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Why Your Next Family Vacation Should Be Panama City (Yes, Really!)

This gem of Central America boasts gorgeous beaches, tons of history and epic eats.


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All photos courtesy of staff unless otherwise noted.
 

If you hear Panama, your mind probably jumps to the famed Panama Canal, but this country has a lot more going on than you'd initially think. Panama connects North and South America, and thanks to the Canal, it also connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

This makes Panama a major hub: The world’s goods pass through the Canal’s locks around the clock 365 days a year, travelers from nearby Latin countries flock to the area to vacation and live and tourism has seen an impressive rise in recent years. Residents are eagerly awaiting Pope Francis’ arrival to celebrate World Youth Day later this week when people around the world will turn their attention to Panama, and learn about the nation’s unique culture, history and traditions.

Panama as a whole is a prime spot for snorkeling, beaching, surfing and rafting, as well as other outdoor activities like zip lining, hiking and camping. Its wildlife is truly unique (think monkeys, sloths and TONS of butterflies!) thanks to surrounding rainforests. Panama City, the nation’s capital, boasts all the mod, cosmopolitan perks of a bustling city—top-tier dining, casinos, clubs and luxury shopping—while maintaining aspects of its rich heritage and colonial past—Spanish architecture, indigenous handicrafts, stunning old churches and historical monuments. So really, whether you want a relaxing beach vacation, a historic trek or some gorgeous Instagram pics, Panama has all your bases covered.

If you’re concerned about safety, don’t sweat it: Tour guides know which areas to stick to and which to avoid, so it’s well worth it to schedule rides (we suggest Gamboa Tours) to and from the city, rainforest and other sightseeing spots. They’re also all locals, so they know shortcuts, history and more to make the most of every tour. Just make sure to request a bilingual guide.

BASICS

  • Direct flights from Newark Airport are about 5 ½ hours long.

  • The tropical rainforest climate makes the weather warm year round, but wet from May through November (go during the dry season from December to April).  

  • The dollar is widely accepted in Panama, and equal in value to the national currency, the Balboa.

  • While it certainly helps if you speak Spanish, you can get by without it. Many people speak English, and a lot of signage is also in English.

WHAT TO DO WITH KIDS

If the kids are itching for some fun in the sun, hit one of the beaches at Isla Grande (secluded white sand havens) or Bocas del Toro (snorkeling here is a must). If wildlife is more their thing, a truck safari to Portobelo and Half Moon Valley for a tour of plants and animals, or hop a boat ride on Gatun Lake, where you can fish and snap pics of the Gamboa Rainforest. Teach them about the indigenous Embera people on a canoe ride down the Chagres River on their way to the Embera village, where they’ll see musical performances, stunning handicrafts and a traditional fresh lunch. Rainy weather putting a damper on your plans? Get a ride to Albrook Mall, a buzzing shopping area stocked with luxury brands and kid-friendly sites. Other potential additions to your itinerary include The Museum of Biodiversity (all about Panama’s ecosystems), The Amador Causeway (family bike rides near the water!), Metropolitan National Park (a tropical oasis near the Canal) and Punta Culebra Nature Center (run by the Smithsonian Institute).

Here are three of our musts:

Visit the Panama Canal

Miraflores Visitor Center, Panama City
+507-276-8325
$12/children, $20/adults

Head to the Miraflores Visitor Center located at the Miraflores locks, one of the four canal passages that ships travel through, to learn the history of the canal (which was completed in 1914), get a breakdown of its daily function and effect on the Panamanian people and maybe even see a ship pass from the Atlantic side to the Pacific. After snapping pics at the observation deck, head inside to tour exhibits on the Canal’s biodiversity, construction, operations and global significance (there’s even a mock control room for the kids to take on!). See a film in the onsite movie theater, or grab a bite at Atlantic & Pacific Co., a hub for neo-Panamanian cuisine complete with a view of the locks.

Explore the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve

Corregimiento de Cristobal, Colon, IA 5
+507-314-5000
Price varies by activity

See sloths, butterflies, monkeys, leaf cutter ants and more in the protected Gamboa from a gondola 600 meters above the rainforest floor. The aerial tram tour takes adventurers through the canopy up to an easy walking trail, which guests follow to the 100-foot-tall observation tower that boasts views of the Chagres River, Panama Canal and nearby indigenous villages. Other options include a tour of the Embera community’s village on the banks of the Chagres, where you can meet with the indigenous Embera and Wounaan people, tour the trails where their ancestors wandered and learn firsthand about their lifestyle and culture. You can also take the waters of Gatun Lake for an expedition covering the hidden islands surrounding the Canal (keep an eye out for capuchin, howler and white-face monkeys!). But no trip with kids to Gamboa is complete without stopping at the sloth sanctuary, where you can see orphaned sloths sleeping, snuggling and munching away on their fave snacks. If you want to experience all the options, stay at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

*Note: Sunscreen is a no brainer, but bug spray is super important. Many hotels provide bug repellant wipes, but bringing your own and applying before you go out—especially in the rainforest—is a must if you want to avoid catching mosquito-borne diseases.

Tour Casco Viejo

Panama City

This stunning neighborhood is alive with authentic cuisine, restored old churches, local artisans and unbelievable views. In 1671, Pirate Henry Morgan visited and promptly destroyed Panama Viejo (meaning Old Panama). Residents migrated to The Old Quarter, now Casco Viejo, and walled the city against similar threats that may come in the future. The site was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1997, so it’ll be safe from pirates for good now (our tour guide also told us Casco Viejo is the safest place to be in Panama City). Here, you’ll find 16th-century Spanish colonial buildings side-by-side with modern, upscale bars and cafes. Visit one of many churches that date back centuries (don’t miss the Golden Altar at the Church of San Jose, which according to legend was painted black in order to keep pirates from destroying it), many of which that have extensive and ornate nativity scenes. Shop indigenous-made goods along the water while indulging in a raspado, a sno-cone like treat made of shaved ice, fruit syrup and condensed milk. Shop national staples like Panama hats and coffee from local street vendors before grabbing a bite to eat.

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurante Karimar

Playa Venado, Veracruz
+507-250-6272

This is no-frills Panamanian cuisine with an epic beach view. Fresh ceviche, camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp, pictured) and crispy fried whole sea bass are famous here, but barbecue grilled chicken, pepper sauce beef steak and mix platters of beef, pork and chorizo also won’t disappoint. Order your entree with a side of patacones (fried green plantains, also known as tostones elsewhere in Central and Latin America). Wash it down with a light Panamanian beer, or get a splash of local produce in a maracuyá (passionfruit) smoothie. Kid-friendly fare includes deditos de pollo (chicken fingers), breaded shrimp, fries, coconut rice and house lemonade (frozen or over ice, also available in mango and strawberry).

OCHOYMEDIO

Calle Jose de la Obaldia, entre calles 8-9, Casco Viejo
+507-209-4185

This spot oozes with tropical decor and Panamanian hospitality. Ask for a table on the open-air patio complete with twinkle lights and palm trees. The menu is full of classic dishes with inspired additions and twists (The Ceviche del Dia is an absolute must, chock-full of fresh seafood, lychee, pineapple, jalapeños and coconut milk, as are the carimañolas de yuca, which are soft, lightly fried yuca croquettes served with house aioli). Don’t skip over the cocktail menu, either: The drinks are outstanding and feature ingredients like local mango, fresh ginger, house cinnamon syrup and pisco, a type of brandy popular in Chile and Peru. And absolutely leave room for dessert: The sweet potato cheesecake with toasted marshmallows (pictured) is sure to please. Kid-friendly options include tacos, parmesan mashed potatoes, the house hamburger and fries and coconut ice cream.

Courtesy of Westin Playa Bonita
 

CasaCasco

Calle 10 y Avenida A #8-15, Casco Viejo
+507-6288-9024

If you get to squeeze in a date night, this is the spot to be. This trendy hub in Plaza Herrera of Casco Viejo boasts five floors with three restaurants, a club and a rooftop bar that has breathtaking views of the Pacific and Casco Viejo alike (pictured). Here you can indulge in fusion cuisine with a Panamanian touch at Marula, an extensive sushi menu at Nación Sushi and wild, exotic flavors at Mano de Tigre. Don't miss the elevator ride to the terraza for a perfectly mixed mojito on the roof overlooking the city.

WHERE TO STAY

Courtesy of Westin Playa Bonita
 

Westin Playa Bonita

Km. 6 Camino a Veracruz, Panama City
+507-304-6600
Rooms start at $299/night, max. 6 people/room

This tropical retreat boasts multiple infinity pools (including kiddie pools and swim-up bars!), views of the Pacific Ocean and nearby rainforests, a secluded beach and beyond-gorgeous accommodations. A half-hour from the Canal, it’s a breeze to get both adventure and some major R&R. There’s also a Westin Family Kids’ Club on site complete with a beachfront view (ages 4-12, 9 am-8:30 pm). There, the kids can play with toys and games, build sandcastles, craft or hit the outdoor playground. If you have younger kids, arrange for a babysitter with the resort. Hotel activities for little ones include greenhouse tours, dance lessons, movie nights and Spanish lessons. There are also cooking lessons, mini discos, pajama parties, kiddie spa outings and bingo. Check the hotel's calendar when you arrive.

COURTESY OF WESTIN PLAYA BONITA

While they’re occupied, make an appointment at the Sensory Spa by Clarins for a rejuvenating body exfoliation, massage, facial treatment or dip in one of the recovery pools.  On-site dining includes Starfish Grill, where the kids can scour a breakfast buffet including fresh fruit juices and native pastries, plus American faves like waffles and omelets; and Tierra y Fuego, where the highlight is next-level meats (go for the chimichurri hanger steak with fries) and cocktails with local flavor (the Piña Panamá has fresh pineapple juice and Seco Herrerano, a Panamanian spirit distilled from sugar cane). But if you’re worried about your picky eater, ask your server for the standard kid’s menu available at all on-site restos (think spaghetti, chicken fingers, pizza and the like).

 

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