There are myriad ways to experience Panama’s most famous attraction! One of the most popular options is to visit the Miraflores Locks but my favourite way to experience the Panama Canal with kids is by taking a boat tour of the canal’s backwaters and Gatun Lake.
Gatun Lake Boat Tour: Where do you go?
Often referred to as The Monkey Island Adventure, the tour starts at the Chagres River in Gamboa (20km north of Miraflores), taking visitors up the main shipping path of the canal and into Lake Gatun. Lake Gatun is the artificial lake that the canal runs through. Bordering this lake are many islands and hidden waterways that are teeming with wildlife and fun to explore at a slower pace.
The largest island, Barro Colorado, operates as a wildlife research centre for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and is where many ground-breaking scientific discoveries have taken place. After cruising the maze of backwaters, the boat backtracks down the canal, ending the tour where it started.
We’ve been on this tour a couple of times now and had very different experiences on each trip. On our first trip (which lasted approximately one hour), we heard Howler monkeys, caught a glimpse of a caiman and a sloth, spotted countless birds and had our boat hijacked by a cheeky – but very friendly – troop of Capuchin monkeys.
The second time was during a torrential downpour in the rainy season. Although the boat had a roof, the rain hit us from the sides and we all got very wet! As such, the tour was a lot shorter (approximately 40 mins) and we didn’t see any monkeys or crocodiles. And yet, chugging up the Panama Canal is an experience you are unlikely to regret, no matter what the weather does. You can even crank up the adventure and take this tour in the dark on a Night Safari Boat ride (just mind the bats!)
How to book a Gatun Lake Boat Tour
There are a number of operators who offer this tour. We booked our trips through Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Tours depart from their reception desk. It’s best to call ahead in advance to reserve your spot.
Prices: USD $35 / 17.50 Adult / Child
Lifejackets are available in all sizes, including a small selection for kids. However, it is worth bringing your own if you have them as the thick neck pads are not particularly comfortable.
Fishing in the Panama Canal & Lake Gatun
Fishing in Lake Gatun is something my husband enjoys, both with or without the children. His purpose is more to enjoy the peaceful surroundings with a beer in hand rather than catching dinner for the whole family (the Pacific waters are better for that!). He usually goes in his friend’s boat, but angling tours can also be arranged by Gamboa Rainforest Resort and other operators. Although we have no first hand experience of this service, a friend of mine treated her dad to one of their fishing trips and he said it was one of the best day’s fishing he’s had. Given that most fishing trips are 3 to 6 hours this is perhaps less suited to little kids.
Where to stay
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
If you want to stay longer in the backwaters then this megaresort offers heaps of family-friendly rainforest adventures as well as wide views of the undisturbed Chagres river and surrounding rainforest.
Best for: Experiencing the jungle in air-conditioned comfort, kids of all ages.
Read our full review of Gamboa Rainforest Resort.
Boat tours depart from Gamboa in the Soberanía National Park. (20km north of Miraflores, approx 20-30 minutes by car)
Soberanía National Park also offers families a number of other adventures, including an aerial tram ride over the forest canopy and walking trails at the Panama Discovery Centre. You can also visit an Emberá indigenous village deep in the rainforest.
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