Family Vacations to Panama City, Panama

Family Overview - Panama City
Watch the ships pass by the small, lush islands of the Panama Canal. (Corbis)

Panama City Highlights

Geographically diverse, Panama offers rainforests, mountains, beaches, and beautiful coastline on the Caribbean and the Pacific, and more bird species than in the United States and Canada combined. Culturally rich, Panama is home to seven indigenous Amerindian tribes including the Embera and the Wounaan of the Darien jungle, and the Kuna who live along Panama's eastern Caribbean coast and in the San Blas Islands just off shore.

Most first-time visitors confine their stay to Panama City and the surrounding area, visiting the nearby Miraflores Lock of the Panama Canal. Exhibits at the Visitors Center detail the canal's history and construction. Standing on the observation platform, watching the big ships move through, is the real highlight. Cruise passengers should take a shore tour on the historic wood-paneled train owned by the Panama Canal Railway Company. En route to Panama City, the train parallels the canal. From the windows, view the canal's small islands and ships in the distance. Once in Panama City a bus takes cruisers to the Miraflores Lock.

Kids will love the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo, not far from the Miraflores Lock. Along with open spaces for romping, the expansive park and gardens feature tapirs, caiman, monkeys, macaws, and other critters indigenous to Central America. The star attraction and the national bird of Panama, harpy eagles rate as the world's largest birds of prey.

The Amador Causeway, a former dock that now exists as a tree-lined stretch of road jutting into the Pacific, connecting four islands, is another popular spot in Panama City. Stroll or bicycle the Causeway, home to cafes, shops, restaurants, and abundant nightlife. Rent surreys, two sets of bikes connected by planks and topped with a shade awning. Look one way and admire the city's skyline, and then turn your head to see the cargo, container, freighters, and other ships lined up to pass through the canal.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Culebra Point is also on the Causeway. The small facility is worth a stop, especially if you have young kids. A giant reproduction of a shark jaw frames the entrance and a colorful mural details the region's fish. Outside, walk through the sliver of tropical dry forest the facility has managed to preserve. Along the trail look for sloths, iguanas, and other critters. A major museum of biodiversity is scheduled to be built along the Causeway soon.

Another city oasis, the Parque Natural Metropolitano features 573 acres, of which 75 percent is tropical dry forest. Miles of trails wind through the park with trees more than 100 feet high. Pick up a trail guide from the visitors center.

For more of the rainforest, visit (or stay) at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, about 30 minutes from Panama City. The property's aerial tram lifts riders 77 feet into the rainforest canopy. Sometimes you hear the guttural cries of the howler monkeys behind the constant chorus of twittering birds and the crescendo of the cicadas. A five-minute walk leads to a 90-foot tower. From the top, impressive views reveal the canal's Gaillard Cut and the big ships passing through.

Tip: The Mercado Artesanal Internacional Antiguo Y.M.C.A de Balboa (Balboa Artisans Market), located in the former American Canal Zone, has an interesting array of woven baskets, molas (an appliqué panel crafted by the Kuna), carved birds, and other crafts.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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