Imagine a man-made wonder of the world, a rainforest and a charming historic district that’s perfect for exploring with kids. Panama City offers all of these things, and more! Recently named one of the best international destinations for families, we had a chance to explore the city (and country) to bring you a perfect itinerary that’ll keep you and your crew happy and engaged. From seeing the Panama Canal to feeding monkeys in the rainforest, keep reading to find out what you should do with kids in Panama City.
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Day One: Explore Casco Viejo
Panama City’s Casco Viejo District (an official UNESCO World Heritage Site) was founded in 1673. It's the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific side of the Americas, and history seeps from every cobblestone. Stroll among four plazas, ancient churches, charming alleyways and waterfront markets, all while admiring the French, Spanish and Italian architectural influences. Find the Presidential Palace, and learn the history of the country, and afterward, stop for a bite at Diablicos, where you'll find authentic Panamanian cuisine and cultural entertainment. After dinner, be sure to look for a shaved ice cart along the street for a sweet treat or stop in at Tropical Chocolate Cafe, where you'll find kid-friendly activities and a great patio for relaxing.
Day Two: Discover Monkey Island and Lake Gatun
Lake Gatun—a man-made lake made by the damming of the Chagres River—is actually part of the Panama Canal. Catch a boat ride (a best-bet option is to have PBA Holding Group to set up your tour for a stress-free experience) at the Chagres river dock and head for Monkey Island, part of the rainforest region of Gamboa (the township where Lake Gatun is located) where you’ll find the three species of monkey that call Panama home, as well as sloths and toucans and maybe even a crocodile or two. You’ll also see large cargo ships, cruise ships, sailboats, and any other seafaring crafts hoping to gain passage through the 50 miles that make up the canal. It'll take you almost an hour to get to Gamboa, so it's a good idea to keep this as your only sightseeing activity for the day.
Day Three and Four: Enjoy the Calzada de Amador
This causeway connects the three Amador Islands, and is flanked by a four-mile bike and walking path. There are many different things to see and do here, so plan on spending at a day or two here. First, head for the Bio Museum, one of Panama City’s most popular destinations for families. Designed by the iconic Frank Gehry, it’s a crowd-pleasing spot inside and out. The museum is filled with exhibits on the wildlife, flora and fauna and cultural history of Panama. There are eight galleries, three of which are new this year: Oceans Divided, a 10-meter high aquarium that will show how the evolution of the Pacific and the Caribbean, The Living Web, which demonstrates how living things compete with each other; it features sculptures of plants, animals, insects and microorganisms, and Panama is the Museum—made up of panels and displays that showcase relations between Panama’s biodiversity and the rest of the world.
To learn even more about Panama’s unique ecological diversity, head for the Punta Culebra Nature Center. Funded by the Smithsonian, this hands-on center offers a mix of open-air museum exhibits, an aquarium space with touching pools, walking trails and even prime Panama Canal viewing. When you’re ready to see more of the causeway, rent a bike or a four-wheeled cart to pedal up and down the boardwalk, from where you’ll be treated to fantastic views of the Panama City skyline, considered the best in Central America, and be sure to stop and play at one of the several playgrounds when your kids need to blow off some steam.
Day Five: Experience the Panama Canal
It's easy to spend several hours learning about the history and engineering behind one of the man-made wonders of the world—the Panama Canal. You can book a tour bus or even Uber to the Miraflores Visitor Center—it's about 20 minutes outside of city limits. Well worth the trek, you’ll find an entire building dedicated to sharing the facts and fun of what might be one of the world’s most famous waterways. Before you head up to the viewing deck (ships come through every hour or so), buy a ticket for the 3D IMAX show about the canal. Narrated by none other than Morgan Freeman, the 45-minute show is both informative and visually stunning. After the film, opt to explore the three-floor museum that’s filled with hands-on exhibits perfect for kids (don't miss the top floor "driving" exhibit, where kids can steer a ship through the canal via a time-lapse video) or to have lunch at Atlantic & Pacific Co, which has some of the best views of the canal in the entire visitor center.
Where to Stay
For proximity to the airport and fantastic views, we recommend The Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort. Ideally located 10 minutes from the Panama City airport, the luxury hotel has a variety of room options, including singles and suites. There are three restaurants, one of which is a pool-side spot that does a paella night on occasion. The 40-meter long pool is stunning, and there's a one-foot deep pool just for kids. With a lifeguard on duty every day from 9-5 p.m., you can explore the city and come back for naps and swimming before ending the day with live music (Thurs.-Sat. 7-9). Staying through Sunday? If so, you'll be able to enjoy Bike Day, where from 7-11 a.m., the Santa Maria complex shuts down the road lanes, so pedestrians and bikers can enjoy the area without cars.
If you'd rather be closer to the heart of the city, the American Trade Hotel is located in Casco Viejo and offers prime access to the historic district. Contemporary interior design mixed with classic colonial architecture, it has a pool, live music, has green space, is near family-friendly public spaces and has suites that are perfect for families.
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Note: This trip was paid for by The Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort and PBA Holding Group, but all opinions here belong to the writer.