Panama with Kids
Hats. The Panama Canal. Noriega. The third track from Van Halen’s 1984. I didn’t know a lot about Panama. But flying from Los Angeles to Santiago with my 6-year-old son, our best Star Alliance option was to fly Copa Airlines via Panama City. We could have a 1-hour layover in Panama, or a 25-hour layover. It seemed like it would be fun to stop for day and see the canal.
Day One in Panama
Based on TripAdvisor reviews, I booked a room at the Deville Hotel. We got there around 4pm, checked in and walked around for a couple hours. Once we navigated past the banks and skyscrapers, and took multiple risks crossing streets at crosswalks that were only casually honored by the rush-hour drivers, and figured out which streets with no names (or at least no signs) led to the shore, we reached said shore. There were some good views of Panama City and the ocean, but after the long travel day and journey from the hotel, it was a definite let-down. We walked along the seaside path for a while (but apparently not far enough to get to the restaurant area, we would find out the next day) before turning around, re-tracing our steps, risking our lives stepping off curbs once again, and eating a mediocre meal at a large American chain restaurant close to the hotel. Day one was kind of a failure.
Day Two in Panama
The next day was much better. We booked a half-day tour through Panama Roadrunner. Lorna, a heavily-tattooed, very friendly Reiki expert and British expat, picked us up 6:30am and we drove about 20km out of the city to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. We planned to get on the 7:30am boat to Monkey Island, a place that had definitely piqued the interest of my son when he heard about it. We got there in time but learned that the booking hadn’t completed for the 7:30 trip, and in fact there was no 7:30 trip that day. But there would be a boat at 8:45, so we booked it. This actually worked out really well – it gave us a chance to eat breakfast at the hotel and walk around a little. The resort had hammocks on all balconies, a nice pool and birds everywhere. Given our negative experience in Panama City, my son and I were both wishing that we had spent the previous night at Gamboa and skipped Panama City.
After a quick ride in a safari-like vehicle, we arrived at the marina and got on a small boat with three other Americans, a guide and a driver. The boat took us out onto Lake Gatun, where we saw large cargo ships transiting the canal. Pretty cool to see. We then continued to Monkey Island, where we were not disappointed. Howler monkeys swung from the trees, sloths hung around, turtles crawled on the shore, iguanas relaxed on thin branches and baby crocodiles scurried on rocks. I had the wrong lens and wrong timing to capture any great wildlife photos, but it was a fun experience, especially when the boat driver stopped and pulled out some mango, luring monkeys to the boat.
From the resort we headed back towards the city and stopped at Miraflores Locks, one of three sets of locks on the Panama Canal. It’s the 100th anniversary of the canal opening, so there was a little bit of a festive atmosphere with signs everywhere stating 1914-2014. The four-story museum is very well-done – there are a lot of exhibits on the building of the canal and on the wildlife of Panama, and a lot of interactive areas for kids (and adults), where you can get the idea of what it’s like to operate locks, pilot ships through the canal, and direct ships through the canal from shore. My son really liked the models of the various ships that helped to create and maintain the canal. The 20-minute film about the canal was similarly well-done. And the gift store was pretty good, although the snow globes were out of place. Rain Globes, you really need to create a Panama Canal version and sell through the store! .
We then had an extra hour before our flight so we drove to the Casco Viejo (old town) area of Panama City. This was a highlight – much more interesting than the area around our hotel. I had been warned about staying in that area of town, since apparently there are some sketchy areas, but I regretted not looking into it. We really enjoyed walking around the markets and historical buildings. If I was going to do another one-day layover in Panama with a kid or multiple kids, I would go out to Gamboa for the night. If I was going to do a layover with a friend, my wife or solo, I would stay in Casco Viejo.
After Casco Viejo the drive to the airport was nerve-wracking, with the dashboard clock slowly approaching our flight time but Saturday traffic being alternately stopped or diverted due to political rallies. Luckily the airport is small and check-in fast, so we were still fine and got to the gate with time to spare. Overall a worthwhile stop for a day. Next time I’ll just plan the hotel better.
I returned to Panama with my son in 2017 and had an amazing trip throughout the country.
Trip Summary and Specifics
Kid Friendly: Moderate
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Airline/Routing: Copa Airlines direct to Panama City from Los Angeles
Hotel: Deville Hotel
Tour Company for Day Trip: Panama Roadrunner. No idea if they’re still in business? Their website is now down (as of 2020).
Trip Length: 1 Day
Days of School Missed: 1 Day
Cost Factors: The layover in Panama didn’t increase the cost of our plane tickets, and there were no visa or other transfer fees. Total expenses in Panama for 25 hours were a little under $500, including hotel, transportation/tour, Monkey Island boat tickets, Panama Canal museum/film entrance and food. We could have brought that down by renting a car instead of hiring Panama Roadrunner to take us around, but after having seen the roads, traffic and street closures, I’m glad we didn’t attempt that.