fun things to do with kids panama canal rain forests panama   Travel for Kids

Panama – Panama Canal (and Rain Forests)

Panama Canal
Visiting the Panama Canal is a real eye-opener for kids – it's not a straight narrow canal at all, but a system of locks, which lift ships up from sea level (and lower the ships to sea level at the other end), plus a huge lake, Lake Gatun. Lake Gatun is a reservoir for tons of water to pump into (and out of) the locks. Completed in 1914, the story of the Canal construction is fascinating, and seeing the Panama Canal in action is memorable. All along the Canal are spectacular rain forests, teeming with exotic plants and animals.
Miraflores Locks Panama Canal
  Miraflores Locks and Visitors Center – When you visit the Panama Canal, make the Miraflores Locks your first stop. There's a brand new visitors center – two viewing areas over the locks (shaded from hot sun or rain), video presentation about the Canal transfer from America to Panama in 1999, museum with excellent hands-on exhibits, snack bar and sit-down restaurant.
    The first floor of the museum has exhibits about the construction of the Canal – history of French and American workers and engineers, models of steam shovels and trains that moved all the dirt. The second floor is devoted to the wildlife in and around the Canal – insects and butterflies, and aquarium tanks with fish that live in Lake Gatun. The third floor was our favorite: the Canal in action. Step into the ship-handling simulator, a full-size room – kids can stand behind the wheel of a ship. Or watch a time-lapse video of boats going through the Canal, and a big lighted wall map. On the fourth floor, find out about all the different ships that transit the Canal.
    Allow plenty of time to visit the museum, and then just spend time watching ships in the locks – some of the Panamax ships are so big, it's hard to believe that they fit! When you arrive at the visitors center, ask at the desk for the schedule – they know when boats will be going through the two locks.
    Partial canal transit – Take a four - five hour trip through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks. It's an incredible sensation to feel the water flowing out of the locks, and the boat dropping each level, or the locks filling up and the boat rising to the next level. Partial transits of the canal are available on Saturdays. Ask at your hotel for a company to arrange your tour.
Tapir Panama
  Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo – Along the canal, on the road to Gamboa, the Summit zoo and botanical gardens are a great place to spend the afternoon with kids. The zoo isn't all that extensive or fancy, but it features Panama wildlife – magnificent harpy eagles (national bird of Panama), brilliant scarlet macaws, adorable tapirs, noisy monkeys and chubby jaguars. The botanical gardens, with large expanses of grass and picnic tables under shady trees, are perfect for a picnic lunch. There are also three large playgrounds with swings, slides, and teeter-totters.
    Go for a walk or hike in Parque Nacional Soberania – The Panama Canal is flanked by tropical rain forests, and as you drive out of Panama City, just a few minutes down the road, you'll find yourself in gorgeous green "jungle."
Panama rain forest
    Sendero El Charco (El Charco Trail) – The trail sign is visible on the road from Panama City to Gamboa. This self-guided nature trail through the rain forest is a gem, and enjoyable for everyone in the family. The loop trail follows a crystal clear stream, amidst hanging vines and trees so dense, the sky is barely visible (markers in Spanish and English have fascinating facts about rain forest flora). When we hiked this trail, shortly after we crossed over the stream on a wooden bridge, peals of thunder overwhelmed the quiet hum of insects, then the howler monkeys let loose. Rain started to pour down, but only a gentle rain penetrated the luxuriant canopy above. Tiny frogs leaped under our feet as we walked along. The rain forest in the rain, with thunder and howler monkeys, was absolutely magical. Wear shoes or sandals that can get wet (even without a rain shower, the rain forest is pretty drippy).
      Sendero Las Cruces (Las Cruces Trail) – Here's where you can follow in the footsteps of the old Spanish trail, the Camino de Cruces, where pack mules transported treasure from Panama City across the isthmus to waiting ships on the Caribbean. (Pretend you're Sir Francis Drake, the English privateer, who stole a fortune from the pack mules.) At the beginning of the trail are the original smooth stones of the Camino de Cruces, then the trail continues as a dirt, and it goes on and on – you can hike for miles. From Panama City, where the road forks left to Gamboa, go right to Camino Las Cruces – the trail sign is visible from the road (across from the trailhead is a large cannon). Also on the same road, stop to see La Cascada, a small but lovely waterfall by the side of the road.
    Gamboa Aerial Tram – At the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, ride the aerial tram through the canopy for an up-close view of plants and animals that live in the upper regions of the rain forest (think of how much fun your kids will have with their rain forest reports in school). After the tram ride, visit the butterfly house to see fifteen different kinds of butterflies, the snake house (the poisonous snakes are fascinating), fish aquarium and reptile house, plus model of an Embera Indian village. Tram and exhibits takes about 2 ½ hours, call in advance for reservations (507) 314.9000.
Lake Gatun Panama
  Boat trips on Lake Gatun – Take a boat trip on Lake Gatun (Lago Gatun) for spectacular wildlife and to see the gigantic ships pass by. Lake Gatun is an extensive lake, with many inlets and small islands covered with pristine rain forest. From our shallow-bottomed, boat, we saw toucans, river otters, howler monkey babies playing in the trees, spider monkeys hanging by their tails and eating fruit, a crocodile lurking in the water (perfectly camouflaged to look like a rock), tiny long-nosed bats stuck on a tree branch, a three-toed sloth sleeping in the trees, tamarinds, and many types of birds. This is just a fabulous way to see the rain forest. Also on the lake, you'll see the dredging equipment on the lake (the lake has to be dredged continually) and huge container ships and tankers up-close. This is a must-see day trip – it's the best of wildlife and big ships combined, and fun for everyone in the family.
    Gatun Locks – It's worth a day trip to the other side of the isthmus to see the Gatun Locks, three in a row locks, and the Gatun Dam.
kids books panama
What Is the Panama Canal?  
What is the Panama Canal?
Janet B. Pascal, Tim Foley

Exciting history of one of the most dangerous engineering projects in the world, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Photos and drawings of the construction, leaders and events. (Illustrated chapter book)


The Panama Canal
Elizabeth Mann, Fernando Rangel

Before you visit the Panama Canal, read the exciting story of this engineering feat – lock and lakes design, how the canal was constructed, building the three sets of locks on the Atlantic and Pacific, and two page spread of how the canal works. (Picture book)


The Panama Canal - kids books Panama
(More children's books on other Panama pages)
travel for kids | panama | panama canal
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