Shopping in Panama: How it differs from your home country

Albrook Mall in Panama
Albrook Mall in Panama

Albrook Mall in Panama

Whether you’re visiting or have just moved to Panama, you’ll find there’s lots of shopping choices to satisfy most of your whims and fancies, no matter where you are from.

Panama City has no less than seven malls, which I’ll talk more about in a future post. Plenty of other independent shops in stand-alone locations or strip malls are located all over the city.

The malls are the most orderly shopping experience, which is why they’re the most obvious choice for most expats, especially those from North America who are more accustomed to orderliness and homogenization (including your brands like Banana Republic, Gap, Louis Vuitton, Asics, MAC, etc.).

While Panama tauts itself for shopping for many tourists, it is NOT necessarily the least expensive choice for you, if you come from North America. My family and I personally don’t do much shopping in Panama for most of our clothes and shoe purchases. Some of this has to do with taste. The local wares of the better-known U.S. and European brands are targeted to Latin American families, which is the bulk of the local market. I call much of what we see in the local stores and malls ‘tropicalized‘.

Different Market, Different Styles

For women’s shoes, for example, this may mean that the color palettes on offer are louder, brighter and more tropical. While flats have only recently become more mainstream in Panama, the styles and designs you’ll encounter are very different from what you’ll find up North.

Certainly in women’s clothing, the norm in the local market is also much more colorful than you might see in your local shops in Detroit or Denver. This is true for men’s clothing too, in some cases.

Can you save $$ if you shop in Panama?

Panama has popular brands like Bebe

Panama has popular brands like Bebe

In my family’s case, we’ve found that the same brands cost 20-30% more here in Panama than in the U.S. for the exact same products. A recent example if that a Black & Decker blender retailed for $130 in Conway. The same model online lists for $89. It’s important to remember that nothing is manufactured in Panama. Thus, anything shipped in has a big shipping price tag attached to it, which accounts for some part of that higher pricing.

There used to be a tax applied, as well, but in the case of goods manufactured in the U.S., we’re now no longer paying the import tax on items priced less than $100 this year, thanks to a benefit from the recent U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement.

Due to the price differences and the differences in our particular tastes, we find ourselves doing the bulk of our personal shopping for clothes and shoes on our trips back to the States.

Do I have to pay import taxes on stuff I bring back with me on my travels?

Lighting options in a local furniture store

Lighting options in a local furniture store

Panama allows travelers to bring up to $2,000 in purchased goods back with them on return flights without charging local or import taxes on those goods. Realistically, Customs never seems to check, so as long as you remove price tags, who’s to say that you didn’t buy those things on some other trip? (Maybe it would be obvious if they checked that you took two bags when you left, and returned with three, but currently, there’s little coordination or oversight of that type thing between Customs and the airlines.)


If you have not already purchased my first book, you can find more there about how your wardrobe will need to change when you move to Panama.

I’m currently working on The Gringo Guide II, which will publish in the next few months. In the new book, I’ll include details on all the shopping you can find in this fun little country, as well as profiles on the various malls and shopping centers.  (NOTE: The Gringo Guide II: More to Know Before You Go is now live on  Amazon.  Click here to get it.)

You Know You Live in Panama When…you move to Panama and…

Sometimes even blue Panama skies can't improve your mood.

Once in a while, I have a bad Panama day. When you move to Panama, you will have a day or two when everything culturally different collides around you with a bang, and all the idiosyncrasies of the country rub the wrong way.

It’s a day like thatwhen what I’d really like is to lose myself for an hour at SuperTarget, and drink a suburban Starbucks. (That’s my version of an island escape…)

But, that’s not the life we’ve chosen. We chose this quirky little country. So, to keep myself sane today, I’ve crafted a list of funny Panama things. It’s not quite Saturday Night Live, but well, here we go.

The Top Three of “You Know You’re in Panama…”

  • When it’s not necessary to pull off the road when a police car comes up behind you with flashing lights. Nope, you just keep driving. You can also pass a police car here, without fear.
  • When you see the local ladies walking down the street with their umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. It’s a strange sight for a few years, then somehow it becomes cute.
  • When the workers who swore they would arrive no later than 6:30 a.m. show up closer to 10 a.m., without apology. (And never mind that you came in specifically to meet them, so the work would not impact your co-workers or your clients. Never mind that.)

Living in Panama as a foreigner requires a great deal of flexibility, patience and most importantly, a good sense of humor. Opportunities abound every single day to learn, to appreciate, and to laugh.

When frustration hits, which it will, get a copy of my  books on Amazon  to read more of these types of living in Panama realities.  (And you can read a few more quirky things that may get under your skin in the book too….and how to learn to relax!) The other seven from this list (which makes it a true Top Ten can be read in The Gringo Guide to Panama II: More to Know Before You Go which just came out on January 5, 2014 in paperback!)

At least, you’ll be able to laugh along the way.  With this little exercise, I’m smiling again!

Halloween in Panama: Where Did All The Ghouls Go?

Halloween in Panama

Halloween in Panama I read somewhere in the past month that the Halloween holiday is now the most-celebrated holiday in the U.S.  Hmmmm. I find that interesting, because that certainly wasn’t the case when we left the States five years ago.

Yes, it was celebrated.  By both adults and kids alike.  I always felt like Halloween was more for kids, but then at the same time, I recall multiple costume parties where we participated with major celebration (with all of our adult friends).

Halloween was always a big deal for us growing up in the U.S., and even for our children, with activities in the suburb we lived in at the church, at their school, and even at area malls.  For the university crowd, it’s a cultural phenomenon to party on campus or at area bars and restaurants.

What About Halloween in Panama?

So, what about Halloween in Panama?  First, one of the big challenges of bringing up kids in Panama is that you’re always looking for things to do.  Halloween is no exception.  Or, perhaps I should say, that the events and activities are more focused in small areas, versus widespread.

For school-aged children, you’ll find that Halloween is mostly limited to at-school activities, with a few at-home parties hosted by one family or another.  Invitees are usually specific to the grade of the party-thrower.  For teenagers, it’s the same thing.  I haven’t heard of one costume party here for kids in the past week.  In the States, there would be at least 50 invitations, and some we’d have to turn down!

For the crowd that’s of age (and in Panama, the drinking age is 18), a few bars will have a dress-up costume night out.  But, again, I’ve seen one ad in the English speaking newspaper.  One tour company is doing a Canal cruise and you must have a costume to get on board.  And that’s the extent of it.


Read more about Halloween in Panama in my second book that’s just been published on Amazon Kindle (as of December 2013).  It’s titled The Gringo Guide to Panama: More to Know Before You Go and is an accompaniment with this, and more about holidays in Panama and how they are different for expats.  Enjoy!