42. A New Shopping Experience

Tuesday 9/7- Today was a day that we have been waiting for. Loren and Nancy are heading to Panama and so are we! What is all this talk we hear from others about shopping at the Panama border? We are heading there today to find out!

We’ve heard lots of stories about how you can find things in Panama, even right at the border, that are difficult to find in Costa Rica. We’ve also heard that prices tend to be less down there than in Costa Rica. We’ve been warned, though, not to get our hopes TOO high, because it’s still not like shopping in the US. We don’t have a clue what to expect, so we’ve kept all expectations to a minimum. 

Loren and Nancy picked us up at 7:30 for the 2 hour drive South to the border. This is a trip that they have made many times over the years, and along with giving us a “tour from the highway” of some of the towns and things on the way South, they also told us about all of the changes that have happened over the years they have been traveling in this direction. The road has improved greatly, the towns have expanded, there are more homes and businesses along the way now than there used to be. The drive did appear to be very easy and went quickly. Ramie enjoyed being a passenger and able to look out at the scenery more than he can when he drives

(Real time update: I still have yet to ever drive in Costa Rica, I’m a little bit nervous about the steep hills, rough roads, extreme drop offs for rain run off on the shoulders of the roads and sometimes crazy drivers.) 

As we came up to the actual border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, Loren stopped to explain how this area works. If you continue to go straight, this is the actual cross into Panama. If you were to do a border crossing for the purposes of getting a new stamp in your passport, before you can cross you have to go to one building on the Costa Rica side, pay our exit fee, then go across the street to another building to get your Costa Rica exit stamp. Then you walk across to the Panama side. There are a whole bunch of hoops to jump through if you want to bring your car across, and most people highly discourage trying to do it. Rules and laws about vehicle insurance, registration, taxes, etc. make trying to cross in your vehicle very difficult so the general consensus is just don’t do it. So for this reason there are parking lots on the Costa Rican side to park your car at. Once you cross, there are taxis that will take you anywhere you want to go. So, you walk to the Panama side, get your passport stamped, and keep walking in toward the Panama side shops. Some people will catch a bus or taxi here and go into the city of David (about 30 miles) where there is much more shopping, hotels, restaurants, etc. When it’s time to come back to Costa Rica, you just do it all in reverse. You get your exit stamp on the Panama side (no exit fee from Panama), then go to the Costa Rica side and get your passport stamped for entry. It doesn’t sound too complicated, but there are a lot of people who have recently (since the post-COVID border re-opening) been having issues with the immigration and border control people, which is one of the reasons we went to El Salvador last week instead of just doing this Panama crossing.  

If you come down here just to shop, you don’t have to go through all of this. Before you get to the official border crossing the road comes to a very confusing T/roundabout type area. There are parallel roads on each side of the border, and stores all along these roads. As long as you stop and park on the Costa Rica side, you can go to any of these stores and shops on the Costa Rica or Panama side. There is a gas station that Loren likes to go to and that is our first stop on the list here. This gas station has one entrance to the parking lot in Costa Rica, the other is in Panama. Just be sure to go out the correct one and back into the correct country once you’ve filled your tank!  (You can get in BIG trouble if you accidentally go into the wrong country this way.)

After Loren filled up his car at this gas station, we made our way to the second stop. The liquor store! Now, we have heard that the prices here are really good, exceptionally good, and this particular one (there are many liquor stores along this strip) is Loren’s favorite. While the prices are generally similar between the stores (the same goes for between the several “mall” style stores) Loren picks his favorite based on the layout of the store, the friendliness of the staff, ability to park easily, etc. We went into this one with him and it was laid out very nicely, easy to find what you are looking for, and boy did they have a lot to look through!! Unfortunately, nothing has the price marked on it, but one of the workers follows you around and will tell you how much everything is. If you want it you just say how many bottles you would like. The worker will take (X) amount of bottles to the front, and come back, just repeat with your next selection. After picking out a few of our choice beverages and some new ones we’ve never heard of we determined that this 2 hour drive to the border would be worth it just for liquor saving if nothing else!! We left with 6 bottles of liquor (3 were 1.75L and 3 were 1L) for just over $50. And these weren’t no-name liquors, these were name brands that you’d see and many people buy in the US. Loren told us that one bottle in particular that he picks up costs $60 in Uvita and is only $20 here. Wow!! So, note to self, stock up on liquor when we come down here! Legally you are allowed to bring back 5 liters per person over the age of 18. Yeah, 8.25 liters of liquor will last us quite a while!

After our liquor haul, we went to the “mall”. There are several of these malls, so we went to the one that Loren and Nancy prefer (which also just happens to have a McDonalds in it that they like to grab lunch at). This mall isn’t like a mall with separate stores in it, it is 1 massive store with so many different departments that you feel like you are in a mall. It was like a Walmart on steroids! 2 stories, huge footprint, everything from groceries, toiletries, clothes, shoes, appliances, electronics, furniture, automotive, toys, tools, and even a pharmacy that Loren fills one of his medications at. This store pretty much had it all! There was so much to look at in one location! 


If you want something that is available in Central America, this place probably has it. Now, since we didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t come with a list of things we were looking for. We also just did a Walmart provisioning run last week, so we were good on groceries for the most part, but wanted to see what they all had here, so we just started walking aisles. Oh, did I mention yet that Panama uses the US dollar as their currency? That means no price conversions on our phone app to see how much things cost! You have no idea how much easier that makes comparison shopping! Every time we go shopping in Costa Rica I’m either trying to do the rough math in my head or pull up the currency converter on my phone. Either way, it takes longer to figure out how much it costs. Here, it’s marked in a currency that I know!

The first section we came to was toiletries. I wanted to learn 2 things in this section—can I get the products that I am used to from the US (not that I am opposed to trying new things, I just know what I like) and how much do they cost? I have been able to find some of my preferred brands at Walmart when we’ve looked there, but the prices are outrageous. For instance a 375ml (12oz) bottle of a particular shampoo that I like at Target in MN costs about $4.50. Walmart in Costa Rica costs $7.50. Panama it probably costs just over $5.50 (sorry I don't remember exactly). We then went on to check out household goods for our future house. Things like dishes, kitchen items that I had and sold and want to get again, storage bins, etc. We got a good idea of what we could find and their costs, and would have to decide later if it was something we wanted to ship from the US (and pay that shipping price on) or to buy here later. We looked through the automotive and tool area so Ramie could see what was available, unfortunately he was slightly disappointed at the selection. We went though appliances and furniture- this would be overwhelming! So many different styles to choose from, but at least it was less expensive than we were finding in CR. We had found a few items throughout the store so far that we decided to pick up, but not a lot. Then, we ended with the grocery section. Here I found many of the same items as we find in the Costa Rican grocery stores, but I also found many items that I am used to from the US that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else. Prices here in the grocery aisles vary from similar to what we’ve seen in CR to quite a bit less. On the US branded items the price is slightly higher than I was used to in MN. While we probably didn’t NEED the groceries that we bought, we did pick up some non-perishables to supplement all of the food that we picked up last week. We spent probably close to 2 hours in the store, and that is just about how long it took Loren and Nancy to do their shopping as well. We both finished up at about the same time, although they ended up with 2 cartloads of things and we only had a few cloth grocery bags full.

After we were all checked out, we loaded our finds into Loren and Nancy’s car, and boy did we have a carload! One thing that they had told us before we came down here is that they typically bring a suitcase and a large duffel bag to load their items into once they get out to the car. As you are driving back North into Costa Rica, about 15 miles from the border, there are customs agents that stop random cars.

This is the customs check point

Loren has never been stopped, but what he has learned is if you keep your items “out of sight” they won’t bother you. It is legal to bring things back into the country free of import taxes, but only up to a certain dollar amount, kind of like when you bring it in your luggage on an airplane. But again, if they don’t see anything in your car but some luggage, they are going to assume you aren't doing anything wrong. So, that’s what we did! Between our liquor and our other shopping, we fit all of ours into our 1 suitcase. Loren and Nancy’s purchases filled up the rest of the cargo area of their SUV.

Of course we stopped at McDonalds for some lunch.

It was very much the same as McDonalds in the US, and then headed back on our 2 hour drive home. We drove right through the area that the customs guys hang out with no issues, and right on home. We made it back to Uvita at about 2:30, which is only a little bit later than we usually get home from San Isidro when we do a big shopping trip there.

All in all, it was a great learning day once again. I really do think that we will go back down there once in a while, especially when it’s time to start buying things for our house and filling the (much larger) pantry there!

Have I mentioned how much I like new experiences and learning new things while we’re here?!

Pura Vida! 

This post dedicated to Grimace pictured below!



  1. I like it! Can't wait for the house to be done and to see the pics of the house! Oh and we are expecting another 6 " of snow this week! Real time 1/14/22. Enjoy your coconut water and palm trees!

    1. Man, I sure don't miss the snow and cold!! I can't wait for the house to be done so we can invite visitors to get away from all of that snow and cold for a while!! :)


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