Taking Kids on a Cruise to the Panama Canal: Embera Indian Village Tour

We recently returned from one of my bucket list trips–a cruise to the Panama Canal. Our bags still smell like our stateroom, the souvenirs are still sitting out on the counter, the tan that slipped through the sunscreen is still hanging on, and I’m still high from the memories.

So as I process, I thought I’d give you a peek into one of my favorite days of the entire trip–our adventure to the Embera Indian Village.

The Embera Indians are a tribe of indigenous people who live in the country of Panama. We were told that they were were fairly isolated and independent until 1984 when their land was turned into a national park/forest. Once it became an official forest, they could no longer hunt the animals or use the trees for their buildings. So the government taught them how to open their doors to tour groups like ours. The Embera Indians sell their goods and share their lifestyle with tourists to generate money for the children to attend the city schools. (A part of me is bothered that they’ve had to join the world of modern capitalism. But I’m not sure what to do about that sadness. Is there a better way?)

They’re famous for their baskets and carvings.

Cruise to the Panama Canal and Visit an Embera Indian Village!

Helpful tip: Cruise passengers interested in this excursion might be interested to hear that the village was a little less than two hours away from the port. It included an 1 1/2 hour bus ride and a 15 minute canoe trip each way. The bus ride back was great for our little one’s afternoon naps! 

I appreciate that our excursion guide gave us a few hints to help us keep the sanctity of their culture. For instance, he asked us what we’d assume a child would want if he/she put out her hand with an upturned palm. It means they want money, right? No, not in this case. It’s simply a gesture of friendship and an invitation to take their hand and follow them.

But what made this visit so memorable was watching my girls interact with the children.

Things to do in Panama with kids: Embera Indian Village

It started with the toddlers. I suggested that my two-year-old give the other little girl (who we later learned was also two) a high five. High fives are universal, right? Okay, so I’m not sure that’s true, but the little girl reciprocated with a similar touch.

Cruise Excursion Review: Authentic Embera Indian Village

And then the bigger kids saw me taking pictures and cautiously joined us. (The guide said they love to see pictures of themselves since they don’t have cameras of their own.)

I asked a few questions in our shared second language, Spanish. What’s your name? How old are you?

It wasn’t long before the Embera kids were smiling and pinching my toddler’s cheeks.

Embera Indian Village Review

I mean, can you blame them? Who wouldn’t be tempted to give those round, rosy cheeks a little squeeze?

Visiting an Embera Indian Village in Panama

And then my four-year-old connected with a little six-year-old girl. Soon they were laughing and holding hands and chasing each other.

Taking kids to visit an Embera Indian Village in Panama. Things to do in Panama with kids.

They didn’t need words to play together…which is good since they didn’t speak the same language.

What it's like to take kids to on an authentic Embera Indian Village Tour during a cruise to the Panama Canal

While the meeting was artificial (a Panama tour for tourists), the brief but sweet friendship that formed between the young ones from the very different cultures was natural and precious.

Visiting an Embera Indian Village in Panama with Kids

All of the little kids skipped out on most of the chief’s son’s presentation and instead spent the morning chasing each other up and down the natural staircase of tree roots (my “city girls” weren’t quite as quick as their barefoot friends!), tossing leaves in the air, laughing (so much laughter!), holding hands, skipping, and jumping down small hills.

Things to do in Panama-- Visit an Embera Indian Village

At the end of our stay, our preschooler sadly told us that she wished her new friends lived in our city…and spoke English. We gently pointed out that maybe the experience would be good motivation for her to learn more Spanish. Until that moment, I don’t think she had any concept of the value of learning Spanish.

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

Overall, I think it was one of the coolest experiences we’ve shared with our girls, and a highlight of our cruise to the Panama Canal!

Cruise to the Panama Canal with Kids! Visit an Embera Indian Village




Plans for a shared girls’ room with an awesome IKEA bed hack!

Do your kids share a room? A few months ago, I randomly decided it was time to put our girls in a room together. They seemed ready. They love sharing a room when we go on vacation, and they were always yelling chatting to each other across the hall from their individual rooms at all hours of the day and night. And there were many, many times I’d wake up in the morning to discover that our four-year-old had crawled into her sister’s crib so that they could start playing baby dolls together as soon as humanly possible.

But I wasn’t quite sure how to go about the switch to one room . Here’s what we were up against:

  • My youngest (age 2) was still in a crib.
  • My oldest (age 4) was too small for a top bunk, but I wanted bunk beds.
  • The girls slept realllly well in their separate rooms, and I was scared sharing a room would mess that up.
  • I was tired of their nurseries and wanted to make their new room fun and not-too-babyish.

Then one day a few months ago we were on a road trip, and we ended up at IKEA. Since we don’t live near an IKEA, I decided we just HAD to buy one of the KURA loft beds while we were there.  The KURA bed is much cheaper and much lower than the other bunk beds we had looked at, so I figured we could do something with it. Seize the day! Buy the Kura!

kura-reversible-bed-white__0179751_PE331953_S4So we bought the Kura and with it I officially decided that we were going to turn it into an airplane bunk bed. Why not? Both girls love to tell us that they’re going to be pilots when they grow up (my two-year-old insists she must wear a costume while she flies.) And it’s not too girly. I have nothing against girly, but I’m all for the girls loving “boy” things like construction, trains, and airplanes. So I don’t want to too many pink princess things in their room, KWIM?

Since Nate (my husband) is a pilot, I knew he could help with the bed design.

Since my dad (newly retired) is handy, I knew he could build an awesome bed.

And guess what? They did it!

IKEA HACK: Airplane Bunk Beds


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Ikea Bed Hack: Kura Loft to Airplane Bunks

As you may have noticed, the KURA isn’t actually a bunk bed. (It’s technically a reversible loft.) My dad added slats to the bottom to give support for the bottom bunk. I’ve read that many people use the bottom of the KURA as a bunk bed without slats, but I wanted to allow for a little airflow (to prevent mold). Also, the frame my dad added lifts up, which gives me room to store a few things UNDER the mattress!

Ikea Bed Hack - Kura loft turned into an airplane bunk bed!

My faaaaaaaavorite part of the bunk bed is that the wings are desks! Isn’t that awesome!? My girls LOVE them. We added hanging organizers (you can find theme HERE) to the ends to hold notebooks, colored pencils, and stickers.

IKEA hack -- airplane bunk beds out of KURA loft bed!

We made it a bit tall, so that there’s room to grow. I’m hoping this bed arrangement will stay with them for at least 5 more years.


The propeller actually spins. It was the final touch that turned it into a real airplane bed.

Ikea bed hack: Kura loft into airplane bunk beds

My dad also added spinning wagon wheels to the front–just like a real airplane would have. (The wheels spin, too!)

Ikea bed hack: Kura Loft to airplane bunk beds!

My girls are thrilled. They play airplane in it often–especially when friends are over.

Ikea Bed Hack: Airplane Bunk Beds

And it’s also our favorite spot for snuggling and reading books.

Ikea hack! Kura loft bed turned into biplane bunks.

Some days I’m still shocked that our crazy idea to have airplane bunk beds actually worked! And then other times I realize it’s so very “us,” and I forget that this is a new addition to our home.

If you’re feeling inspired to try your own IKEA bed hack, here are a few tips. Please keep in mind that building is not my God-given gift. All credit goes to my dad. These are all notes I took down while talking with my dad. Hopefully I got them right!

Tips for Building Your Own Airplane Bunk Bed

1) Start with the bed slats (if you want bed slats) and trim. My dad made these out of 1×4 boards, but you could also order bed slats (like these) from IKEA or amazon.

2) We used 2 x 4 boards for the wings. We ended up making a biplane bunk bed, so we needed four boards. The top side had white laminate (which we’ve already learned cleans up pretty well with a little help from a Magic Eraser.) IKEA bed hack! Loft into airplane bunk beds

3) After designing the wings, Dad made braces to attach the wings to each other and the floor. We decided the shape was an isosceles trapezoid. He secured everything with lots of metal brackets and bolts. It’s solid.

4) Nate made my dad a pattern out of the cardboard. My dad used a jigsaw to cut it out and then attached it with a pin and a bushing.

5) The wheels were 13 inch wheels my dad bought at a tool store.

Total price: $430

  • KURA bed — $200 from an IKEA store
  • Bed tent — $30
  • Airplane bed materials –$200
  • My dad’s time and skills — priceless

This is a wee bit cheaper than the airplane bunk beds I’ve seen online. This one retails for $3000. And this one is $8000. And then there’s this one that goes for 25,000 EUROS. Excuse me while I calm down and try not to hyperventilate after reading those price tags.

Didn’t my dad do a great job?

If you have questions, email me or message me on facebook!

Ikea hack: airplane bunk bed from KURA loft