10 Years of Blog Archive

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

What's the Number One (Biggest) Difference Between Ecuador and Panama?

People love comparisons; they love to compare different cities and countries amongst each other but we have to be careful because many times these comparisons said just off the cuff are mostly based upon opinion and conjecture.

For instance, we just posted a video called “What Is Panama Like?”  on YT and the first commenter said: “Panama is much better than Ecuador”.  Now, there’s not much worth to this comment as it is not only insufficient in information, but it is based purely upon opinion. It’s like eating bread and leaving out the germ and bran, leaving your body with insufficient nutritional content. We viewers and readers want more!

Truly, Panama is not better than Ecuador and Ecuador is not better than Panama, but they do have their differences and that is what this article is about. We have found the number one biggest difference is…

1. Grocery Store Shopping

In Panama in the grocery stores (big chain stores and mom and pop tiendas) almost everything is imported. Panama, unlike Ecuador does not appear to manufacture their own local brands of anything; I mean absolutely nothing; leaving the shopper with only high-priced imports.  This is the experience we had visiting dozens of stores, over and over in different areas of Panama. Panama imports most of their packaged foods and grains from the U.S.  What a big surprise that was to us!
Major chain grocery store in Panama
For instance: If you like Smuckers peanut butter then you’ll find it in Panama.  On the other side of the coin, Ecuador farms peanuts and they locally prepare their own brand of peanut butter, which on the coast is the freshest tasting we’ve ever had. And it costs a fraction of the price the jar of Smuckers does, as it should. 

Another point we should make here is in Panama the wage earners can’t afford to buy imported peanut butter or Hershey’s cocoa powder, as they are considered a luxury item to them. While in Ecuador, the wage earners can still enjoy having regular access to their locally produced peanut butter and locally prepared brand of cocoa powder.  It’s essentially the same with many products that are locally manufactured in Ecuador, which are many things. Ecuador is a self-sufficient food country and that's a good thing.

Living in Ecuador now, 90% of the things we buy and use are manufactured or prepared/produced in Ecuador. From our peanut butter to brown rice, from our coffee and to our cocoa and honey!  We keep our food costs low partly because we buy the Ecuador brands over the imports! Which actually are healthier, fresher, and taste better!

In Panama trying to find wheat berries (kernels) for bread making was an escapade. They don’t sell them.  After searching for over 3 weeks, in ten different stores, we found one grocery store chain that did sell the small 1 pound bags of wheat berries but the price was as if you were buying a luxury product!!  

Doing some research we found out that Panama imports most of their wheat from the U.S.  (Source PDF). Panama is year round tropical and therefore does not grow its own wheat and other grains.  Panama does grow corn however, and corn at regular whole grain prices is readily available.

Oddly, Panama City has two huge flour mills and only a few of the grocery stores even sell small bags of whole wheat flour. This is because Panamanians generally appear to be not so health conscious as Ecuadorians are. Even in the bakeries, you'll be hard pressed to find whole wheat breads and rolls; it’s all white flour products.

Health food stores are practically non-existent in Panama; what you will find in Panama is GNC Vitamin stores. You’ll also find that most of the grocery store chains have a few shelves with some health food items, but at exorbitant prices at least 300-400% higher, catering to rich foreigners.

Popular grocery store chain in Panama, "REY"
While trying to find a local brand of peanut butter without sugar it literally took us to every single grocery store chain and then some off-beat stores. We finally found a brand without sugar and it was Smuckers imported from the U.S; a small jar was $4.80. And that’s all that was available as a pure peanuts and salt product.  In the u.s. I was not buying Smuckers.  I was buying Laura Lynn’s brand pure peanut butter without the salt even, just pure peanuts, with all the oil included just the way we like it, and that was only $2.80.  At least I had a choice there, -- not in Panama.

As those of us who live in Cuenca, we know that Ecuador makes their own brand of peanut butter and it only has peanuts and salt, nothing else added to it and the price reflects local production not foreign import.

In Ecuador, health food stores abound on every corner! They sell just about everything, and if you can’t find something you need, you can just walk to another Naturista and find it. Also you can ask the store owner if they can get something you need and they will do their best to find it and convenience their customers. When we asked the flour mill guys in Panama if they could get us 50lb  bags of wheat kernels they told us, “No, we don’t make any money selling the kernels, we only sell the flour, sorry”.

The bottom line is, the ability to find the food items you need, especially if they are either considered a health type food or just food in its natural state are easily found throughout Ecuador and hard to get in Panama.  This is not a complaint but our on the ground research and personal observations of grocery store shopping in Panama.

Eating healthy is important to us and so we think it might be important to you too, and that’s why we’re sharing our discoveries. We live in Ecuador, thank goodness, but for anyone thinking of retiring/moving to Panama we just thought you’d want to know the inside scoop to grocery shopping, especially for those who are striving for a healthier eating lifestyle.  Everybody has to eat, but not everybody puts a high priority on healthy food and so this might not matter to you. Simply disregard it and move on, smile and be happy!

Where are the Greens, Cabbage and Broccoli?

Oh my goodness. We couldn’t believe how sparse the greens, like Swiss Chard, spinach, and kale were in the grocery stores. And when you could find them they were wilted and old, but still costing huge amounts. Panama does not grow most greens we take for granted here in the Andes mountains of Cuenca Ecuador; it’s too hot!  It’s the same with cabbage and broccoli.

Panama does grow and sell a heat resistant type of spinach but if you don’t like the slimy feeling after biting into it you’re out of luck.  If you like cruciferous vegetables they’re hard to come by in Panama. Even the cauliflower is imported, and the price reflects that.  

In Ecuador it is a totally different story. You can buy huge, and I mean HUUUGE cabbages, kale, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower at prices reflecting year round local production and availability. And it’s because they grow in Cuenca Ecuador year round! 

To health conscious individuals like us, having ready access to fresh locally produced cruciferous vegetables on a regular basis at local prices is a high priority that we enjoy in Cuenca Ecuador.

We grow our own kale year round in the Andes mountains here in Cuenca Ecuador, and according to Panamanian Kale prices, we’re rich!!! The other side of that coin is that if we lived in Panama we would HAVE TO BE RICH in order to buy kale in Panama. Life has just been too good to us in Ecuador and that is why we’re still here living it up! Smile.

MERCADO food shopping is not all so bad in Panama, if you like tropical fruits you’ll be living it up if you move to Panama City!  Mangos, pineapples, grapes and coconuts are abundant in Panama City with better prices than Ecuador. For instance you can get a medium fresh pineapple for $0.50 cents and large ones for $1.00 to $1.50...and these pineapples are really fresh. You can find six to nine freshly picked mangoes for $1.00 and 2 coconuts for $1.00, plus grapes are $1.00 to $1.25 a pound in the outdoor Mercado's. 
Calidonia Mercado - Panama City

Calidonia Mercado - Panama City
You can also buy Roma tomatoes, which are great for Italian cooking for $0.50 cents a pound! This is true-grit Mercado shopping, you will not get these prices in the grocery stores, however.  

Another thing that Panama does grow and produce is coffee and a little bit of Cocoa but you still can only find the imported HERSHEY'S cocoa powder on the grocery store shelves in Panama, and that is almost inconceivable.  

We're an Expat Family of Five, Living Frugal, Healthy and Happy in Cuenca Ecuador! Enjoy the Discover Cuenca Ecuador blog!


  1. Excellent article. Very helpful.

  2. Hummm we have those fruits also in Ecuador, what is the difference in price from Ecuador to Panama or did I miss something which is entirely possible. :D AKA Putty Tat 007

    Always love your articles.


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