Probably there is no other country in the world where you can wake up to the sunrise in Atlantic Ocean and watch the sunset at Pacific Ocean on the same day, other than Panama. Visiting Panama City with kids deserves a spot in your bucket list. Read below to know why.
Mid October is known to be a rainy season in Panama. But, that didn’t stop us from packing our bags to travel with our 5 year old boy for a fun packed trip. It was my son’s 9th country to visit in his 5 years of life and his 5th birthday week. All the more reasons to be out and about exploring the world. If there is one birthday gift I want to give my son, that would be travel experiences and the life lesson to never stop exploring.
When we were in Panama, I almost felt like I was traveling in one of the off beaten path destinations. Catering to the current needs of responsible and meaningful tourism in the world, I prefer traveling to under the radar countries or visiting the popular destinations at off-season. Beautiful though Costa Rica and Belize are, they don’t compare to my memories of the abundant warmth of people in underrated destinations like Panama and Bhutan. Not to undermine the beauty of Costa Rica and Belize, other countries in the continent such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama deserve a spot at the table.
What more ? Panama is probably one of the safest countries to visit in Central America.
Panama City with Kids !
Wandering in Historic downtown: Casco Viejo, Panama City with Kids
Even if you spend just a day in Panama City in Panama, spend an evening at Casco Viejo. The airbnb we stayed at was one block from the President palace, the white house of Panama. How cool is that ? Where else will you be able to stay that close to the President for a $100 a night ?!
The historic downtown is filled with landmarks such as churches and museums that are in walking distance. Other highlights are the cozy coffee shops, ice cream shops and restaurants. Within 5 to 10mins of walk around independence plaza, you will get an immersion of city vibe.
Panama city has seen worse days, but now everyone in the historic downtown caters to tourists and making their vacations memorable. I am not sure if we would have been able to say that just a handful years ago. I have navigated through some sketchy parts in Honduras, Guatemala city and Bogota, Columbia. Compared to all of that, Panama City felt like a breeze on the safety aspect.
Watch the Panama Canal Gate Opening:
Each ship pays a $1M USD to cross through Panama Canal as an entrance fee. We wanted to witness that Millon dollar event. You can view them from the park systems set up by the local authorities for a small fee. These viewing areas are well equipped with cold water fountains, clean bathroom, shade structures. October was still hot and humid !!!
Boat Ride at Gatun Lake
Gatun Lake is a man made lake that connects Pacific and Atlantic through a series of locks making up the Panama Canal.
You can take a boat ride at the lake and ride right next to huge container ships. Ships hang out at the Gatun lake waiting for their turn to cross through the locks from one ocean to another. Pretty cool to witness. The lake offers a lot of wild life viewing opportunities too. We got to see a lot of monkeys (aka Monkey island tours), sloths, crocodile, turtle and tons of birds. My little was in ninth cloud.
Monkey Island Tour, Panama City with Kids
As I mentioned in the Gatun Lake section, Monkey Island tour is one of the most popular activities to do in the lake and the tours leave from Panama City everyday. There are plenty of tour companies from Panama city and most of them tend to be expensive. Upwards of $100 to $150 per person. If you want to traverse the lake I recommend you go with a reputed tour companies. There are crocs in the lake, like the one we saw. I wouldn’t compromise on the safety.
You can’t really get off the boat to go into these Islands. The boats pull over to the shores of the Islands in Gatun lake where the monkeys live. And the monkeys will hop on the boat and pose for a pic. My 5 year old loved the experience to say the least. I was thrilled to show him where the wild animal live in their natural habitat as opposed to visiting them only at the local zoos.
Cinta Costera Walk / Bike
I highly recommend spending an evening walking around or biking the Cinta Costera loop. It’s approximately a 5km pathway and you will share the road with cars. But there is a sidewalk for runners/walkers/bikers. You will get an amazing view of Panama city from a walk way that goes through Pacific ocean. It’s a neat experience.
If you go there in the evening, in some sections of Cinta Costera, you will see the local life come alive. Fish market, local farmers market and road side shops, etc., We were probably the only tourists there on a very lively Friday evening. One interesting thing was we almost blended in like locals there. Apparently the textile industry is dominated by Indians and Panamanians are used to Indians living among them.
We struck up a conversation with a family, while chilling on the walls of Cinta Costera overlooking Pacific Ocean. It was a family of 4 or 5 kids. I couldn’t fully understand all the relationships of the kids / adults in that group. Nevertheless, a big and friendly family to hang out with as the kids played with Siddharth, chasing the sea birds. It is always touching when complete strangers embrace us as their brothers and sisters and share words of love, gestures and food. And that evening was nothing short of feeling at home with this family in a new city.
Amador, Panama City with Kids
Amador area is Panama city is a just a short Uber drive from the city. It’s packed with fun activities for families.
- Bike rentals for kids / families to bike along Amador
- Restaurants with view, coffee shops / Ice cream shops
- Walkway along the ocean
- Boat rides to near by islands (This is from where we took the ferry to go to Taboga island)
- BioMuseum (closed on Mondays)
- Smithsonian Museum (Closed on Mondays)
This is more of an afternoon to evening type of location. The area is dead in the mornings. Most museums close by 4PM so plan accordingly.
Hindu Temple in Panama City
After learning about the Indian influence in Panama, it was hard to resist visiting a temple. There are 4 Hindu religious establishments including ISKON in Panama City.
We just went to one of them at the top of a hill overlooking Panama City. The temple is well maintained and view from the temple was well worth the Uber ride. The priest and his family live at a house that is attached to the temple. (There is free wifi to call Uber). The priest and his family spoke Hindi and Spanish (neither of which i can speak 🙁 )and little English.
Looked like they have regular events at the temple. The day we visited the temple, there was a big meal prep happening with a lot of veggies.
We spent three full days in Panama city and did all the above mentioned activities. It wasn’t too hectic and still had time to take afternoon naps (especially for families with small kids). I felt it was a good balance of activities to keep the kids engaged. Mine didn’t complain much except for occasional, “my leg hurts, i can’t walk” business. I figured that’s his way of saying “I am bored.”
How to travel within Panama City, Panama ?
The best way to travel within Panama City is to take Uber. It’s economical and reliable. Most restaurants, major public places such as ferry terminals have free wifi. It’s easy enough to call Uber from most of the places.
You can rent a car too if needed. People do rent cars and do day trips from Panama city to beaches. We chose not to do that. Forget about car seats if you are traveling with a small kids. It’s hard to get one and you just have to adjust to the style of not having a car seat for kids.
How do you pay for travel in Panama ?
Panama only prints coins, not paper money. US Dollar is used as the paper money in Panama. Makes it easy to travel from USA. Most places also accept credit card. I barely used cash except for Uber. I could have easily used credit card for Uber too. Since I had cash at hand and lot of Panamanian coins I just wanted to use them up.
In the old town there are banks and ATMs. But they all seemed to have a long line.
Where to stay in Panama City with kids ?
Panama City is fairly safe and you can pick a well rated hotel room or an airbnb and be rest assured it’s going to be fine. We chose to stay at Airbnb because it’s easy to cook our own meal. We stayed at two different Airbnbs in Panama City. The first three days of the trip was a historic downtown and loved the experience there. I highly recommend staying here as opposed to other parts of the city especially if you are not renting your own car.
How did we manage food in Panama as a vegetarian ?
Just like most central American countries, Panama also consumes a lot of meat. That’s not to say you won’t find vegetarian food options. Almost all restaurants at the old city would have a vegetarian option. But, we generally don’t eat out much except for one or two meals to experience the local food. Here are our reasons:
- We don’t have to plan our activities around lunch and dinner times
- We are budget conscious
- My little one is a picky eater
General routine is to make some food at home at airbnb and pack it with us. Rice and vegetables or pasta. Something simple and fresh fruits from local market works well. Plus visiting local grocery stores in a part of experiencing the local culture too.
One of my favorite ways carry food on trips like this is to use the thermos. This particular thermos works great and keeps the food hot for 6-8 hours easily. We carry 3 of these with us for lunch, one adult size lunch fits in well in a 24 oz thermos.
Another travel friendly item I carry with me everywhere I go is this rice cooker. I make oats and rice in this cooker and works really well. All these fit really well in travel backpack too.
How to pack for Panama ?
We are minimal packers when it comes international travel. I imagine a worse case scenario at the airport after we pick up the luggage at the destination.
Imagine with me…the kid is cranky or sleeping. One adult has to carry the kid either on the shoulder or hip. That puts the luggage responsibility on the other adult. The person carrying the luggage can only carry a maximum of 3 items. Backpack, front pack and one hand to hold passport and one hand to hold another luggage…….and you have to walk far within the terminal. Doesn’t sound fun.
So, we packed two small day packs and one big backpack for all three of us.
Since we stay at airbnbs there is usually laundry access. We packed 4 days worth of clothes for a 9-day vacation. And washed clothes at airbnbs.
Are you convinced to visit Panama city ? Would you consider Panama City instead of a Hawaii trip for your next vacation (stay tuned for Panama beach blog post) ? Leave your thoughts in the comment section. I would love to hear from you.
Also check out the Caribbean beach experience in Panama at Bocas Del Toro.