Lonely Planet named Panama one of the top 10 places to travel in 2019. So we were extra excited that Panama was already on our list this year!
We have been to Costa Rica twice and loved it. The kids keep asking to go back, but we wanted to explore someplace new. Last February we traveled to Costa Rica with Thomson Family Adventures – I just booked the trip and they executed everything perfectly. So we decided to let Thomson plan another trip for us – to Panama!
We flew from San Francisco to Panama City on United through Houston. Each flight was approximately 4 hours – with a long enough layover in Houston for lunch, it took us pretty much took us all day to get there.
We spent our first 2 days in Panama City and then flew north to Boquete for another 2 days. We spent our last 2 days in Boca Chica on the Pacific Ocean before flying back to Panama City to catch our flight home. While that may sound short, it was amazing to me how much we were able to fit in in just a week!
Visiting the Embera Village
On our first morning, we boarded a motorized piragua (dugout canoe) and headed up the Chagres River through the rainforest to the Embera Village.
The Embera tribe migrated from
Our 8-year-old chose to get painted with the traditional jagua, a natural dye the Embera use to adorn their bodies. It lasted on his arm for about 2 weeks!
They served us a lunch of fish & plantains served in a palm leaf and lots of fresh fruit. Afterwards the tribe members performed traditional dances and played music for us.
On our way back from the village, we stopped along the riverbank and followed a path for about a mile to a waterfall & swimming hole.
We were in Panama in February during the dry season which runs from January – April. In fact, it didn’t rain one day while we were there! As a result, the rivers were quite low. Christian told us that during the rainy season they are able to bring the canoes much farther up the river closer to the waterfall. We probably had to walk a mile which wasn’t too bad.
It was really hot out and the water was quite refreshing! Our 12 and 8-year-old were quick to jump in, swim around and play in the waterfall. The rest of us (who were suffering from jetlag) were happy just to relax on the rocks and maybe doze off for a second or two.
Gatun Lake Jungle Boat Adventure
On our second morning, we got to explore the Panama Canal! This had been on my bucket list for so long and I was giddy! My grandfather was stationed in the Canal Zone as an Army doctor back in the 60s and it was fun to make that connection in person. We stayed at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort which was in the Canal Zone and used to be a country club for American officers stationed here.
Our first stop of the day was a jungle boat cruise among large cargo ships on Gatun Lake in the canal. Gatun Lake is man-made and was created by damming the Chagres River. It is the highest point of the canal route sitting 85 feet above sea level. Ships entering via the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea are raised 85 feet through a series of locks to reach lake level.
We headed down some of the tributaries looking for rainforest creatures and it was so odd to look over and see a huge ship cruising by while we were looking at monkeys!
The White Headed Capuchin is the same monkey as Marcel from Friends!
We stayed an watched this mother & baby monkey for quite some time! This baby was still really tiny! It’s hard to tell in this picture, but the baby still had brown fur which meant it was really young.
Christian was really skilled at finding many birds & animals camouflaged in the rainforest. He also knew all their names, but I just can’t remember them all!
We spent several hours at the Miraflores Locks & Visitor Center. We started with lunch on the deck overlooking the lock. There were no ships passing through while we ate – that would have been pretty cool!
The ships pass through the locks from West to East in the morning until about 9AM. Then they clear the canal and switch directions. Beginning around 1PM ships pass through from East to West. We arrived while the direction was switching so we ate and then toured the visitor center & museum where we learned about the history of the canal, the local landscape, and how much is costs to operate and pass through the canal today.
The first ship came through right on schedule. Because it was the first ship in several hours, the viewing area was quite crowded. There are other places to watch the ships, but this had a great view of the locks.
We watched two cycles of the locks lowering ships. Honestly, I could have stayed and watched much longer, but it was really hot and the kids’ curiosity was satisfied at that point so we moved on.
This vehicle is called a “mule”. It has cables that attach to the ship and hold it steady so it doesn’t run into the sides of the narrow canal or the lock doors. Forward motion is controlled by the ship and not the mules.
Fast forward almost a week: After spending time in Boquete and Bocas Chica, we returned to Panama City on our last night before flying back to San Francisco. We were scheduled to have a farewell dinner with Christian at the restaurant at our hotel, The Bristol. However, after we commented that we wished we had more time to explore Panama City, Christian altered our plans to walk around Casco Viejo and have dinner at a Tapas restaurant there.
Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo) is the historic district of Panama City and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built and settled in 1671 and originally was a walled city to protect it against pirate attacks. The architecture represents Panama’s vast history with Caribbean, French, and Colonial influence. Christian mentioned it has a similar style to Colombia, where we have never been, but we could draw some similarities to Quito. Mostly, it reminded us a lot of the French Quarter in New Orleans!
For dinner, we ate at Rene Cafe, a fantastic Tapas restaurant right by the Plaza de la Independencia. It was a set menu with at least 10 courses – we loved them all! One of my favorite meals of the entire trip! And very family friendly too.
COMING SOON: Boquete and Bocas Chica