anama is a Central American Rip Van
Winkle waking from a long, deep sleep. For years this odd-shaped
country, the land bridge between North and South America, was so
wrapped in the embrace of the U.S. that it existed in the minds of
most as "the country with the canal."
But today Panama is very much awake and is very actively
promoting itself as one of the most ecologically diverse,
culturally rich, tourist-friendly destinations in the world.
And as tourism gains traction, Panama has taken aim at
developing its family travel product, with the Gamboa Rainforest
Resort taking the lead.
It's arguably the country's preeminent destination for curious,
adventurous families with somewhat older children.
Laura deArment of Solar Tours, a Washington-based wholesaler,
said at least half of the clients she and the travel agents who
work with her send to Gamboa are families.
"Gamboa is perfect for the better-educated, better-traveled,
curious family," she said. "The activities are creative and
interesting, the staff is helpful, they all speak English. The
reviews we receive are all very positive."
Gamboa, about 17 miles from downtown Panama City and 31 miles
from Tocumen Airport, is a spectacular place.
Set within the 55,000-acre Soberania National Park, a protected
rain forest, Gamboa is surrounded by vivid vegetation, birds the
colors of stained glass and an ecosystem that's the basis for its
Gamboa has hosted dignitaries from former President Jimmy Carter
to Queen Sophia of Spain and Prince Hitachi of Japan.
But, for all that, it's laid-back, unpretentious and
The visiting families I've seen here create instant cultural
Herman Bern, director of marketing and a scion of the family that
owns Bern Hotels and Resorts (which, in turn, owns and manages
Gamboa, Miramar InterContinental Panama, Suites Ambassador and
Holiday Inn Panama) made it clear that the property was designed
for families from its inception.
"Not just parents with children," he said, "but uncles, aunts,
grandparents. We are seeing the face of family travel change, and
reunions are very big here. I come from a close family, so it's a
personal matter that we serve families."
Bern said every aspect of Gamboa, from placement of beds to
landscaping, was undertaken with family travel in mind.
Each room is furnished in what the resort calls "tropical
elegance" -- colorful prints, vivid fabrics and light-blond wicker
But the balconies, complete with hammock and uninterrupted views
of the broad Chagres River, the rain forest and sprawling botanical
gardens, are the most compelling feature.
The vast, all-glass main lobby with Tiffany lamps and
chandeliers offers a panoramic view of the wilderness and, in the
distance, the Panama Canal.
All this creates a fun Indiana Jones-type adventure.
Panama and Gamboa make a point of helping clients, especially
families, understand the delicate balance and beauty of the rain
forest's ecosystem, so the various paths and trails lead to a frog
research pond, a freshwater fish aquarium and, a family favorite,
the turtle and iguana nesting area.
The kids I saw, between ages 8 and 14, especially appreciated
the reptile exhibit and butterfly nursery.
Families note: These are not random wildlife exhibits or tacky
tourist traps. The on-property attractions are staffed by
Smithsonian researchers who manage to make learning enjoyable and
The model Embera Indian Village, for example, and the nighttime
Wildlife Boat Tour or Kayaking on the Chagres River, where the
keen-eyed get to see Toucans feeding in the trees, are memorable
Gamboa's accommodations include 107 rooms and suites, plus 48
refurbished villas dating to the 1930s, when they housed the
families of the Panama Canal workers.
Gamboa has tennis courts, a marina, a nearby golf course, three
restaurants and two bars.
Los Lagartos, the most interesting restaurant, is on the
resort's marina and serves tropical cuisine and features views of
huge, hulking ships transiting the canal.
Bern said Gamboa's family package, the three-night Gamboa Family
Getaway, (see related sidebar Gamboa: Where active folks meet sloths)
appeals to families who seem to be taking more frequent but shorter
Patrick Hogan of Elegant Adventures in Atlanta and a father of
two said Gamboa and the package are perfect for those who have
"done Disney and are seeking a cultural and educational
Hogan added that clients need the advice and guidance of travel
agents in booking Gamboa, and agents often need the advice of tour
operators -- because the destination still is so new and the travel
experience anything but routine.
Kaleel Sakakeeny covers the family travel market for Travel
Weekly. He can be reached at [email protected].
• • •
Panama: Facts and tidbits
• Yes, the water is drinkable.
• The national currency is the Balboa, but U.S. dollars are
• A valid U.S. passport is necessary and a tourist card must be
purchased at the airport for $5.
• Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services in Washington places
Panama in the highest category of tourist safety.
• For more information on Panama, contact the Panama Tourism Bureau
at (011) 507 260-7000 or visit www.panamatours.com.