It’s so good to be home and you’re about to find out why I’m so excited to have left “Paradise.” I want to be very clear from the get-go: Kristian does not feel the same way that I do about Panama. If you’ve been reading our Panama posts while trying to decide whether to vacation or retire/live in Panama, you should read both Kristian’s (his have yet to be written, but I’ll have him get right on it) and my opinions about Panama in order to get the full picture. Also note that we visited a majority of the populated areas of the country, excluding Volcan, the Darien, San Blas and a few others. I don’t claim to know everything there is to know, and I’m confident there are exceptions, but these are the experiences I had, and after talking to many others who live there, I feel they are accurate for the majority of Panama.
I started writing this as one blog post, but as soon as I realized how long my first pet peeve would be, I decided to break it up: one peeve per post. 🙂
#1 Panama Pet Peeve: Grocery Stores
I will readily admit, I am spoiled when it comes to grocery stores. I mean, I live in Austin – Whole Foods capital of the world (technically just the states, but “world” sounds better.) If you live in a metropolitan area, you’re used to having choices – a choice where you will shop and what exactly you will buy, knowing that you can find just about anything you want. Over the years, as I’ve grown increasingly more aware of how to eat for optimal health, I’ve become somewhat of a food snob. I’ll eat what you put in front of me, and I regularly eat what I feel like at restaurants, but I’m very picky about what I bring into my home. Did I mention that I’m used to having choices? I’ll get to that.
In Panama, there are several large grocery store chains (Rey and Super 99) that offer more of what we’re used to in the states, but these are few and far between and are only located in major cities – Panama City, David, Santiago, Boquete and Coronado (but only there because it’s a major expat city.) I wouldn’t want to live in any of those, save for Coronado, but the price for property there would negate the reason for moving to Panama in the first place! They’re dirty, crowded and don’t have anything much interesting to do, save for Boquete, but again, it’s super expensive to live there.
So you have your big chain stores, but mostly you come across the small, Chinese-owned super mercados, which are anything but super. You won’t have any trouble finding them in Panama. Just get on the Pan-American Highway (Panamericana) and within 5 to 10 minutes you’ll see one. You can’t miss them because they’re almost all labeled the same: Supermercado Ivan (or Isabelle or Arturo or whatever name the owner has.) Some have Chinese names like Peking or Hong Kong.
Most of them lease spaces way too big for their wares. The shelves are sparsely stocked, but they spread out the 6 bags of rice to make it look like the shelf is full. Interestingly, the store is usually half food and half various other sundries (i.e. notebook paper, 3-packs of diapers (yes, THREE,) flip-flops, rolls of plastic bags in various sizes and colors, nail polish, bike tires, etc.
Now to the choices. I get stressed even writing about this because I just don’t get it. As a finicky food shopper, I’m generally looking for whole grains, a wide-range of fruits and veggies, fresh meat and organic dairy. It didn’t seem unreasonable to assume that since Panama is a 3rd world country that they would be so far behind in the times that they’re still raising their own meat, growing their own produce, grinding their own wheat, and milking their own cows… for the most part. My bad for assuming. Panama has advanced beyond the “old-fashioned” way, all the way to… the 60′s… and got stuck there.
Spongy white bread? Check. Whole grain bread? Not a chance. White rice? Check. Brown rice? Are you kidding? Organic cheese? BWAH HA HA! Block of cheese, then? BEEP. Thanks for playing! Processed American cheese? You betcha! Nine kinds! Peanut butter? Not without high fructose corn syrup or at least a bunch of added sugar. Any other kind of nut butter? We have Nutella! You get the idea.
When it comes to produce, the standard supermercados don’t carry it. You have to hit up a farmer’s stand or one of the big chain stores. When you do locate someone who has produce, you’ll find that they have all six kinds of veggies: green peppers, iceburg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and potatoes. Oh, and they also have some other local starchy root veggies. Once in awhile, there will be an additional offering or two, such as cabbage and celery, but the first six are the ones you can count on. There are exceptions at the above mentioned larger chains, and the few expat-owned specialty stores sometimes carry additional options. Why don’t grocery stores have more variety? We’ve heard that you can grow just about anything year-round in Panama, so why don’t they? Maybe someone reading will answer this one for me.
A farmer’s stand in Boquete
It’s not that you can’t get any and every grocery item you want. It’s that if you find it, if it’s been imported (which includes anything unprocessed), you’re going to pay double to triple what you’d pay in the states. And unless you live in the same town or city of these chains or specialty stores, the drive will certainly cure the need to have it. We found that the most desirable places to live in did not have the markets I would want nearby. For example, if we chose to live in El Valle, the closest decent grocery store is a good 45 minutes away. You can forget those last minute runs to the store for the one, hard-to-find ingredient you forgot to pick up. If you need Miracle Whip, they’ve got you covered.
Lastly, let’s talk about beef. Once you’re out of Panama City, you will see pastured cows everywhere you go. Panama is covered in farmland, which I find awesome. So you’d think that all the beef sold in stores would be grass-fed. Unfortunately, they can’t sell grass-fed beef to the locals for what they can sell it for to other countries (hint, hint.) So the beef you can buy is imported garbage, while all the good beef is getting shipped somewhere else. Huge bummer.
Now before you think I only know how to whine, which I admit I am good at, there is something that I really love about Panama’s food situation. The fruit. The juicy tropical fruit that we usually pay a premium for, you can get for dimes on the dollar in Panama. Bananas and mangoes? Free, pretty much. As long as you can find them on the side of the road. You never have to buy them, but you can. Pineapples and coconuts are about $1/piece. We stopped at a farmer’s stand in Boquete where we purchased a star fruit for $.30! So it’s not all bad, but the things we do get for less here are expensive there. There is definitely a trade and we have more variety by far. And if you want organic, forget about it.
Food, especially as it pertains to health is a big deal to me, so unless Panama catches up to where the U.S. is at with whole foods (just the food, not the store), organics and pastured foods, I’m out.
That is all.
P.S. My favorite grocery store in Panama is Super Gourmet on Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro. It’s full of imported goodies, and though they are considerably more expensive, at least you can get a real block of cheese there. Not to mention, they have the BEST dark chocolate known to man.
We took a month off to explore Panama and still made money! Click below to find out how!