Last Updated on June 2, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Traveling Panama with kids is fun, easy and involves plenty of time outdoors! Here’s my guide to help you plan your Panama family vacation.
Despite being next door to the hugely popular Costa Rica, Panama continues to be Central America’s best kept secret. The compact nation is largely safe and developed, making for a great introduction to the region and an easy place to explore with kids.
We had a blast in Panama with our four-year-old kid, and highly recommend it to families seeking outdoor fun and adventure! Panama is home to diverse and unique ecosystems — including the largest rainforests in the Americas after the Amazon. It also has no shortage of pristine beaches and castaway islands on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
Best known for the Panama Canal (2014 marked the 100th anniversary of this engineering marvel), Panama City has a vibrant cosmopolitan downtown area and a charming restored Casco Viejo (old town) that is ridiculously photogenic and interesting.
Table of Contents
- Panama with Kids
- How to Get to Panama
- When to Travel Panama with Kids
- How Long to Travel Panama with Kids?
- How to Get Around Panama with Kids
- Travel Panama Independently or on Guided Tour?
- Where to Stay in Panama with Kids
- What to Eat in Panama with Kids
- Things to Do in Panama with Kids
- See Sloths in Gamboa Wildlife Rescue Center
- Visit an Indigenous Embera Village
- Walk on Hanging Bridges in Boquete
- Hike in Volcan Baru National Park
- Sail around San Blas Islands
- Learn Surfing on the Beaches of Bocas de Toro
- Go Whale Watching off Isla Palenque
- Stroll around the Casco Viejo in Panama City
- Visit the Biomuseo in Panama City
- Hike in the Metropolitan Natural Park of Panama City
- Eat at Dinos Panama in Panama City
- What to Pack for Your Panama Family Vacation
- How Are People in Panama Like?
- Do You Need to Speak Spanish to Travel Panama?
- Is it Safe to Travel Panama with Kids?
- Taking Care of Your Kids’ Health in Panama
- Cost of a Panama Family Trip
- How to Get Travel Insurance for Kids
- Practical Tips for Traveling Panama with Kids
Panama with Kids
If you’re looking for an easy place to travel that’s near North America and with the promise of adventure, then Panama is the place to do it.
Panama is a family travel playground, specializing in big adventures guaranteed to get your kid’s heart pumping. Whether you are zipping through the leafy canopy or spying a lazy sloth, this little dynamo of a country offers a plethora of fun experiences that every family member can enjoy.
Plus, the country has excellent tourism infrastructure and great family resorts. Costa Rica might be the more popular choice for family vacations, but Panama is definitely the underdog that will be sure to surprise you.
How to Get to Panama
Most nationalities including US, UK, EU and Canada citizens do not need a visa to enter Panama. Check with your embassy to see if you need a visa.
The main gateway to Panama is Tocumen International Airport (PTY), around 35km north-east of the city. There are direct flights from Miami to Panama City (3 hours) for as cheap as $250 return. Flights from Los Angeles to Panama City are around US$500 return (7 hours).
For those in Europe, you can find pretty good deals flying from Madrid to Panama City for just $550 (7-hour direct flight) or London to Panama City for $600 return. We flew from Amsterdam to Panama City on KLM and our flights cost only US$500 return (booked way in advance).
When to Travel Panama with Kids
There are two main seasons in Panama: rainy season runs from June to December, and dry season from January to May. Dry season is the most popular time to visit. During the rainy season, you might run into some rain but they’re usually showers and don’t last long.
We traveled Panama in April and had perfect weather the whole time we were there. No rain, cloudless skies and endless sunshine. It was the perfect time to sail San Blas Islands.
Keep in mind that the weather varies by region. In the thick forests of the Caribbean Sea coast and northern regions, expect high humidity and temperatures ranging between the 70s and high 80s year-round. Conversely, in the Boquete highlands, prepare for lower humidity levels, but temperatures that often soar into the 90s during Panama’s dry months.
How Long to Travel Panama with Kids?
We only had one week in Panama (and one week in Costa Rica), but we definitely wish we had more time in both countries! If you have the time, I recommend spending at least two weeks in Panama to be able to see the rich wildlife, do canopy tours and enjoy some downtime on the beach.
Our 1-week Panama Itinerary
- 3 days in Panama City
- 1 day watching wildlife in Gamboa Reserve
- 3 days sailing around San Blas Islands
Recommended 2-Week Panama Itinerary
- 3 days in Panama City
- 2 days watching wildlife in Gamboa Reserve
- 3 days hiking in the forests of Boquete
- 3 days relaxing on the beaches of Bocas del Toro
- 3 days sailing around San Blas Islands
How to Get Around Panama with Kids
Renting a car is easily the best way to travel around Panama with kids. We didn’t rent a car this time as we only had 1 week in Panama, and had already arranged 4WD transfers to San Blas for 3 days (non-Kunas are not allowed to drive there).
We got around on Uber for the whole trip, and it was really affordable. A trip from our hotel in downtown Panama City to the Casco Viejo would usually cost US$3-6 each way. Even a 1-hour ride from Tocumen Airport to Gamboa Reserve cost us around US$30. Road conditions in Panama are generally quite good and most roads are paved.
I always book our car through Discover Cars as the prices are the best and you can easily include a baby seat in your booking.
For travel from city to city within Panama, the most common transport mode is long-distance buses. They are usually very comfortable, air conditioned, safe frequent and reliable.
The bus companies include Padafront, Expreso Veraguense, Sanpasa, and Panaline, but you can’t book them online. You can easily buy tickets at the main bus station for same-day travel.
Shared tourist shuttles are another way to get from one city to another. Be warned though, these are usually quite packed and the journey takes longer than expected. Pineapple Shuttles provide airport transfers and daily shuttles to the Panama Canal. You can also book shuttle services to Bocas del Toro and Boquete on Viator.
Travel Panama Independently or on Guided Tour?
If you’d like to travel Panama with a guide, check out this 8-day Panama Adventure that’ll bring you to Boquete and Bocas del Toro. You can also combine it a trip to Panama with Costa Rica (like we did), and join this 16-day Costa Rica and Panama Quest.
Note: the minimum age for kids to join these 2 tours is 12. G Adventures is a Canadian adventure tour operator I’ve worked with many times and can highly recommend!
Panama is relatively safe and easy to travel around on your own. We traveled independently with our 4-year-old daughter and didn’t face any difficulty or challenges. What I recommend is traveling on your own and booking day tours, especially since there’s a lot to see around Panama City.
Day Tours from Panama City:
- Ocean to Ocean: Panama Canal and Jungle Tour
- Panama Canal Transit Sightseeing Cruise
- All Inclusive Full-Day Taboga Island Catamaran Tour
- Day Trip to El Valle Anton
- San Blas Island-Hopping Day Trip
- Panama Canal Eco Cruise and Embera Village Combo Tour
Where to Stay in Panama with Kids
There are lots of accommodation choices regardless of where you go in Panama (except San Blas Islands). Panama City offers great value luxury hotels in the downtown area, but pricey colonial lodges in the Casco Viejo district.
Here are some of the family-friendly hotels we recommend staying at:
Panama City — Eurostars Panama City
We stayed at this stylish but surprisingly affordable 4-star hotel ($50/night) located in Bella Vista, downtown Panama City. It was just a 5-minute Uber ride to Casco Viejo, and there are restaurants and shops surrounding the hotel. We had a huge room with floor-to-ceiling windows and an extra bed for our daughter. Check the rates here.
Panama City Casco Viejo — American Trade Hotel
Hotels in Panama City’s historical quarters are a lot more expensive, but if you rather stay here, I recommend this upscale heritage hotel. The building was originally built in 1917 and became the meeting place of the upper class people during the boom of the Panama Canal. It has since been completely renovated and is an iconic landmark of the area. Check the rates here.
Gamboa — Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Set within Soberania National Park, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a sprawling lodge that’s just a 30-min drive from Panama City. It’s an excellent base to go on boat trips around River Chagres, see sloths at the resort’s own Sloth Sanctuary and Butterfly Park, and visit the nearby Enbera tribes. There’s a lot to do in the area. Plus a huge outdoor pool and excellent dinner buffets for families! Check the rates here.
Bocas del Toro — Playa Tortuga Hotel and Beach Resort
Voted the most family-friendly resort in Bocas del Toro, this resort is a big scale property right on the water. It’s got a private beach and massive pools that are excellent for kids of all ages. Rooms are also big and spacious for families, definitely an ideal place for a Panama family vacation. Check the rates here.
Boquete — The Inn at Palo Alto
This beautiful lodge is located over Palo Alto River, surrounded by lush gardens and gorgeous mountain views. Immerse in nature here, with hiking trails just outside the lodge, and an infinity pool to soak in at the end of the day. You can also book canopy tours and coffee tours here. Check the rates here.
San Blas Islands — Cabañas Narasgandup
Accommodation choices on San Blas Islands are very limited. Most of them are wooden huts with very basic facilities. This rustic, simple lodge is already the best on the islands, with the best reviews on TripAdvisor. Expect rudimentary accommodation, but a stunning setting and pristine beaches. Check the rates here.
What to Eat in Panama with Kids
In comparison to the rest of Central America, Panama has a more diverse and varied culinary culture. Panamanian cuisine features influences from Spanish, Native American, and African cultures. There are a lot more choices besides the typical gallo pinto (Rice and beans).
Those with kids who are fussy eaters will be happy to know that there is no shortage of international food in Panama. You’ll find lots of American chains, food courts, and Japanese restaurants especially in Panama City. Allbrook Mall has a huge foodcourt with all kinds of food your kids will be familiar with.
Here are the typical foods to try in Panama:
- Sancocho — The national dish of Panama is a delicious, light chicken soup with potatoes, corn on the cob, culantro herb, yuca and plantains.
- Ropa vieja — Translated to mean “old clothes”, this is a beef stew with spices like black pepper, cumin and oregano. It’s actually really popular in Cuba too.
- Panamanian tortillas — In comparison to usual tortillas, these are thicker, circular and made from corn dough. They are a popular breakfast dish in Panama, usually topped with melted cheese or eggs.
- Carimañolas — These are a torpedo shaped yuca fritter stuffed with cheese, seasoned ground beef and then fried.
- Lobsters and fresh fish — If you’re sailing San Blas Islands, you’ll be having lots of fresh BBQ seafood.
Things to Do in Panama with Kids
See Sloths in Gamboa Wildlife Rescue Center
Set within Soberania National Park, the Gamboa Wildlife Rescue Center is a beautiful wilderness area just a 30-min drive from Panama City. Here you’ll get to see many animals that have been rescued by the Pan American Conservation Association.
The Sloth Sanctuary here is the only one in Panama, and definitely the best place to see a sloth in the country. They are not wild but neither are they kept in enclosures. We saw around five of them munching away on leaves in an open space inside the sanctuary. A visit here includes a tour with an English guide.
The Wildlife Rescue Center is owned by Gamboa Rainforest Resort and is located on the hotel grounds. We stayed overnight and actually quite enjoyed the resort — it’s an excellent base to go on boat trips around River Chagres and see wildlife. If you prefer to just come on a day trip, check out this jungle tour from Panama City.
Visit an Indigenous Embera Village
Close to Gamboa is a lush village called Parara Puru, home to the indigenous Embera tribe. The Embera people have lived along the banks of Gatun Lake for centuries, and continue to live in simple ways.
Most trips to visit the Embera village include a baot trip along the Gatun Lake where you’ll get to see quite a lot of wildlife, including howling monkeys, capuchins, and tamarins. At the end of the boat ride, you’ll meet a local group of the Embera tribe who will bring you to their village aboard a dugout canoe. Whisk past a scenic waterfall before eventually reaching the Embera settlement to enjoy a cultural presentation and the performance of a traditional dance.
Check out this day trip to visit the Embera village that has pretty good reviews.
Walk on Hanging Bridges in Boquete
Boquete is located in the highlands of Panama, and is a beautiful area known for its lush nature and coffee. It’s a little cooler and less humid up here and there’s a lot to do for active families. If you’ve been to Costa Rica, this area is abit similar to Monteverde.
Kids would love to have the chance to walk on the hanging bridges, that allows them to go above the tree canopy and see howling monkeys. Our 4-year-old daughter absolutely loved it and kept asking to go back! Check out the rates on Tree Trek Adventures.
Hike in Volcan Baru National Park
For active families, I recommend walking the Pipeline Trail in Volcán Barú National Park. It is a relatively easy walk in the forest for all ages. It covers 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) round trip, making for a nice half-day trip.
You’ll find yourself walking among centuries-old trees, abundant flora and fauna, and crossing a few bridges to cross over the meandering creek. Join a guided tour to increase your chances of spotting the rare Resplendent Quetzal or Three-Toed Sloth. Even though we’re quite experienced in wildlife watching, we always find that hiring a guide helps us see a lot more wildlife than we would on our own.
Sail around San Blas Islands
San Blas, the closest place to paradise, is a group of tiny islands scattered around the Caribbean coast of Panama. The 375 islands that make up the San Blas Panama are pristine and well-protected — some of them are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people, but most are deserted.
Sailing San Blas Islands is of course the best way to explore the castaway islands. Prepare for the high price tag though. We went on a 2-night sailing trip onboard a luxury catamaran, which cost us $920 (my husband, daughter and myself). That included accommodation, all our meals and drinks (that included bbq lobsters), island hopping, and use of their gear.
My original plan was to sail from Panama to Colombia through San Blas, but most boats don’t take kids under 12 years old. The journey includes two full days of sailing in the open sea and waves can be choppy. For those short on time, you can actually go on a day trip to San Blas Islands from Panama City and these tours will bring you to 4 islands in 1 day.
Learn Surfing on the Beaches of Bocas de Toro
Along the Pacific coast of Panama, you’ll find large swathes of beaches that have world-class swells perfect to learn surfing. Bocas Del Toro is the most famous tourist town next to Panama City. This is perfect for those looking for a more relaxing Panama family vacation.
The main town is on Isla Colon, which has a strong backpacker vibe. There are surf shops and dive shops all over the main strip. Also plenty of tour operators offer dolphin and snorkeling tours from Bocas del Toro.
For families, I recommend staying on Bastimentos (Red Frog Beach) or Cristobal Island. Be sure to book ahead online so that the hotel will pick you up from Isla Colon and drop you back off.
Go Whale Watching off Isla Palenque
Between July 15 to October 15, the humpback whales from the southern hemisphere are often seen migrating through the Gulf of Chiriqui. Most whale watching tours leave from Boca Chica, a small fishing village on the Pacific Coast.
The Gulf of Chiriqui is a 14,740 hectare marine park with around 25 uninhabited islands. They serve as a refuge for howler monkeys, leatherback and hawksbill turtles, tiger herons, and most importantly, humpback whales. Chances of seeing them here are quite high.
Stroll around the Casco Viejo in Panama City
Casco Viejo is Panama City’s historical quarters, which dates all the way back to the 17th century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is constantly undergoing restoration. Just a few years ago, Casco Viejo was quite a dangerous area as it was dominated by the gangs.
But the Old Town has had a complete facelift and the government has gone through lengths to clean it up. Nowadays, the area is packed with trendy cafes, wine bars, and renovated heritage hotels. It is even possible to see the ruins of the city after the Governor burned it down to prevent it from getting looted by pirates.
Visit the Biomuseo in Panama City
An excellent spot in Panama City for kids is the newly built Biomuseo, that came highly recommended by my Panamanian friend. Located on the Amador Causeway, the Biomuseo was constructed to celebrate the biodiversity in Panama. It traces the origins of the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the planet’s biodiversity, and is the fun kind of museum where children can run free.
Frank Gehry, a world famous architect, designed the topsy-turvy structure, and it alone is worth the visit. Inside you will find botanical gardens as well as many other visually stimulating exhibits.
Hike in the Metropolitan Natural Park of Panama City
The Parque Natural Metropolitano is Panama’s only rainforest located within a major city. This park offers a chance to get up close and personal with rainforest flora and fauna without ever having to leave the city.
I recommend hiking up to the highest point: Ancon Hill, where majestic views of the forest and beyond await. The path is paved, and it’s not uncommon to spot various species of tropical birds as well as sloths if you keep on the lookout.
We were very lucky to see a sloth as well as several aguti and coati wandering about the park. To be certain that you’ll see these critters, there are tour guides available to accompany you on your hike. It is also possible to cruise above the canopy via the Canopy Crane Tour, which you can book here.
Eat at Dinos Panama in Panama City
This dinosaur themed restaurant in Metro Mall was a complete surprise (we stumbled upon it while staying at a hotel nearby) and our daughter absolutely loved it. The restaurant was quite a strange ensemble, serving American food in a kids’ cafe setting, but the dinosaurs were actually really impressive.
There were giant T-rex and Stegosaurus that moved and roared, as well as an indoor playground perfect for toddlers. The food was also really good and affordable. Read the Tripadvisor reviews.
What to Pack for Your Panama Family Vacation
My mantra has always been, “the less you pack, the happier you’ll be.” Packing light makes it easier to move around, and allows you to explore more without the extra weight. If you’re traveling with babies, just bring a few jars of puree and yogurt for the flight and stock up at the supermarkets in Panama.
As you’ll be spending lots of time in the water, don’t forget your kids’ floaties and UPF50+ rash guard swim shirt as swimming suits won’t provide enough protection from the sun. You might want to get a full-face snorkeling set for your kids — it makes it much easier for them to learn snorkeling. We bought one for our 4-year-old and it’s is one of the best travel gifts for kids.
If you do plan to go hiking in Boquete, then pack socks and hiking shoes. KEEN footwear is perfect for both hikes and water activities (like walking on corals or waterfalls) as they’re waterproof. Both Kaleya and I wear them.
Packing List for a Panama Family Trip
- SPF 70 Sunscreen for kids
- Mosquito repellent with DEET
- Snorkel mask and fins
- UPF50+ rash guard swim shirt
- Dry bag for snorkeling/kayaking
- Quick-dry towels
- Sun hat that covers the neck
- UV protection swimsuit for kids
- KEEN covered sandals
- Floaties if your kid can’t swim
- SteriPen to sterilize water
- Dramamine for motion sickness
- GoPro Hero 7 for waterproof photos/videos
- Quick-dry t-shirts for the hot weather
How Are People in Panama Like?
Panamanians are generally very easy-going and welcoming. They are especially friendly if you speak Spanish. We took Ubers everywhere we went in Panama City and our drivers were always chatty and helpful.
The indigenous Kuna people who live in tightly-knit communities on the San Blas Islands. They are very protective people and always make sure that tourists are well taken care of. We felt very safe here, and never once did we have any dodgy encounter. The only danger that travelers face is perhaps theft or unsanitary food.
Like most other Latin countries, children are a fundamental part of society in Panama. Families are more than welcomed in hotels and restaurants and on guided tours and trips. Very few hotels do not accept children, and you’ll find that the comparatively early opening hours in restaurants actually favor the routines of younger families.
Do You Need to Speak Spanish to Travel Panama?
Like the rest of Central America, Costa Rica uses Spanish as its official language. In Panama City and the tourist town in Bocas del Toro, you’ll find lots of locals who speak English. We speak Spanish, so this is not a problem for us. But if you don’t, try to learn some basic words before you go.
But in the more remote areas like San Blas, English is scarce. Take the opportunity to expose your kids to a new language and teach them some words like “hola!” (hello), “gracias” (thank you) and “por favor” (please).
Is it Safe to Travel Panama with Kids?
Panama is largely a safe destination to travel around, with far less crime than in neighboring countries. We felt very safe throughout our Panama family vacation, and never once did we have any dodgy encounter (unlike in other parts of Central America like Guatemala and Honduras).
The one exception is the border region between Panama and Colombia, which is considered dangerous due to Colombian rebel groups and drug traffickers.
Some neighborhoods in Panama City are also best avoided — they include El Chorrillo, Curundu and El Marañón. The old quarter, Casco Viejo, used to have a bad reputation but is gentrifying rapidly. It is perfectly safe to visit during the day time.
Taking Care of Your Kids’ Health in Panama
You don’t need specific vaccinations to travel Panama with kids. However, as in most tropical countries, there is a risk of getting infected by mosquito-borne diseases in Panama. We did not get any vaccines for our 4-year-old and she was absolutely fine.
Malaria is only present in the Darien Gap near the border with Colombia. The Darien province is famous for its dense jungles and as a dangerous road/gap between Panama and Colombia.
It’s generally safe to drink tap water in Panama, but not in the San Blas islands. If you’re sailing on a sail boat, free water is usually provided. Bring diarrhoea medication for your kids in case of stomach problems.
Cost of a Panama Family Trip
Panama uses both the US dollars and the Panamanian Balboa, which are of the same value. Panama is generally quite cheap to travel, with the exception of the San Blas Islands as they are very remote and tourism is controlled by the indigenous Kuna people. We went to both Panama and Costa Rica on this trip, and we found Costa Rica to be much more expensive.
Accommodation is generally very affordable in Panama. You can get really good deals at four-star modern hotels in downtown Panama. We paid around US$50/night for what you would cost $100 or more in US. Food is affordable in local eateries but international restaurants are of course much more expensive. You can find cheap meals in the food court for under $10 per person.
Day tours in Panama generally cost around $50-100. A boat trip is usually around US$50-100, while snorkeling trip is around US$80-100.
How to Get Travel Insurance for Kids
I highly recommend getting travel insurance as well as it covers personal loss, theft, and medical as well as COVID risks.
Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
Many travel insurance providers offer free travel insurance to cover kids who are traveling with their parents, or even grandparents. There is usually a one-to-one ratio, that is you usually have to have at least one insured adult per traveling child to earn the free coverage.