Going to the grocery store when you are in a different country could be a little intimidating. But with a little bravery you can master grocery shopping like a native Panamanian! There are a few tips when you are grocery shopping in a country where the labels and signs are in Spanish. The first tip is to be a little adventurous. Don’t be afraid to try a new brand of product, or try a food that you have never experienced! For instance, if you normally buy “Doritos” when you lived in your home country, try a Panamanian brand, like “Kachitos”. You may find that you like the local brand better PLUS the local brand is less expensive. The worst case scenario is that you find you like the brand you are normally buy better, so next time you go to the store, buy what you want. You will be so proud of yourself that you tried something new. And you might surprise yourself to find that you not only like the local brands better, and you will save money in the process! By the way, if you buy the Doritos brand chips, you’ll pay a whopping $5.49 a bag. It pays to buy local products!
Another tip is to create two columns on a piece of paper. In the first column, list the things in the grocery store that you buy the most. Then using your Spanish/English dictionary or google translate, write the Spanish word next to the English word. See there, you are not only making it easier to shop but you are learning more Spanish in the process! An example: If you buy tuna in water the can will say : atún en agua. If you want to buy tuna in oil then the can will say: atún en aceite. It will make shopping for the first few times a lot easier if you are not guessing what things are! Be brave and resist buying the brands you have always used in the past. For instance, in certain cases you will pay a higher amount for your well known brands because they are imported. Notice that StarKist tuna (imported) is $2.40 a can but the local brand Two Oceans is only $1.08 a can. Buying local brands is one way you can save money in Panama.
Mastering the Butcher Section
There are expats living in Panama that have lived here for a year and they are too leery of going to the butcher section of the grocery store. Instead, they will buy the pre-packed meat that is off to the side where the lunch meat is kept. This does not have to be you! You can walk up to the butcher like you are a pro with just a little knowledge. When you get to the butcher section if there are other people waiting, it is always best to get a number. Look for the red ticket holder and pull a number. Some butchers use them and some don’t at different times of the day, but it will never hurt to get a number. When it is your turn, you can choose to tell the butcher you want your meat in kilograms or pounds. The Spanish word for pounds is: libras. A kilogram is equal to 2.2 pounds. There are many expats who have been surprised when they realize the butcher has given them more meat that they have bargained for! It is because you need to specifically say “libras”. If you forget to say that, the butcher will think you want kilograms! When that happens, it will be a good time for a party because you will enough meat for your friends! Below is a “cheat sheet” that will be helpful when you look for your meat. This is a small sample of the meat you will see but it is a start!
Beef = Carne
Pork = Cerdo
Chicken = Pollo
Ground Beef = Carne Molida
Pork Chop = Chuleta de Cerdo
Chicken Breast = Pechuga de Pollo
Chicken Thighs = Muslo de Pollo
Chicken Legs = Pierna de Pollo
Chicken Wings = Alita de Pollo
Bacon = Tocino
Now you have done it! Now it is time to go to the checkout counter. It is important to know that Panama is one of the first Countries to ban the plastic bags at the checkout counter. If you did not bring a recyclable bag don’t worry, they will have many at the cash registers and they are very reasonably priced.
You might also be asked if you have a reward (point) card, or in Spanish a “tarjeta de punto”. Panamanians at times talk very quickly so it may be all you understand is the word “punto”. If you have a card, please use it. It is a nice perk because it allows you purchase specialty items they have on a occasion at a reduced cost (for example, they might have a luggage promotion or a promotion for BBQ items). Also, in the front office they will also have items like a rice cooker or a blender. With enough points collected, you can get one for free! If you don’t have a point card, you just need to go to the office and you can sign up for one. It’s free! Some grocery stores in Panama even offer offer 2% cash back for your purchase. The amount accumulates on your card and amount you have shows up on their register. When you get enough $ accumulated, you can use that money to buy groceries instead of cash. This is another way you can save money in Panama.
It is also customary to tip the person who bags your groceries. Some expats give a quarter per bag, but the amount you give them is up to you. When the person takes your groceries to the car, it would be nice to add a few quarters as well. A little kindness goes a long way in Panama!
Buying Fruits and Vegetables in Panama
They sell produce at the grocery store but you’ll get much better prices, and usually fresher, if you buy produce at a farmers market, local vegetable/fruit store or from local farmers who are selling produce out of the back of their truck. In the grocery store, you’ll likely pay $2 for a pineapple. But if you buy pineapple from a local farmer ( who’s truck is just down the road from the grocery store) you’ll only pay $1 for a super fresh sweet pineapple.