn 5 (as 5-6 years old is often the minimum age to stay at such places). Since this trip, we have been fortunate enough to visit jungle lodges in several other countries, including Peru, Costa Rica and Ecuador. This has allowed me to have a little more perspective on this part of our trip (see refection coming up).
Although many travel resources mention the Gamboa Rainforest Lodge as a great place to stay, we felt that the slightly quirky Jungle Land Floating Lodge was a better choice for us. (Note: Jungle Land actually welcomes children from 3 years and up.)
Jungle Land gives you the option of visiting on a day trip or including an overnight stay. Choosing the latter was magic for us, as it was just so special to fall asleep and wake to the sounds of the jungle.
During a stay, guests can go kayaking, enjoy quite a bit of wildlife (monkeys, caimans, many types of birds), go fishing, or simply relax with a book in a hammock taking in the wonderful jungle sounds.
My Reflection in 2021
We loved our stay at Jungle Land, especially during the evening and early morning hours when the day-trippers were gone. It is, however, more of an attraction than an eco lodge. Owner Captain Carl does a great job entertaining his guests with his jungle experience program. Yes, you are guaranteed to see a monkey for example – but that monkey is showing up for the peanuts. (We did wake up, however, to the eerie sound of howler monkeys in the distance).
There is also a beautiful toucan, in a cage. Looking back, I’m uncomfortable with this. That said, I have also since spent many hours traipsing through hot jungles with my kids looking for special species such as toucans – sometimes seeing very little. Nature can be extremely elusive.
My point is, please read reviews for Jungle Land carefully and understand what this experience is (and in all fairness, Captain Carl gets plenty of great reviews). When I look back, I have to confess that we were looking for a guaranteed experience – we were coming all the way from Canada, after all.
3. Bocas del Toro (3 Nights)
Why: The Bocas del Toro Archipelago (mouth of the bull), consists of six jungle covered islands, dotted with pristine and sparsely populated beaches. The coral reefs and decent waves attract divers and surfers alike. Although this beautiful region is going through quite a change (the world has discovered its beauty, and a number of new hotels and condos are in the works), there is still time to enjoy its laid back Caribbean vibe.
Bocas del Toro was my favourite part of our trip to Panama with kids. We spent our days out on little boating adventures, visiting beaches and sitting on our treehouse balcony watching what was going on within the branches (birds hopping around, monkeys swinging by etc.). It was also the first place that we as a family saw sloths and dolphins in the wild.
Please Note: The magic of Bocas del Toro is found on some of the less populated islands such as Bastimentos and Cristobal (reached by a short panga ride). The main town in Bocas del Toro is noisy and touristy (think backpacker party hub) – probably not where you want to stay.
Family Hotels Bocas del Toro
Staying at La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm was a bucket list splurge for us. I had been dying to visit for years (after having seen it in Travel & Leisure) and had pretty much been counting the days down until my daughter was old enough to visit. (The minimum age at the time was 5 years – it is now 8.)
The lodge has several open-air bungalows (beds are surrounded by mosquito nets) tucked into the jungle as well as a 3-bedroom farmhouse. Activities include a tour of their organic farm, boating adventures to other islands, yoga classes and more. (See full list.)
4. Boquete (1 Night)
Why: Boquete is a small town in the mountain highlands of Panama, in the western-most Chiriquí Province, attractive for its cool climate and incredible natural setting.
An ecotourist’s delight, people come to taste and learn about the delicious shade grown coffee, hike in the cloud forest, and to admire the flora and fauna (some birders are even lucky enough to spot the elusive Quetzal – often considered to be the most beautiful bird in the world).
If you enjoy adventure travel, you can partake in river rafting, zip lining, rock climbing and more. Alternatively, grab a book, a hammock, and enjoy your view of the Baru Volcano.
Note: While we very much enjoyed the day trip we took from Bocas del Toro to Boquete (see Coffee Adventures below), we were not particularly blown away by Boquete. One of the reasons for this could have been that our kids were a little young to enjoy a lot of the adventure tour options in the area. With pre-teens or teens, this could be great. Boquete also has a large American and Canadian expat community. While there is nothing wrong with an expat community, when we travel to somewhere like Panama, we are looking to experience a different culture, not more of the same.
Boquete Family Hotels
We stayed one night in Boquete at Tinamou Cottages. Owners Hans and Terry also run tours in the area through their company Coffee Adventures. They can conveniently combine a day tour and transport to and from Bocas del Toro. This worked well for us as we took their day trip one way, from Bocas del Toro to Boquete, enjoying stops that included making chocolate at a Ngobe Indian farm (flying back out of Boquete to Panama City).
If you are looking for a little more luxury, the Hotel Panamonte is a lovely spot to enjoy some old world charm. While we didn’t stay with them, we did enjoy a beautiful lunch on their veranda.
5. San Blas Islands – Guna Yala (3 nights)
Why: The San Blas Islands are a group of 378 stunning islands in the indigenous Guna Yala province, just east of the Panama Canal. The islands are home to the semi-autonomous and self-governing Guna tribe.
A trip to this area is a fascinating one. You will spend your days visiting nearby deserted islands or paying your respects at a Guna village. You will also be hard pressed to leave without a beautiful mola –the colorful traditional clothing made and sold by the Guna women, which are creatively stitched from multiple layers of cloth.
2021 Update: While updating this post, I came across this very interesting article about the Guna way of life. If you have the time, give it a quick read – Guna Yala: The islands where women make the rules (BBC).
Sailing the San Blas Islands with Kids
After much consideration, we decided that the best way to see the San Blas Islands was to charter a sailboat. We had an amazing time visiting the various islands with a 3-night adventure on a crewed catamaran. We found our boat on Airbnb, cross-referencing it with reviews on Tripadvisor.
Unfortunately, the boat that we sailed with is no longer in the area. For boat booking options, see yacht charter companies and individual boat operator reviews on Tripadvisor.
Family Hotels San Blas Islands
Alternatively, if you would rather have a hotel stay in the San Blas Islands, your best option is probably the Yandup Island Lodge. Please be aware that the words rustic and rudimentary seem to frequently be used when describing accommodations in the San Blas. If you are visiting for the cultural experience, and can completely unplug, then you will be fine.
Actually, I think a photo can show this better. Here is what typical island accommodations looks like, followed by a photo of the bathroom. Are you game for this? I was not…maybe once as a backpacker, but alas, not now.
Panama with Kids – Our Route
After our time in Panama City, we flew to Bocas del Toro. A small boat took us from Bocas Town to our hotel (La Loma) on Isla Bastimentos.
Upon our return to Bocas Town a few days later, we were picked up by Coffee Adventures for a full day, one-way tour to the town of Boquete. After spending one night there, we flew from Boquete back to Panama City for a quick overnight stay.
The following morning we were picked up very early for our transport (via 4×4) to the dock in the Guna Yala to get transported (by motorized canoe) to our catamaran. At the time, there were no regular flights from Panama City to the Guna Yala, but there are now. The flight is the better, more convenient option.
After the Guna Yala, we were able to fly back home to Canada the same day.
Know Before You Go
Is Panama the perfect country that is all butterflies and rainbows? Well, of course not. According to the United Nations, it falls into the developing nation category, alongside Costa Rica and Cuba. Therefore, like in any developing country, one needs to make educated choices.
For instance, please be aware of the safety and security concerns around visiting the Darien province (bordering Colombia) and the historical city of Colon. For current advisories, please see U.S. Dept. of State website.
Also, like most tropical countries, you need to be aware mosquito-borne illness such as Dengue. I like to use the website of the Center for Disease Control for guidance. (Note: There was a Dengue outbreak in Panama City in the weeks leading up to our trip. We were just extra vigilante when it came to protecting ourselves from mosquito bites.)