Views of Panama

Surprising Street Markets

Panama City has seen a boom in street markets that sell handcrafted items and natural and environmentally sustainable products, offering an alternative to the selection of products available at department stores and supermarkets.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Javier Pinzón

The largest mercadillo, or street market, in the world is said to be Chatuchak, in the city of Bangkok (Thailand). With its built-in diminutive, the Panamanian word for these “little markets” seems a contradiction in terms. Chatuchak boasts more than 15,000 stalls and 200,000 visitors every weekend. Since the market opened its doors in 1983, visitors have marveled at its sheer size and the variety of products available, which include fruit, flowers, plants, antiques, books, furniture, pets, and more. However, traditional clothing and handicrafts seem to be the most popular items.

Turkey is home to the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, which dates back to the 15th century. With more than 3,600 shops spread over sixty-four streets, this “little market” has sections for jewelry, metalsmithing, spice shops, and even carpet emporia. The twenty-two entryways provide access to nearly half a million square feet of space.

Panama, with barely four million residents, does not have markets quite this large but in recent years several new options have emerged to provide spaces where innovative small entrepreneurs and artists can exhibit and promote products and ideas that they would not otherwise have a chance to share.

One of these venues is the French Market, which sets up on the first weekend of every month in the Plaza of the Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge), the small commercial zone built on the former Clayton military base in the zone returned to Panama by the United States. “When we opened in October 2015, the idea was to promote emerging artists and small-scale entrepreneurs,” explained David Weil, one of the organizers. “The French Market is a space for presenting art, but art that has not yet made its way to shops or galleries,” he added.

The son of Carlos Weil, David Weil is a recognized collector of Panama Canal memorabilia and owner of the Weil Art gallery. The birth of the French Market seems a logical step for him, since Weil Art has long been a showcase for little known new artists. Today, for example, the gallery shows wood sculptures made by Emberá artists, paintings by Colón painters, unique pieces of furniture, objects brought from distant lands, and of course, Canal-themed souvenirs, among many other curiosities.

The French Market sells everything from toys and collectible films to antique ornaments for the home, knitwear, hand-made purses, and jars of products no longer on the market; there is even a stall called Lolita’s Adventures that specializes in clothing for pets.

Another street market that has grown in popularity is Villa Agustina, one of the many party venues in Panama City’s Old Quarter. One Sunday a month, the site is transformed into a bazaar of costume jewelry, bags, hats, clothing, candles, and little gifts, among many other items.

One of the most interesting stalls is Ecopallets Panamá, which turns pallets into furniture and decorative items. The use of this wood is only just beginning to catch on in a country that is unaccustomed to recycling. Another reason for visiting Villa Agustina is its location in the Old Quarter: browsing the market can be followed by a stroll through the streets of the second incarnation of Panama City. You can learn a bit about the country’s history while popping into souvenir stores, refreshment stalls, and ice cream shops.

Our last market, which is perhaps one of the most interesting of these street markets that are now so much in vogue, is Mercado Urbano, created in late 2014 as a project sponsored by the City of Knowledge Foundation. The goal was to promote sustainable agriculture and artisan production, making this market a space where communities, producers, and artisans can come together. Mercado Urbano features stalls offering a wide variety of items including: fresh mushrooms; free-range eggs; vegetables; and beauty and skin care products such as soaps, body lotions, deodorants, tooth whiteners, and lip balm, all made with natural ingredients.

There are several stalls selling jams and sauces made with organically-grown ingredients, but one stall from an economically-disadvantaged area of the country attracts particular attention. It is Porto Viejo’s Homemade, a family business from Puerto Armuelles (Chiriquí province) that makes both sweet and savory products, such as coriander pesto, spicy pickled onion, bell pepper and piña colada jams, and nance and green mango spreads.

Aníbal Ortiz, an agronomist who represents the company in Mercado Urbano, explains: “The name reflects not only the desire to identify with Puerto Armuelles, but also to indicate that we Puerto natives are as enterprising as before,” despite the collapse of the banana industry, which was the sole economic activity in the region for many decades.

Another innovative stall in the Mercado is Antaura, which considers itself a family business devoted to the artisan production of gourmet cheeses. After only a few months in operation, they already make four types: queso blanco prensado (a soft, white cheese), chombo (cheese with chile), spiced cheese, and goat cheese. The company is based in the town of El Pájaro in the Pesé district of Herrera province. Marketing and Commercialization Manager Larisa Hernández noted that the company emerged as part of a strategy to find new uses for regionally-produced milk. “We wanted to start with cheese, but we also hope to make yogurt and perhaps get into compost,” she added. This latter would be a revolutionary idea in a country where farming methods have been based on slash and burn for centuries.

Enthusiasm is all very well, but Hernández underlined the reality: “It is very difficult for small entrepreneurs to get started. Owing to the bureaucracy involved in obtaining food safety and operating permits, the company was at a standstill for a year after we invested in equipment.”  Despite setbacks, the growth of the city’s street markets reveals the buzz of ideas here and shows that the age-old human drive to seek out new products is still alive and well.


Useful Addresses

French Market: antiques, handcrafted items, art, costume jewelry, and collectibles. Calle Alberto Tejada, City of Knowledge, Clayton.

Villa Agustina: clothing, costume jewelry, handcrafted items, and home furnishings. Avenida A and calle 9a, Old Quarter, catty-corner to Plaza Herrera.

Mercado Urbano: agricultural products, cosmetics, plants, handicrafts, and food. Calle José Gil, City of Knowledge, Clayton.

Mercado de Pulgas: clothing, costume jewelry, crafts, and curios. Omar Park, San Francisco.