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It’s also ideal for groups with teens or tweens. While younger children are

happy with the organized activities of a Kid’s Club, it’s trickier to find travel

experiences that satisfy older kids’ needs for independence and excitement.

Our base in Panama City is the 307-room Dreams Delight Playa Bonita, an

all-inclusive resort situated across Panama City’s Bridge of the Americas, on

a palm-fringed stretch of sand known for impressive Pacific tides. The location

offers the conveniences of a buffet and beachfront vacation along with the

flexibility to enjoy offsite adventures.

Its setting at the edge of a rain-forested peninsula means you don’t have to go

far to experience nature. Our first evening, we watch a condor swoop past our

terrace, spy a giant walking stick insect and fall asleep listening to the surf roll in.

The next morning, we opt for independent exploring. The receding tide has

left tidal pools along the shoreline where budding marine biologists can scout

for urchins, crabs and shells. In the afternoon we adjust to the hot, humid

weather by participating in the resort’s activity program, which includes

kayaking, archery lessons, Latin dance lessons and guided jungle hikes.

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Ultimate Family Vacations | SPRING 2018

SPRING 2018 | Ultimate Family Vacations

21

Traditional dishes such as

sancocho

(chicken

soup), offer an authentic taste of local cuisine.

Ready to explore beyond the resort, we

head next to Casco Viejo, Panama City’s Old

Quarter, a 15-minute shuttle ride away. Founded

in 1673, this UNESCO World Heritage Site

features beautifully restored buildings on

Panama Bay. We step inside the Iglesia de

San Jose to admire a mahogany altar covered

in gold leaf that survived the sacking of Old

Panama by pirate Henry Morgan and then

marvel at the atmospheric ruins of the convent

of Santo Domingo.

While much of the Old Quarter has been

restored, it’s scruffy around the edges with

pockets of poverty. Yet it pulses with life. We

watch a father set an inflatable swimming pool

in a barrio alleyway and fill it with water for two

toddlers who splash happily.

The urban images of inequality stay with us.

Back at the resort, my grandson meets up with

his pals playing water volleyball. He gets ready

to join them but then stops to help a young

employee who is pushing a cart laden with wet

pool towels up a steep hill. They talk — mostly

hand gestures — but I hear a few Spanish words

like

gracias

and

de nada

.

Over the next few days we immerse ourselves in

the natural landscape north of Panama City near

Soberania National Park. An organized tour

begins at the Gamboa base camp at the edge

of the Chagres River, the world’s only river that empties

into two oceans. Towering trees and big-wheeled trucks

in camouflage colours lend the place a

Jurassic

Park

-esque air.

It’s a short hike through the rainforest, surprisingly cool

beneath the leafy canopy. A blue morpho butterfly flits

across our path and we’re soon at our objective, gliding

through the treetops on an aerial tram. From a lookout

tower, we see the Panama Canal, a blue slash through

the jungle.

During an earlier stop at the Panama Canal Miraflores

Visitor Center, we’d learned about the construction of the

77-kilometre canal, a challenge that began in the 1880s

and cost the lives of thousands of workers as they carved

this route through the jungle. While we’d gained an

appreciation of this engineering marvel at the museum,

seeing the canal within its primordial setting is humbling.

Donning life jackets and armed with binoculars, we begin the

next phase of our Gamboa adventure: A boat journey to Monkey

Island across mirrored Gatun Lake. We don’t wait long before we

encounter wildlife. A crocodile slides from the shallows. A snail kite

with a hooked bill alights from the branch of a tree and a turtle basks

on a log. Then, a rumbling noise shakes the trees.

“Howlers,” says my grandson who recognizes their cry from our

travels in Costa Rica.

“Panama is home to seven species of monkeys, “ says the guide

allowing our boat to drift closer to shore. We sit silently waiting

for the elusive Geoffroy’s tamarin, the smallest monkey in Central

America, to make an appearance. We’re soon rewarded by the sight

of a troop of tiny monkeys, each no bigger than my hand.

To learn more, we spend the next afternoon exploring the Museum

of Biodiversity, situated on the Amador Causeway near Dreams

Playa Bonita. Designed by the celebrated Canadian-born architect

Frank Gehry, it contains colourful galleries such as The Great

Exchange depicting the migration of species across the Isthmus

of Panama, a land bridge connecting North and South America.

Life-sized sculptures of extinct creatures such as the woolly

mammoth and the dire wolf, the largest canine the world has ever

seen, tower over us.

It’s dismaying to face the scale of the planet’s disappearing species.

Yet the exhibits also offer hope. New species are being discovered

and others are adapting.

“It’s all part of the cycle of life,” I say.

“Just like the swimming iguana and those duck eggs,” says my

grandson.

DREAMS PUNTA BONITA ON PLAYA BONITA BEACH ©AMRESORTS

LOOKING FOR MONKEYS NEAR MONKEY ISLAND

ON GATUN LAKE PANAMA ©MICHELE PETERSON

CARGO SHIP ENTERING THE PANAMA CANAL

IGLESIA DE SAN JOSE CHURCH