Panama is home to the largest free trade zone in the hemisphere, the Colon Free Trade Zone. There are also a number of large American-style shopping malls, such as Multicentro, Albrook Mall, Multiplaza Pacific and the newest Metromall. However, prices vary considerably from mall to mall – Albrook is quite cheap, while Multiplaza houses designer shops and very high prices. In general, Panama is a good place to shop for consumer electronics, clothing and cosmetics.
Traditional Panamanian handicrafts are cheaper at the handicraft markets, such as the YMCA in Balboa and the market in Panama Viejo. In Panama City, the best handicrafts can be found at REPROSA. Panama’s most famous handicraft is the mola, an intricate handicraft with an inverted arrangement made by the Kuna people. Molas can also be bought from vendors on the Casco Viejo waterfront. Other Panamanian crafts include carved tagua nuts, carved cocobolo animals and woven palm fibre baskets. In El Valle there is a smaller handicraft market specialising in soapstone carvings and other handicrafts from central Panama.
- REPROSA Treasures of Panama. Since 1975, REPROSA has been dedicated to promoting Panama’s history, cultural traditions, ecological beauty and ethnic diversity. All handmade products are made in Panama by Panamanian artisans, and there is something for every budget. REPROSA has three locations: Costa del Este Industrial Park (271-0033), Ave. A in Casco Viejo (228-4913), and Ave. Samuel Lewis in Obarrio (269-0457). REPROSA also offers a tour of their award-winning workshop, where visitors can see up close how Panama Treasures are made. Their factory is located in the Costa del Este Industrial Park, just minutes from Panama Viejo. Tour $10 per person, Monday to Friday at 9:30am and 2pm.
- Country Store & Café, 583 Cl Tomás Guardia, Altos de Balboa, Ancon (near the Canal Administration Building), (507) 232-7204. 8 a.m. TO 6:30 p.m. Offers fresh organic food in a natural setting where you can easily observe local wildlife. The shop offers fresh produce and crafts. 12 $.
Panama has used the US dollar as its sole currency since 1904, although Panamanians often refer to it as the “Balboa”. If you are from the United States, the only peculiarity of Panama will be its currency. Panama mints its own coins in the same weights and sizes as US coins, but with Panamanian stamps. Due to a legal agreement (1904) between the United States and Panama, Panamanian currency is fully interchangeable with standard American currency in Panama. You can get a handful of coins with a conquistador on the quarter and an Indian on one of the pennies, but Lincoln on the other penny and Roosevelt on the dime. Panama also continues to mint half dollars. You may hear these half dollars called pesos, so don’t think you’ve accidentally ended up in Mexico.
Panama coins are produced by the US Mint. And if you run out of change in the US, Panama coins work in parking meters, payphones, vending machines, etc.
You can usually use a credit card in all hotels in the capital and in the medium-sized regional towns (David, Las Tablas, Colon, Santiago, Bocas del Toro, etc.). Restaurants, grocery shops and department stores in the larger towns also usually accept credit cards and even debit cards. Outside the capital, however, it may be difficult to use your card.
Although Panamanian ATMs work with the Cirrus/Plus system, they cannot accept cards with the Interlink symbol. Make sure you carry plenty of cash (especially small notes) and know how to withdraw cash advances with your credit card. Travellers’ cheques are not widely available.
Many shops do not accept 50 or 100 US dollar notes at all. Most of those that do ask for your passport and keep your note data/serial number in a special booklet. The reason for this is that many 50 and 100 US dollar notes have been counterfeited.
There are 91 banks in Panama [www]. Opening hours vary greatly from bank to bank. On weekdays, all banks are open at least until 3 pm, some until 7 pm. On Saturdays, many banks are open until noon, and some branches in shopping centres are also open on Sundays. Note that you are not allowed to enter most banks in shorts and/or flip-flops.