One of the lesser-known things to do in Panama City is visiting the fish market, or Mercado de Mariscos, as the Panamanians call it. Positioned along the waterfront at the entrance to Casco Viejo, this colorful seafood market is one of the best attractions in Panama's capital. It's full of interesting characters, both human and marine. Even Anthony Bourdain is a fan.
Restaurateurs and locals know that this is THE place to go for fresh seafood in Panama City. Walking through the market you will find just about anything that comes from the ocean. The selection is truly amazing … oysters, lobster, shrimp, and fish so fresh that their eyes are still clear.
ⓘ TIP: Consider a private tour of the top things to do in Panama City, customized to your interests. Learn more here.
Flanked by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, this thin stretch of Central American land has much to offer in terms of marine life and seafood. The local population has a long history of fishing and making use of the plentiful waters surrounding them.
With some of the fishing world’s most prized catches roaming Panama’s coastline, you should take full advantage. Besides tuna, these waters offer a variety of other prized game fish, including black marlin, blue marlin, yellowtail tuna, Pacific sailfish, dorado, roosterfish, wahoo, and amberjack. On some days, there are even parrot fish for sale, a familiar sight for divers. These rainbow-hued fish are so beautiful that it almost seems a shame to see them on ice.
It's especially sad to see fish like the Cubera Snapper there. It may be a prize catch, but the species is struggling to survive. If you see it or other endangered species for sale, please select another tasty option.
Mercado de Mariscos from a patron's point of view
This fish market is also home to a restaurant and food stalls. It didn’t take us long to figure out that we could pick up cups of ceviche, a popular local specialty, to snack on while we walk through the market. At only $1 for a cup of fish ceviche, it's a terrific bargain, not to mention delicious.
And the seafood is an even bigger bargain. We constantly marvel at the low prices that these fishmongers charge. Tuna for $3 a pound? Salmon for $1.50 a pound? The freshest possible fish, at a fraction of the price they charge in America and Europe.
Whenever we visit the fish market, we enjoy watching these warm and friendly fishmongers wield their hatchets and knives on the fish. Just select a fish to your liking and they'll quickly fillet it on the spot, then wrap it for you and bag it with ice. Your purchase even includes the head at no extra charge. They even sell fish heads by themselves, which might sound disgusting, but they are perfect for making chowder.
How to shop at Mercado de Mariscos
Seafood is a big part of Panamanian cuisine, so the Mercado de Mariscos is always busy. For the freshest fish and best selection, it's best to get to the market really early in the morning. Purchase what you need before the restaurant buyers get everything.
Okay, well, that's in my ideal, dream world. In reality, we prefer to get there after we've had coffee and the morning’s rush hour traffic has subsided. While the trade-off is that some of the stalls have sold all their best fish, we always manage to find a few fish that look appealing. For us, it's not important enough to wake up early for.
Eating at the seafood market, Panama City
If you haven't tried ceviche, this is a perfect opportunity to try the citrus-marinated treat. You can find a lot of varieties, made from various ocean creatures, so ask before you buy. We recommend the corvina (sea bass). A small cup of ceviche fish will set you back a dollar or two and makes the perfect snack as you walk among the stalls.
There's an eating section of Panama's Mercado, and it's split up into two areas.
On the inside, you can purchase fish by the pound. This might not seem important if you're visiting and don't have a kitchen. However, there is a traditional dining site on the second floor, a restaurant where the chefs will cook whatever you buy.
Outdoors, you’ll find most of the ceviche stands and food stalls. These outside areas are one of the best places to hang out if you want to mingle with Panamanians.
Either way, we suggest a side order of patacones for the full “local Panamanian cuisine” experience. You can even wash it down with a cold local beer if you want.
ⓘ TIP: Patacones are easy to make at home. Get the recipe here.
Is the fish at Mercado de Mariscos fresh?
Even with both an upstairs restaurant and outdoor food stalls, we've never sat down to eat at the market. Our usual routine: Take our purchases home, divide them into portions and drop them into heavy-duty, zip-lock bags destined for the freezer.
But there has always been some that didn't make it to the freezer: We slice up the best-looking fish for a sashimi lunch and make a batch of fresh ceviche for lunches later in the week.
Yes, it's that fresh.
On our last trip, we turned a $60 purchase into 32 servings! One grouper, a mahi-mahi and two Red Snappers, combined with some very good knife work, yielded four servings of homemade ceviche (two mixed, two Mahi Mahi), nine servings each of Red Snapper and Grouper, 10 servings of Mahi Mahi, and two servings of fresh sashimi.
Just think: 16 seafood meals for less than $2 per serving!
The only challenge is when it comes time to select which fish to eat for dinner. They all look good!
How to visit the fish market in Panama City
Mercado de Mariscos is open from 6 am – 5 pm every day, except the 3rd Monday of each month when it is closed completely for thorough cleaning.
Take a private tour
For a different way to see Panama City, consider a food tour. Get Your Guide offers a variety of foodie experiences in Panama City. Here are three you may like:
- Panama Evening Food Tour – Check out the old town in the evening and try five specialties made in Panama. Visit the fish market, sip the worlds number 1 coffee, taste Panama's organic chocolate, try locally crafted beer, and finish on the roof top of one of the most popular bars for a sample of the rum made in Panama.
- Panama City Food Tour: Taste of Panama Walking Tour – Savor the flavors of Panama on a 2.5-hour walking tour of Panama City, and sample local coffee, chocolates, beer, cocktails and ceviche. Get insider tips on the the best restaurants in town from a local guide, and marvel at the monuments of the Old Town.
- Welcome to Panama City: Private Tour with a Local – Get a welcome to Panama City from a friendly and passionate local and discover the city like a resident. Learn the secrets about where to buy groceries, how to get around and much more.