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You'll hear a lot of talk about duty-free shopping in Panama, but it is exaggerated. Really, the only place you can duty-free shop is at the plethora of stores at the Tocumen Airport. Shopping complexes such as the Flamingo Center on the Amador Causeway limit duty-free purchases to cruisers landing at their port. Even the duty-free zone in Colón is overrated, as most wholesalers do not sell to independent travelers. The major shopping malls here offer excellent quality and national and international brands, though prices are comparable to those in the United States. A principal shopping avenue is Vía España, where both high- and low-end shops vie for business, as well as grocery stores and pharmacies. Designer stores are located around Calle 53 in Marbella and in the nearby World Trade Center's Centro de Comercio. Also try Plaza Paitilla in the Paitilla neighborhood. You'll find electronics shops around Vía Estronga, in the Financial District.

Modern Shopping Malls

Globalization and the rising demand for high-quality products have shifted the shopping scene to spacious megamalls that house international brands, cinemas, and a food court. Multiplaza Pacific (tel. 302-5380) offers the most in terms of selection and quality, yet it is the most expensive in town. Colombian-owned Multicentro (tel. 208-2500), conveniently located across from the Radisson on Avenida Balboa, has a number of Latin-diva-style boutiques; there's also a cinema and a casino. Albrook Mall (tel. 303-6333) is an air-conditioned shrine to low-cost outlet shopping, but you'll have to do a lot of digging around to find a gem. Because it is next to the bus terminal, it is busy with families who arrive from the interior of Panama, ready to shop. There is a cinema at Albrook Mall, too.

Wildlife Contraband: Don't Destroy What You've Come Seeking

International laws prohibit the trade of endangered plants or animals, or products made from endangered wildlife. Yet many travelers to Panama who purchase such goods rarely realize that what they are doing is illegal, nor do they understand the consequences of their purchase. Illegal trade destroys the very wildlife and habitat that travelers come here to enjoy. You could also set yourself up for being issued a heavy fine by law-enforcement officials upon your return. To help with wildlife conservation, ask yourself, Do I know what this product is made of? Do I know where this product came from? Do I need a special permit to bring this product home?

The World Wildlife Fund's trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have a series of "Buyer Beware" brochures, including one aimed at travelers in the Caribbean, that you can download from their site at www.worldwildlife.org/buyerbeware. When in Panama, you should avoid purchasing:

  • Products made from turtle shell (including jewelry)
  • Leather products made from reptile skins
  • Live birds including parrots, macaws, and toucans
  • Live monkeys
  • Certain coral products
  • Orchids (except those grown commercially)

Markets

The Mercado de Mariscos, located on Avenida Balboa and Calle 15 Este, is distribution headquarters for fresh seafood pulled from the Pacific and Caribbean. It's a vibrant market with lots of action as fishmongers shout while they deftly fillet corvina, tuna, octopus, and more. You can dine here at their upstairs restaurant. Several food stands sell seafood snacks like ceviche. Next door is the brand-new Mercado Público, the covered farmer's market of Panama City with exotic fruits and vegetables, meats, dried spices and nuts, and a food court of fondas, or cheap food stands serving Panamanian fare. Don't forget to bring your camera.

Artesanía, or indigenous handicrafts, are the number-one buy here in Panama (with the exception of real estate). Molas, the reversed appliqué panels made by Kuna Indian women, rank high on the list of popularity for souvenirs and gifts, either sewn onto a beach bag, as a shirt, or sold individually for you to frame or stitch onto anything you'd like (pillowcases are an ideally sized canvas). Other popular handicrafts, such as tagua nuts or vegetable ivory carved into tiny figurines, Ngobe-Buglé dresses, and Emberá Indian baskets and masks, can be found at the following markets. These markets do not have phones, and all are open daily with the general hours 8 or 9am to 5 or 6pm (until about 2pm Sun). The Mercado Nacional de Artesanías, in Panama Viejo next to the visitor center, is expansive and sells handicrafts from around the country. In Balboa, on Avenida Arnulfo Arias Madrid and Amador, is a small YMCA Handicrafts Market, with mostly Kuna and Emberá indigenous arts and crafts, and clothing. A little farther east and up Avenida Arnulfo Arias Madrid is the Kuna Cooperative, featuring Kuna handicrafts. This market is fun for kids because Kuna women offer to affix their traditional beaded bands onto the arms and legs of tourists, just as they themselves wear them.

For the more adventurous traveler seeking an "authentic" shopping experience, you can't beat Avenida Central, a pedestrian street and market that stretches from where Justo Arosemena meets Vía España to the Santa Ana Plaza, and that is near Casco Viejo. It's a scrappy, run-down neighborhood, with cheap stores, outdoor fruit and vegetable markets, and a bustling fusion of ethnic groups shopping for a bargain. Visually, it's the most colorful neighborhood in town. Apart from $1 (£50p)-and-under kind of shops, vendors lining the streets hawk clothing, accessories, plastic gizmos, and knickknacks. Shopkeepers like to blare music or announce their deals through megaphones to pull buyers in. It's a slice of everyday Panama, but it's also street theater and people-watching as fascinating as catching sight of Kuna Indian women lining up at McDonald's. Don't wander too far off Avenida Central, and keep an eye on your personal belongings. This area is patrolled by police and is generally safe during the day.

The brand-new Flamenco Shopping Plaza is on the Amador Causeway (tel. 314-0908; www.fuerteamador.com; hours are variable but generally noon-11pm). It caters predominantly to cruisers docking here, but shops are open to the general public (except the duty-free shop). The Plaza is a high-end, one-stop shopping area for souvenirs, jewelry, and upscale handicrafts. Come prepared: Visit their website and print out their discount coupons worth a savings of 10% to 15%, depending on the store.

Art Galleries

The following art galleries showcase Panamanian contemporary artists and other well-known Latin American artists. Check www.thepanamanews.com and its Calendar listing for upcoming shows and special events. Galería Bernheim, at Calle 50 and Calle Alquilino in the Financial District (tel. 223-0012), has a lengthy roster of paintings and other artwork for sale, as well as antique maps and delicately carved tagua nuts. Imagen Galería de Arte, located at Calle 50 and Calle 77 (tel. 226-2649), displays mostly paintings and sculpture by local artists, and offers professional framing. Galería y Enmarcado Habitante, at Calle 47 and Uruguay, has a small collection and is worth stopping at only if you're in the Bella Vista neighborhood; they also offer framing. As the name states, Arts & Antiques (tel. 264-8121) sells antiques and art antiques representing Spanish colonial, Art Deco, Victorian, and other epochs. The store is located in the Balboa Plaza on Avenida Balboa at Calle Anastacio Ruiz.

Handicrafts

The widest selection of handicrafts in Panama City can be found at one of several markets. Otherwise, an outstanding selection of molas can be found at Flory Saltzman Molas, located at Calle 49 B Oeste (tel. 223-6963; www.florymolas.com). Flory also sells bedspreads made of sewn-together molas, but the laborious work required for such an extensive, intricate piece of work means you'll pay top dollar. Another "designer" handicraft boutique is Breebaart, at Calle 50 and Calle 39 (tel. 264-5937), owned by one Hélène Breebaart, who came to Panama as a representative of Christian Dior 30 years ago and stayed on. Breebaart creates designer fashion and accessories that incorporate contemporary looks with Kuna art (she has a crew of Kuna seamstresses on-site), mostly for Panama's rich and prominent women. There are some things for sale here, but Breebaart's specialty is custom-made pieces that take about a week to make.

The Gran Morrison variety/department store chain, located at Vía España and Calle 51 Este (tel. 269-2211), and in Punta Paitilla (tel. 264-5266), has a selection of handicrafts. In Casco Viejo, two stores sell indigenous crafts and other Panama-themed souvenirs: Galería de Arte Indígena, at 844 Calle 1a (tel. 6634-7064; daily 9am-8pm), sells high-quality indigenous arts and crafts, and features folkloric dancing on Friday and Saturday nights from 6 to 8pm. Down the road from the Galería, on Calle 1era in Casco Viejo, is the shop La Ronda (tel. 211-1001; daily 9am-7pm), with an outstanding selection of high-quality arts and crafts, hats, and paintings. There are shops at the Mi Pueblito cultural center, but the selection is better elsewhere. Those looking for more upscale souvenirs and pre-Columbian reproductions should head to La Reprosa with locations on Ave. Samuel Lewis and Calle 54 (tel. 269-0457) and in Casco Antiguo, edificio Art Deco, Ave. A (tel. 228-4913). It's pricey, but quality is high.

Panama Hats: Not Very Panamanian, After All -- Despite the name, Panama hats did not originate in Panama but in Ecuador, and were traditionally made by the Ecuadorian indigenous group from the Manabí Province using fibers from the toquilla palm. The hat was first popularized by Ferdinand de Lesseps during the French canal effort, and later during the canal building by the U.S., when thousands were imported from Ecuador and given to workers for protection from the blistering tropical sun. Hence, the name "Panama hat" stuck. The hat became fashionable not only in the U.S. but also among the English haberdashery and European royalty. Really, you'd have the best luck ordering a high-quality hat over the Internet from a reputable importer, though Panama does its own version called the sombrero pintado, in the Penonomé region. You'll find a range of hats at the stands at Plaza Cinco de Mayo, as well as a limited selection at the YMCA Handicrafts Market in Balboa.

Jewelry

During the centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous groups produced decorative gold pieces called huacas, which they laid to rest with the dead to protect their souls in the afterlife. The word comes from the Incas, meaning something that is revered, such as an ancestor or a god. Spurred by the theft of huacas from the national anthropology museum, an American living in Panama during the 1970s set up Reprosa, which makes elaborate and stunning jewelry casts using the "lost wax" process of the ancient indigenous groups. If you're searching for a one-of-a-kind, luxury gift for someone special, come here. Reprosa has several more demure collections that include orchids, treasures from the sea, and so forth.

Reprosa also offers a popular factory tour to demonstrate the casting and assembly process. The factory can be found just off the Costa del Este exit near Panama Vieja, and just after turning left on the first street next to the Felipe Motta shop. English-language tours cost $10 (£5) per person and must be booked at least 1 day in advance; call Monica at tel. 271-0033.

Outdoor Gear & Clothing

It's best to buy your outdoor gear and equipment before your trip -- there isn't a wide selection of outdoor products in Panama. The chain store Outdoors (tel. 302-4828 or 208-2647) represents the brands Columbia and Caterpillar, and their stores carry clothing and footwear, sleeping bags, and accessories for biking, fishing, bird-watching, and other adventure sports. Outdoors has stores in the Multicentro, Multiplaza, and a low-cost outlet store in the Albrook Mall. Sportline at Albrook Mall also sells outdoor gear and equipment.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.