Planning a family vacation can be an exercise in negotiation and patience, especially when your family is made up of six vocal, strong-willed individuals. Our Panama vacation, however, magically checked all our boxes.
Relaxing beach vacation? Check. History lesson vacation? Check. Cultural adventure vacation? Check. Wildlife vacation? Check. Dangerous adventure that involved sea urchins? Check, check, check!
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Hiking, Wildlife, and Nature Exploration in Panama
As part of the land bridge connecting North and South America, Panama is one of the most biodiverse nations in the world. You could spend months here exploring the flora and fauna of land and sea.
We didn’t have that kind of time, but on our Panama vacation we did make sure to see the leaf cutter ants, butterflies, square trees, waterfalls, and golden frogs of El Valle de Anton (we gave the serpentarium a pass, which didn’t hurt my feelings at all, but it’s there for you if you like slithery things).
For exploration nearer Panama City, head to Soberania National Park, which encompasses both dry rainforest and the Chagres River.
There’s plenty of hiking in Panama; the cooler weather of El Valle de Anton is excellent for hikers, as is Boquete further north.
Even Panama City is into biodiversity. Don’t miss the Biomuseo, which gave us a glimpse into the natural life—animal, plant, and human—of Panama.
A Cultural Education in Panama
Casco Antiguo, also referred to as Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama, was on my must-see list when we planned our vacation to Panama. I love a good beach vacation, but I wanted my to kids to experience a different culture, too.
Casco Viejo is a history-rich UNESCO World Heritage Site, with dazzling churches, statues, and museums around every corner. It’s also a trendy, happening district with shops, restaurants, and Saturday night bands in the plazas.
Panama City is one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in Central America. It has a rich culture complicated by the various ethnic groups that have settled here through the years. Casco Viejo’s beautiful cobblestone streets with flower-laden balconies are remnants from the era of Spanish explorers and, later, French canal workers. To simply walk the streets here often felt like enough.
In just a couple of days we were able to see museums, peek in churches, seek out local food, eat at Cafe Coca-Cola (in operation for over a century!), and dance to an evening band in a plaza.
If you’re going to Panama, make sure to leave yourself at least a couple of days in Panama City.
A Relaxing Tropical Vacation in Panama
While my husband always wants our trips to be educational (and my kids just want to eat ice cream in the sun), my dream vacation is to lie perfectly still with a book, by a pool.
This dream rarely comes true, but my youngest child can now swim, so this was my year.
I love Panama so much because it checked all the boxes on my list, but also because at the end I planned a two-night stay at a beach resort. It was amazing.
Like any tropical country, Panama has beach resorts all over the country ready to cater to you; if you want to stay closer to the airport in Panama City before you fly out (which we did), consider Dreams Playa Bonita or Westin Playa Bonita Panama, which are both just outside Panama City.
History and Pirates in Panama
My history-obsessed kid is partial to wars, weapons, and conflicts of all kinds. This made Panama an easy sell. He thrilled at the promise of pirate ruins, found around Portobelo on the Caribbean coast as well as in Panama City; he even got excited about the Panama Canal when he found out that thousands of workers died from injuries and tropical disease while building it (we are hoping this is a phase…).
The obvious place to start for history buffs is the Panama Canal, completed in 1914. Make sure to visit either the Miraflores Visitor Center, Agua Clara Visitor Center, or the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum in Casco Viejo, Panama City (we favor the Agua Clara Locks if you have kids).
After the canal, head back in time by checking out centuries-old ruins.
Panama City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you know it’s worth a visit. Originally founded in 1519 by a Spanish conquistador (it is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas), you can still visit the archeological remains of the city, called the Archeological Site of Panama Viejo.
Pirates are fun, and here’s a fun fact: Sir (Captain!) Henry Morgan attacked Panama City in 1671, devastating the city, which was subsequently moved a few kilometers southeast—this area is now known as Casco Antiguo, the Historic District, or Casco Viejo.
We missed the ruins at the Archeological Site of Panama Viejo, so we made sure to check out the battery and fort at Portobelo on the Caribbean coast, instead.
Christopher Columbus stopped in (and reportedly named) Portobelo in the 16th century, and from then on Portobelo was an important port for Spanish Conquistadors, who shipped their plundered gold and silver from here back to Spain. This port of plundered booty required fortifications for protection, and many were built through the 17th and 18th centuries.
The San Lorenzo Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; overlooking the Chagres River and the Caribbean, it is the fort that has been kept in best repair since the 18th century. We stopped at the Santiago Battery, just outside Portobelo, which dates back to 1753 and was also a worthy stop, with battlements and cannons looking out over the Caribbean Sea.
A last note on pirates: if you’re really looking to get your “Arrrgggh, matey!” on, or you just love eye patches and plunder, consider eating at Restaurante Bucaneros in Panama City on the Amador Causeway. The food was decent and the decor was to die for…nudge, nudge.
Snorkeling and Other Dangerous Aquatic Adventures on a Panama Vacation
The best part of traveling is suffering on the trip then coming home with fantastic stories, and my 9-year-old gave his left toe for this one.
With miles and miles of coastline along both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Panama is perfect for those of us that love hot weather, beaches, marine life, snorkeling, and diving.
It does pay to do a little research before you go, which we (in usual style) neglected. We therefore ended up on the Pacific Coast, during a terrible time of year for snorkeling on the Pacific Coast, with a kid dying to snorkel. So we headed to the Caribbean. Specifically to Portobelo, a well-known diving town.
In one day, we dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean, drove and drove and drove, stopped at the Agua Clara Locks in time to watch the last ship of the day drift out to sea, sat in some one-lane traffic, stopped at the Santiago Battery to pretend fire cannons and dip our toes in the Caribbean Sea (The Pacific and the Caribbean! Both in the same day! Only one member of my family was excessively excited about this and you’ll have to guess who it was).
The next day, we headed out to snorkel. Unfortunately, it was not one of those picture-perfect days, where we head out on a diving boat and blissfully admire schools of rainbow fish while the divers among us splash about.
Instead, it was a gray and windy day. We headed out on a small boat to Isla Mamey, a local island and national park, ringed with palm trees but also with an oddly ominous skull mown into the grass. My kids all had snorkels and flippers, but one kid did not wear his flippers.
We were there all of fifteen minutes before I heard screaming, ran to the water, and carried out a child with sea urchin spines in his foot. My Spanish was insufficient for the matter at hand, but at least I know how to yell ayudarme, por favor—and anyway, the language of distressed mothers is universal.
The child in question survived to tell the tale (and we all learned that vinegar is the right thing to pour on sea urchin stings) but it might be a while before he snorkels again.
That said…if you like crazy marine life like sea urchins, Panama’s got you covered—along with gorgeous scenery, hikes, animals, history, culture, food, beaches, and the Canal.