Owl butterflies can be found in Panama’s rainforests. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Jungle hikes are a highlight of a stay at Dreams Delight Playa Bonita Panama. // © 2017 AMResorts
Whether you’re tracking an owl butterfly as big as your hand or learning about prehistoric animals in the new Biomuseo, it’s tough to beat Panama for family travel. Boasting miles of coastline, lush rainforests and a newly expanded Panama Canal, this Latin American country linking North and South America is home to a unique mix of ecosystems and attractions. Here are five adventures in and around Panama City that are guaranteed to thrill every family member.
Opened in 2014, the Biomuseo — designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry and situated on the Amador Causeway — is a striking addition to Panama City’s skyline. From a distance, the museum of biodiversity resembles a jumble of Lego blocks. Inside, its atrium feels like the trunk of a giant ceiba tree, with the museum’s eight display galleries serving as branches.
The museum, which was designed in consultation with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, includes highlights such as Panamarama, a floor-to-ceiling audio-visual projection of the country’s different ecosystems. There’s also Building the Bridge, where young travelers can learn about the geological creation of the Isthmus of Panama, a land bridge connecting North and South America that allowed for the migration of many species. Worlds Collide features sculptures of the migrating animals, including the dire wolf, an extinct carnivore that was the largest canine in the world.
Families craving a mix of history, nature and culture can find it all in Casco Viejo (Panama City’s Old Quarter), a pocket of beautifully restored buildings set on Panama Bay. Must-sees within the UNESCO World Heritage Site include Iglesia de la Merced church and the atmospheric ruins of the convent of Santo Domingo, as well as Iglesia San Jose church, which features a mahogany altar covered in gold leaf that survived the sacking of Old Panama by English pirate Henry Morgan. Don’t miss the monument to Latin America hero Simon Bolivar, who is depicted with an Andean condor. And since Panama is one of the world’s top bird migration routes, visitors can often spot birds of prey, such as turkey vultures and hawks, on the waterfront of Casco Viejo.
Situated at the southeast end of Gatun Lake and along the Chagres River, Gamboa is just a 45-minute drive from downtown Panama City but feels a world away from the busy metropolis. Once the headquarters for canal dredging operations, Gamboa is now a hub for adventures into a lush rainforest home to 525 species of birds.
With Gamboa Tours, visitors can take an aerial tram ride through the forest canopy, hike to an observation lookout offering 360-degree views and explore ecological exhibits, including a frog sanctuary populated by poison dart frogs. Then, families will journey by boat through backwater mangroves to look for troops of Panama’s seven species of monkeys, including tamarin, white-faced capuchin and even the endangered black spider monkey.
Nature might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Panama Canal, but a visit to the Miraflores Visitor Center offers families an immersion into Panama’s biodiversity, as well as an introduction to modern engineering.
The experience begins with an informative video explaining the construction of the 48-mile canal, a challenging effort that began in the 1880s. The museum’s exhibition halls include the Hall of Water: Source of Life gallery, where kids can measure their body’s water composition and learn facts about Panama’s watersheds. From the outdoor observation decks, it’s possible to witness the real-life transit of a ship through the lock system.
This sweeping crescent of palm-fringed sand, located nearby the Bridge of the Americas, once served the recreational needs of the Fort Kobbe military base. Playa Bonita is now best known for its impressive Pacific tides, rainforest trails and luxury resorts.
A top stay is the 307-room Dreams Delight Playa Bonita Panama, a family-friendly resort where eco-adventures include kayaking, archery lessons and exploring tidal pools filled with marine life. During the resort’s guided morning hike, guests can expect to see sloths, monkeys and even tarantula nests. The hotel’s new Defined Delights concept, launched May 1, is designed for active families, offering the conveniences of an all-inclusive vacation along with the flexibility to enjoy off-property adventures.