The area that leads into Casco Viejo  from the northeast, centered around the waterfront strip of Avenida Eloy Alfaro, is one of the most colorful, lively, squalid, and—especially at night—intimidating parts of Panama City .
The municipal government is determined to clean up this bustling area of commerce—legal and otherwise—since it is the main entrance into the rapidly gentrifying Casco Viejo, but it’s happening slowly.
For ages small fishing boats have pulled up to the deteriorating docks, but now seafood is sold through the clean, modern fish market, the Mercado de Mariscos (5 A.M.–5 P.M. daily), nearby at the west end of Avenida Balboa. This is an eternally popular place to sample ceviche made from an amazing array of seafood, sold at stalls around the market.
There’s usually a line at Ceviches #2 (4:30 A.M.–5 P.M. daily), though whether it’s because the ceviche is truly better or because it’s simply closer to the entrance and open later than the other stalls is something I’ll leave to ceviche connoisseurs.
The large jars of pickled fish, flies buzzing above them, don’t make for an appetizing scene, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from ceviche, which is “cooked” in a pretty intense bath of onions, limes, and chili peppers. Prices for a Styrofoam cup of fishy goodness range from US$1 for corvine up to $3 for langostinos.
The other merchants and tiny repair kiosks in the waterfront area, known as the Terraplén, supposed to have been moved years ago, but they are proving as hard to pry off as barnacles, I’m happy to say.
Up Calle 13 is the crowded shopping area of Salsipuedes (a contraction of “get out if you can”). The area is crammed with little stalls selling clothes, lottery tickets, and bric-a-brac. Just north of this street is a small Chinatown, called Barrio Chino in Spanish, which frankly has little to interest tourists. Most of the Chinese character of the place has been lost through the years; the ornate Chinese archway over the street is one of the few remaining signs of a less-assimilated time.
Meat and produce are sold at Panama City ’s Mercado Público (public market). For nearly 100 years it was in the same building at the intersection of Avenida Eloy Alfaro and Calle 13, and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since it opened. It has completed its move to a less charismatic but more hygienic new building on nearby Avenida B, just off Avenida Eloy Alfaro near the Chinese gate of the Barrio Chino. The new market is still plenty colorful, and worth a visit. It’s gated and has a guard at the entrance, which may reassure those nervous about its sketchy surroundings.
The meat section, though cleaner, is still not fully air-conditioned, and the humid, cloying stench of blood in the Panama  heat may convert some to vegetarianism. The abarrotería (grocer’s section) is less overwhelming and more interesting. Shelves are stacked with all kinds of homemade chichas (fruit juices), hot sauce, and honey, as well as spices, freshly ground coconut, duck eggs, and so on. The produce section is surprisingly small.
There’s a food hall (4 a.m.–3 or 4 p.m. daily) in the middle of the market. The perimeter is ringed with fondas (basic restaurants) each marked with the proprietor’s name. A heaping plateful costs a buck or two.
Lottery vendors line the walls by the entrance, and across the gated parking lot is a line of shops selling goods similar to and no doubt intended to replace those on the Terraplén. These include hammocks, army-surplus and Wellington boots, machetes, camping gear, and souvenirs such as Ecuadorian-style “Panama” hats. Each store keeps different hours, but most are open 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday–Saturday, and some are open Sunday mornings.
The market is staffed with friendly, uniformed attendants who can explain what’s going on, especially if you speak a bit of Spanish. There’s a Banco Nacional de Panamá ATM near the entrance.
The traditional time to hit the market is around 5 a.m. on Sunday, though early Saturday morning is also busy. The market is open 2 a.m.–3 or 4 p.m. daily and is good for sightseeing anytime. Bring a camera, but as always, be respectful about taking photos, and tuck the camera away before leaving the market.