Shopping at the Wholesale Food Market in Panama City

By Melissa Darnay in Panama City melissa@ipreinfo.com

One of the things I love best about Panama is the local produce. I grew up in California eating fresh-from-the-earth fruit and vegetables, and I know what fresh produce should taste like. During my life in Texas, eating fruit became a chore because even my favorite fruit was almost tasteless. Moving to Panama, I’ve rediscovered the joy of fresh fruit. But what makes it even more appealing is how inexpensive fresh fruit and vegetables are at the Wholesale Food Market in Panama City.

The Wholesale Food Market is referred to by several names, including “the produce market,” “the Ancon produce market” and “Mercado de Abastos” for those who speak Spanish. If you think this is a produce market that you roam with a basket over your arm, you are underestimating the size of this market. It’s more the size of a small fairground than a typical farmer’s market.

The Wholesale Food Market is a Latin American adventure. The traffic is chaotic, the streets are often muddy, the air is pungent with ripe (and sometimes rotting) produce, and many of the vendors could benefit from a few more teeth, but once you accept the market for what it is, you’ll learn to love it as I have.

I’m amazed how honest the vendors are. I have yet to really understand my numbers in Spanish, which means I overpay on a regular basis. Each week, there are one or two vendors who could make an extra dollar or two from me, but they always give me back the money when I overpay. When I first started going, I would literally hold out my hand and allow them to take the money that I owed. I’ve never felt cheated.

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At the Wholesale Produce Market in Panama City

In fact, just the opposite. I know many of the vendors are poor, but they always have a ready smile and often offer a free piece of fruit to try. These are salt-of-the-earth, hardworking Panamanians and you can’t help but adore them.

The market is located next to the National Police station on Ave. Los Matires on the way to Albrook Mall. You pay a quarter to drive in, and then you drive from area to area. Each vendor has his own small stall. Some vendors carry general produce while others may just have a few items. There is one area of the market for pineapple and a different area for plantains. Sprinkled throughout the produce sellers are distributors who carry other food items such as rice, beans, eggs, cooking oil, fresh honey, stick cinnamon, spices, and restaurant supplies.

I go to the Wholesale Food Market every Saturday and have developed relationships with favorite vendors. They give me preferential service (meaning I get to cut in line if there’s a line) and a bit of discounted pricing, but most importantly, they greet me like I’m a movie star. One vendor literally runs out into the street waving and shouting happy greetings as soon as he sees me.

I typically spend $20 or less and my SUV is bursting with fresh produce. Because everything is indeed just-picked-fresh, it must be eaten, cooked or processed within a few days.

Here is just a sampling of what you can get and the approximate price:

  • Local lemons, 20 for $1

  • Limes, 16 for $1

  • Plantains, 5 for $1

  • Bananas, 12 for $1

  • Mangos, $1 each

  • Sword mangos (smaller and sweeter than traditional mangos), 5 for $1

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  • Whole coconuts, $.50

  • Tomatoes (regular & Roma), $.50/lb.

  • Pineapple, 2 for $1

  • Cantaloupe, $1 each

  • Watermelon, $1 each

  • Culantro (a cousin to cilantro), $1 per bunch

  • Cilantro, $2 per bunch

  • Parsley (a humongous bunch that rivals a bride’s bouquet), $3, or a half-bunch for $1.50

  • Kale (they call it spinaci but it’s not spinach), 3 big bunches for $1

  • Eggplant, 3 for $1

  • Leeks (the most beautiful I’ve ever seen!), 3 for $1

  • Lettuce (iceberg, Romaine & Bibb), $1 per head

  • Basil, $.50 for a large bunch

  • Avocados (2-3 times the size of a Haas), $1 each

  • Corn on the cob, 6 for $1

Other options include (I’m not as familiar with the pricing on these):

  • Onions – yellow, red & green

  • Celery (huge bunches that are about 3 times the size of what you get in the States)

  • Okra

  • Radishes

  • Bell peppers – red, yellow and green peppers

  • Hot peppers – Habanero & Anaheim

  • Potatoes

  • Carrots

As you can see, there is something here for everyone, as well as local products that we’re unfamiliar with. Even if you live in Coronado and don’t want to drive in Panama City, getting to the market is easy. Just hop on a direct bus to the Albrook bus terminal and then take a quick taxi ride to the market. When your bags are full, get a taxi back to the bus terminal and you’ll be back in Coronado in time for lunch.

If you want a guide at the market, I go almost every Saturday about 10 a.m. Just email me at melissa@ipreinfo.com and we can go together. At these prices, you can eat like a gourmet chef and have a regular adventure as an added bonus.

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