The CosmopoliClan tends to spend the yearly winter vacation in a sunny destination. But sun and sea are not all we look for… We always choose a region that allows us to add a hint of adventure and a touch of culture to the mix. This is our magic formula for an amazing holiday with the kids! Generally we determine our destination months ahead but this time we chose to keep the suspense by making up our mind just 3 weeks prior to our mid-February departure. We decided to see where the weather predictions and airline offers would take us. Finally these led us to colorful Panama!
So, okay, this is probably not the most obvious destination for us Europeans. But it comes with a sunshine guarantee during the spring months, is nothing near as unstable as the North-African region and it has a safe reputation when compared to many other Central and also South-American destinations. Just a couple of days after making our booking, the Zika virus became worldwide news. But, since the CosmopoliClan has no intent to grow the family, this could not spoil the fun. Oh, and there was even an added bonus! Our visit would coincide with the carnival festivities. What a unique opportunity to get to know the local culture!
With only 7 days to explore, we decided not to overdo ourselves but instead focus on the direct surroundings of Panama City. Fortunately, there are plenty of activities in and around the capital city. It’s a very cosmopolitan city, surrounded by rainforest and in respect of the traditions. On one side you will find skyscrapers and on the other the old city. As you can tell from the photo, we were lucky enough to oversee both from the panoramic view in our room in the Intercontinental Miramar hotel.
We found Panamanians to be very relaxed, incredible friendly and fond of kids. One would expect that English is widely spoken but it seems that a basic knowledge of Spanish comes in handy after all! The traffic is hectic. We took a taxi on some occasions, but mostly used the hotel’s car service. When driving around it quickly becomes clear that there’s still a lot of poverty. This in spite of the low unemployment rate of around 5%, according to local sources. We were never harassed. Of course the obvious police presence, partly in response to the carnival, might have something to do with that. As a family with young kids, we never tend to wander the streets in the middle of the night. But anyway, we never felt unsafe. We found ourselves in the company of (many) Americans, Argentinians, French, Germans and Dutch nationals.
When googling Panama City you’ll often come across information on a city of the same name in Florida. That’s why it’s best to search for Panama City, Panama. But because of this name confusion, it may prove to be a bit difficult to find a tourist map of our destination. So, we thought we’d save you the trouble by sharing this one.
Top attractions in colorful Panama City
1. Parque Metropolitano
This is a protected part of the rainforest and the green lung of Panama City, about a 20 minute drive away from the center. It covers an area of 232 hectare. Still, the park can be discovered individually by exploring one of the different hiking trails, costing $4 per adult and $2 per child.
With our little girls and under these tropical temperatures we decided to start off modestly by choosing for the less challenging route: the Los Caobos trail. It took us about 2 hours and this turned out to be ideal to keep the kids interested. There were some minor slopes but nothing they couldn’t handle. They loved it. We had hoped to spot the tucans but they never showed. Apparently, they’re mostly active in the
2. Casco Viejo (or Casco Antiguo)
We started our exploration of the historic center at the Plaza de Francia around the golden hour. The streets and corners in this area are very charming and we loved the architecture and the cute souvenir shops.
The Diablicos restaurant is known as an ideal place to experience the flavours of colorful Panama. A ‘diablo sucio’, or dirty devil, welcomed us. And it wouldn’t be the only one they’d meet along the one, so this statue was a good initiation to get used to them.
We chose the ceviche, raw fish marinated with lemon and flavoured with onion, and the local version of the ropa vieja, literally meaning ‘old rags’. The kids thought that was hilarious and thanks to this funny twist they enjoyed it so much more. You can find this dish, consisting of shredded beef and veggies, in practically all Spanish speaking countries but with different local accents. We enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere on the terrace and spent some time people-watching. Alegra even got her own serenade.
3. Amador Causeway
The Amador Causeway connects 4 islands closely located to the Panama canal with the mainland. Originally designed as the canal’s Pacific breakwater, it consists of rocks that were excavated to create the Panama canal. The promenade that runs over the entire length is a popular weekend escape spot for joggers, bikers and families. You’ll even find go-carts that rent. Too bad that the redevelopment kept us from experiencing it. Even the views were blocked. But we did get to see the islands with their marinas, restaurants, ice cream salons and shops.
4. Cinta Costera
When exiting the Amador Causeway, drivers can directly take the Cinta Costera. This is a long road partially built on an impressive bridge encircling the old center to continue along the bay up to the modern center. Again plenty of space is reserved for relaxation. A wide and beautifully designed promenade separates it from the bay. Along the biker and pedestrian lanes you will find play areas and sports fields making also this area a hotspot for Panamanians and tourists alike.
5. Folkloric show
We indulged in a delicious traditional dinner and folkloric dance act in a restaurant called Las Tinajas. What a performance!
6. Cerro Ancon
The Ancon is a hill near the center offering the most amazing views of colorful Panama City. We could have climbed our way to the top but opted for the comfort of a car. There’s only a single lane but down the hill and at the top there are agents to arrange the traffic. We had Panama-City at our feet!
7. Mercado de mariscos (seafood market)
The seafood market is next to Casco Antiguo and we had been told that the surrounding restaurants offered the best ceviche. Upon arrival the market seemed a bit smaller than we’d anticipated but this was not our main impression. The lack of hygiene unfortunately was. It kinda put a brake on our appetite. Nevertheless the kids got to examine all kinds of local fish and seafood.
8. Panama Canal & Gamboa
One of the biggest highlights in Central America is the Panama Canal. Our visit there was such an amazing experience that I’ve written an entire post about it. Go check it out! Click here to read all about our day at the Panama canal.
We had an awesome time in colorful Panama-city! Its many attractions, and our awesome beach trip to Contadora Island, definitely convinced us to return and explore more of this amazing country. This might even be our starting point for future travels to other Central and even South-American countries.
Have you been lucky enough to explore Panama? Or is there another country in Central or South America that we should visit with kids? We can’t wait to hear from you. So, don’t be shy and start commenting!