Grocery shopping in Panama isn't that different than grocery shopping anywhere in North America. Grocery stores are laid out the same, with dry goods in the center and the meat, fruit and refrigerated items at the perimeter of the store. Many of the products are exactly the same, and others are almost the same except for the Spanish labeling.
You can find most of the products you're used to buying, some with familiar brand names and others that have Panama labels. It's no surprise that American brands are readily available since Panama is the bridge to the Americas. What is surprising, though, is the breadth of American products that are available in Panama. You can get everything from Tabasco hot sauce to Wheat Thins crackers to Dryer's ice cream. But don't head straight for the brands you know until you try the Panama brands. Aside from being less expensive, they often taste better.
If you're attached to American brands, be prepared to pay more. After all, they have to be shipped to Panama and then trucked in. Dairy products are the most expensive. A half gallon of Dryer's ice cream is in the mid seven dollar range. I like ice cream, but I don't love it enough to pay the price tag and then feel guilty when it turns to ice crystals in my freezer.
The curious thing about grocery shopping in Panama is that some of the differences make sense to my Western brain and others do not. Here's a quick list of the idiosyncrasies you'll find in Panama grocery stores.
- Things aren't always where you expect them to be. After searching 4 different grocery stores for baking soda, I was convinced they didn't have any in the entire country. Then one day when perusing the cleaning products, I saw it on the bottom shelf. Of course. Why didn't I think if the cleaning aisle for baking soda! If you look for granulated sugar in the baking aisle, you'll scratch your head wondering why you see brown sugar and powdered sugar, but no white sugar. The reason is actually pretty simple. Rice, beans and sugar are staples in Panama and most people buy huge sacks at a time. Because they are so important, there is a special aisle in Panama for food staples.
- The produce is local. Most of the produce you get at the grocery store is locally grown. The freshness is something you will appreciate, but you won't find everything you're used to finding. Things that are easy to get include potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, eggplant, mangoes, bananas, plantains, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapples, and limes. Harder things to find include cilantro, figs, blueberries and apples.
- Produce is tagged in the produce section. This is something that I think makes a lot of sense. After you bag the produce you want, you go to an employee in the produce section to have your produce weighed and tagged. This makes it easier on the checkers at the front of the store because they don't have to look up prices.
- Grocery carts are protected like precious diamonds. When you enter a grocery store, you get a grocery cart just like you would expect to. But when you go to the checkout stand, you unload your groceries onto the conveyor belt and then push the cart back toward the food aisles rather than bringing it through the line with you. I'll be honest. I don't get this one. The carts are often pushed back into a queue of people waiting to pay, which further congests traffic at checkout. When your food is bagged, a bag boy loads it onto a completely different type of cart and pushes it out to the parking lot for you. Under no circumstances are you allowed to be alone with a cart in the parking lot. There must have been a lot of grocery cart thefts to cause grocery stores to run this way. But hey, at least I don't have to haul my own groceries.
- Alcohol is sampled often. God bless Panama. In Texas, a grocery store in a "dry" area can't even sell beer or wine. Even if the grocery store is in a "wet" area, sampling wine breaks a whole other set of backwards laws. In Panama, grocery stores are always sampling something alcoholic. It doesn't matter to me if they're giving away tastes of wine or a rum and coke... I always taste it. Grocery shopping to me is a necessary evil--something I have to do to buy the food I want--so the little samples help make grocery shopping in Panama a bit more fun.
For the most part, you can get everything you need when grocery shopping in Panama. Be prepared to try new food and experiment. After all, Panama is an adventure worth savoring with all of your senses.