Panama - Family Travel

Old Jan 4th, 2005, 11:54 AM
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TT
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Panama - Family Travel

My wife and I are interested in making a trip to Panama with our college age son and daugher and our 10-year old son. We're looking for a low-key educational, cultural-enriching type of vacation - more into outdoor, nature experiences than nightlife or nightclub scene. Would like to spend a couple days to see some of Panama City and the canal, but then spend some days at a beach with good snorkeling and some days doing some hiking in the rain forest. Unfortunately, we have to go in early August when schedules permit.

Any general recommendations for a family of 5 - lodging or transportation-wise or "best places" to visit? It's usually more economical to rent our own vehicle rather than pay transport fares times 5, but am not sure that'd be the wisest thing here. Lodging is also sometimes problematic with 5 which is why we don't generally go the All Inclusive route.

Am going through all the posts, but don't see much pertaining to the conduciveness for family travel in Panama - things seem to be more bent toward the adult couple. So, am beginning to wonder it we'd regret choosing this as one of our "major" family trips.

Have always found the Fodors forum community a great source of help and insight. Any thoughts/responses are welcome.

Thanks
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Old Jan 4th, 2005, 12:25 PM
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Panama is a gorgeous country with great outdoor opportunities as well as interesting cultural and historical sites. I don't think you would regret a trip there. I recommend Country Inn and Suites for a stay in Panama City. It is located on the Amador Causeway. Reasonably priced and the Canal view suites are excellent. Have dinner at Miraflores Locks. For outdoor adventuring head to Canopy Tower and arrange a day hike with the Smithsonian. I love El Valle for a couple of days or Boquete. Driving in Panama can be a little crazy, but many tourists do it. In the alternative you can easily hire a driver.
There are several experts who regularly check this forum who will be able to make some good suggestions to make this a memorable trip. Be patient, they check in regularly.
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Old Jan 4th, 2005, 07:27 PM
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Panama has tons in the way of cultural sites... Panama La Vieja and Casco Antiguo in Panama City, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Canal and the Canal Museum, Indigenous cultures such as the Kuna in Kuna Yala (San Blas) and the Embera Dura in the Chagres National Park...
Spanish ruins in Portobelo... another UNESCO site...
Isla Grande - Bananas Resort - may be an option - reasonable beach and good snorkling in the area - plus other beaches accessible by boat...

Hike the Pipeline road out of Gamboa - site of Audubon Society world records for their Christmas Day bird counts...

There's other trails in Soberania National Park as well... There was group of tourists held up a couple of weeks ago on the Camino de Cruces trail but I would think the police are extra vigilant now...

August is in the middle of the "Green" or rainy season - this means a few showers - heavy ones but short ones... most days - it'a a good time to visit...

Car rental is easy - a bit crazy in town but just drive defensively agressive - out of town is easy - try not to drive at night - vehicles without lights and animals are not uncommon...

You are welcome to email me with dates and interests and I can give you some specifics...

Cheers,
Andrew
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Old Jan 6th, 2005, 11:39 AM
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Hi TT!

I think Panama could be one of your BEST options for a family trip. Panama is a very safe country and besides it has a lot to offer within short distances (rainforest, beaches, indigenous cultures, etc). I would personally recommend you to hire a english speaking driver/tour guide, will save you the hassle of driving in Panama, plus you can enjoy the scenery without getting lost, you might not find that many signs on the streets, although roads are in pretty good conditions.
I will divide you the country in the following areas:
1-Panama City: Is a must, as AndrewGW said you have historic sites to visit, as Old Panama City, Casco Viejo, the Panama Canal, this is a really nice, and remember to go to the Causeway (my favorite spot in the city).
2-Rainforest: Really close from Panama City, 45 mins approx. this area surrounds the Panama Canal in which you will find 6 National Parks, ideal for hiking, birdwatching, rapelling, etc.
You can not miss a visit to an indigenous Embera tribe at the Chagres River (this is one of my favorites trips)
3-Pacific Beaches: within 1 hour from Panama City, you will find a couple of all inclusive resorts.
4-San Blas: Visit the Kuna Indians and enjoy these exotic islands, your kids will never forget these Islands.
5-Chiriqui: Boquete is a nice town to visit, it has the Baru Volcano, not active, and the only one in the country. Cooler weather and ideal for rafting and canopy.
6-Bocas del Toro: Very caribbean with afroantillean influence, Bocas is not a beach place is more and arcipelago where you will enjoy nature tours thru the archipelago.
5-Las Perlas Archipelago on the pacific, nice and quiter islands, you will find a high end boutique resort at Isla San Jose, and your other option would be at Contadora Island with a few places to stay, amazing scenery.
Hope this helps, and let me know if I can help you with anything else,
Regards, Jianella
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Old Jan 6th, 2005, 12:16 PM
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Jianella is correct.
The trips to the Darien and San Blas Islands are really unforgettable.
M
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Old Jan 15th, 2005, 04:25 PM
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Hi--
My family and my sister's family just returned from 2 weeks in Panama. We had three kids (18, 19 and 21) and we all had a blast.

Our first week we spend near Panama City at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. This resort is in an absolutely beautiful setting with a pool that is hard to beat for its size and setting (right in the middle of the rainforest and right on the canal where you can watch the huge vessels come through). There are lots of activities right there at the resort, renting boats to go to Monkey Island, taking a canopy tram ride or hiking the numerous trails around the resort. The only drawback to this resort is that it's a 30-45 drive to Panama City, but we simply hired guides for the day and did day trips from the resort: ferry ride to Taboga Island for the day for a beach experience; Panama City plus canal tour for the day ending with dinner in town that night; a day trip to El Valle on Sunday for their market (Sundays only)then the zip-line canopy tour (which is really more of a trill ride than canopy tour, but unforgetable nevertheless); and one of the hightlights from our stay that week was a tour of Barro Bolorado Island (run by the Smithsonian and you need to make reservations well in advance as they limit the number of visitors to 30/day). From the Gamboa resort it was an hour's boat right through the canal to the island, then 3 hours hiking through the jungle with a guide (our kids spotted everything there was to see that our old eyes had a hard time finding, including a very close encounter with a huge furry tarrantula that has been memorialized in my son's video (by the way, we put him in charge of video taping the whole tour, while we took photos, and he loved it and even made all of us a really neat DVD of the vacation!)--all that and it was only our first week there.

The next most amazing experience was our trip to the San Blas Islands. This is a must do. Pristine tropical Caribbean setting, thatched-roofed rustic cabins, shorkeling, touring the Indian villages, touring the edge of the Darian jungle and just chilling in a hammock at water's edge under the palm trees (I wish we had stayed there longer than just 2 nights and 3 days). We also went to Bocas del Toro, which I wasn't overly impressed with, but I think the kids liked it. If you go there, the highlight of that trip was the snorkel trip with our guitar-playing sing-a-long boatman, and our adventure on Basimentos Island, trekking through a really grueling trail to get to a pristine, high wave-action nice sandy beach known as Wizzard Beach (with a nice beach bar). Half the fun was just getting to the beach and back (even though a couple of us landed on our behinds in the mud!), but after eveyone got back they all said it was worth it. We also stayed at a wonderful place called Hotel Angela. Great price with a full breakfast included (just make sure to book the upstairs rooms which a quieter--main floor rooms get lots of foot traffic at night and early morning kitchen noise).

You really should do some reading on Panama--Lonely Planet has a good guide book out as does William Friar with a book entitled "Adventures in Nature-Panama." We also took advantage of a tour company to handle a lot of our day trips and second week of transporation and stays which took a lot of the work off our shoulders and made for a much more relaxing way to travel (they took care of all the guides, taxis, air tickets, hotels, etc.). They were an excellent and very reliable company and I would recommend using them anytime--they are Ancon Expeditions. Also, I just found a web sight that has some very interesting and fun-sounding tours at www.xtrop.com.

All in all, go by all means. It is an adventure your kids will always remember. The hard part is decided what to do, because there is really so much to see and do in Panama and we really just scratched the surface. I think the Embera Village tour would be fun for your kids. The Pearl Islands would obviously be fun (Survivor was filmed there). The Panamanians are friendly, the food is pretty good, the water in Panama City is quite safe, most people speak English, but having some Spanish is a good thing. I would strongly recommend against renting a car. The taxi/guide services are so reasonable and they drive like maniacs there (way worse than Europe). Having a guide for the day is so much more relaxing and you'll get to do more because they know where they are going. Panama City as rush-hour traffic like you would not believe starting anytime after 3:30 in the PM, and you do not want to get caught driving in it, trust me! Also, we stayed at the Country Inn on the Amador Causeway, and yes, it was very nice, and the pool's not bad and the setting is quiet and pretty, but, I felt like I was staying anywhere in the US, it was so much like home. The restaurant there is even a TGIF! It just would'nt be my choice for an exotic out of the country feeling. But, it wasn't a bad way to end our trip and there are some very good restaurants at the end of the Causeway and you're very close to Balboa and the handicrafts market back behind the old YMCA. It's not in the city, but certainly closer than the Gamboa Resort. Hope all this helps you decide to go. Oh yes, bring your own snorkel gear, and the other thing I was so glad I invested in was some good, water-proof hiking shoes (heavy-duty tennis shoes from REI), a long-sleeved miracle fabric shirt that keeps you cool by wicking away your sweat, and those light-weight pants that unzip into shorts (we used that apparal way more than I thought we would with all our hiking).
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Old Jan 24th, 2005, 06:28 AM
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Wow - thank you all so much for the suggestions and help! Your trip report sure makes me wish we were there now, ojoy!

TT
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Old Jan 24th, 2005, 04:09 PM
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The Feb 2002 issue of Travel Holiday has a wonderful article on Panama-- Almost made me change our trip from Guatemala to Panama!
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