Having lived abroad in Central America as an expat for close to nine years now, I get asked a lot of cost of day-to-day living questions. So, today, as Part Two of my Cultural Differences between Costa Rica and Panama series, I’m going to share some about the food cost comparison between Costa Rica and Panama that you’ll find in shopping at the grocery store or supermarket between the two countries.
By the way, if you’re interested in the first post of this series about the marked differences between Panama & Costa Rica’s people as a whole, you can find that here.
Cultural Differences Part II – Food Cost Comparison: Costa Rica versus Panama
Today, I’m going to cover the topic of food specific to shopping for groceries. I’ll provide a brief overview of both supermarkets and farmer’s markets for each country and at the end, tell you which country is more expensive or affordable.
The Cost of Food: Costa Rica versus Panama
Costa Rica has three large supermarket chains: BM, MaxiPali and AutoMercado. Typically, most people frequent BM, which has stores all over Costa Rica. MaxiPali is a discount type supermarket and products other than food (i.e. a lower-end Wal-Mart). AutoMercado is a large format specialty supermarket with all kinds of tempting delights from all over the world. AutoMercado also has an in-house bakery with chocolate croissants, mmm.
You can guess which one is my favorite. 🙂
Yes, for those of us living along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica – four hours from San Jose – those must-have cookies from Omaha or that almond butter I love so much can only be found at AutoMercado. We do have an AutoMercado two hours from us near the super-fancy Los Suenos resort, but the only time we’re heading that direction is to go to San Jose, so shopping there rarely makes sense.
If you want to get the best deal at the supermarket, go to MaxiPali or to PriceSmart (the equivalent to Sam’s in the U.S.). Going to PriceSmart for those of us living on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, however, means we have to go to San Jose, which is a four-hour drive, and if you do that, it means you have to go on the same day you’re returning home and you’d better bring a big cooler. One downside of living in the tropics, to be honest – all this planning.
Your average consumer does the bulk of their day-to-day grocery shopping at BM.
Every BM is different. Nicer neighborhood stores have a wider variety of brands. Stores in the communities which house a lot of expats like Escazu, Santa Ana, Belen or even Puerto Jimenez (on the Pacific coast) carry more U.S.-sourced packaged foods.
Then, there’s your local farmer’s market. Within a 40-mile radius of where I live on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, there are five farmer’s markets I could visit each and every week. They’re not huge – most of them vary between ten and twenty tables, and variety is limited depending on the season. Many of them offer organic products as well as fresh eggs, same-day butchered chicken and fish caught that morning.
Here in Costa Rica, farming and agriculture continue to be a main driver of the local economy. Fresh food exports like coffee, bananas and papaya, among other things, are big business in Costa Rica. So, of course, it makes sense for the small farmers to sell local when they can: it costs them less and they pass on that savings to you.
Supermarkets in Panama
Panama also boasts three supermarket chains. The high-end one is Riba Smith. The two others are pretty equal in their offerings: El Rey and Super 99. In my opinion, you can find a lot more Americanized products at the lower-end stores, El Rey and Super 99, than you can find at AutoMercado in Costa Rica.
Generally, the range of packaged products we’re familiar with in U.S. supermarkets are more available in the city of Panama. At least, that is, when the stores have those items in stock. In Panama, one of the idiosyncrasies of the culture is the norm that “when they have it, they have it and when they don’t, they don’t” which means the people working in that store can’t tell you when the product will be coming in next. Or they may tell you something just to get you out of their hair, but don’t count on that information being accurate.
PriceSmart is also an option in Panama. And at the moment, there are more PriceSmarts in Panama than there are in Costa Rica.
When I lived in Panama, I shopped at Riba Smith every week, and I found pretty much everything I needed. Like AutoMercado in Costa Rica, it’s more expensive then El Rey or Super 99, but I liked the higher-grades of meats and vegetables that I found there. The last two years of my time in Panama, however, I did find an Argentinian butcher whose meat was to die for, which decreased my meat purchases at Riba Smith.
For fish lovers, Panama City has a very large fish market. The local fishermen bring their boats in there day and night. So, fish – all kinds of fish – are available every single day of the year. And the prices are good. Not cheap, necessarily, but fair. (And better than going down the street to a supermarket who will charge you for packaging, transport and cold storage.)
Many people in Panama frequent the fish market once or twice a week, or have one of their household employees do so on their behalf.
Local Produce (i.e. Farmer’s Markets) in Panama
Because there are not a lot of farms immediately adjacent to Panama City (as they sold their valuable real estate to developers years ago), there’s not an established farmer’s market set-up in the city. Well, I take that back – there was one – a very dirty one that I went to when I first moved to Panama, until the sewage in the area backed up and flooded the streets of it for several months at a time. And since then, no one I know has gone back. Does it still exist? Probably. And if so, and the government has cleaned it up, please let me know so I can post that information here for my readers.
This would be a great project for Panama’s government to get behind as Panama City needs a place in the city for the local farmers to showcase their goods and sell direct to the public!
Otherwise, the one-off farmer will bring his beat-up pick-up truck in and park it on the street corner and sell his wares there, here and yon in the city of Panama. In Coronado, one of Panama’s well-known expat communities an hour from the city, local farmers do the same – line the main thoroughfare with their trucks early in the morning, every single morning. And, there’s a lovely farmer’s market in El Valle on the Pacific coast, but that’s also a good two hours out from the city. Other forlorn little shacks that house daily produce can be found on the PanAmerican highway as you head to the Pacific coast beaches but there’s little consistency for most of them too as to hours and/or what they have.
Which country is more affordable for your food shopping: Costa Rica or Panama?
Hands down, the answer is simple: Panama. By about 25-50%. I based this on my own weekly purchases. Our diet for two people is mostly organic chicken (2-3 whole chickens per week), fresh fish twice a week, a few bottles of iced tea, some canned cat food, dried beans, rice, and the rest is fresh fruits and vegetables. Pretty simple. We don’t do a lot of canned or bottled items, other than vinegar, oil, olives and jalapeños.
What I spent in Panama for two of us totaled about $125-150 per week. What we spend in Costa Rica for two of us totals about $200 per week. (Neither of those totals include alcohol, which is something I’ll report on in a later post because there are marked differences between those kinds of purchases between the two countries, as well.)
So, bottom line, Panama is cheaper when it comes to your food purchases. But, that said, $150 a week is not cheap. (Many people say that Panama is still cheap; I disagree, especially when it comes to food costs.) The caveat to that is if you consume a lot of prepackaged goods that are not local to either country. If you do that, then your costs for food in either country will skyrocket.
Please note that I did not include restaurants or the cost of dining out in the above cost comparison. That is yet another subject!
Until next time, I’m off to make a fresh green salad with lots of gorgeous veggies. Here’s to your health and your dining pleasure – at home – as you consider the kind of future expat life you will live in Panama or in Costa Rica. The good news is that in either place, you have lots of food choices.
For more on my previous expat life in Panama, please visit the Panama Gringo Guide.