FAMILY TRAVEL GUIDE TO PANAMA
Our primary reason for going to Panama was to be able to say we drove all the way through Central America and also to traverse the Panama Canal as line handlers. We had read that private sailboats going through the Canal often need additional adults to meet the Canal Authority’s rules to have someone in each corner of the boat. This requirement ensures someone to secure lines from the walls of the canal to the boat so the boat doesn’t knock around as the locks fill with and discharge water. While we were in country, we also made like Christopher Columbus circa 1502 and checked out the islands and reefs of Bocas del Toro, walked the beaches and wrestled in the surf at Santa Catalina on the Pacific Coast, and visited a popular cloud forest hostel near the continental divide that boasts a jungle treasure hunt. All prices quoted below are in USD as Panama uses the USD as its currency.
We entered Panama from Costa Rica on the northwest side of the country (Caribbean side) at Sixaola-Guabito. See here for information about the border crossing.
Our first stop was Bocas del Toro, an archipelago located near the northwest Panama-Costa Rica border. The islands are accessible only by a 30-minute water-taxi ride ($6 per person) from the ramshackle built on stilts-village of Almirante. We paid $3 a day to leave our van in a secure parking lot just a short walk from the port.
On Isla Colon, in Bocas Town, we stayed at Hotel La Ola ($80 for two rooms – one for the kids and one for the parents, and slow wifi). The hotel offered a decent happy hour and the town has everything you might need with restaurants offering various international options, bars offering local beers and cocktails, a good grocery, and a few language schools. Most of the locals on the island speak English and it should be easy to arrange tours to go surfing, snorkeling, dolphin viewing, diving, sailing, or any combination of options.
Bocas, and Panama in general, is really hot and there weren’t any good places to swim in town that we found. Instead, we hired a boat for $100 (we paid too much) for four hours to take the family to see dolphins and to snorkel at two different spots. The waters were warm, the fish (and starfish) plentiful, and we had fun. There are also opportunities to visit the indigenous communities of the Ngobe-Bugle for families with willing children.
There is also a Smithsonian research facility on the island and if you are lucky, you can arrange to have one of the scientists explain some of what they are experimenting on and why. We showed up unannounced one afternoon and got a tour of the facility from two American interns. We learned a lot about sea anemones and water temperature.
Back on the mainland, there’s one road that connects Almirante, Chiriqui Grande, and this part of the country to the PanAmericana and the rest of the country. Along that road, which climbs into the Cordillera de Talamanca and crosses the Fortuna hydroelectric dam, is the Lost and Found Hostel ($50 for private cabana, shared bathroom, with discount we received after meeting and talking with the Canadian owner/slow wifi). The hostel is reached via a short hike up a mountain, and advertises itself as a backpacker/party hostel, but offered a variety of free activities that we found intriguing. In particular, we were interested in the jungle treasure hunt advertised on the website.
We emailed ahead to make a reservation (recommended) and asked about the prudence of bringing our kids to a hostel that hosts nightly games of naked Jenga. We were told that although things sometimes get out of hand, they could reserve us the four-person bungalow they had far from the madding crowd. We took it, and were glad we did as the place had pretty views, the treasure hunt was challenging (it took us five hours) but fun (we had a refreshing swim in the clear waters of a mountain river), and there was a rescue kinkajou (honey bear) named Rocky to play with.
The hostel also organizes paid coffee, horseback, and flora and fauna tours, and can direct you to other free hikes in addition to the jungle treasure hunt. There is a second treasure hunt involving riddles and breaking codes but we didn’t do it because we ran out of time. If you don’t want to haul food and stuff up the mountain to cook for yourself in the shared kitchen, the hostel offers family style meals for a small fee ($6) that were decent but not outstanding.
The drive to Panama City from Chiriqui province is long, even if you don’t travel as slowly as we do. We split the drive into two days and spent a night in the city of Santiago at the Plaza Hotel ($62/slow wifi). The hotel had a pool and was clean and there is a shopping mall with a food court and movie theater nearby but nothing else to recommend.
If you are going to Panama City, you want to stay in the old city center of Casco Viejo. There are lots of historical sites and museums here, relaxing plazas bordered by quaint streets where many of the old buildings are being beautifully restored, and many restaurants and other night life. It is also safe - we parked our van on the street for free for a week with no problem.
Our visit to the Canal Museum was a highlight. There is a great walking (or jogging) a path with views across the causeway to the modern city and Casco Viejo is also within walking distance of the famous fish market for delicious and cheap ceviche. It’s easy to catch a taxi to Cerro Ancon as well for a moderate hike to enjoy great views of the city.
While in Casco Viejo we stayed in a private room at the beautiful Magnolia Inn ($80/good wifi) which doubled as a hotel and hostel. We used their clean and very well stocked shared kitchen and can also recommend the hostel beds even though we didn’t sleep in them because the setting seemed so nice. They hostel beds are located on the beautifully spacious open and breezy top floor, and have couches to sprawl out on to talk with fellow travelers and lockers.
The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center is an easy and interesting day trip to climb an observation deck that puts you spitting distance of enormous container ships as the Panama Canal locks work to lower them to the Pacific. A bit pricey at $15/adults and $10/children, but worth it for the up close view of ships transiting the Canal. While we were there, the transits were narrated and we learned a lot.
Shelter Bay Marina, near Colon on the Caribbean side, and the Balboa Yacht Club, in Panama City, are the places to organize a trip through the canal as a line handler. We camped in the parking lot at Shelter Bay on the Caribbean side for a couple of days and walked the marina asking the owners of all the fancy- looking boats if they needed line handlers. We eventually connected with a Brazilian family headed to Costa Rica that needed two more adults and they took us through the canal on their boat for free – we only provided our own drink and grub. This was a great experience for adults and kids alike – though, it gets very hot on the water during the day so make sure the boat you get on has lots of shade! For more information on linehandling, check out the Panama Line Handlers site, set up specifically for connecting yachts with potential line handlers. There's also a public Panama Cruisers facebook group. March - April are peak seasons for yachts transiting the canal and is the best time to get a gig as a line handler.
Each private boat that traverses the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific must stop to complete paperwork at the Balboa Yacht Club. When we got dropped off, we high-tailed it to the Panama City Country Inn & Suites ($76/good wifi) right next door to the Balboa Yacht Club. There is also an open area on the opposite end of the Yacht Club from the hotel where overlanders camp, but it was too hot for us. There was nothing special about the hotel room, but the place was air-conditioned, had a pool, and the included breakfast was outstanding. They also have washing machines for use for guests.
We did not have plans to ship our van to Columbia and continue our journey into South America because our year was almost up. Rather than drive straight out of Panama, however, we decided to check out a Panama beach break. Santa Catalina fit the bill and is easily accessible by a well-maintained but curvy road that ends at the beach. If you turn left before you reach the sand, the road follows along the top of the cliff. We stayed along here at Surfers Paradise ($60/slow wifi), which had beautiful views of the sunset over the ocean. The hotel rents surf boards, but they are cheaper to rent at the beach and you don’t have to carry them down the cliff and back.
Our next stop was the Waterfall Hostel ($40/slow wifi) just north of David. It has a small and unspectacular waterfall to swim in and a couple of wading pools which are nice to combat the oppressive heat, but our recommendation to you is to skip this place. We only stopped because some people we wanted to meet from our Worldschoolers FB group were hostel-sitting the place. Better if you carry on past the Waterfall Hostel to the mountain-top, ex-pat enclave of Boquete. We heard great things about this town but didn’t get there to check it out ourselves and we regret it.
We exited Panama for Costa Rica after nineteen days at Paso Canoas, located on the southwest side of the country along the Interamericana highway. It was an easy border crossing that you can read about here.