We were only in Panama City for a quick stint before heading off to the San Blas Islands; just long enough to tour the old town and see the Panama Canal. One of the things that made us wish we were staying just a little big longer was the seafood in Panama City and its famed El Mercardo de Mariscos. Situated on a pier just before you head into Casco Vejio—the old and beautifully crumbling colonial quarter—El Mercardo de Mariscos is a cornerstone of daily life in Panama City. Taxi drivers, businessmen, families, merchants, and tourists alike flood the busy alleyways looking for the freshest fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Luckily, there is plenty of seafood in Panama City to go around.
Fishing ships of all sizes deliver daily. Fish are unloaded and then sold to wholesalers on site, who then sell to various retailers and businesses, who in turn sell to the public, all in the area of the same pier. As we walked around the dock area and wholesale market, the fishermen and wholesalers were not exactly customer service oriented. Once we figured out where the general retailers and food stalls where, we were in for a treat.
Endless stalls of cevicherias rim the outside of the public market and provide some of the best seafood in Panama City. Each stall houses a stainless steel tub filled with crushed ice and two-gallon plastic tubs packed to the rim with every type of ceviche and marisco cocktail you could imagine. Each dish is available in a plastic cups from size small to a gallon. Ketchup, hot sauce, and saltine crackers come on the side. We found (as always) the best way to order was to watch what the locals were ordering. Generally speaking the pulpo (octopus) and langostino (lobster) were the most popular. After watching a man swoon and dance while eating, we zeroed in on a stall and ordered the longostino cocktail. For $3.50 (Panama has opperated on the US dollar since construction of the Panama Canal) we got a heaping cup full of lobster tail that was absolutely delicious. We might have swooned and danced a little as well.
Inside the main retail market, each stall displays its official number on a colorful—often elaborate— “flagship” sign. Clearly each little stand has its own sense of identity. All stalls sell fish. Some also sell crab, lobster, shrimp, prawns, sea cucumber, and other rare delicacies. Most fish looked amazingly fresh, although some stalls seemed to sell a better grade than others.
Corvina (a type of Sea Bass) and Pargo Rojo (Red Snapper) seem to be the most abundant seafood in Panama City’s fish market. That said, the overall variety is nothing short of astounding. After you pick your pescado, you have the choice of the pescador breaking it down, taking it whole, or even taking it upstairs to the in-house kitchen to have them prepare it for you on the spot.
El Mercado de Mariscos was impressive in its abundant variety. We saw over 20 different types of prawns. Fish come in all shapes and sizes. And lobster and crab varieties aren’t far behind. Inside the enclosed public market, the pescadors happily let us throughly investigate each stand. Within an hour, we must have seen over 100 different varieties of seafood.
If we had more time in Panama City, we’d be back every day to sample a new type of seafood. If you get a chance to live or stay in Panama City make sure you have kitchen and make sure you visit El Mercardo de Mariscos.