PANAMA HAS PLENTY TO OFFER FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES.
We live in Panama with a child; therefore, I often get questions from readers coming to visit Panama on vacation, and even expats living in Panama about what to do with their kids on vacation. Here are my suggestions for both the younger set and teens; some great ideas for adults as well.
DON YOUR PIRATE HATS AND SET OFF ON A MEMORABLE FAMILY VACATION
Panama offers a new world and a wealth of natural, fun, experiences -- and what an education for both the kids and the adults (but don't tell them that part). From the engineering man-made wonder of the Panama Canal to an abundance of nature's treasures. Many destinations are within a couple of hours from the bustling capital city, so there is no shortage of excursions and activities. Panama was key in the history and development of Latin America and took center stage as the location for numerous pirate vs. conquistador battles, as well as the land route for transfer of Spanish treasure from the Pacific coast bound for Spain.
FAMILY ACTIVITIES IN AND AROUND THE CITY
WALK CASCO VIEJO: The most historic neighborhood in Panama City, many elegant buildings are now being restored. It is a World Heritage site. Around and within the old Union Club in Casco Viejo, check out where the latest James Bond movie (Quantum of Solace) was filmed, showing in theaters November 2008. After touring, savor some delicious ice cream from the French owned and run GrandClement ice cream shop. Not in the mood for ice cream, try a traditional Panamanian Raspado near the boardwalk (grated ice with flavorings). Or taste both! Note: The wonderful museum in Casco Viejo is very nice for the adults but not too interesting for most children.
PANAMA VIEJO: Visit the site of the first Panama City, its interesting ruins and museum -- and go souvenir shopping at their Artisans handicraft market. A World Heritage Site.
SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE MARINE EXHIBITIONS CENTER (Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas): On Isla Naos, connected to Panama City by the Amador Causeway. The center has a museum with marine exhibits, two aquariums, and a nature trail through a small forest harboring sloths and iguanas. Open Tuesday to Friday 1 pm to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 5 pm. Nearby is the future site of the long awaited Museum of Biodiversity (2010).
RENT BIKES ON AMADOR CAUSEWAY: While you are out by Amador Causeway, enjoy bike riding with your family. Rentals available from several locations where you can rent all types of cycles, from basic 5 speed bikes to lowriders to bicycles for 2 or 3, to pedal driven carts with a roof. From $2 per hour.
PARQUE OMAR: Once a private golf course, now the city's largest park. Walk or jog around the some 5 km of paths shaded by large tropical trees. Parque Omar also has a simple gym, playground, tennis court, swimming pool, basketball court, soccer field, baseball field, outdoor halls, and a library. Various sports clubs meet there offering American Football and soccer, plus it offers a number of public events during the year. Located on Via Porras near the city center in San Fransisco.
NOTE: Most city neighborhood parks have playgrounds.
PARQUE METROPOLITANO: A 655-acre wilderness park within the limits of Panama City. Offering trails, more than 250 species of birds and 40 types of mammals, it is also the site of a tropical research center. The visitors' center is open 8 am to 4 pm daily.
ANCON HILL: The hill is a steep 654-foot hike, but the reward is spectacular Panama City views; it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the area with its giant Panamanian flag flying atop. When Henry Morgan sacked Panama City, his scouts used Ancon Hill to spy on the Spaniards. It was under U.S. jurisdiction as part of the Panama Canal Zone for much of the 20th Century, and was never developed like most of the city. It is possible to see sloths, coatimundi, armadillos, Geoffroy's Tamarins or deer on Ancon Hill which is now protected. It takes about 45 minutes, by foot, to reach the top from the parking area in Quarry Heights. Along the path you can see numerous species of vegetation and birds, including large number of orchids.
BOWLING: Enjoy bowling with a view at Sky Bowling, serving food and drinks by Bennigans on Avenida Balboa (in the Extreme Planet Building) or Bowling at Allbrook Mall.
EXPLORA PANAMA: A fun, science related, hands on, indoor learning experience for kids. http://www.explorapanama.org/ Tel: 230-3066 Area: Condado del Rey.
SHOPPING: An all time favorite, while MultiPlaza is a fabulous Mall with numerous high end and mid range shops you can also check out the more economical Allbrook Mall.
MOVIES: Although Hollywood movies offered in Panama arrive a bit later than North America, it is a fun and inexpensive way to spend the evening. Price for a child and one adult is about $6 (not including the popcorn which will put you back the same or more). Many places offer kids animated movies in English only once a day if at all, so ask beforehand. There are plenty of cinemas in Panama, check the papers or ask at your hotel. Our favorite in the city is Extreme Planet, there are also cinemas at all the malls.
FRUIT AND VEGETABLE MARKETS: Check out tropical varieties of fruit and vegetables. Delicious and very economical. The market on the way to Casco Viejo is new. Located a couple of buildings from the fish market on Avenida Balboa. There is another older, large wholesale market but it is located in a rough area so we cannot recommend it for visitors.
LEARN SPANISH: Short-term, half days, and intensive Spanish-language courses are offered by a number of Spanish language schools in Panama City and also several locations in rural areas. Homestay programs are also available.
FAMILY ACTIVITIES OUTSIDE THE CITY
THE PANAMA CANAL: and its Museum at Miraflores Locks. The Museum is quite child friendly and the big ships are impressive to watch as they travel through the locks. About a 30 minute taxi ride from downtown Panama City.
TRAIN RIDE ALONG THE CANAL TO THE COLON: (www.panarail.com) Prearrange a bus or Taxi to take you back by road or first on a tour to historic Portobelo Town on the Caribbean.
BOAT TRIP ON THE PANAMA CANAL: Take a day trip on the Panama Canal by boat.
TABOGA ISLAND: take the scenic ferry ride along the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal from Amador to Taboga (under 1 hour) for a few days to relax; spend the days at the beach and overnight at B&B Cerrito Tropical (oceanview beside the rainforest) -- other activities that can be organized at Cerrito include fishing with a local from Taboga (reserve excursions in advance please), take a boat ride around the island to see the Brown Pelican Reserve, go snorkeling on a wreck, hand painted manicure and pedicure designs, hiking on trails that pirates and conquistadors used, practice Spanish with a tutor (advance notice required) and swimming at Playa Honda (which has very little current and nice for building sandcastles and beachcombing).
MONKEY ISLAND AT GAMBOA RAINFOREST: spend a couple of hours in a boat around protected islands beside the Panama Canal teeming with wildlife and monkeys that come to the boat for snacks.
RAINFOREST EXPERIENCE: The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center
SUMMIT BOTANICAL GARDENS AND ZOO: About 20 minutes from Panama City, six miles (10 km) past the Miraflores Locks. The gardens contain 15,000 plant species and nature trails. The zoo's main attraction is the compound housing Panama's national bird, the Harpy Eagle (endangered). Hours are 8 am to 4 pm on week days and 8 am to 6 pm on weekends.
PARQUE AQUATICO, AVALON RESORT: Water Park, 30-40 minutes from Panama City on the way to Colon in Las Cumbres. Open 2 days a week Saturday and Sunday only. $8.50 pp. (507) 268-4499
PARQUE SOBERANIA: This large park borders the Panama Canal and has several hiking trails through the rainforest, including the 11-mile Camino del Oleoducto (Pipeline Road), which attracts bird-watchers from around the world.
ISLA BARRO COLORADO: Barro Colorado Island in the middle of Gatun Lake was formed when areas were flooded during the building of the Panama Canal. The island is home to numerous plants and animals and is used as an outdoor laboratory by Smithsonian tropical research scientists. Barro Colorado can be visited on small-group tours given by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Tel: 507-227-6021/6022 in Panama City for information.
CANOPY RIDE AND HORSEBACK RIDES IN EL VALLE: The mountain town just 77 miles (124 km) from Panama City El Valle is famous for its Sunday market, gardens, nature walks, and pre-Columbian petroglyphs. The Canopy Ride takes adventurers on an exciting experience through the rainforest canopy. The Canopy Adventure is in El Valle near Chorro el Macho, a 195-foot-high (60 m) waterfall.
Horseback riding can be found on the town streets, just ask when you arrive for directions. El Valle also has a small zoo and botanical garden with an amazing bird collection. Near the zoo there is a small family run serpentarium.
ISLA GRANDE EXCURSION: Located on the Caribbean Coast, 1-2 nights is perfect. Try Bananas Resort for a family get away. They offer a bus service from the city as well. We recommend that you take the bus because the drive is difficult on bad roads.
PORTOBELO: An interesting historical day trip from Panama City to the Caribbean coast. Visit the market that was center of trade in the America's has been restored and there is a small museum. There is also a visitor's center in the town and a small artisan market.The Portobelo church has the black Christ statue. Lots of ruins and cannons and a beautiful harbor. You can rent pangas from there to take you out to private beaches and there are also, a couple of nearby dive places. A very, very quiet town.
FORT SAN LORENZO: Visit this historic fort on the Caribbbean side.
SAN BLAS ISLANDS: Kuna indigenous people experience; 1-2 nights recommended. Archipelago of about 350 islands off Panama's Caribbean coast. The San Blas Islands are home to the Kuna Indians, a unique indigenous people who retain many of their ancient traditions. The islands can be reached on a short airplane ride from Panama City.
EMBERA INDIGENOUS PEOPLE: Visit the Embera peoples' village for the day. Boat ride up the river, swimming at a waterfall, hand painted tattoos (temporary), visit their village and learn about their traditions.
ISLA COIBA: Take a trip to Isla Coiba, one of Panama's best underwater areas for diving or snorkeling, spot sharks, turtles, rays, numerous species of beautiful tropical fish. It is quite far from Panama City so allow several days for the excursion. Isla Coiba was once the site for a large prison and there is simple accommodation available, as well on the coast in the nearby towns you can find several offerings.
VOLCAN AND BOQUETE: Mountainous areas offering a complete range of options such as touring a coffee plantation or hiking in the mountains or river rafting on the Chiriqui River.
WILDLIFE RESCUE CENTER PARADISE GARDENS BOQUETE: Enclosures for birds and animals set in 4 acres of beautiful landscaped gardens. Visitors have the opportunity to interact with some animals, especially monkeys. They also have kinkajous, several big cats, lots of parrots etc. etc. They concentrate on rehabilitation of animals with a view to returning them to the wild. Open every day except Monday from 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is by a donation of $5 per adult. Children, no charge but they must be accompanied by an adult. Tel: 6615 6618, email [email protected]
SURFING: El Palmar in San Carlos (rentals available as well as lessons from a couple of locations): El Palmar Surf and NomadsurferS.
FISHING: Panama offers some of the best deep sea fishing in the world. A number of deep sea fishing companies offer tours out of the city plus there are several others along the Pacific Coast. If you don't want to spend a lot, buy inexpensive rods at Do It Center or Abernathy (there are other locations in Panama City that also sell gear) and head out to Amador Causeway where there is a public fishing pier. Or head for Taboga Island and fish off the pier or beach. There are also several small operators offering fresh water fishing in Lake Gatun, near Gamboa.
PACIFIC BEACHES: Dozens of idyllic white sand beaches line the Pacific Coast. Be very careful when swimming. There are very few lifeguards in Panama and currents can be strong, on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides. The drop offs on the Pacific side can be quite steep.
OTHER ACTIVITIES: Panama has 1800 miles (2850 km) of Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, there are numerous outdoor activities possible. Panama offers thousands of islands and coral reefs and 12 national parks. Many activities can be done independently, contacting a local guide or tour operator may make arrangements simpler. But some guides and operators will not work with businesses who will not pay them commission.
Suggestions for additional activities include: Swimming, Snorkeling, Scuba Diving, Surfing and Windsurfing, Hiking, Horseback Riding, Sea Kayaking, Bird Watching, River Rafting, Cycling, Deep-Sea Fishing, Golf.
HOLIDAYS AND EVENTS
Carnival: The biggest event of the year in Panama is Carnival, celebrated during the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Music, costumes, dancing, and a large parade in Panama City all form part of the festivities. Many visitors escape the craziness and head for the interior or Taboga Island. All main villages and towns have their own celebrations but much more subdued than the city.
Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week): An important time for religious processions and events. Taboga Island has its own walking processions and event at the second oldest church in the western hemisphere.
Black Christ Ceremony: On October 21, thousands of religious pilgrims descend upon Portobelo for the Black Christ ceremony.
Boquete Fair: There is a 10-day flower and coffee fair (Feria de las Flores y del Cafe) in Boquete every January.
November Holidays: November is a month full of National Independence Holidays and parades, if you are traveling during November be sure to check your dates and what holiday is happening.
December: The month of December often has a Santa Claus parade for the kids which is quite nice, and many large companies put up gorgeous lighted displays for the holidays. Malls will often have a Santa as well as special events. December 8th is Mother's Day in Panama, restaurants can be very busy. Christmas is a family time in Panama , traditional turkey can be found in major hotel restaurants and a few independent restaurants. New Years Eve offers numerous events which change annually. On Taboga there are family groups and couples coming to the island to enjoy the holidays at the beach on a toned down scale. There are some fireworks and fisherman set off noisy "tuna bombs" to scare away the evil spirits.
Jewish Holidays: Although Panama is mainly a Christian country there are many Jewish Panamanians who own businesses. Jewish holidays are celebrated and on the major holidays some businesses and offices may be closed.
GETTING AROUND: Panama has good roads and a well-developed intercity/regional bus system. However, Panama City's public transportation is poor and often unsafe. We cannot recommend it for visitors traveling to Panama City. Taxis are inexpensive and the best way to get around town, for under $5 you can get almost anywhere in the city and outskirts. Ask your concierge how much should you pay and they will give you an idea. All the major rental car agencies operate in Panama City. There are a number of small airlines offering numerous flights to outlying areas from Allbrook Airport.
WEATHER: Located only nine degrees north of the equator, Panama has a tropical climate with a green and a dry season. The tourist season is year-round. The dry season, from December through April -- the most comfortable time to visit, is the busiest. Panamanian school children have their summer holidays during those months. The green season is also nice and the temperature can be cooler because of the cloud cover, expect some afternoon rain and humidity during the green season. The islands offshore experience a slightly different climate. For example, Taboga Island, where we receive less rain than the mainland during every season and often have cooling sea breezes.
Temperatures in Panama City rarely go below 75 F (25 C) and highs can exceed 90 F (32 C). Mountain towns such as El Valle and Boquete are considerably cooler than lowland areas. Panama's Caribbean coast receives much more rain than its Pacific side. Panama lies below the main path of hurricanes.
HEALTH AND SAFETY: Panama is a relatively healthy and safe country for travelers. However, malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis A, rabies, and yellow fever do present some risk for visitors. Discuss vaccinations with your doctor before leaving home. Tap water is potable in Panama City. Drink bottled water outside the capital. If you or the kids get sick during your stay, don't hesitate to go to one of the major clinics. Medical services are very reasonable here and excellent. The pharmacies will also be quite helpful and a number of medications are available for sale over the counter. Bring any medicines you or your kids are accustomed to, because some familiar brands cannot be found here.
Panama has created a special tourism police force to help protect visitors. Rural areas are generally safe, but there are several areas within Panama City which you should be cautious of: robberies have occurred in the Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo areas of Panama City. The entire Chorrillo area of Panama City should be completely avoided. The port city of Colon (1 hour from Panama City on the Caribbean coast) is dangerous for tourists (except for the Zona Libre).
TIP: Look for a taxi driver who is recommended by your hotel or someone you know, ask him what he will charge by the hour and have him stay with you for the day (about $10 per hour). It can be well worth it, especially if you are in Casco Viejo where there are few taxis to be found.
Use common sense and do not travel or walk alone wearing a lot of jewelery, large expensive bags, obvious cameras and electronics (cell phone and Ipods). When in public areas keep purses on your knee or over your shoulder. Jeans and pants with pockets are the favorite street wear in Panama.
PACK YOUR DAY BAG: travel everyday with sunscreen, mosquito spray, hats, packable rainjacket and bottled water. If you will be spending a lot of time in the water at beaches, pack a small bottle of vinegar; it is often helpful with jellyfish stings. Even in the smallest Chinese minimarket you can find snacks, but maybe add some granola bars to your day bag so you are not dependent on street food.
KEEPING KIDS ENTERTAINED: Things in Panama tend to move slower so include something to do for today's kids who are used to being entertained all the time -- it really depends on the age but a general list for ages 5 and up could start with: inexpensive digital camera, binoculars, sketch pad or journal with colored pencils, deck of cards, Spanish beginners dictionary and so on.
My son's teacher in Japan once asked him to write a story about Panama and keep a journal. Contact your children's teachers before you leave to find out if there is anything they will be studying that would have a connection with your destination, for example: rainforest, biodiversity, animals, climate, oceans, indigenous people, Caribbean slave history, Spanish history, pirates and so on.
NOTE ON TRAVEL WITH STROLLERS: City sidewalks are not well maintained and mostly have no stroller/handicapped, so travel with the most portable stroller you have or opt for a baby carrier.
NOTE ON TRAVEL WITH BABYSITTERS: Panamanians love kids and most hotels can arrange to have one of their staff to babysit, and some exclusive hotels have Nannies.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me at [email protected]