westinAlthough Panama’s long been a budget-friendly alternative to Costa Rica, it’s still relatively undiscovered. Things are definitely heating up in the capital, Panama City, though. The last few years has seen construction of several new high profile hotels, including the country’s first Westin.

Opened in 2012, Westin Playa Bonita is a sprawling resort on the closest beach to Panama City, along Pacific coastline that once housed a U.S. military base. The resort’s size means there’s something for every age. Besides a kids club and wide selection of water sports from pool volleyball to water polo, daily activities include movies, arts & crafts, dance lessons, treasure hunts and soccer on the beach.

poolThe beautifully landscaped infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean include waterfalls, jacuzzis and meandering swimming areas that wrap around a massive outdoor dining pavilion.

The large stretch of beach is clean and good for strolling and jogging. A nature preserve, lies along the coastline just a few hundred yards beyond the hotel, giving the area a very tropical feel. As you relax on the beach you can view the parade of cargo ships lining up for entry to the Panama Canal.

Although many families would be content never leaving the property, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t explore the riches of Central America’s southernmost country. Protected  wilderness is an hour and a half from the Westin Play Bonita. We enjoyed meeting members of the indigenous Embera Tribe, who welcome tourists to explore the national embera 2parks with them and experience their way of life— still living off the grid in thatched huts without electricity.

We traveled via canoe to their village, where they explained their history, cooked us a gourmet lunch of fresh fish and plantains, wrapped in a banana leaf, and performed traditional dances for us.

panama locksDay trips to their village can be scheduled through the excursions kiosk in the Westin lobby. There you can also schedule a visit to the Panama Canal and its world-class interactive museum at the Miraflores Locks. It’s fun to wave at the passengers aboard cruise ships squeezing their way through this narrow passageway. One hundred years later, it still remains an awe-inspiring engineering marvel.

Yes, things are definitely heating up in Panama.  Beautiful beaches, luxurious hotels, a rich history, and protected wilderness make Panama a great choice for a family-friendly and budget-friendly tropical vacation.

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Disclosure: the Westin Playa Bonita sponsored the author’s trip in order to research this story, but the opinions are her own.