Monkeys and Pineapple Drinks: Adventure is Easy in Panama

by Heidi Gollub on April 30, 2024 in Travels,

The capital of Panama offers luxurious accommodations with easy access to rainforest encounters with toucans and monkeys, catamaran excursions for swimming in the ocean and island adventures. 


After a direct flight from Austin, my 11-year-old daughter and I zipped through customs in Panama City and took a 15-minute car ride to The Santa Maria Hotel and Golf Resort. We checked into the gorgeous Marriott Luxury Collection property, threw on hotel robes, and ordered room service to enjoy on our back patio. It was the perfect way to kick off our Panamanian adventure in style. 

The Santa Maria Hotel and Golf Resort 

Fountain overlooking the golf course by The Santa Maria. Photo Heidi Gollub.

A stay at The Santa Maria could easily be a vacation in itself. It’s a huge property with indoor/outdoor dining at three restaurants, a spa with a sauna and steam room, and a huge pool that overlooks an 18-hole golf course. 

Pool cabanas by the golf course at The Santa Maria. Photo Heidi Gollub.

On our first morning at breakfast in the hotel’s Mestizo Restaurant, most diners were dressed for golf. After getting our fill of fruits and pastries from the two-room buffet, we headed instead to the hotel pool which is open 24 hours. It was already hot enough for an early swim and we had the place to ourselves. 

The pool at The Santa Maria. Photo Heidi Gollub.

We were tempted to stick around for a pizza at the pool restaurant but changed instead for a sit-down lunch at The Grill House FSH & STK. It’s known for Chef Luis Achurra’s liquid nitrogen creations. You can try his signature Marco Polo ravioli with parmesan fried in nitrogen or the “4 Leches” Nitro with nitrogen-fried milk. My daughter’s favorite was simply vanilla ice cream fried tableside and plopped right on her tongue. 

Dining al fresco at The Santa Maria. Photo Heidi Gollub.

A hotel spa appointment would have been a dreamy after-lunch treat, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go searching for monkeys in the rainforest. A local tour guide met us in the lobby and we were off to Gatun Lake. 

Gatun Lake Wildlife Tour 

It takes about 90 minutes to get from The Santa Maria to Gatun Lake along the Panama Canal. We made one stop along the way to buy bananas for the Geoffroy’s tamarin and capuchin monkeys we hoped to find when we visited their islands by boat. 

Geoffroy’s tamarin on Monkey Island. Photo Heidi Gollub.

Our guide explained the islands in Gatun Lake are actually mountaintops. When the lake was flooded to make the Panama Canal, only the tops remained above water. 

At the first island, we heard howler monkeys, but none were interested in visiting our boat. The second and third island stops were more successful. Monkeys hopped over for bites of banana from our hands and quickly returned to play in the nearby trees. 

Taboga Island Excursion

Boat tour near Taboga. Photo Heidi Gollub.

For our second full day in Panama, we headed to a closer marina for a catamaran excursion. This six-hour tour included a break to jump off the boat and swim in the ocean, a longer stop to explore Taboga Island, and a delicious picnic lunch served onboard. There was music and dancing on the boat and fun drinks in pineapples for sale on the island. It was a hit all around. 

Pineapple drink on Taboga Island. Photo Heidi Gollub.

The tour returned to the marina by 3 p.m., leaving us with more hotel pool time before we headed to dinner. We were falling asleep at the table after so many hours in the sun and water, but my daughter said it was worth it. Swimming in the ocean was her favorite part of our trip. 

Taboga Island. Photo Heidi Gollub.

Panama City 101: Know Before You Go

Uber is readily available in Panama City and half-hour trips cost about $18. Just make sure you have a phone plan that works in Panama. I found it challenging to find free Wi-Fi when not at the hotel. 

The official currency in Panama is the U.S. dollar, which also makes visiting easy. Plus, Panama is in the same time zone as Texas, so you’ll arrive jetlag-free and ready to go. 

When planning a trip, keep in mind that Panama’s rainy season lasts from mid-April to mid-December. January to March are great months to visit. In March, it was already quite humid. 


Cover photo Heidi Gollub

Heidi Gollub is an editor living in Austin. She tries to sneak “minications” with her kids as often as possible.