Eating Well in Panama: Delicious, Fresh, and Reasonably Priced

The words that come to mind when I think of the fresh fruits and vegetables in Panama are: mouth-watering, natural, healthy, fresh, and—finally—inexpensive.

Coming from a country where most of the produce is picked green, laced with preservatives, and shipped from other countries, my husband, Gary, and I cannot get enough of the Panama-grown variety. There are fruit and vegetable stands on almost every corner, including along the streets and highways, so these delectable foods are available and fresh. And their prices are astonishing.

It is my habit to stock up weekly at our closest market, adding extras of our favourites throughout the week, such as pineapples so fresh, juicy, and sweet that they are just plain irresistible. I rarely leave with less than three or four bulging plastic bags of produce and it never sets me back more than $11 to $15. This includes 12 bananas for $1, pineapples for about 99 cents per pound, five tomatoes for 75 cents, a bag of five large chayotes for about $1, four large carrots for 50 cents, a bag of green beans for $1, as well as onions, lettuce, mangoes, papayas, cabbage, and more. Of course, these prices vary a bit as most of the roadside markets charge by weight and regular supermarkets charge a bit more.

Meat and seafood prices are also less expensive than in Canada or the U.S. An added bonus—Panamanian chicken is free range, with no added growth hormones, making it juicy and full of flavor. Pork is tasty as well, and seafood, purchased fresh, is unbelievably delicious and inexpensive. Even in high-end restaurants it is common to get a full seafood meal consisting of potatoes, rice, or patacones (deep fried plantains), fresh grilled vegetables, a small salad, and six to eight gargantuan langostinos (jumbo shrimp) for about $15 (before the Pensionado discount you get as a retiree is subtracted, of course).

Panamanian beef is very flavorful but usually not quite as tender as in Canada or the US. However, we find the ground beef delicious and very low in fat. Cooking the steaks and roasts in a slow cooker makes them moist and tender.

We purchase most of our meat at PriceSmart (similar to Costco) for expediency’s sake, even though there are local meat markets as well. It is locally raised, fresh, and inexpensive. A package of 10 boneless, skinless chicken breasts costs between $9 and $12, depending on weight; ground beef is about $7 to $9 for three to four pounds; and three large striploin steaks cost around $10.

Cleaning and household supplies are not at all costly in Panama. A 400-gram box of laundry detergent is around $1.22, depending on the brand; a 400-milliliter bottle of dish soap runs from $0.99 to $1.29; and a four-roll pack of toilet tissue runs from $1.75 to $2.10, again depending on the brand.

Last but not least are alcoholic beverages. Wine, beer, and spirits are insanely cheap here. Local rum (which my husband says is better than the Canadian brands) costs $12 for a 60-oz. bottle. Good-quality wine runs the gamut from $3 to $12 per bottle. A package containing a 26-oz. bottle of tequila and a bottle of premixed margarita mix will set you back $12. Our local corner store sells a case of 24 bottles of Balboa or Atlas local beer for $12.00

Just one disclaimer: These prices are those charged in our closest city (David) and in our local markets. Prices in Panama City or other areas may differ a bit.

All in all, our grocery bills here are affordable. Whenever we return to Canada, we unfailingly get a nasty case of sticker shock, for sure.

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