When it comes to family travel, Panama is an extra-easy sell. Once you tell your kids about a tropical place where pirates once roamed, and sloths and monkeys hang from rainforest branches, they’ll be practically dragging you onto the airplane. Though it may be small, Panama is hugely fascinating, and the time to go is now.
The Gamboa Rainforest Resort, located less than an hour from Panama City, is the sort of eco-exciting place kids will never want to leave. Tour Gamboa’s on-site sloth sanctuary to meet the slow-moving residents who have been rescued and are being rehabilitated. Then, take the aerial tram up, up, up through the dense forest canopy to the 98-foot-tall observatory tower, where you’ll have a knockout panoramic view of Soberanía National Park, the mighty Chagres River and the nearby Gatun Lake and Panama Canal. You can also grab a flashlight and hop aboard Gamboa Resort’s Sunset Boat Tour or Night Safari Boat Ride where you’ll search for crocodiles, caimans and other nocturnal creatures.
Since it’s such a narrow isthmus, you can dip a toe into both the Caribbean and the Pacific in one Panamanian day. You might even want to embark on a family cruise! UnCruise Adventures’ Safari Voyager offers nature-loving itineraries that explore Panama’s rich wildlife, coral reefs, mangroves and islands. Traveling on the small ship (maximum 62 passengers) allows you to reach far-flung locations—including the Pearl Islands, Guna Yala Islands, and Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge—that are otherwise difficult to access. Kids age eight and over are welcome (ask about their triple accommodation cabins and special kids’ rates), and multi-generational trips allow everyone to enjoy snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and stand-up paddle-boarding together. Keep an eye out for toucans, scarlet macaws, sloths and howler monkeys along the way.
Pirates have wreaked havoc in Panama since Sir Francis Drake came marauding in 1573, and Henry Morgan plundered and destroyed Panama City in 1671. The old city of Portobelo, now a UNESCO World Heritage site in the province of Colón, was once a major point of departure for gold carried overland from Peru on its way to Spain. That also made the port town an extremely tempting target for pirates. If you visit today, you can marvel at crumbling 17th and 18th-century stone fortifications and rusty canons still aimed out to sea. It’s a little spooky and overgrown, making it easy to imagine the ghosts of buccaneers who once sailed these waters.
Courtesy of Emberá Village Tours
Traveling to a remote region to visit one or more of Panama’s seven indigenous cultures offers families a truly valuable cultural exchange. Along with UnCruise Adventures, a variety of companies—including Gamboa Tours, EcoCircuitos Panama, and Emberá Village Tours—offer excursions to communities such as an Emberá village in the Darien Jungle. After a warm greeting, you’ll have a chance to meet a range of locals, from children to elders, peruse some of their handicrafts, and be adorned with a temporary body painting before enjoying a ceremonial dance performance.
Courtesy of the Westin Playa Bonita
For a luxurious combination of family fun and sophisticated amenities, the Westin Playa Bonita is the place where you’ll want to settle in and spoil yourselves for a while. Located just 20 minutes outside of Panama City, staying at the Pacific coast resort makes you feel like you’re relaxing on a private island. Request one of their cool, spacious rooms or suites with sweeping sea views, and you’ll have hours of entertainment watching a variety of watercraft—from hulking container ships to sleek cruise liners—lining up as they wait to enter the canal. True to its name, the Westin Playa Bonita also boasts a long swath of golden, sandy beach, plus a series of palm-shaded swimming pools, a playground, Kids’ Club, six different dining options, and a sumptuous spa for weary adventurers.
By Laura Beausire