Panama as a health destination? Warning about pesticides in fruits and vegetables

After 2 amazing weeks in Costa Rica, we decided to head south to Panama to see what it had to offer. With the same Caribbean beaches, mountains and tropical landscape, I expected a cheaper and less touristy version of Costa Rica. I wanted to explore what raw food and/or detox options were available and thought I would get some nice time in nature and sun to boot. It seemed like a good idea…or so I thought.

All information in this article is for educational purposes only.
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition.

Ajonjoli, Raw Food in Panama City

Everything started out great when we arrived to Panama City and stayed in an awesome funky little hotel, the Lemon Inn, run by 2 young Panamanian brothers. What a treat to get a modern clean hotel room after paying so much for accommodation in Costa Rica. Thanks to one of my twitter followers, I managed to find Ajonjoli on my first day in the city – a health food store and raw food meal service offering home delivery with a different daily raw food meal. I was very impressed to see such a service in Panama, and the food was great!

More time in the city allowed us to explore the old part of the city, Casco Viejo, which I loved…and as we walked through the streets I could almost feel I was in Paris or Belgium. Well, except for the armed policemen on every corner. At least you feel much safer in Panama than in other Central American countries. In the afternoon, we took a taxi out to see the Panama Canal and were lucky to arrive just as one of the container ships was moving through the docks. It’s definitely an example of some fine engineering.

Organic Raw Food Lunch from Ajonjoli in Panama City, a safe and yummy choice!

Casco Viejo in Panama City

Panama City at night, view from Casco Viejo

Panama Canal, Panama City

After 2 days in the city, we headed out to the mountain town Boquete, famed as one of the top retirement destinations for Americans. We thought it would be an organized town with some nice restaurants and cafes, but were surprised to find what looked like an abandoned town from the Wild West with local Panamanian women in traditional dress and lots of SUVs with grey-haired gringo elders. Lots of SUVs. There seemed to be no interaction between the expat retiree gringo and the locals; in fact we met many Americans who lived there for 5 years or more and spoke no Spanish. We found that to be very strange and I realized that this was not a cohesive community. But our worst discovery by far was in the fruit and vegetables.

Fruit and veggie market in Boquete, Panama

I don’t think I want to know what’s in this truck!

Reaction to Pesticides in Fruit and Vegetables

After buying fresh cabbage, cucumbers, tomato, onion, papaya and banana at the local market we were excited to go back to the hostel to make some yummy raw food creations. That night, I developed a horrible headache (something I never get)…and for days I had headaches, felt tired and even had a burning sensation in my throat, like a chemical burn. It finally occurred to me that it might be a pesticide reaction from the food. It didn’t take me long to make some Google discoveries about pesticide use in Panama and how the local farmers are using carbofuran, a very strong pesticide which is currently banned in Canada and the EU (in addition to many other banned pesticides as well). This was my first ever reaction to a pesticide as such, but it really scared me, especially the burning in my throat. We did not use any olive oil, salt or spice of any kind and still, I had horrible headaches daily. This discovery wound up crossing off Panama from my list of tourist destinations, well at least for anyone who is health-oriented or chemically sensitive. We did our best to make the most of the time we had, but our overall morale and feeling about Panama remained low for the remainder of our stay.

How to clean pesticides out of fruits and vegetables

For anyone who is traveling to Panama, I highly recommend bring Activated Charcoal Powder to pull the chemical pesticides out of your produce. This is how it’s done: Fill a bucket with water and add 2 tsp. of loose “activated charcoal powder” (in Thailand this is sold in health food stores specially as a vegetable cleaner). Soak all fruits and veggies for 10 minutes in the charcoal/water mixture, then rinse. Be sure to peel all vegetables before eating, even tomatoes. This will significantly reduce your exposure to these harmful pesticides and should minimize any reaction.

Please note: I have seen some websites that wrongfully promote Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) as a way to pull pesticides from produce. While GSE is great for killing bugs and harmful bacteria, it does NOT pull pesticides out of fruit and vegetables. Charcoal is an absorbing agent, like a sponge; while GSE is a cleaner of bacteria. Ideally, if you have the time and patience, you should first soak your produce in a Charcoal/Water mixture for 10 minutes, rinse, and then soak in 12-15 drops of GSE/water mixture for 10 minutes to clean any bacteria and eggs.

Boquete and Bocas del Toro

We decided to stay a few days in Boquete and take advantage of the one good thing we found: a 1-week membership to The Haven Spa; for $50 USD per person we had access to the gym, swimming pool and far infrared sauna for the week…so our daily ritual was to leave the backpacker hostel at about 11am each day and spend the whole afternoon relaxing in the quiet nature of the Spa. It was a bit strange that all the other members seemed to be 60 years old or greater and on most days I felt like we were in a re-make of the Ron Howard movie ‘Cocoon,’ but as tired weary travelers, we were most grateful for the tranquility of the place and I really enjoyed my daily far-infrared treatment, know to be a great detoxifier of heavy metals and chemicals (needed even moreso due to the circumstances!).

The Haven Spa, Boquete Panama

Exercise pool at The Haven Spa, Boquete Panama

From Boquete, we ventured north to the Caribbean islands at Bocas del Toro, a famous destination in Panama for beach, sun and nature. A highlight for me was searching for red frogs on the island of Bastimentos and finding them ourselves, without a guide, and in nature…it was a small discovery but it felt so cool to find such a beautiful creature! Overall. I found the availability of raw food to be very bad on the islands. The grocery stores are owned by a Chinese mafia and the vegetables are black with mold and the lettuce and cabbage are wilted (and with heavy pesticides to boot). We initially thought to spend a few weeks in the islands but after a few days, we felt starved for real food and fresh produce so we headed back to Panama City and flew north to Guatemala.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Taking the boat from Bocas to Bastimentos Island

Finding the elusive red frogs on the island of Bastimentos

Bastimentos Island…beautiful, but no decent raw food!

Poor vegetable choice in Bocas del Toro

My suggestion for Panama is this:

Definitely check out Panama City as it is an interesting place and there is plenty of fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. From what I read, the villages are using more potent mixtures of pesticides, and most likely, no one is regulating how much or what mixtures should be used. More mass-produced supplies in Panama City should be better (and I did NOT react to any produce in Panama City; only in Boquete and Bocas). That said, I did find a local expat, Kirk Floeck, owner of Organic Harvest, who is currently working on an at-home delivery service of organic fruit and vegetables for Panama City, so if you do live there, contact him for details: kfloeck [at] hotmail [dot] com. Also, sign up for the at-home delivery of vegan, raw food, gluten-free meals with Ajonjoli, another great healthy option for people in Panama City:

FB page:
Calle 65, San Francisco, Panama City, Panama.
telephone +507 394-8024

There are better choices for organic raw food, vegan and gluten-free health holidays in Central America in Costa Rica or even Guatemala.

More on Traveling Raw:

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Jennifer Betesh has been working with raw food, juices, smoothies and detox for over two decades to help people heal. Today, she shares her expertise worldwide, offering lectures, workshops, training and one-on-one consultations at various health and detox retreat centers. She provides Iridology Readings & Health Coaching via Skype and Phone to clients and continues to educate, motivate and inspire others on their journey of healing. When she’s not working, you’ll find her hiking in the mountains, power-walking along the sea or globe-trotting to a new and exotic health destination.
16 replies
  1. Kate Lyle
    Kate Lyle says:


    Where do you think most of the produce in Panamá City comes from? Chiriqui Province (where Boquete is located) provides 80% of the City’s produce. It’s seems you were so put off by the appearance of this beautiful place that that fact went unnoticed. Yes, there are real pesticide concerns here and it’s regrettable that you had a bad experience. But I spent 30 years stateside in Big Food Law. The public has no idea what really goes on in the industry. Please don’t be lulled into believing the US has a morally superior position on quality or safety of it’s food supply. It’s not sufficiently regulated. In fact, the US has 17 federal agencies with enforcement responsibilities and the rules vary dramatically. From grocery chains (organic or conventional) to produce to manufactured products- it’s all “rotten”. Downward cost pressure on supply chains insure that corners get cut everywhere. They gamble they won’t get caught. And that’s a good bet, because they mostly don’t. Corporate greed wins every time.

  2. Michaela
    Michaela says:

    Hahaha, i just read this after biting into a red pepper here in Panama and saying to my boyfriend: “Doesn’t it taste strange?” 😉 Actually it’s quite difficult to find healthy and delicious food here … 🙁

  3. Ron Miller
    Ron Miller says:

    When you were in Boquete, too bad you did not go to the Tuesday Morning Market at the BCP Events Center where you could have purchased numerous fresh organic veggies from our organic farm, Finca Santa Marta located an hour away. We harvest fresh on Monday for delivery on Tuesday to Boquete and David and again on Thursday for delivery to Bocas and Panama City. I am surprised that the Haven Spa did tell you about us as they have been customers of ours for years. Next time you are in Panama stop by for a visit. Ron and Kim Miller, Finca Santa Marta.

  4. Heather Young
    Heather Young says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you so much for this clear and detailed info. As you informed we plan to stay in the city mostly and do a couple of day tours outside the city. I do have a question Ive been on a raw food diet for nearly a year now and am concerned about food options. Thanks so much for the info on Ajonjoli, unfortunately when I go to their Facebook page everything is in spanish. I also try and eat low fat, Is their food low fat? Any certain dishes you recommend? And is it affordable? Do you recommend anything else? Also, silly question but I don’t get a clear answer online do you know if the voltage is 110 or 240? Thanks for any extra advice;)

    • Jennifer Thompson
      Jennifer Thompson says:

      Hi Heather!

      It sounds like it could be a good idea for you to call Ajonjoli directly and speak with the manager before you arrive to Panama. You can ask you questions about the food, fat content etc and I am sure that they have someone who speaks English for you. You can also get the latest prices which may have changed since I was there, but I thought everything was affordable. It just depends what you consider affordable of course! Voltage questions can be asked directly to your hotel. Good luck and safe travels!

      To your health,


      • Dene
        Dene says:

        Hi Jennifer, why did you not respond to Ron Millers post. It seams there are healthy choices available if one ask around and does there research.
        Thanks for the info as we are planning a trip to the Boquete area.

        • Jennifer Betesh
          Jennifer Betesh says:

          Hi Dene,

          I didn’t see his post. (Comments can get approved automatically on my site if the person had a post approved before so it’s possible that was the case.) Happy to let people have a say on subjects that are relevant of course which is why Ron’s comment is still there! I can only share my personal experience when I traveled and ate food in Panama and for sure would hope that things have improved since then. Although judging by the toxic fruit and veggies in the USA right now (much of which is imported from Central and South America), I’m not sure that anywhere is free from chemical contamination anymore. Even in the US, organic is not organic anymore. Just one example is the organic grain fraud lawsuit in Nebraska. That said, I would definitely give any local organic markets and vendors a try if I was back that way! We now grow our own veggies to be sure of the quality. Ultimately that is the best way. Good luck and be sure to update here once you’ve checked it out. Safe travels!

          My best,


  5. Gordo
    Gordo says:

    I believe that the use of carbofuran has been banned in Panama since 2010, but you are right that pesticide use, in general, seems a bit over the top. There are more and more organic growers to be found in Panama, even organically and hydroponically grown veggies available at Rey and Romero grocery stores in Chiriqui Provence.

  6. Gena
    Gena says:

    Oh wow! Raw vegans and their crazy behaviour (again) making normal vegans look as stupid and dramatic as you are. Did you leave 3/4 of your brain cells on a “death water fast” in “DR” grahams Costa Rica Resort? Did you need a blood transfusion?

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      Why is talking about over use of pesticides and chemicals in food “stupid and dramatic”? Gena, I don’t mind if you don’t agree with what I am saying, but there is no need to be nasty and accuse me of losing brain cells in a fast that I never even did. Where is your avatar and your real name? It makes me so sad to see so much anonymous hate spread over the internet, and for what purpose? I am busy trying to help people live healthier lives and make the best choice of food for themselves. This website is a BULLY FREE ZONE! Your comment is a good reminder of why I need to turn off the comments on my site soon, so I say THANK YOU, with gratitude and love! 🙂

  7. maria efthimiadis
    maria efthimiadis says:

    Did you know that at the local vegetable and fruit market in Panama City they pour pepper all over their vegetables and fruits to keep the rats from attacking their produce?

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      Very interesting Maria, Thanks for sharing! This is great info to share so we can learn how our food is really handled!

  8. C
    C says:


    Very interesting article. While these were your experiences, may I suggest when you & if you return to Bocas del Toro you check out the Feria Libre markets. These are small farmers using nothing but the old fashion ways of planting & harvesting. They are not in it for the business, they know little about the issues we know of in regards to nutrition or effects of chemicals, what they know & practice is simple home grown food. Like you I had reactions, however when I travel i try to stay close to what I know & look out for these folks they are in most countries. Fruits & vegetables are awesome in Panama, I can hardly wait to eat fresh Papaya, Pina con Naranja and good old Guanabana after a good Turtle or Fish. Then take a rest close to the beach. Awesome.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      Buying from a small, local farmer does not guarantee any type of organic-ness to the food. In fact, it is usually the opposite, since the small farmer (in third-world countries especially), depends on the money from his crop for survival and is uneducated in how much of a pesticide to use. He will usually use much more pesticide than is safe for human consumption just to be sure he has something to sell. I’ve seen them walking in the fields and spraying in every country in the world. It is really a Western myth and fantasy to think that because someone has a one-tooth smile and says ‘no chemical’ that they are telling the truth. And to eat fish and turtle?? To be writing such things on a raw food vegan website shows a lot about the validity of the above comment. I stand behind everything I wrote about Panama and I DO NOT recommend any outlying village of Panama, Bocas or otherwise, as a health destination.

  9. Alexa
    Alexa says:

    Great article , Jennifer! I loved reading about your trip and it was interesting to learn about the pesticide situation there. Sorry you had to experience that reaction from the veggies and fruit there but am so glad you have shared this with your followers! Thanks you!


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