There are a few travel operators who specialize in custom itineraries for families headed to Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize, and while it is slightly more expensive to travel this way, I highly recommend it for first-time visitors. You can have your entire trip laid out for you or work with your guide to create the ideal itinerary. Meals tend to be family style with an emphasis on chicken, fish, rice, salads—simple buffets with plenty of options, even for those on an all-white-food diet. Here, the essentials for a successful family trip to Central America's big three.
BEST FAMILY TOUR OPERATOR
The Panama Family Adventure from Wildland Adventures (3516 N.E. 155th St., Seattle; 800/345-4453 or 206/365-0686; www.wildland.com; $1,895 per adult, $1,295 per child) includes visits to the Panama Canal, rain and cloud forests, and the Caribbean coast. Accommodations are very simple by American standards, but the pace is flexible and the planned outings are outstanding. The mosquito repellent went unused: we encountered fewer bugs than we have on a summer evening in Connecticut.
WHERE TO STAY
The rustic but completely charming lodge set harborside at Bocas del Toro's Ancon Field Station (011-507/757-9226; www.ecopanama.com; $80 per person daily, including meals) is being renovated to install private baths in all upstairs rooms and add a new wing, for a total of 17 rooms. The downstairs dining dock has been converted into a full-service restaurant.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort (Canal area; 877/800-1690 or 011-507/314-9000; www.gamboaresort.com; villas from $200) has just opened as the Panama Canal's first destination resort, with 48 comfortable plantation-style one- and two-bedroom villas that originally housed canal administrators and their families from the 1930's to the 80's. There are extensive grounds and lots of activities: an aerial tram that runs above the rain forest, a butterfly aviary, turtle and iguana nesting areas, and botanical gardens. A 107-room hotel opened last June.
Hotel Los Quetzales (Guadalupe; 800/383-2107 or 011-507/771-2291; www.losquetzales.com; rooms from $44, chalets from $66) is one of the only eco-hotels in Panama or Costa Rica with accommodations inside a national park. Set in a highland cloud forest 6,800 feet above sea level, it's a birder's paradise. While our visit was uneven at best, we met other guests who were delighted with the setup. Five new luxury suites are due to open in December. With its unmatched rain-forest location, this is one to watch.
BEST FAMILY TOUR OPERATOR Costa Rica Expeditions (San José; 011-506/257-0766; www.costaricaexpeditions.com) pioneered the concept of ecotourism in Costa Rica. The guides are highly qualified, and the staff will help your family choose from an enormous range of possible touring combinations.
WHERE TO STAY
Lapa Ríos(Puerto Jiménez; 011-506/735-5130; from $151 per person daily) is a luxurious hideaway high above the sea, in a private 1,000-acre nature preserve near Corcovado National Park. It has 14 lovely thatched-roof bungalows, a swimming pool, rain-forest walks, and kayaking expeditions.
Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn (near Santa Bárbara de Heredia; 011-506/269-9392; family of four from $245) is an estate-turned-inn with a pool on a green hillside. Located just outside San José, the house was built by an American family. Informal enough for well-behaved kids.
Capitán Suizo (Tamarindo; 800/948-3770 or 011-506/653-0075; family of four from $130), a 30-room resort, has it all: pretty bungalows as close to the beach as you can get, a pool with a rope swing, landscaped gardens, and a restaurant that welcomes children.
BEST FAMILY TRIP Wildland Adventures sets up itineraries ($1,795 per adult, $1,195 per child) that incorporate Mayan ruins at Tikal (in Guatemala), the jungle, and plenty of beach time along the Caribbean.
WHERE TO STAY
A small Caribbean resort on the sea, Green Parrot Beach Houses (Placencia; 011-501/63-7009; beach houses from $105 per day) has a friendly, gracious staff. Its quiet cabanas and beach houses that give families privacy.
Macal River Jungle Camp (near San Ignácio, Cayo; 011-501/92-2037,fax 011-501/92-2501; from $42 per person), An intimate camp of 10 recently built bungalows on the banks of the Macal River, near the ancient Mayan ruins of Tipu and Xunantunich. Offers swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
SIDE TRIP: THE SAN BLÁS ISLANDS
The approximately 350 San Blás islands are scattered along the northeast coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. A two-night visit—arranged by either Wildland Adventures (www.wildland.com) or ancon Expeditions of Panama (www.anconexpeditions.com)—is not for everyone, but it's a fascinating side-trip for capable kids and adventurous adults. These small islands are home to the Kuna Indians. You'll stay at Dolphin Island Lodge, owned and operated by a Kuna family, and travel by dugout canoe to the neighboring island of Achutupu. Kunas are fiercely independent and determined to protect their heritage. Kids might just join the cause after visiting the communal houses of Kuna chiefs.