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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.