Contact Me

If you'd like to contact me directly, you can send me an email at

Thursday, February 28, 2013

How to get a Panamanian driver's license

In blog sites and in my email inbox, questions about driving legally in Panama come up all the time. So what's the deal with driving in Panama? I'll do my best to explain it here. 

I'd put most people into one of the following three categories:

A: You're here living, but not working on legal residency, which means you're making border runs every 3-6 months. 

B: You're here working on getting permanent residency, which means you should have some sort of residency card, probably a temporary resident card as you're working towards getting that coveted permanent card. 

C: You're here on some other sort of visa, like a pensionado visa, or you've already received permanent residency. 

I'll try to address all of these situations as I explain the process I went through in receiving my Panamanian driver's license. 

First, those in group "A" above, cannot get a driver's license. You have to have an immigration card of some sort to receive a license. The good news is you can drive with your passport and valid home driver's license for 90 days. The tricky part, as you all know, is that you can technically stay in Panama for six months before you have to make a border run. What does that mean? It means that you can drive legally for the first three months, but even though you can technically stay here three more months, you won't be able to drive during those last three. So if you want to drive around legally, you'd need to leave every three months and come back into the country with a new stamp. 

I fall into the group "B" category. I'm still working on getting my permanent residency. In the beginning of the process, this posed a real problem for me. Going through the immigration process, I was given a temporary residency card that only lasted for about three months. I could no longer drive on my passport because I had the temporary residency card, and that alone will tell the cops that I’ve been here longer than 90 days. Panama will only issue you a driver’s license for the amount of time on your immigration card/ID. Since mine was only for three months, this meant that my driver’s license would expire in three months. So you can see how that gets tricky. Who wants to pay to have their driver’s license renewed every three months? 

If you don’t get the driver’s license, you run the risk of getting caught driving illegally. This happened to me. Random ID checks are set up all over the place here. They pop up all the time on major streets, in the middle of neighborhoods, and everywhere else. Several times I got stopped and when I handed them my American driver’s license and my immigration card, it always turned into a lengthy argument in my poor Spanish about how long I’ve been here and why I don’t have a Panama driver’s license. In every one of these situations the cops eventually got tired, realized I wasn’t going to pay a bribe, and just let me go. I was good at playing the “I don’t speak Spanish and I don’t understand” card. So if you're in category "B" like me, your options are to get a driver's license for the amount of time that matches your immigration expiration date, or try to talk your way out of every random traffic stop you come across. 

When I finally got my two year temporary residence card, I rushed to get the license. I was tired of the random traffic stop hassle. 

If you're in group "C" and have a permanent residency card or a pensionado visa that proves you’re legally here for good, you can get a driver’s license that will last four years, just like any Panamanian behind the wheel. 

So how do you get a driver's license? 

Here are the steps I went through when getting my driver's license. Of course, as with anything having to do with the government in Panama, these steps could change at any moment with little or no warning.

Steps one and two will apply to U.S. citizens. Citizens of other countries will need to visit their own embassy or consulate. After step 3 the routine should be the same for everyone. 

Step 1: Having two copies of your valid American (or your home country if not from the U.S.) driver’s license, your valid immigration ID, and your valid passport, will save you a lot of aggravation. Just bring these copies with you and save yourself the hassle of having to run around getting copies later. Of course, bring the originals with you as well. 

The U.S. Embassy in Clayton

Step 2: You’ll need to visit the U.S. Embassy, which is located in the Clayton area. Do not go to the embassy without an appointment. Even if the place is completely empty, it is highly unlikely they will assist you without an appointment. Go online to to make an appointment. At the embassy, you will need your valid passport, valid driver’s license, and $50. Then you will receive a notarized form that proves your driver’s license is real and valid. It’s basically a fill in the blanks sheet that they notarize there on the spot. 

Step 3: Next you will need to visit the Departmento de Autenticacion y Legalizacion (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores) which is basically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This office is located at the Plaza Sun Tower on Avenida Ricardo J. Alfaro, also known as Tumbo Muerto. This is the same plaza where the Banco Nacional is located. You should see the sign from the street that says Ministero de Relaciones Exteriores (above the bank). 

This is the map to Plaza Sun Tower given to me by the U.S. Embassy

The office itself is located on the second floor. If you’re in the parking lot, looking at the building, walk all the way to the right side of the building and go up the stairs or elevator. The door is somewhat hidden, inside of a hallway, so just go all the way to the right side on the second floor and you should see it. 

You will need to bring your valid U.S. license and the notarized form you were given at the embassy. 

Step 4: You will leave both your license and the notarized form with the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores. I’m not sure if this step is always the same or if they were just swamped that day, but I was told that I had to wait about three hours before I could pick up the authentication I needed. In the meantime, you will need to pay $2. However, paying it isn’t as easy as you’d think. You’ll need to take a form they give you down to the Banco Nacional on the first floor (where there were no less than 50 people waiting the day I went) and pay the $2 there. Keep the receipt as you’ll need to present it to the Ministero de Relaciones Exteriores later when you return to pick up your documents. 

Step 5: Since you’ll have about three hours to kill, I recommend taking care of the blood type test at this time. Now, according to the SERTRACEN (the driver’s license department) website, you only have to have the blood type test done if your home license doesn’t list your blood type. My Ohio license didn’t. Since this step only costs $5, I recommend having it done anyway. I have a feeling that if you showed up at SERTRACEN without it, it wouldn’t matter if your home driver’s license had it listed, or not. Trust me, rules change depending on what agent/assistant you’re dealing with oftentimes in government offices. So I’d rather have the form just in case. 

Parking is a hassle at Plaza Sun Tower, so I recommend just leaving your car there (if you drove) and walking to the lab to get the blood type test. The lab is right around the corner. The SERTRACEN website lists all of the labs you can go to for this test, but I found one a couple of blocks away that has an English speaking technician and is super cheap. Here’s what I did. 

If you’re standing at the Plaza Sun Tower, looking out at the main street, turn right and start walking that way. Cross the first street you come to. You’ll see the El Dorado shopping mall in front of you and a ton of other stores. Don’t go into that parking lot. Turn right on the sidewalk as soon as you’ve crossed the street, and start walking down the hill. You’ll be on the opposite side of the street as the Blockbuster Video. Almost directly across from the Blockbuster is a small lab called Clinico Del Castillo. That’s where I went. The test only costs $5 and it takes just a few minutes. They’ll give you the results right away. The English-speaking tech is Alfredo del Catillo, and he's a really nice guy.

Keep the blood type test form with you as you’ll need it in the final step when you go to the driver’s license office. 

At this point, you’ll probably still have some time to waste. The El Dorado shopping mall has some stores and few restaurants, so you can hang around that area for awhile. 

Step 6: Go back to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, give them the receipt for the $2 and pick up your authenticated paperwork. Here’s where things got really frustrating for me, but I’ve heard it’s changed a bit. I was told that I had to go all the way to a place on Via España to get a stamp on my paperwork. A friend of mine who has since gone through the process said this part of the process has been done away with. Even if that’s the case, have an extra few dollars as I think I paid $2 for the stamp, which might just be done now in the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, rather than at that office I mentioned on Via España.

The SERTRACEN office in Albrook

Step 7: By the time you’ve finished all of this, I doubt you’ll have time to go to the SERTRACEN office and finish the process. I didn’t. It was about 3:30 p.m. when I’d finished, and the driver’s license office closed around 4. Chances are you’ll need to have a second day available to finish the process. Whether on that same day, or the next day, the next step is to go to a SERTRACEN office. Their website lists locations at (just click on the Sucursales y Horarios tab). I recommend you go to the one in Albrook. Albrook, being so close to the Clayton area where the embassy is located, is a much more Americanized area than where some of the other offices are. You’re probably more likely to find English-speaking assistants at that office.

Step 8: When you finally enter the SERTRACEN office, go to the line on your immediate left (assuming you’re at the Albrook office). You’ll need to bring everything you’ve collected up to this point: copies and originals of your U.S. driver’s license, your immigration card, and your U.S. passport. Have the blood type test results, the notarized form from the U.S. Embassy (which should now be authenticated as well), and $40. Ok, almost there. 

Give all of your forms to the agent at the desk. At that point you’ll be told to take a seat and wait for your name to be called. Do yourself a favor and sit all the way in the front, on the left hand side, as this is the area you’ll be going to first. When they call your name, you’ll be asked a few questions and your photo will be taken. 

When you’re told to take a seat again, make sure you move over to the seating area in front of the vision test machines. Listen for your name. They’ll call you up to take the vision test. I had two people doing mine so that one could translate while the other operated the machine.

Again, you’ll be told to take a seat. This time sit near the closed in cubicle area to the right of the vision machines. You’ll be called in to take the hearing test in that area. The hearing test is the kind where you just click left or right on the computer depending on which ear you’ve heard the beep. Pretty easy even for non-Spanish speakers. 

Finally, you’ve reached the end of the process. Go pay the cashier $40 and have a seat in front of the little cashier window. Wait for your name to be called. That’s when you get your driver’s license. Congratulations. You’ve done it!!!!

So in the end you wind up paying just over $90. Going forward, when your license expires, you’ll just need to take your valid immigration card and your expired Panamanian license into SERTRACEN, renew it and pay $40. Still, I think you can see why you may not want to go through the process until you have a permanent residency card or one that lasts longer than 3-6 months. 

The regular license, for Panamanians, permanent residents, and pensionados, is good for four years. 

***Extra info: Any person over the age of 70 may be required to complete a medical exam as part of the process***

Just a little something to add to this article. I was so excited to finally get my driver’s license. I no longer had to deal with getting harassed by cops who wanted a payout. Now, I could just show them my driver’s license. The first time I got pulled over was on the way to Las Tablas. It was just getting dark and a cop flagged me over on the Pan-American Highway. I proudly pulled out my driver’s license, thinking, “Not this time, pal.”

My first ticket :(

Boy was I wrong. I didn’t realize I had a headlight out. He didn’t even listen to my explanation (not that I had one, I had no idea my headlight was out). He took my license, stuck it in this little machine, and out came my ticket. He handed it to me and told me to get it fixed. I think I paid $25 for that ticket. Maybe I was better off without the darned license. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Supermarket Tips for Shopping in Panama Part 4 (cuts of meat)

I dread going to the deli or meat counter pretty much every time I make a trip to the supermarket. I think that's why, for the first two years that I lived here, I only bought meat at Pricesmart, where everything is pre-packaged and ready to go. First, there's always a line at the deli and meat counters, and second, I didn't know what half the cuts were, so I would usually just pick out whatever looked nice. Then, once I figured out what I wanted, I'd have to call out to the butcher what it was that I wanted to order, with Panamanians lined up all around me. In my broken Spanish, I always felt embarrassed. I sometimes still do. 

Well...until I start working on my Spanish a little more, that part of the equation isn't going to change. However, learning the cuts of meat helps a lot. So that's what I'll be focusing on in this installment of supermarket tips for shopping in Panama.

I wasn't kidding when I said the hot dog aisle was overwhelming

I guess I'll start with chicken. First, let's just make sure that everyone knows that chicken in Spanish is pollo. Knowing that is the first step to not sounding like a schmuck at the counter. Trust me, even if you do speak Spanish, with the gringo accent thrown in, half the time it's still hard to get your point across. So if you don't want to be standing at the counter, surrounded by Panamanians, flapping your arms up and down doing the chicken dance to explain that you just want some chicken wings, then make sure you're comfortable with the list I'll provide you below. The prices are always by the pound here. If you look closely to the signs, in the bottom right corner, it tells you what the kilogram equivalent is (some Panamanians will order by the kilogram).  

Muslo Encuentro - This is the thigh attached to the leg, like you see in the photo above on the far left side. So if you know your numbers, you can simply point and say cuatro de muslo encuentro

Encuentro de Pollo - This is just the thigh. If you wanted the boneless thigh, which you see sometimes at the meat counter, but almost always in the pre-packaged chicken, you'd be looking for filete de encuentro de pollo. Same with chicken breast, filete means boneless. 

Pechuga de Pollo - This is chicken breast. Usually you can get away with just saying the number and pechuga since chicken breast is the only kind of breast you're likely to buy. So "dos pechugas" should be fine. Or if you want to order by the pound, you would say something along the lines of, "Tres libras de Pechuga de Pollo, por favor." This would be "3 pounds of chicken breast, please."

Muslo de Pollo - This is the chicken leg all by itself. You don't see it in the picture above, as they were all out of chicken legs this day. I made the mistake of going to the store on the day before carnaval started, the day when most of the meat was wiped out. 

Alas de Pollo, sometimes referred to as alitas - This is chicken wings. 

Filete de Pechuga - As I mentioned a little higher up in this post, filete de pechuga is boneless chicken breast. 

Pollo Entero - This is whole chicken. So if you wanted a chicken to bake or to chop up for soup, this is what you'd buy. Most of the time, this chicken will come with the neck and head still attached. I usually ask them to chop it off for me, which I do by signaling with a karate chop to my own neck. Either they get it right away, or think I'm slightly insane. I don't like looking my food in the eye, so I feel much better having them take the head off. 

Let's move on to pork. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get many pictures of pork. As you can see in the photo above, it was slim pickins. 

Chuletas Frescas - This is fresh pork chops (uncooked). If you wanted to order boneless pork chops you'd ask for chuletas deshuesadas.

Costillas de Puerco - This is pork ribs. 

Chuleta Ahumada - This is smoked pork chop. Panamanians usually buy these for a quick meal. You just toss them around in a frying pan with a little bit of oil until they're nicely colored (a dark pink). 

Lomo de Cerdo, same as Lomo de Puerco - This is pork tenderloin. 

Tocino - This is bacon. Most Panamanians will call it bacon too.

Moving on to meat. This is where most of us get confused. You can usually look at pork chops and know they're pork chops. You know a chicken leg or a wing when you see one. However, meat kind of all looks the least to me it does. So I'll do my best to roundup a definition of all the meats you might see a the butcher here in Panama. 

Pulpa Negra - This is on the far right in the photo above. Pulpa Negra is the same as top round, and it's one of the most popular cuts in Panama. My mom-in-law cooks nothing but pulpa negra. It's what she uses when she fries carne (meat) and when she cooks it up with tomatoes, onions, green peppers, etc. 

Pulpa Blanca - This is on the far left in the photo. I've had a hard time figuring out what pulpa blanca is exactly, and I don't think I've ever bought it, but from what I gather, it's bottom round, which I guess makes sense if pulpa negra is top round. 

This is the same picture, but from the other side, so you can see pulpa blanca a little better on the far left side. 

Babilla - is in the photo, the second from the left, and this is rump steak from what I could gather. 

Rincon - is the next one over in the photo. You can see it a little bit better in the other photo, next to pulpa negra. To be honest with you, I'm not sure what this one is. I'll have to ask the butcher next time I'm at the store. Sorry, guys. I want to say that it's probably shoulder (or sirloin), but I'm not sure on that. I've tried looking it up online and the word means "corner," but as far as being a cut of meat, it seems to be a Panamanian thing. 

Milanesa - is thin cut round steak. I usually pick up a pack or two of Milanesa when I'm at Pricesmart. It is really thin though. I like it for stir fry and stuff like that. To me, it's almost the same as pulpa negra, but I think just a little bit thinner. 

Carne Molida - This is ground beef. 

Ropa Vieja - Translated this literally means old clothes. Sounds gross, I know, but it's one of my favorite things to eat in Panama. The cut of meat is just flank steak, but when it's cooked, it's usually shredded, almost like pulled pork. It's excellent. 

Lomo Redondo - Lomo, just like with pork, is tenderloin. So this would be meat tenderloin. 

Palomilla - This is beef loin sirloin. 

Falda - This is flank steak. 

Carne para Guisar - Usually you'll see this meat chopped up in chunks, or cubes. It's basically meat used for soups or stews. 

Bistec Picado - This is steak chopped up into little strips, ready for stir-fry.

My daughter trying her darndest to order meat for the family

The cuts listed above are the ones that I see in the regular supermarkets here. They're everywhere. In the El Machetazo in Coronado, the meat department actually posts signs in English next to the Spanish. It's the only store I've come across that does this. If I lived closer to Coronado I would've just run into the store to prepare for this article. Most of the local stores here will only have the signs in Spanish. Now, I'm going to list a bunch of other cuts you might see in the store, but they're not as common. I'm just going to put quick definitions here, with no photos. 

Paleta en Trozo - Chuck arm pot roast

Bistec de Planchuela - Chuck top blade steak

Paleta del 7 en Trozo - Chuck 7-Bone pot roast

Costillar Punta Pequeña - Rib roast

Bistec de Lomo - Top loin (strip) steak

Filete en Trozo - Tenderloin roast

Bistec de Filete - Tenderloin steaks

Pecho Entero - Brisket, whole

Pecho, Corte - Brisket, flat cut

Bistec de Centro - Top round steak

Milanesa de Pulpa Bola - Round tip steak

Pulpa Bolo en Troza - Round tip roast

Bistec Suavizado - Cubed steak

Tiritas de Carne - Beef for stir-fry

Wow, ok, I don't ever want to do that again. That wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, haha. That ends this article on supermarket tips for shopping in Panama. I know a lot of people were looking forward to this article. I hope I was able to meet your expectations. I might be adding a couple more articles to this segment. I'm thinking about a vegetable article and maybe a trip to the deli article. Let me know if those would be helpful or a waste of time.  

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Supermarket Tips for Shopping in Panama Part 3 (drinks)

I'm getting a great response from these supermarket tips articles. I really do appreciate everyone who has commented and emailed me directly. This installment will cover drinks, everything from juices to coffee to milk to alcoholic beverages. If you can drink it, I'll try to mention it. I'll start with leche or milk.

Tetrapak Milk

La Chiricana - Straight from the interior of this country comes my favorite milk, the red and white box with the cow on the front, La Chiricana. This milk only comes "whole" so it's not the best option for anyone looking for fat free or slim. It comes in a Tetrapak, so it doesn't need to be refrigerated. I was a little bit weary about drinking milk that didn't need to be refrigerated, but my whole Panamanian family drinks it and I just eventually followed suit. All milk here tastes a little bit different from what I was used to back in the States. However, La Chiricana grew on me quickly. To this day, it's the only milk I can drink straight from a glass. I love milk, and this one, when cold, tastes great. 

You'll notice the price tag in the photo. $1.35 for a quart of milk isn't cheap. Milk period isn't cheap in Panama. I'm not sure what a gallon goes for in the States, but I'm pretty sure it didn't cost over $5, which is what a gallon would cost if you picked up 4 of these cartons. I'll get to refrigerated milk in a second, but an actual gallon here costs about $4.65. I'm curious. Can someone reading this please comment on the cost of a gallon of whole milk wherever you're from?

Lactose Free Milk

Dos Pinos Brand Lactose Free Milk - If your'e lactose intolerant, like my wife, you won't find many lactose free options in Panama. Not unless you shop in speciality stores. You might find more options in stores like Deli Gourmet, which is like a mini-Whole Foods here. My wife has tried the couple of brands out there for lactose-free milk, and she swears by the one in the photo above. She likes the semidescremada, which is like semi-skimmed milk. It's her favorite, but again, not super cheap. $1.69 for this little carton isn't a great deal. 

Since she doesn't drink whole glasses of milk and just uses it for coffee or cereal, it lasts a little longer than our family's whole milk, so it's ok. 

Refrigerated Milk

Estrella Azule's D'oro milk - This is my favorite refrigerated milk and costs about $4.69 per gallon. I like the red La Chiricana milk better, but if I know that I want cold milk for something right away, or I can't find the other, or I just want to save a dollar on a gallon, I'll buy this one. 

My biggest complaint with milk in Panama is that the taste isn't consistent. One gallon of this D'oro milk will taste great right out of the glass. Then, the next one I buy, might taste a little strange. Not bad, just not great all by itself. A little chocolate poured in might doctor it up, but I like just plain ol' milk right out of the glass. Still, of all the milk I've tried, this is the best refrigerated one. I drink whole milk, so unfortunately I can't tell you much about the tastes of the others. 

Instant Coffee

Duran Cafe Instant Coffee - I'm always on the run it seems, so I like instant coffee. I like to throw a mug of water into the microwave, heat it up for a minute, then dump a couple teaspoons of this stuff in, mix it up, add a little cinnamon, pour in a couple packets of Dulce artificial sweetener, throw it over some ice, and off I go.

Anyone who has read my past posts knows that I'm a fan of Starbucks. Duran is the Starbucks of Panama. They have several very nice cafes in town, and it's the only coffee that really wakes me up. The jar above is the medium sized one (85g), and costs $4.29. The best place to buy this instant coffee is at Pricesmart, where you can pick up the large one for just over five bucks. 

Regular Coffee

Duran Cafe Puro - If instant coffee isn't your thing, and you're one of those people who just love to have the scent of fresh brewed coffee wafting through your home, then try out the traditional Duran coffee. You can pick up a 425g bag for about $4.89. Of course, if you live in Boquete and you're reading this, you might disagree. A lot of people in Boquete grow their own coffee, so you might be able to pick up something super fresh for a lot less money. 

Passion Fruit Juice

Estrella Azul Brand Maracuya Juice - The first time I visited Panama, about 12 years ago, I fell in love with this juice. I'd never tasted anything like it. It's still a staple in the Powers home. Maracuya juice is the same thing as passion fruit juice. For the longest time they didn't carry it in the States. Then I saw that Welch's started carrying passion fruit juice. If you've never tried this stuff, you need to give it a try. It's really sweet though. My wife adds a little bit of water to hers. You can pick up a cold half gallon for $2.09.

Apple Juice

Jumex Apple Juice - Apple juice is crazy expensive in Panama. The best place to pick up what you're used to is Pricesmart, where you can find two huge jugs of Mott's apple juice bundled together for about $11. My problem is, with four kids, I don't have time to run to Pricesmart every time we run out of juice. So I tried buying a few of the Panamanian brands, and they all tasted funny to me. It was like apple candy in a jug. 

Finally, I stumbled on this Jumex apple juice. It's the closest thing to Mott's, and a heck of a lot less expensive. A liter of this juice costs about $1.05. It's sweet, but at least it actually tastes like apple juice and not apple drink. Make sure you pick up the apple juice or Jugo de Manzana. If you by Nectar de Manzana you're going to get that thick nectar. The cartons look identical, so make sure the one you buy says jugo or juice. Oh, and the Jumex jugo de uva (grape juice) is probably the closest thing you'll find, in taste, to Welch's grape juice, for cheap.

Other juices

Del Monte Juices - When you first move to, or visit Panama, you might find yourself shocked by the juice aisles. Other than the strange mixes, like Strawberry Kiwi, you find in the U.S., the juice flavors are pretty consistent. You're probably used to seeing apple, orange, pineapple, grape...and that's probably about it, right? Not here.

Panamanians drink pear juice, peach juice, mango juice, guava/guayaba juice, papaya juice, passion fruit juice...and just about everything else. The Del Monte brand juices are usually pretty good. They're thick though and sweet. Melocoton (or peach juice) tastes to me like I'm sipping cold peach cobbler. I'm still not used to it, but the kids love it. My kids love the mango juice too. My favorites are Piña (pineapple), Ponche de Frutas (fruit punch), and mango. These are usually about $1.35 per liter. They're great for kids' school lunches too and cost about 38 cents for the kid juice box size. 

Sugar-Free Drink Mix

Clight - I'm always on the lookout for sugar-free stuff. Someone just wrote me an email yesterday asking about the availability of diet sodas here. When I first moved here, nearly four years ago, Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi (Coca-Cola Lite and Pepsi Lite here) were the only two diet sodas available. Riba Smith slowly started to add more diet sodas to their aisle. Diet A&W Root Beer, Diet 7-Up, Sprite Zero, Diet Dr. Pepper, and even Diet Mountain Dew showed up. Now, may of the Super 99, Rey, and El Machetazo supermarkets also carry more options for diet sodas. At somewhere between $.65 and $.89 per can, these diet sodas aren't what you'd consider affordable though. 

It's amazing what you'll pay here that you'd never pay in the States. A 12-pack of soda here costs almost $8. I think I used to pay like $4 back in Ohio. People usually just buy the 2-liter bottles (for about $1.89), and for those your options drop back down to Coca-Cola Lite, Pepsi Lite, and sometimes Coke Zero. 

Other sugar-free drink options are very limited. You'll see Crystal Light here, but it's pretty expensive. So one day...while holding a tube of Crystal Light in my hand, I noticed that parked right next to it was something called Clight, which has Splenda in it. A packet of Clight, which is really two packs in one, each side having enough powder for 1 Liter, costs only 69 cents. I usually just pour both packs into a gallon and fill it up. It comes out a little bit watered down, but I'm not into super sweet drinks anyway, so it works out for me. You'll find strawberry, orange, tangerine, lime, and green tea flavors. There may be more. 

Local Beer

Balboa Beer - I love my Coors Light, which you can pick up for about $.65 per can or I think about $.75 per bottle. If you want to stay on the more affordable side of things, try to get used to local beers. Balboa seems to be the manly beer here in Panama. It's the party beer. Of the Panamanian beers, it's probably my favorite. 

Local Beer

Atlas Beer - I consider Atlas to be like Balboa's little sister. They're made by the same company, and since Panama doesn't really have any light beers, Atlas is probably the closest you'll find. You'll notice that both Balboa and Atlas can be picked up for $.49 per can, which comes out to about $3 per 6-pack or $6 for a 12-pack. That's not bad at all. A 12-pack of Coors Light comes out to just over $8.

Local Beer

Panama Beer - This is the rival to Balboa and Atlas. I kind of like Panama, and for awhile, it was my second choice (after Coors Light of course). It's listed at $.53 per can. 

Soberana Beer - When I first visited Panama, about 12 years ago, this was "the beer." It's what everyone at the bars and nightclubs was drinking. I remember buying everyone a round at one of the bars I visited. Then, when I moved back here many years later, I only saw Balboa, Atlas, and sometimes Panama. Apparently, Soberana got pushed to the side for some reason. It's still around, but you won't see nearly as many billboards advertising the stuff. During this visit to the supermarket, it was was priced at $.58 per can. 

Imported Beer

Imported Beer - You have to be careful when picking up imported beer. I got excited the first time I walked down a Riba Smith beer aisle and saw beers I hadn't had in so long. I put a few bottles of Yuengling into my car, then nearly fainted when I saw the shelf and realized that each of those beers was about $2. I took the above photo two days ago in Riba Smith. It was the Dolphins logo that originally caught my eye. Miami Panama? Then...Bud Panama? Coors Light and Miller Light are the two main American brands here. Other imported beers you'll commonly see are Hamm's, Milwaukee's Best, Budweiser, Heineken, and Corona. For other brands you'll have to check Riba Smith, but make sure you're comfortable with the price per bottle/can before you start stocking up. $1.75 for one can of Bud Light is nuts. 


Sangria - If you're not a beer drinker, you have to try sangria. It's very popular here in Panama, and can be found at every party. It's cheap too. The two brands in the photo above are the brands my family members pick up and bring to the party. Usually they'll mix one of these boxed wines with chopped up apples and grapes and serve. Some people add a little bit of white wine, rum, or passion fruit juice to the mix. Look at the prices in the picture. A liter of Don Simon is only $2.19. My wife complains that the Don Simon one is too sweet. The Penasol Sangria is only $3.19. Of course, you'll find many many other brands of Sangria, but these are the affordable ones. 

Local Rum

Ron Abuelo - Ron Abuelo is Panamanian rum, Panama's answer to Captain Morgan or Bacardi (both of which are also popular here, but not as affordable as Ron Abuelo). Ron Abuelo can be picked up for about $7.19 per liter. 

Local Alcohol

Seco Herrerano - Every country has its own "drink you have to stay away from." In Korea, it was Soju. Here, it's Seco. I've tried it once, but just a little. It's triple distilled from sugarcane usually mixed with fruit juice, soda, or sipped straight. It's strange stuff too. I was at a party once and watched a friend of mine staggering around, leaning on people, like he wouldn't last another five minutes...then five minutes later it was like he hadn't been drinking at all. I think he was just an odd fella. It probably had nothing to do with the drink, but the fact that he kept yelling "Woohoo Seco!" made me think Seco was to blame. 

If you can handle it, you won't find a less affordable, quite as powerful drink here in Panama. For only $5.59 you can pick up a liter of Seco Herrerano...but buyer beware. 

Ok, I think that covers most of the drinks in Panama. If anyone has anything to add, please do so in the comments section. The next installment will be on the cuts of meat here in Panama, something that has probably baffled many of us expats at some point in time. 

Thanks for reading,


Monday, February 4, 2013

Supermarket Tips for Shopping in Panama Part 2 (food)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about cleaning agents and condiments, in my attempt to share some of the items I've learned to buy here in Panama, to save a little bit of money. When talking about living in Panama, people love to mention how affordable life is. It can be. But it can also be much more expensive than what you were used to back home. Imported goods are not cheap. So you have to learn to pick and choose. Figure out which imported items you can't live without. For the rest, try to buy local things to save money. 

In this post I'll concentrate on food. Here's a list of edible items I've slowly caught onto over the past 3+ years of living in Panama City. I'll start with some of the essentials, then move on to snacks and breakfast foods.

Egg bread

Rimith Moña de Huevo - Moña de Huevo, or egg bread, costs about $1.79 for the loaf you see in the above photo. I got turned on to this the first time I visited Panama. This is the type of bread commonly used to make derretidos (basically paninis) or sandwiches squished and grilled. This bread is so good you can eat it right out of the pack. Try it out. 


Kiggins Corn Flakes - I love cereal. Finding out recently that I'm beginning stages diabetic has forced me to cut back on all the sugary sweets I love. It's hard to find cereal that's not covered in sugar. Now, I'm not saying that corn flakes is the healthiest cereal out there, but with a little bit of artificial sweetener, it's not nearly as bad as a bowl of Captain Crunch. 

Panamanian supermarkets tend to have several brands of corn flakes. You'd think that the original Corn Flakes, the one with the rooster on the box, would be the best out there. I've tried it and didn't like it at all. Like many other (non imported) brands you're familiar with, it tastes different, and it was paper thin. So I tried some of the generic brands. Some had flakes as hard as rocks and some tasted like cardboard. Then I found the corn flakes shown in the photo above. These are the only ones I like, and they're always on sale for just over two dollars. These ones are made by Kiggins, which is displayed in a little red rectangle at the top center of the box. 

Artificial Sweetener

Dulce - So what should you put on top of your corn flakes? I was a big fan of Splenda back in the States (yes, I know, I'm sure plenty of you reading this are just dying to give me a hard time about how Splenda is part rat poisoning and all that, but sugar will kill me now...and Splenda will at least take awhile). It didn't take long for me to look for an alternative to Splenda. A box of 50 packets here costs $6.95. That's crazy. So I tried out this brand called Dulce by Rikas (which I believe is the same Rika that makes the caldo de pollo seasoning I mentioned in my last post). I think Dulce tastes the same, if not better, than Splenda, and a box of 50 packets costs only $2.39. Some times Dulce is hard to find. The box is yellow and is usually squeezed in somewhere next to Splenda, so look carefully. 


Del Oro Rice - I don't eat rice much anymore. At least I try not to. And to be honest with you, I'm not sure that I can tell the difference between one brand of rice and another. My family can though. God forbid I pick up a cheap, strange brand of rice. At some point, I was told that I was only allowed to buy the rice with the parrot on the front. So...apparently, Del Oro rice, with the bird on the front, is the way to go. You can pick up a 5 pound bag for about $3.39.


Melo Eggs - Like rice, I can't tell you the difference between eggs. I've started picking up this 18 pack of eggs though (remember I have 4 kids so eggs disappear quickly) for $3.39. One thing about eggs here that I found interesting, and a bit strange, is that Panamanians don't usually refrigerate eggs. They're sold on a regular shelf, like any other item in the store. Something else different, is that the expiration date is printed on each individual egg, not on the package like back in the States. 


Nestle Americano Cheese - I was a fan of Kraft American cheese back in the States. I usually picked up a large package at Costco. You can find Kraft at Pricesmart here (which is the Panama version of membership shopping) and even at Riba Smith (but you'll pay a fortune for it). I started buying Nestle Americano cheese. It's great. A 12-pack of individually wrapped slices like you see in the photo above goes for $2.79. 

If you like deli cheese, you have to try the popular brand here in Panama, called Cremoso. Don't stand at the deli and try to figure out which one you want to buy, because I swear, there are like 10 different cheeses that say Cremoso. I watched and studied how Panamanians order cheese, and probably 90% of them just walk up to the counter and ask for Cremoso. The person behind the counter knows which Cremoso to get. I guess Cremoso is American cheese...but it's kind of softer, almost like Velveeta. It's delicious though. I eat it plain, right out of the fridge. 


Port Side Chunk Light Tuna (in water) - I grew up eating a lot of canned tuna. One of my favorite dishes growing up, and one that I've started making for my kids, is my mama's tuna casserole. Tuna doesn't really qualify as cheap anymore though. I think Starkist and Chicken of the Sea go for a little over $1.30 per can, which adds up when you need at least 5 cans for a casserole.

I tried a few Panamanian brands, but most of them aren't very affordable. They seem to rival the American brands. Something else you might find strange, is the large variety of canned tuna here. Panamanian supermarkets sell tuna with vegetables mixed in, tuna with garlic, tuna with all kinds of stuff. Finally, I found the tuna in the photo above. Only $.90 per can.

Plantain Chips

Pro brand Platanos - If you don't already love plantains, you'll find that they'll grow on you the longer you stay in Panama. Plantain chips are almost as popular as potato chips here. The problem is, most of the ones you find in the supermarket, or sold at street side vendor carts, are just smothered in grease. You can look at the package and just see the grease in the chips. My wife's friend, Jennifer, goes to the gym all the time and watches what she eats. She turned us on to these chips. They're delicious, 0g trans fat, gluten free, and no cholesterol. Pro brand sells them in three flavors (sweet plantain chips, regular salted, and our favorite, the lime and salt ones). You'll only find them in personal sized bags. The one in the photo above costs only 79 cents, but you'll be surprised how many chips are squeezed into this small bag. 

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chokis or Mini-Chokis - These things are awesome. I have to steal a cookie or two every once in awhile from my kids. If you like the original Chips Ahoy (not the soft ones as these are quite hard), you'll like Chokis. Chips Ahoy go for about $4 per pack, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the store. The package shown in the photo above comes with 5 packs of I think 6 cookies, about the same size as Chips Ahoy cookies, for only $1.59. They're really good, kind of like Famous Amos cookies. At Pricesmart they sell boxes of school-size packs of mini chokis for I think around $3. 


Crisp crackers - Panamanians don't waste money on Ritz. You will find Ritz here in the supermarkets, but they go for between $3.50 and $4 a pack. These Crisp crackers are just as good and cost much less. The packages shown in the photo above cost only $1.85. 


El Antojo tortillas de maiz - I've written about tortillas before. I was addicted to these things when I first moved here. I love all kinds of tortillas, especially Mexican ones, and these are much different. They're thick, corn tortillas. Cooking them is easy. You simply heat oil in a skillet, maybe a half an inch deep. When the oil is really hot, use tongs (makes it easier) and place the tortilla into the oil. Keep touching the center of the tortilla with the tongs until the center is no longer soft. That's when you turn it over. Fry the other side just until it's slightly golden. Take it out and let it sit on a paper towel to soak up the excess grease. 

The most popular tortillas you see in all the stores is the Rimith brand (same brand as the egg bread I mentioned earlier). I started off with these ones, but I found the ones in the photo above, which are sold at Rey supermarkets. They're cheaper (only $1 for 12) and cook better. Rimith ones seem to get hard and burn faster. These El Antojo ones turn out great. 


Delicias Mi Casita - Panamanians love fried food, especially for breakfast. Empanadas are a staple here and can be found in every restaurant and at tons of street vendors. If you want to try them out at home, you'll find both maiz (corn) and flour empanadas. I like the flour ones. You cook them much the same as the tortillas, but they cook quicker...and burn just as fast, so be careful. You put them in oil just until the under side turns lightly golden, then turn and do the same on the other side. Be careful though, lightly golden turns to dark brown and black super fast.

I can't really tell you my favorite brand of flour empanadas, because I haven't tried enough of them to say. The brand in the photo above is ok. You can get a 6-pack for $1.69. Queso (cheese), carne (meat), and pollo (chicken) are the three options from this brand. They're kinda stingy on the stuffing though. 

Sliced Pork

Filete de Cerdo Ahumado by American Star - Bacon isn't very affordable in Panama. Pricesmart is probably the only place to buy reasonably priced bacon. For that reason, I started looking for alternative meat products to add to breakfast. These sliced, smoked (which is what ahumado means) pork slices are awesome. You just toss them in a frying pan with a little bit of oil. Sounds horrible, I know, lots of greasy breakfast items here, but I'm just showing you some of the things you can try out. The package you see in the photo goes for $2.95. 


Kiener Chorizos - I don't remember ever having the options for hot dogs, chorizos, and sausages that I have here in Panama. It's crazy. I think there may be more options for hot dogs than there are for feminine hygiene products. Seriously. I stand there looking dumbfounded every time I approach this section of the supermarket. Where do you begin? I'm still trying to figure out the best hot dogs to buy. I kind of like the Hormel Smokies. 

One more meat used for breakfast here is the chorizo. Yes, it's grilled and put in buns, just like everywhere else in the world, but if you want to fry some up to go with breakfast, the best I've found is the Kiener Chorizons shown above for $2.99.


Berard Honey and Apple Chorizos - For non-breakfast chorizos (they're good with breakfast too, actually) you just have to try these honey and apple chorizos. I was at a party the first time I tried them. It's common here, at parties, to put chorizos on wooden sticks, and then slice the chorizos with a knife in a sort of spiral motion, so that when you eat it, you can easily just pull pieces off of the stick. 

Like this

At this family party, I tried one of these chorizos on a stick, and was blown away. I kept asking, "What kind of chorizos are these?" until I finally found out they were Berard brand's honey and apple chorizos. You have to try these grilled, either on a stick, or in a bun. Trust me. You'll thank me later. 

Thanks for reading supermarket tips part 2. In the next installment I'll cover brands of beer, other alcoholic beverages, juices, milk and other things you can drink.