A common question when trying to learn more about someone’s travel style is to ask if they prefer cities, mountains or beaches. But who among us hasn’t been tempted to answer “All three!” On a vacation in Panama, visitors discover that this Central American country offers the excitement of urban landmarks, extensive history, fun ecotourism activities, beach relaxation and beautiful mountain scenery, all in one trip.
Panama is a place of convergence. The isthmus itself is a geographic symbol of how the country bridges North and South America, while being fully immersed in Latin America. Spanish, French, American and Indigenous influences merge in Panama City and elsewhere around the country. It’s even possible for visitors to splash in the waters of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on the same day.
Be sure to reach out to our experienced Family Travel Advisors before securing accommodations, as we have perks to pass along at many of the properties we recommend. We can also arrange special tours and activities to make planning your trip to Panama as relaxing as the vacation itself.
Belize and Costa Rica are more typically thought of as go-to Central American family vacation destinations among Americans. But Panama has all the gorgeous beaches and ecotourism adventure activities that those more popular places offer, plus the added bonus of a cosmopolitan city well worth exploring, an established airline that serves destinations within the country and a more developed infrastructure than you’ll usually find elsewhere in the region.
If you’ve visited and enjoyed Belize or Costa Rica, consider Panama as a sure bet and a great next trip. And if Central America is new to your family, Panama is an easy entry point without sacrificing cultural immersion opportunities.
In 7 to 10 days, families can see the major highlights of Panama. The most common point of arrival is Panama City, with its major international airport hub. While we love the city, and it is well worth carving out time to explore, we suggest saving it for the end of your trip to maximize your days. Most international flights taking visitors back home depart in the morning, requiring visitors to spend their last night here anyway.
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With that in mind, depart immediately from Tocumen International Airport for the Chiriqui Highlands in the mountainous northwest region of Panama. Boquete is a great home base for three nights, from which families can go ziplining, explore the volcano and national parks and seek out the elusive quetzal, a beautiful bird with iridescent green plumage. We love arranging special experiences for our clients, including sampling the most expensive coffee in the world at one of the coffee estates for which the region is famous, or a hike through the jungle that ends with a farm-to-table picnic. ATV tours, whitewater rafting and countless other active experiences are also options. While the tourism infrastructure is impressive, the history of this region before tourists arrived is well preserved also, maintaining a sense of authenticity.
Where to stay in Boquete: The Riverside Inn
From Boquete, head to one of Panama’s gorgeous beaches. Because Panama runs horizontally, the Caribbean is on the northern coast, and the Pacific is south. On the Caribbean side, we have sent many happy clients to Bocas del Toro, where guests rave about the luscious white sand beaches. On the Pacific Ocean side, one favorite area is the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui, where it’s easy to enjoy the Pacific Coast’s reliably great weather. Spend two or three nights in either destination, depending on how much beach time your family covets. Resort amenities in Panama often include spas, water sports and great restaurants.
Spend your final two to three nights enjoying vibrant Panama City, a true melting pot of cultures. It’s been described as having a vibe similar to New Orleans or a colorful European capital, but with rainforests off in the distance and tropical birds flying overhead, there’s no mistaking where you are.
The world-famous Panama Canal is a must-do attraction, and there are multiple ways to experience it. Secure a sailing time slot well in advance, and move through via water on a chartered catamaran or yacht. Or watch the locks from the Miraflores Visitor Center. With more than 14,000 vessels passing through each year, you’re sure to see it in action. Because the area around the canal is all protected watershed, you may even spot some incredible wildlife despite being in the city.
While people understandably come to Panama City to marvel at this engineering feat, many visitors discover that the real highlight here is the food. Be sure to research dining options in advance and secure reservations for a tasting menu at a great restaurant, or book a food tour and get a true picture of the variety here. Whether you’re indulging in street food or fine dining, the emphasis will be on fresh, locally grown ingredients and the wide variety of cultural influences: Spanish, French, African, Caribbean and more. Traditional dishes include ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices) and ropa vieja (shredded tenderloin served with plantains and rice).
We also advise dedicating at least a half day or more to exploring the Old Town, San Felipe, also called Casco Viejo. The colorful buildings, the sprawling and lively plazas and the brick-paved streets demand wandering. This is our preferred area of the city for overnight accommodations as well.
When you have had your fill of culture and history, you may enjoy luxury shopping, prevalent in the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods. A favorite Panama City activity is taking a boat cruise and seeing the incredible skyline from the ocean. The modernity and beauty and history of Panama City separates it from many of its Central American counterparts.
If you have the time, spend a day visiting the indigenous Guna people, ideally at one of the protected villages in the San Blas Islands. Consider purchasing mola, a colored cloth with detailed patterns that makes a vibrant wall hanging, to take home as a special souvenir.
All destinations can have unique cultural experiences incorporated into a visit, but some places truly shine. Read about the ones we love most, then contact us to help plan an unforgettable family trip.
Panama accepts U.S. currency as legal tender (and the Panamanian balboa currency is consistently one-to-one with the dollar). It’s also considered one of the safest countries in Central America.
While exploring the destinations mentioned above requires flying internally within Panama, the good news is that for those who prefer to avoid small planes, Panama is well serviced with its own airline, Copa. This makes getting around the country quick, easy and safe; otherwise, drive times between the locations suggested above will be cumbersome.
It’s also possible to visit select destinations within Panama via cruise. As an agency, we have experienced and enjoyed small ship cruises that combine time spent in Panama with stops in Costa Rica, and we’re always happy to explore that option with clients to see what might be the best fit. It works especially well for those who want to avoid additional flights within the country but still want to experience multiple destinations.
If your family has two weeks or more, you may find it worth venturing farther into South America from Panama City’s international airport. Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and more great destinations are just one direct flight away.
Panama is defined by three distinct seasons. Christmas through Easter is considered the dry season, when visitors experience the best weather. Given this, it is also the most crowded and the rates are highest. Shoulder season, which runs from Easter through July, is a great option to consider, as rates come down but the weather is still quite nice. “Green” season runs from August through November. While it rains often, the scenery is extremely lush. This is the cheapest time to visit Panama, and it is very quiet.
A vacation in Panama is like a charcuterie board of travel: a little something to please every palate and a perfect place to explore a wide variety of favorite vacation experiences and amenities.
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