El Mercado de Mariscos: A Public Space that Celebrates Culture

By Marissa Sanchez, MURP ’16 & International Practice Pathway Fellow 

As I looked past the stream of cars I realized I had found it, the much spoken of, very popular, El Mercado de Mariscos! The fish market as its name tells, is a fish market adjacent to the public pier along the Pacific waters of Panama City. It is remarkably known in Panama for selling small and large quantities of fresh fish (caught daily) at very affordable prices. In addition to its indoor space for buying seafood, the fish market also provides locals and visitors with the chance to enjoy a fresh cooked meal at one of its several outdoor restaurants. Having been a resident of Casco Antiguo for a few weeks, I felt that it was definitely time to make my way across to the seafood market. Impromptu events had prevented me from exploring it before, but today was the day! Being the seafood lover that I am, I was eager to find out what this seafood hub had to offer.

As soon as I stepped into the niche of lined food tents and people I knew that I would be filled to my heart’s content with much more than just seafood. This was quite unexpected because it was nearing dusk soon and five minutes ago it had been raining. But that did not seem to bother anyone here. The market was vibrantly filled with music and people enjoying each other’s company. There were families savoring an array of seafood dishes, friends catching up with one another over drinks, and children running and giggling around a dressed- up clown. The DJ in the corner was playing top hits from bachata soloist Romeo Santos, and a crowd of young people had stood up from their chairs to begin dancing. I recognized the song playing at the moment and began swaying, but quickly stopped when my stomach began grumbling and I remembered I had come to eat.

As I browsed the food tents and their menus I realized it was going to be impossible to try everything I wanted. The options were endless and they all sounded amazingly delicious. In the end, after having debated between several dishes for what seemed like hours, (with the help of the chef) I narrowed it down to two classics: coctel de camarones and ceviche con patacones, and ordered both. I then headed towards an empty table to wait for my order and took in the ambiance that surrounded me. Even though there was such a high amount of activity in this setting, I felt strongly enclosed by a feeling of calmness and pleasantness. I appreciated being able to share this wonderful hub of food and culture with everyone in it.

It was not long before my order was brought to my table and I indulged into savory bites. The coctel de camarones made from fresh shrimp definitely shined, and the patacones (green fried plantains) as the side order complemented the two main entrees very well.

*Side note: For those of you who may not know (this included myself before I arrived in Panama) patacones are the country’s favorite side dish. “Patacones con todo!” was what I was told when I had my first meal in Panama. The green plantain in Panama is a fundamental fruit that is incorporated into several of the traditional Panamanian dishes and it can be eaten soft, hard, or anywhere in between.

By the end of the evening I realized that although the meal had been delightful and had initially been the bait that had lead me there, it was not the complete reason for my contentment. The music, people, and liveliness of the setting had played a major role. Happiness is contagious.

As an urban planner I recognize the significance of this successful urban space. El Mercado de Mariscos is much more than just a food hub; it is a public space that is accessible, inclusive, and interesting to a diverse population. It provides an economic and social exchange between people, and in addition fosters communal relationships and strengthens ties from local residents and visitors to a public outdoor space. I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience such a unique place, and looked forward to many more trips.

Photo caption: The pier along the Pacific Coast of Panama, right next to the fish market.

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