Exploring Panama Beyond the Panama Canal Zone
Children greet visitors to their Embera village in Panama.
Colorful buildings make good photo ops in Casco Viejo, Panama City.
Frank Gehry designed the playful Biodiversity Museum in Panama City.
The Hard Rock Megapolis pool has a selfie-worthy view of the Panama City skyline.
Panama City seen from the water.

The last time I really thought about the Panama Canal was back in middle school, when I studied how it transformed global trade routes when it opened in 1914. But then I began hearing rave reviews from several friends who had vacationed there. Suddenly it was on my travel radar. I learned firsthand what a fascinating historic and fun destination it is when I recently got to experience it for myself.

Sitting between two oceans and two continents, a visit to Panama is part history lesson, part immersion in another country’s culture, part gastronomic extravaganza and part beautiful weather and beaches. You can sunbathe, visit rain forests and coffee plantations, horseback ride and surf, go ziplining and birdwatch (apparently there is some of the best birdwatching in the world).

It’s a hot destination these days for families who want adventure – and good weather, too. Plus, the American dollar is the paper currency of choice and it’s a quick direct flight from the United States. So how can you go wrong?

The Beat of the Panama Canal

Head first to the canal, called the eighth wonder of the world and a monument to mankind’s ingenuity. Try to time your visit to see the big ships passing through so you can see the process in action. The best times are usually 9am-11am and 3pm-5pm, but check the schedule on the Canal de Panama website.

At the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, be sure to watch the short movie first, to learn the history of the 100-year-old canal and the recent massive expansion. You’ll learn that about 35 to 40 ships pass through every day, taking 8 to 9 hours each as the locks raise ships 85 feet above sea level and then down again. In the interactive exhibition hall, kids can actually make a miniature system of locks work to see how the boats pass through from one ocean to another.

Exploring Historic Casco Viejo

Many people warned me about safety in Panama City and, although there is a police presence, you do need to remain alert. I was always with a group and we didn’t have any issues during our visit and enjoyed our sightseeing..

Take a morning or afternoon to walk through Casco Viejo, the city’s colonial quarter, and visit the churches, admire the colorful Spanish architecture (reminiscent of both the French Quarter in New Orleans and San Juan, Puerto Rico) and shop in the local stores for souvenirs. If you’re lucky, you may catch a local band playing in one of the renovated squares.

There are markets along the water where locals sell their beautiful beaded necklaces and carved sculptures. And don’t forget to buy an authentic Panama hat. (They’ll show you how to pack it so it won’t crush.). The weather is usually hot here, so stop for an ice cold mojito (you can get them virgin or spiked) from one of the many corner vendors in a myriad of flavors including coconut and mango.

Panama City Biodiversity

Another not-to-miss stop is the new BioMuseo – Museum of BioDiversity, a Rubix-cube-like structure designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry (who has a Panamanian wife.) The bold red, yellow, green and blue panels reflect its tropical environment and tree like design. Kids will love the three-story projection space with 10 screens immersing visitors in an audio-visual experience of the natural marvels of Panama’s ecosystems.

Over 43,000 square feet of exhibit space that tells the story of the isthmus and the diverse species that live there. Eventually there will be two aquariums located there as well.

It’s worth taking a stroll around the building to admire its unique structure. Located on the Amador Causeway, you’ll get great views of the modern city skyline in one direction and the mountains in the distance, plus the Bridge of the Americas nearby.

Natural Panama & Village Life on the Chargres River

Head out of town. We took an hour bus ride and then a motorized dugout canoe through the jungle on the Chargres River to the Emberá Waterfall, where we swam in the cold water below. (If you go, bring sturdy water shoes since you’ll walk on rocks; not for very young children.)

Then we boated to the nearby Emberá village of thatched-roof homes where a community of indigenous people live, removed from the rest of the world, holding fast to their ancient dress and traditions. They feed themselves by fishing and farming and live without electricity or running water (a good lesson for our electronics-obsessed kids). The beautiful, friendly children eyed us shyly and happily played with our iPhones, perhaps making it clear that all children have a fascination with the devices.

The women and children danced for us and then asked us to join in. Before leaving, we perused – and purchased – beautiful, intricately woven baskets and beaded necklaces they had created.

Floating along the water back to our van, our guide pointed out a family of sloths high up in the trees. Such an adventure is a great opportunity for American children studying Spanish to practice by talking to the local children and even joining in for a game of soccer.

There are many other day trips to be had, including whale watching in the waters right near the city  Apparently, humpback whales from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres come to Panama to breed and give birth so you may see whole families and dozens of species.

Hard Rock Life in Panama City

My home base in Panama City was the Hard Rock Hotel Megapolis– centrally located right in the heart of the bustling city, just 20 minutes from Tocumen International Airport and 15 minutes from the canal.

With 1,400 rooms on 66 floors, numerous bars, restaurants and nightclubs, an impressive gym, luxurious spa, large infinity pool, four hot tubs and much more, you don’t even need to leave the hotel; but you will want to, to see all the country has to offer. I was enamored with the breakfast buffet, especially all the options of fresh fruit and a juice bar where you can mix up a refreshing, healthy treat of tropical flavors.

Hotel Reflects Each Guest’s Vibe

Another bonus is a free playlist curated just for you; there’s also a guitar to play in your room. (Don’t worry, parents, it comes with headphones so your kids can rock out and you won’t hear a thing). I also loved how every staff person not only has their name on a guitar pick-shaped nametag, but also their favorite band; a great conversation starter.

Kids will love how the Hard Rock is a virtual rock ‘n roll museum from the lobby to every corridor on each floor. Ask the concierge for a tour, or just do it yourself. Make a scavenger hunt to find your favorite artists. You’ll find Prince’s gloves, Elvis’ jumpsuit and Eric Clapton’s guitar, to name just a few items on display. Near my room hung 50 Cent’s jacket and outside the gym was a collection of Beatles memorabilia.

There’s also a teen room stocked with huge screens and video games galore for those kids who need their gaming fix (hopefully after a day of touring).

Rock Out to Your Own Spa Time

For parents who want a night out, the hotel has nannies for hire. Go dancing at the Bling Club or hit Bits, the rooftop lounge for a 360 degree view of the sparkling city below and a wide selection of cocktails served outdoors under a starry night sky.

How much cooler can a massage get than the Hard Rock Panama Megapolis’ new Rhythm & Motion musical spa experience. Your table gently pulsates as the bass vibrations flow beneath you and your masseuse kneads your muscles in sync to the tunes pouring out of a speaker right overhead. Organic essential oils to reduce stress, ease muscle tension and detoxify made it a complete immersive experience I didn’t want to end.

If you have a Week in Panama 

If you need some beach time, you can take a short flight to one of several nearby areas for some R&R in the sun. Head to Bocas del Toro, a group of jungle-covered islands on the Caribbean side, with sparsely populated beaches known for surfing and excellent snorkeling. You may even spot some wildlife including monkeys, sloths, toucans and more. Stay in a boutique hotel or an eco-lodge. Or try Las Olas Beach Resort on the Pacific Ocean, for a relaxing hideaway. 

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