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The sky is not completely dark at night. Were the sky absolutely dark, one would not be able to see the silhouette of an object against the sky.
Why We Loved El Valle de Anton in Panama
The windy road up to El Valle de Anton gives you a hint of what’s to come: the air cools down as you drive, and you start to pass fancy homes that spill bougainvillea over their gates. This charming town is a haven for hikers as well as a popular getaway from the heat and bustle of Panama City.
It’s also a worthwhile tourist destination. Our family of five planted ourselves on a beach on the Pacific coast as soon as we arrived in Panama, but by noonish we were all pinker than usual and crying out for a break. Bingo: El Valle de Anton, with its perfect weather and plethora of activities.
This town is walkable, eatable, and generally a good time for everybody, even if you don’t hike the lush mountains that surround this volcanic crater. Here were our favorite parts of El Valle de Anton:
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A Stop at the El Valle de Anton Visitor Center
We came for the air conditioning, but stayed for the education. Seriously, make your first stop the visitor center on the main street through town.
A Short Hike
The big deal here is The Sleeping Indian Girl (La India Dormida), a 2.2-mile loop that rewards you with rainforests, petroglyphs, and views.
My kids are notoriously terrible hikers, however, so we opted for the Sendero Natural Arboles Quadrado (the Square Trees Nature Trail).
The good news: this was an easy flat trail that is great for little kids. We spent a long time watching leaf cutter ants and playing in the stream.
The bad news: my kids were less than impressed. “We got scammed. Those trees are not square!”
There are a couple of marked “square” trees along the trail, shaped many years ago by humans but now outgrowing their shape. So, somewhat of a disappointment, but fantastical enough to get the kids on board for the hike.
The Golden Frog (Rana Dorado)
If you get excited about saving near-extinct amphibians, don’t miss the a chance to see the golden frog.
The Panamanian Golden Frog is native to this area, but extinct in the wild. It is alive and well in captivity, mostly in the U.S. and Canada.
This frog is a big deal around here, though, with the valley hosting a Golden Frog Festival every year, so don’t miss a chance to see the rana dorado—in captivity—in its native town.
The EVACC Foundation operates a little conservation center at the entrance to Sendero Natural Arboles Quadrado (the square trees trail) that may have been my kids’ favorite thing in El Valle de Anton. In addition to a golden frog, they had other frogs, as well as a fun gift shop with stickers as well as butterfly nets that we put to good use on the nearby trail.
And just for the giggles, when you get done with your close contact with the frog himself, you can stay in a Golden Frog Inn in El Valle de Anton.
The Zip Line Across a Waterfall
El Chorro del Macho Waterfall is worth the drive to the end of town for the winding trails, the stunning waterfall, and the natural pool for swimming. It’s perfect for the family looking for relief from the heat.
For the braver among us, though, there’s a the zip line. It’s a trek to the top of the zip line. Fortunately, my 6-year-old is tough; my other kids might have given up—but it’s worth it for the chance to zip across the mighty waterfall. They even let you stop between platforms for a once-in-a-lifetime waterfall view and photo op.
The Animals of El Valle de Anton
We don’t get that excited about flora (if we did, we would have stopped at APROVACA Orchid Nursery), but we love us some fauna, so our second stop in town was the mariposario, Butterfly Haven. The butterflies and the informational tour kept our crew occupied for over an hour, which is pretty good for us.
We did not make it to El Serpentario Maravillas Tropicales, the serpentarium, because we ran out of time (and also because we recently watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and I just couldn’t stomach it). However, my husband loves reptiles as much as he loves frogs, and if you feel the same way, head right over.
We also missed El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which has over 55 species of birds…so if you like feathers more than scaly skin or gossamer wings, this one’s for you.
Eating, Drinking, and Shopping
I just assume all families bribe their kids with food to get them to do things. (No? Just me?) That works well in El Valle de Anton: there are restaurants on every corner, from local establishments to those clearly catering to tourists.
We tried both, and essentially drank our way through town—with bebidas, fruit smoothies, not alcohol (although that would have worked for me).
Do not miss the Sunday market, a daily open-air market that is reportedly even busier on Sundays. It’s right on the main street through town, easy to find, and the produce is excellent (owing to the volcanic soil of the valley).
It’s also the perfect place for souvenir shopping, with multiple rows of stalls selling every handicraft imaginable.
Visiting the Panama Canal With Kids
Visiting the Panama Canal was was the number one thing my husband—a man invested both personally and professionally in international shipping—wanted to do in Panama.
So we did, of course, see the Panama Canal, and I was pleasantly surprised how fun it was for the whole family. We went to the Agua Clara Locks and it was a fantastic place to visit with kids. Five stars. Highly recommend.
Facts About the Panama Canal
- Here’s how the canal works: ships enter the canal from the ocean; go through the locks, which help them rise up from sea level to the level of Lake Gatun; cross Lake Gatun; then are lowered down through the locks again to sea level, and exit the canal. (I had to look this up before visiting the Panama Canal…which I am only a little embarrassed to admit.)
- The whole thing takes 8 to 10 hours.
- The French tried to build the canal in the 1800s, but failed.
- The United States then negotiated control of the Canal Zone and construction began in 1904, using workers of many different nationalities. Over 5,000 people died during the construction from accidents and disease.
- The Panama Canal was completed in 1914.
- Panama gained control of the Panama Canal in 1999.
- There are five sets of locks now on the canal. The old sets are the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific Side and the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side. The new, larger locks, completed in 2016, include the Agua Clara Locks on the Atlantic side next to the Gatun Locks, and the Cocoli Locks on the Pacific side—which allow larger ships to go through where smaller ships use the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks.
Is the Panama Canal Worth Visiting?
The canal? Meh. The Agua Clara Visitor Center? Absolutely.
Is it fun to watch water in the locks rise and drop at a glacially slow rate? Only if you enjoy seeing paint dry.
However, the sheer size of the ships and the number of them parked outside the locks (visible from the Agua Clara Visitor Center during the shipping backup of 2022) was impressive, and the history of the canal is fascinating.
The visitors centers do a good job of using signage and exhibits to explain the history of, conflict surrounding, and engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal. From an educational standpoint, the canal is a must-see.
Both the Miraflores and Agua Clara Locks have viewing areas as well as museums, although those have been closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Miraflores Locks has an IMAX theater, although also closed in recent years.
If you just don’t have time to make it to the actual canal, the Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo would be another option for this education.
Where Can you See the Panama Canal?
The primary places to visit the Panama Canal are the Miraflores Visitor Center (adjacent to Panama City) or the Agua Clara Visitor Center outside Colón City.
The Miraflores Locks are historic and easily accessed from Panama City. The visitor center has multiple viewing platforms as well as a museum and IMAX theater.
We chose to visit the newer Agua Clara Visitor Center. The Agua Clara Locks were completed in 2016, designed to accommodate the larger Neopanamax ships, and Visitor Center is impressive. It features panoramic views of the canal, a museum, a really lovely gift shop, a playground, and picnic tables.
Both visitors centers offer tours, but you can also roam around alone if you prefer.
If you want to actually be ON the Panama Canal, you can take day tours on boats traversing the canal. You can even take fishing tours on the canal, which is just the type of crazy “I did it so I could say I did it” thing my husband would adore.
What About the Panama Canal with Kids?
My advice: make a trip out to the Agua Clara Visitor Center.
Kids are low on patience, and the Panama Canal is all about patience: it takes the average ship 8-10 hours to cross the canal. These are not fast-moving boats.
Fortunately, Panama is a kid-friendly country and they have you covered. The Agua Clara locks has a PLAYGROUND. Plus picnic tables and plenty of room to run.
The Agua Clara Locks visitor center was designed to be a true destination. They have giant signs leading there from Colón, making it easy to find. And although Colón itself isn’t much of a tourist town, a detour to the Agua Clara Locks while driving from Panama City over to the Caribbean Coast is worth it.
We stopped here on our way to Portobelo, where we wanted to see historic ruins and go snorkeling on Caribbean islands. It worked out well, except for the sea urchin stings—but that’s a story for another day.
When Should you Visit the Panama Canal?
This one is important. TIME YOUR VISIT CAREFULLY.
Ships only pass through the locks in the morning and the afternoon. We arrived at 3 p.m. and managed to see the tail end of a ship leaving the locks.
The times change, so it’s worth checking with the visitor center daily for the exact times.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit the Panama Canal?
$10 USD in 2022.
Well worth it, in my opinion.
Things to Do in Casco Viejo, Panama with Kids
Casco Viejo, the “old quarter” of Panama City, is ritzy. Filled with boutique hotels, fancy restaurants, government buildings, nightlife, and museums, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on everybody’s top 10 things to do in Panama list.
However, “ritzy” and “my kids” don’t usually go well together, so making a visit to Casco Viejo work for everyone took a little effort. It was well worth it.
These were my favorite things to do in Casco Viejo, Panama with kids.
Eat Pancakes at Cafe Coca Cola
Hear me out. Cafe Coca Cola dates back to 1875, with preserved charm and a lunch counter that makes it well worth a visit for anyone. Revolutionaries such as Che Guevara ate there, along with a host of other famous characters from history, from kings and presidents to athletes and poets.
It also turned out to be one of the least expensive places we ate in Casco Viejo. Rice, beans, and meat are plentiful here, and my kids loved the pancakes; in retrospect we wished we’d eaten here every day!
Cafe Coca Cola is located in front of Santa Ana Park, at the intersection of Central Avenue and Calle 12 Oeste.
Take a Million Photos of the Architecture
Casco Viejo may echo New Orleans for you, and there’s a reason for that: the buildings here are a blend of Spanish colonial and French architecture, because the French workers who made the first attempt at the Panama Canal lived here in the 19th century.
Cobblestone streets with flowers draped over wrought-iron balconies may not matter to your kids, but if you give them a camera they too will become enamored with the shadows, light, and color here.
Hang Out at the Plazas
Casco Viejo features four main plazas: Plaza de Independencia, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza Herrera, and Plaza de Francia. Featuring monuments, shade trees, and benches and surrounded by stunning buildings, these make an excellent stop for a rest, especially with an ice cream in hand.
The plazas also feature open-air dining from nearby restaurants and come alive at night. A Saturday night at Plaza Herrera was a party, with live music, and families and couples roaming the streets.
Although we try not to be out at night in foreign places with the kids for safety’s sake, Casco Viejo, filled with expensive restaurants and government buildings, also featured a heavy police presence and always felt very safe.
Absorb Some History
In the 17th century, the old town of Panama was destroyed, and the city was relocated to this area. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama dates back to 1796 and is a must-see. The Arco Chato, another landmark, is is the remainder of the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo after a fire destroyed the rest in 1756.
The landmarks in Casco Viejo are well-marked with informational signs, so you can easily keep yourself busy on a self-guided walking tour.
The Panama Canal Museum and the Museo de la Historia de Panama are easy to find, featured right there at Plaza de Independencia, and if you’re kids are into history well worth a visit.
We had just visited the Panama Canal and our kids figured they knew everything already, so we skipped this one, but especially if you don’t make it to the canal, make sure to hit the museum.
Go Souvenir Shopping on Paseo Las Bovedas
Ah, what is a trip with kids without souvenir shopping? Casco Viejo features lots of upscale boutiques, including art galleries and whole shops dedicated entirely to Panama hats, of course.
For more fun and less expense, head to the Paseo Las Bovedas, a promenade that swings around the Plaza de Francia. It features excellent views of the Panama City Skyline and the monument to the French canal workers. Along the way, you may find buskers, but also Kuna Yala women selling traditional handicrafts; consider doing your souvenir shopping here.
Visit the Fish Market
My fish-obsessed family ran out of time to visit Mercado de Mariscos, but don’t let that happen to you, because I think a visit to a good fish market is a cultural experience everybody ought to have. If you are staying in an Airbnb in Casco Viejo (which I highly recommend by the way—it worked well for us) and have a kitchen, you could even cook it up!
Rumor has it there are plenty of people selling excellent ceviche here, too.
Explore the Amador Causeway and the Biomuseo
While not technically in Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway is right next door and an easy ride away. A long (and hot) strip of land, it has plenty of amusements available—it’s a great place to ride bikes, shop, and eat (we had ridiculous but enjoyable pirate-themed lunch at Restaurante Bucaneros).
My main destination on the causeway was the Biomuseo, a Frank Gehry-designed museum dedicated to the natural history of Panama. This is a partnership with the Smithsonian, and it did not disappoint.
Panama is an isthmus and the land-bridge between North and South America, making it one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The Biomuseo features excellent exhibits dedicated to the past, present and future of life in Panama, including an exhibit at the end on the people of Panama which was fascinating.
Don’t miss it.
Let’s All Tiny Travel
“Small travel” became a thing last year, as we all got itchy feet but were still anxious about it. The New York Times defined it as “staying close to home, but feeling like you are far away.” Which I find amusing, because parents have always traveled small: we limit road trips to the length of nap time, or choose lodging based on crib availability.
I think it’s time to move on to tiny travel.
If small travel takes you on a relaxing vacation fifteen minutes from your house, tiny travel means you never leave your neighborhood. Or house. Or couch.
We travel because we need a change, a new perspective, or to see the world. Let’s try doing this on a tiny scale.
Tiny travel is underrated and perfect for parents. It’s safe during a pandemic. You don’t even have to pack a diaper bag. Plus, it’s climate-friendly!
Tiny travel is new to me. I am not good at it. I am practicing, and I’m going to keep practicing, because it’s cheap. Just like small, or cross-country, or international, or whatever other kinds of travel you are planning, it has unique benefits. So pack a bag (or don’t), and find your favorite type of tiny travel.
Backyard Tiny Travel
Have you ever noticed: the species of birds that sing in the morning? The shape of the blades of grass in your yard? The variation in the rocks around?
Toddlers notice these things. They are our guides, usually, when we have time to listen to them. I took my kids many miles from home to show them natural wonders, which may have been a waste of time and money when we had them right there at home.
Have you ever considered: building a fairy garden in a secret space in your backyard? Camping out under the stars, when a bathroom is just inside? Making s’mores: on a fire pit, new or old, or a grill, or even just your stove?
Kids love these things. Maybe we could learn a thing or two if we make the time and space for them.
Meditative Tiny Travel
Our subconscious may be the greatest adventure of all. I am a great believer in the power of meditation to improve general well-being, but it can also take you on a wild ride. There are many paths to enlightenment: dip your toes in mindfulness, read some Deepak Chopra, or even go full Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” (spoiler alert: psychedelics).
Get comfortable. Close your eyes. Get quiet. See where it takes you.
Armchair Tiny Travel
If you don’t mind more screen time, the internet allows you pretend you are anywhere in the world. Visit museums with Google Arts and Culture. Relax on a beach by ogling other people’s beach photos (works best while sitting in bright sunlight, or at least next to a heater). Or plan future itineraries for your family in Costa Rica, Norway, or even just Utah (it does have five national parks!).
Neighborhood Tiny Travel
New people? Probably, if you just pay attention. New sights? I bet you never noticed that crack in the sidewalk. New foods? I guess it depends what your neighborhood looks like, but you can always try a foreign recipe.
Try intentionally seeking out a hidden green space, for example, or an unfamiliar shop or restaurant. See what you can discover, in your tiny corner of the world, and know that everything you need is right there.
20 Things to Do With Kids in Phoenix
Sun, swimming pools, and grandparents are pretty much all we need for a great vacation, so we love Arizona. Occasionally, we need to get out of grandpa’s pool, however, so here are some of our favorite things — dare I say, the 20 best things? — to do with kids in Phoenix when you need to get out of the house.
Take Them Out to the Ballgame
Even if you aren’t as fanatical about baseball as we are, the Cactus League may still tickle your fancy. Spring training for many major league teams takes place in Phoenix, which means you can catch a bunch of games at lower prices and with better weather than during the regular season.
Alternatively, the Diamondbacks call Phoenix home, so during the regular season you can catch a game at Chase Field. If you’re into fancy baseball stadiums (and we are), this one features air conditioning and a swimming pool!
This famous Phoenix steakhouse features great views, an expansive menu (including rattlesnake), and the kids will get a kick out of the slide into the dining room. Rustler’s Rooste deserves a spot on your restaurant itinerary.
LEGOLAND Discovery Center
My kids absolutely LOVE LEGO, so they were thrilled to visit the LEGOLAND Discovery Center Arizona. Our final assessment was that it is a cousin to the bigger LEGOLAND, and our favorite, LEGO House. It’s also probably best for the younger set, but still a fun way to kill a few hot hours in air conditioning.
SEA LIFE Arizona
If you’re at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center anyway, be sure to buy the combo ticket to the adjacent SEA LIFE Aquarium. My husband is a total aquarium snob, and even he was impressed by the walk-through tunnel which allows a 360-degree view of the sea creatures.
For more activities than you could possibly accomplish in one day, check out the Arizona Boardwalk. This large “entertainment hub” has enough restaurants and shops to keep you air conditioned for weeks, plus seven big indoor attractions:
- OdySea Aquarium — billed as the largest aquarium in the Southwest.
- Butterfly Wonderland — a butterfly atrium.
- The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! — a chance to learn some science with Ripley’s unbelievable collections.
- Laser and Mirror Maze — good for getting the wiggles out of older kids.
- Surprise Your Eyes — filled with “Instagrammable” illusions.
- Pangea — the home of 50+ life size animatronic dinosaurs and perfect for all budding paleontologists.
- VR Extreme — all virtual reality, all the time, and a way to get those gamers to agree to leave the house.
Enchanted Island Amusement Park
Inside Phoenix’s public Encanto Park is the charming (and free to enter) Enchanted Island Amusement Park. Sure, you’ll pay for rides, food, and a splash zone pass, but there are pedal boats, climbing walls, a train, and lots of rides. Probably best for the younger set.
Six Flags Hurricane Harbor Phoenix
The only thing better than a swimming pool is LOTS of pools. Preferably with water slides. Six Flags Hurricane Harbor (formerly Wet n’ Wild) has all this AND a bag of chips. For a serious water park, head here.
Children’s Museum of Phoenix
We love ourselves a good children’s museum…and this one’s no exception. In addition to indoor play, during the winter it has an outdoor space with a children’s garden, sand pit, mud kitchen, and play equipment.
Golfland Sunsplash has pretty much everything my boys love: a water park, mini golf, plus a castle full of video games, and laser tag. What’s not to love?
Castles N’ Coasters
This place features the roller coasters you’ve been looking for…plus mini golf and an arcade. For your little thrill seekers, Castles N’ Coasters will hit the spot.
The unique i.d.e.a. Museum is designed for the whole family. An educational hands-on art experience, this place is perfect for your little artist.
Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeology Park
For some stunning history, visit this ancient village site of Pueblo Grande. There’s an outdoor interpretive trail here as well as museum galleries. Tiny tots may not love this, but the rest of your crew will.
Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve
Petroglyphs are one of those things we love to see in the Southwest, because there aren’t a lot of them near our home. Deer Valley Petroglyph Reserve at Arizona State University is worth a visit for sure. For a nominal fee, you can explore a quarter-mile trail in this 47-acre nature preserve and view over 1,500 prehistoric petroglyphs.
Desert Botanical Garden
For some desert botany, head to the Desert Botanical Garden. There are some seriously impressive trails here (and all the cacti you would expect), but also a lovely butterfly pavilion.
Musical Instrument Museum
If you are a music fan, the Musical Instrument Museum will be right up your alley. Would I trust my kids for one second here? Absolutely not. However, they do have an Experience Area where you can try out instruments, which kids will love.
Pioneer Living History Museum
We are total suckers for living history museums, so Arizona’s Pioneer Living History Museum caught my eye right away.
Hall of Flame Fire Museum
If you have any budding firefighters, the Hall of Flame, which is devoted to all things firefighting, will excite them. There are a lot of collections here, so make sure you are REALLY in to fire before heading over!
Experience the Old West at Goldfield Ghost Town
We got a serious kick out of experiencing the Old West at Goldfield Ghost Town. Turns out you could spend a whole day here! I never even made it to the actual mine tour. We were so busy between the shooting gallery, the photo studio, and the gem store. You’ll also find a train, a zip line, and a reptile exhibit. Gold panning and gem sluicing are always my boys’ favorites, and those are here, too.
Hike South Mountain Park and Preserve
South Mountain Park is impressive, a 16,000-acre public park in Phoenix that encompasses three mountain ranges. We wanted to take the boys on a (very brief) desert hike to hunt lizards and see cacti without driving too far, and South Mountain delivered. Dobbins Lookout is the highest point in the park that you can reach by car, and the views there are impressive. Even if you don’t hike, this place is worth a visit.
Take a Day Trip to a National Park
Saguaro National Park is only a couple hours south of Phoenix, if you’re into stunning cactus-against-the-sunset photos.
Petrified Forest National Park is a little farther at 3.5 hours, making it a little long for a day trip, but worth it for strange and beautiful landscape.
Grand Canyon — the granddaddy of them all — is too far for a day trip from Phoenix, but a doable add-on to your trip. Personally, I have a rule about not taking my kids to the Grand Canyon until they are old enough to reliably not bolt for the edge, but if you want to live on the edge (no pun intended) more power to you.,
The sky is not completely dark at night. Were the sky absolutely dark, one would not be able to see the silhouette of an object against the sky.
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