One of the most underrated 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.
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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.
Please be aware that the Cubera Snapper is a vulnerable species. Although a prize catch, the species is struggling to survive. We beg you, please stick to the many other tasty options.
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
Panama's Mercado is split up into two areas. On the inside, you can get fish by the pound, and on the outside, you’ll find most of the ceviche stands and food stalls. The outside areas are relatively new and a great place to hang out if you want to mingle with Panamanians. There is also a traditional dining site on the second floor, a restaurant where the chefs will cook whatever you buy.
Tip: Consider a food tour for a different way to see Panama City.
Between the upstairs restaurant and the outdoor food stalls, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy fresh fish on site, but we've never bothered with that. 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!