Balboa has a couple of good places to buy handicrafts. The first is the Centro de Artesanías Internacional (behind the YMCA on Avenida Arnulfo Arias Madrid/Balboa Road, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun.). It houses many stalls selling handicrafts from all over Panama—including tagua carvings, molas, cocobolo figurines, hand-woven baskets, and Panama hats—as well as some from other parts of Latin America.
The tagua carvings, cocobolo figurines, and hand-woven baskets are made by the Emberá and, especially, the Wounaan. They’re incredibly labor-intensive, so don’t expect good-quality ones to come cheap. This is especially true of the baskets, which are internationally famous. A so-so basket about the size of a softball costs US$25. Rainforest Art, a Wounaan-run stall at the very back of the center, is the first place to look for high-quality works.
Those who won’t feel satisfied with a visit to Panama unless they buy a “Panama hat” of the kind actually made in Ecuador will find some good-quality ones here. Ask for the stall of Segundo Reyes. His best ones sell for US$100–200. He also has some coarser ones that start at a tenth of that. All hats come in attractive balsa-wood boxes and make good presents for the geographically challenged. They need blocking and there’s a good place in Panama to do it, but it’s in such a dangerous part of Panama City I’m not going to tell you where it is. Pay the extra money and have it done at home.
Note: A newer artesanía is in the YMCA building itself, and those who work there aggressively lure in lost visitors who’ve heard there’s a handicrafts hall nearby. By all means take a look, but don’t be confused and miss out on the much bigger and better selection at the main artisans’ center.
Farther up Avenida Arnulfo Arias Madrid/Balboa Road, on the right as one heads toward Avenida de los Mártires, is the Centro Municipal de Artesanías Panameñas (8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily). It’s run by Kunas and has a wider and better selection of molas. You can probably strike a better bargain here, since they see less business. The Kuna women sewing molas and wearing mola blouses aren’t doing it for show. That’s really how they dress and what they do.
Most of the original shops at the Flamenco Shopping Plaza, at the end of the causeway, closed down in the last couple of years. Little wonder: The shops were hidden behind the plaza’s restaurants and many visitors didn’t even know they were there. Optimistic newcomers may have taken their place by the time you visit. The small cruise-ship terminal across the parking lot has a few services, including a duty-free shop that’s open only to cruise-ship passengers in transit.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition