Panama with Toddlers

Panama was never really on my radar as a place to visit for vacation. I always wanted to go and see the Panama Canal (to see what all the hype was about), but only ever looked at cruises, rather than land-based trips.

A few months ago, I planned a week-long trip to Nicaragua to celebrate my husband's birthday. Two weeks before we were scheduled to depart, civil unrest erupted in the capital city. The U.S. State Department put a travel advisory in place and also removed all U.S. staff from the embassy in Nicaragua.  At this point, we didn't think it was safe to travel there with a young toddler. The last thing I wanted was to be in a foreign country in the middle of riots! So, we decided to change our entire trip and travel to Panama instead.

Panama is a unique country. It has influences of the Caribbean, and its Latin American charm really is quite different than any of its neighboring countries. 

Casco Viejo Panama City



Where We Stayed

I've heard that Panama has some really beautiful resort towns, but unfortunately, most of the really nice ones are a LONG car ride (10+ hours) away from Panama City. We decided that we would fly into Panama City Airport, stay in Panama City as our home base, and take day trips to the outlying areas.  I found an unbeatable hotel rate (I won't name the hotel. Keep reading to understand why) in the center of town that had mostly great reviews on several travel websites.  After a long journey of traveling by plane with a toddler, we arrived at our hotel. It seemed nice in the lobby. We got our room key and headed upstairs with our luggage.  We should have known what was to come when we stepped off the elevator to a hallway with stained carpets and no AC. 

The suite that we were given was very spacious on the inside, but it literally looked like a seedy motel room. There were stains on the pull out couch and the bed linens. The crib that was placed in our room was on wheels (with no brakes!), and when we asked if we could put our daughter in a bed and use bed rails, we were told they didn't have any. My husband and I looked at each other, and within 30 minutes, we were checked out of that hotel and checked into a newer, more beautiful one a few minutes down the road.

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The lesson in this is, you get what you pay for! And let's be honest, when you're traveling with kids, your standards are set a lot higher when it comes to cleanliness and overall comfort.  This was a time when we were so happy that we forked over double our intended hotel budget for comfortable lodging accommodations. Our new "home" for the week was the gorgeous Sortis Hotel. Our Uber driver told us that it's one of the nicest hotels in the city. Wish we had known that before we arrived! And just as we checked in, we ran into a group of U.S. soldiers who were SO KIND to our daughter and happily took a photo with her. (And I may have shed a few tears, as it was the cutest moment ever!)

soldiers in Panama City

What We Did

I'm all about having as many cultural experiences as possible and soaking in the local culture of the place we're visiting.  Since it was our first time in Panama, I thought it was best to hire a tour guide for the first few days of our trip. Once we had a better feel for the area, then we could venture off on our own and explore the city. 

For a one week trip, there were three things that were most important to me when selecting and booking our excursions for the trip: 1) cultural experience 2) nature/animal experience 3) local food experience.

Embera Village 

Before our trip, I read reviews of people raving over their tours to the Embera Village. From my research, it appeared as though visitors would be taken to a remote village and have an opportunity to spend the day with the indigenous people living inside the national park, removed from modern day technologies. This was something that we were initially excited about. One of my favorite travel experiences was during a trip to South Africa, when we spent time getting to know local families in the township of Khayelitsha. Being able to learn about a region directly from the people who reside there is a great opportunity, and enables you to truly see and experience the pulse of the area. Because of that great experience in South Africa, I had hopes that our experience in the Embera Village in Panama would be equally as rewarding.  Unfortunately, it was not.

Our tour guide escorted us down to the river, where a long wooden boat - almost like a canoe, but with an attached motor - took us down the Chagres River. Water levels were low in Panama at the time of our visit, as they had not received much rain. We are adventurous travelers, but I have to admit, while we were sitting on that canoe, with our two year old in tow, I had a sinking feeling that maybe I had chosen the wrong excursion. We were the ONLY people on the river, not another tourist, or soul in general, in site. At one moment, the captain of our boat was concerned that the motor’s propellers would get stuck in the mud of the river, or that we would hit large rocks because the water levels were so low. I gripped our toddler as tightly as I could and literally prayed the entire time until we arrived at our destination! And to make matters worse, my daughter had a tantrum inside the boat because she didn’t want to wear a life vest (they only had huge adult vests, that were uncomfortable for her). Rather than fight her tantrum in a rocking boat and risk tipping us all over into the crocodile infested waters, we acquiesced, and removed the vest.

Chagres River with toddler
Embera Village Panama

Thankfully, we made it safely to the village. We walked up the steep muddy hill and were welcomed by the Embera who lived there. While I was excited for a day of learning and sharing cultures, our entrance into their village felt and was extremely awkward. We tried to be as warm as possible, but sensed that the Embera were not thrilled about our tourist presence. Our tour guide planned this trip poorly, and we had to wait for over an hour for them to begin the presentation because the second tour group, also arriving via boat, had not arrived. Waiting in extremely hot conditions, hungry, and trying to entertain a toddler was miserable. We spent the time looking at the homemade crafts the villagers were making and also tried to take in our surroundings and take a few photos. Finally the presentation started, and was followed by a homemade lunch of fresh fish and fruit. If you have a child who is a picky eater, bring your own food and snacks! After lunch, the Embera performed traditional music and dance, and invited everyone to join in dancing.

Embera and tourists dancing
Embera child and tourist

For the first time every, I took a tour that I later had regrets about taking. It was sad to see how the government built a national park on the Embera’s native land and imposed regularions that prevent them from their traditional ways of life. Now, the Embera rely on tourism to provide and sustain. We felt a lot of mixed emotions while there, particularly, because while the villagers were nice, it was very apparent that they don’t want to be a part of this dog and pony show for foreign tourists. And frankly, I can’t blame them! But I suppose the one thing we all have in common is that we do what we need to do to provide for our families.

   Gatun Lake

Our visit to Gatun Lake was enjoyable. We used a private tour guide for this excursion as well, as I enjoy having flexibility with our schedule when traveling with a toddler. We took a medium sized motor boat out onto the lake and witness nature in all its glory! You can hear the monkeys communicating with each other in the trees, but really need to have a guide who is patient enough to navigate to different parts of the shoreline to attract the monkeys (with bananas). Of course with nature, nothing is predictable, but thankfully, we were able to see and feed quite a few of the monkeys! Our daughter loved it - and it was surreal that we were so close to these little creatures. If you have kids, doing a tour to Gatun Lake is a must! After the boat ride, we went to a zoo/nature reserve. I have to be honest, that part was not as enjoyable for me, as it was very hot and I was hungry! If we were to do the same thing again, I’d skip the zoo.

Gatun Lake Tour
Monkeys in Gatun Lake
Toddler on Gatun Lake

   Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is exactly as beautiful in person as it is in photos! Historic, stonewalled shops lined the streets of this old town. Cobble stone streets truly make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Note, if you have an umbrella stroller, consider leaving it in the hotel because it’s difficult to push through the cobblestone streets. Also, the sidewalks are VERY narrow - so a large stroller will take up too much space.

I did have a little bit of regret that we had not chosen a hotel in Casco Viejo. It was so charming and had lots of great, and authentic, restaurants all around! We ended up having an early dinner at a Peruvian restaurant, and our two year old daughter tried - and loved - anticucho (cow’s heart) for the first time! Not to mention, she bonded with another toddler in the restaurant, and the two of them were dancing to salsa in the MIDDLE OF THE RESTAURANT. It truly felt like something out of a movie. Sadly, we visited Casco Viejo at the end of our vacation, and wish we had had a chance to enjoy the area more from the beginning of the week.

Casco Viejo with kids

   Panama Canal

I’m sure lots of people will kill me for saying this, but, I wasn’t that impressed by the Panama Canal. Not wanting to pay the outrageous tour fees, we hopped into an Uber and went directly to the Canal to view it on our own from Miraflores Locks. We saw several ships pass through the locks, and after twenty minutes, we all were ready to go! Maybe it would have been a different experience if I was traveling with an older child, or not with a child at all - but the last thing I wanted to do was stand around with 100 other people (it’s always crowded!), trying to keep my toddler calm. This was a day when the stroller, and our phone with preloaded cartoons, came in handy! The stroller doubled as a chair, and the cartoons helped to serve as “entertainment.” Going to see the Panama Canal is interesting, but to me, it’s a one and done kind of trip.

My takeaways

Overall, there were some really cool elements of our trip to Panama. If we were ever to return again, I think I would plan it a bit differently. Remember that if you choose to use Panama City as your home base, remember that it is a CITY - lots of noise, traffic, uneven sidewalks, and a bit of grittiness that most cities have. Also, we went in the off-season, which also happens to be the rainy season. If you go during this time, expect it to rain for at least half of your trip, and bring rain gear! One of the reasons why the country has it’s luscious landscape is because of the amount of rain it gets. When we returned from the Embera Village, it was an absolute downpour while crossing the river in the small boat.

If we were to ever return to Panama, I’d take the long journey to the coastal beach towns, rent a house near the ocean, and spend at least a week soaking in the sun and local culture. My most important travel tip is always to do what works best for YOUR family. Our family tends to be adventurous, but we are definitely warm weathered beach-goers. While we made use of the beautiful pool at the Sortis Hotel, I regret not making an effort to explore the quaint coastal towns that Panama has to offer. While this vacation was not one of our top favorites, Panama is a beautiful country. Be sure to do the extra legwork to make sure your itinerary shows you the best Panama has to offer, while matching up with your family’s needs and interests.

Toddler in Panama City

Fun Winter Outings with Kids

The weather outside has been frightful. And the groundhog didn’t see his shadow, so we have weeks more of winter? Who likes groundhogs anyway?!  All I know is it’s been freezing out and while we’re dodging the grossness of this year’s flu season, I have a toddler with a serious case of cabin fever developing.

Here are some of my favorite cold weather destinations/activities close to home…

The Aquarium

We live a short drive from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, which also happens to be my hometown! The National Aquarium is truly one of the best aquatic centers in the US and attracts many visitors year-round. During our recent visit, my daughter could walk on her own to each exhibit and take in all the beautiful fish at eye level.  If you have very young ones, plan to arrive or purchase tickets right when doors open, which is usually around 9:30 a.m. We spent about 2.5 hours there, which was plenty of time without feeling rushed, and wrapped up our visit with the dolphin “show.” I’ll be honest, I was a little bored by the dolphin experience, as it was mostly informational and less entertaining. Our daughter sat through it, but probably only because we kept her quiet with fresh hot pretzels (purchased there) and other snacks.

National Aquarium Dolphins

The ticket price for the National Aquarium had me a little shell shocked considering this was a weekend outing ($39.99 per adult), but in the end, I felt like it was worth the cost. And, I’m glad we decided to go when my daughter still qualifies for free admission (under 3 years old)! If you're trying to save a few bucks, visit on Fridays after 5 p.m. for half-priced admission.

Almost every major city has an aquarium, which can be a great destination for toddlers, and kids of all ages. Buy tickets online in advance, enjoy a few hours of fun, and choose a fun restaurant for lunch after! We decided to dine at a seafood restaurant, because, well, it’s Baltimore! I couldn’t leave without having one of those world famous crabcakes, ‘hon!

The National Aquarium Jellyfish

A Local Farm

One of the best things about local working farms is that they are (usually) open year-round. One of our favorite farms to visit also has programming periodically throughout the year for extremely reasonable rates.  My sweet pea LOVES animals of any kind, so we spend a lot of time at the farm throughout the year taking long walks, enjoying wagon rides, talking to the animals and playing at the playground.

Petting the bunnies during the "Little Hands on the Farm" class for toddlers.

Petting the bunnies during the "Little Hands on the Farm" class for toddlers.

Check your local government’s website to see if there are any public farms in your area. The public working farm in our county has free admission and is open all year.

Indoor Trampoline Park

If I’m being totally real, I’m somewhat of a germaphobe, and the idea of indoor playgrounds makes me shudder…slightly. But going along with my theme of trying new things, I decided to put my comfort level aside and visit a new indoor trampoline park opening in Herndon, Northern Virginia. Launch was the perfect place to go on a cold Saturday morning with our cousins. As I try to do with most activities, we got there right when they opened and it was virtually empty.  Shortly after, more families started to come in, as well as birthday party groups. I was very impressed with how clean everything was and by how many members of the staff were there to assist or answer questions. And most importantly, it was FUN jumping on the trampolines and through the obstacle courses with foam. I’m not sure who had more fun, my husband or our two-year-old daughter! It’s amazing how exhausting an hour of jumping around can be. For anyone looking for an easy way to burn off energy pre-nap time, go to Launch!

Fun Winter Outings with Kids
Fun Winter Outings with Kids

 

(Note: Our visits at the venues mentioned were NOT sponsored and I personally paid admission.  As always, all opinions are my own.)

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RSV, You Nasty Witch

My apologies for being offline for so long. The past two weeks have been difficult, exhausting and downright scary, and it was necessary to take a brief hiatus.

Two weeks ago, I became very ill with what I thought was the flu. I had body aches, chills, fatigue, and was too weak to drive twenty-five minutes to my primary care physician, so I just decided to go to Patient First since it is located less than a mile from my house.  While I tested negative for the flu, the doctor said that he was (almost) certain that I had the flu, despite the negative test, and decided to treat me accordingly. Off I went out the door with my prescription for Tamiflu and nausea meds. 

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I spent the entire week in bed! By day four, I started to feel better, but then developed a terrible cough. In our house, when one person gets sick, we take ALL precautions and quickly get into “sick mode” that includes: sanitizing all surfaces of the house, wear hospital-grade masks to prevent the spread of germs, quarantine the sick person, and washing all laundry on the hottest temperature setting (the “sanitize” button) on our washing machine.  The last thing we wanted was for this bug to spread to our two-year-old daughter. Having a sick parent is a bummer, but having a sick parent and a sick child is downright awful!

A couple of days later, by the weekend, we noticed that V started to have a runny nose and seemed a bit under the weather. She had moments when she seemed sick, but also had moments when she had a burst of energy. We had even taken her to the trampoline park with her cousins, and she seemed fine.  By the next day, things took a turn for the worst. We took V to the pediatrician, assuming that she had the flu, but surprisingly she tested negative for flu. The doctor dismissed it as a virus and told us to let it run its course.  As a mother, sometimes you get a feeling in your gut that tells you, despite what the doctor is saying, that something more serious is, in fact, wrong with your child.  That was the feeling I got, and I’m glad my gut didn’t fail me. V was in and out of sleep all morning after our visit to the doctor. She began breathing very heavy – almost panting like a dog – and her fever increased to 103 degrees. She has never had a fever that high, and it was then that my husband and I decided it was time to take her to the emergency room.

Once we arrived at the emergency room, my husband had to peel V out of her car seat. She was like a wet noodle – not able to move very much or carry her weight. Whenever I tried to get her attention, she’d open her eyes for a second, and then her eyes would roll back into her head and she would close them again.  Thankfully the ER wasn’t crowded and they escorted us to a private room.  The nurse took her temperature, and before I had a chance to see what it was, two nurses and the doctor on call quickly rushed into the room, surrounding V and started putting cold washcloths all over her. Puzzled, I said to my husband, “What happened? What was her temperature.” To which he replied, “It was 106! The nurse took it twice and it’s 106!” I could feel my stomach sink and fear set in.  V had a 106 fever and was in respiratory distress. The culprit? She tested positive for Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV. Over the next hour, the nurses connected her to an oxygen line and attempted to get an IV line in her hand, which was traumatic in and of itself! My sweet girl was screaming “Mommy! Mommy” while the two nurses were holding her down and continuously jabbing the needle into her hand looking for a vein. After several minutes of agony, I finally lost my cool and demanded that they stop.

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V was admitted to the hospital, and we spent the next four long days there. Multiple doctors and nurses were in and out of the room at all hours of the day and night due to shift changes. After each day, her symptoms were getting worse, not better, and the doctors decided to put her on “high flo” oxygen.  We knew that if this didn’t help, we’d have to be transferred to the top regional children’s hospital in our area, as they are better equipped to deal with these types of health complications.

There is no greater pain than seeing your child severely ill and suffering. While you trust the doctors to do what’s best for your child, you also feel a sense of helplessness, as your baby’s health is (somewhat) in their hands. While we were in the hospital, I began to think about the parents of children with chronic illness and fatal diseases and how difficult their journey must be. I tried not to allow myself to fall into the fear and sadness of our situation, and had faith that God would bring us out of this. And thankfully, He did!

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1st night hospital for rsv

V is now back at home and recovering. The process of easing back into home life has also been difficult. After being discharged from the hospital, V has had nightmares almost every night, and wakes up multiple times throughout the night due to coughing fits and vomiting. Before this situation, I had barely even heard of RSV. Had I known the symptoms, maybe we would have urged her pediatrician to test for it or maybe we would have taken her to the hospital sooner. The crazy part about it is we now believe that I probably had RSV, not the flu, and likely passed it to V. The symptoms are less severe in adults, but can be very serious in young children.  I’m sharing our personal experience in hopes that it can help other moms and dads who may go through the same thing.  Learn more about RSV and the symptoms here.

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And to the parents of young children who may be ill: please, please, please keep them at home when they are ill. This year’s flu and other viruses have been some of the worst strains to date, resulting in hospitalization and death. While our situation was horrible, it could have been much worse. We are so grateful our sweet V is on the mend.

Xo.

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Cold/Flu Season Must-Haves

The winter is finally upon us and Mother Nature is unleashing all of her fury, it seems.  In fact, I’d even venture to say she’s unstable – considering it is low sixties flip-flop weather one day, and the next day the high is 12 degrees Fahrenheit and my daughter’s school is closing because the heating system can’t keep up with the temperature.  Can you sense my frustration? I digress.

In the past week, we’ve had a dental emergency, pink eye, and a cold to manage with the little one, and I caught some nasty mutation of the flu.  Needless to say, this definitely was not our best week ever; however, it made me reflect on some of the mom-things I can’t live without during the winter.

1) Humidifier

Our warm-mist humidifier is our most valuable tool to get through the winter with a baby or a toddler. They say the average child gets a cold 8-10 times in their first year of life. And with young children who are constantly congested and do not have the motor skills to blow their noses, some assistance is needed to clear-up those airways! I know a lot of people say that cool-mist ones are better, but I prefer the warm-mist humidifier…because who wants cool air blowing around when it’s already frigid outside?! This way, you get the added moisture AND the added warmth.

2) Serena & Lily Sheets

The first (of many, many) baby gifts my mom gave us was a set of high-quality sheets from Serena and Lily. They were so beautiful and soft. I remember saying to my husband, “this baby’s bedding is going to be nicer than ours!” At the time, I had no clue how many sets of sheets I would go through during the course of one week. When my daughter is sick/potty training/vomiting etc., it’s so nice to have several sets of nice sheets that I can easily switch out in the middle of the night, if need be.

3) Homeopathic Cough Syrup

Since kiddie colds are so frequent, it’s good to have something on hand that isn’t medicine, to help make them feel better and help get them to sleep. I have to be honest, while I like to use homeopathic “medicine” for our daughter, I’m not completely convinced that it can stand alone to provide relief when fighting off a nasty illness. I use it in addition to traditional medicine (Baby Motrin or Tylenol). The little one loves the taste of Zarbees, and the “nighttime” formula definitely seems to help her sleep.

4) Kids Probiotics

We went out of the country on vacation, and when we came back, our daughter was having some serious stomach issues for almost two weeks. We followed the doctor’s instructions, and finally, on a whim, decided to give her probiotics. And within 24 hours, she was fully healthy again! Since then, probiotics have become my cure for everything. And let’s be honest, those weeks when your child literally won’t eat anything besides yogurt and crackers, they could definitely use some help with “regularity.” And if you’re potty training said little people, probiotics are helpful, as no toddler will be encouraged to go in the potty if they’re constipated! Have I grossed you out with my poop-talk yet? Just know that probiotics help with overall immunity if you use them regularly. So that means less sickness for the kids and more sleep for parents! This parenting game is hard, so we need all the sleep we can get!

What are your go-to products to get through cold and flu season? Is it summer yet?!

 

 

 

Kiddie Recreational Activities

I'm still trying to get back in the swing of things now that the holidays are behind us. The holidays were the perfect break for our family to rest and reboot. Now I'm moving forward full steam ahead with 2018!

For the past two weeks, the little one has said, "I wanna go to dance class!" at least once every day. For the past six months or so she was enrolled in dance classes, but while she LOVES to dance and move, I couldn't quite tell if she loved the classes themselves. Let's be honest, a two-year old's attention span is almost nonexistent, so keeping them focused on one activity for 45 minutes is certainly a challenge!

one-on-one instruction with the teacher

one-on-one instruction with the teacher

I've always been a huge fan of recreational activities for the following reasons:

  •  socialization
  • a structured environment that teaches fundamentals, such as, how to follow directions and sharing
  • physical activity
  • discovering strengths and weaknesses
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Our daughter is not even two and a half yet, and she's taken dance, swimming, Little Gym, and soccer classes. Her scheduled classes are part of the reason why we're always so busy!  She is naturally a very active and happy child, and the recreational classes have simply allowed her to come out of her shell even more. She's never been much of a clingy child, and we feel that's partially due to the fact that she was taking part in recreational activities since she was 10 months old.

Which activities have you enrolled your toddler(s) in? And which one was their favorite?

time for tap with costumes!

time for tap with costumes!