Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Grocery Shopping at Despensa Familiar in Panajachel

Grocery shopping -- love it or hate it -- is a necessary thing no matter where you live. Here in Panajachel, Guatemala, if you want a good ol' homestyle grocery store experience, you get to shop at... *drum roll* ...the Despensa Familiar!
Yup, that's the place. Notice the little old Mayan lady to the left of the door. I think she sells hot corn.
For the benefit of those readers who are thinking of visiting or moving to Guatemala, let me walk you through the Despensa so you can get a sense of familiarity.

So probably the first thing you'll notice is there is a security guard usually standing to the left of the entrance. This is awesome, as it makes the Despensa feel very safe. And it's a great bonus for when you're looking for a safe bank machine in Pana. Directly as you enter the store, turn right and there are two ATMs right there. If you face them, (your back to the checkouts) the one on the left is 5B and the one on the right is BI. The 5B bank machine charges a higher fee, but you can withdraw up to Q3000. The BI machine charges a lower fee but you can only get up to Q2000. I have successfully used my TD bank card at both of these machines, and my President's Choice Financial card works at the BI machine.
Directly to the left of the entrance, there are rows of green lockers. Put your bag or backpack in these and take the key with you while you shop. Grab a basket near here too, or a shopping cart from outside.
Photo of the Despensa Familiar courtesy of  A Note From Abroad
The first aisle straight ahead is a whole lot of rice and beans! An entire row. It's madness. There is also oil, margarine (not refrigerated!) ramen noodles, soup, a small selection of spices, tuna and other canned meats, refried beans, sugar, mustard, mayo, salad dressing, and some other stuff.

At the end of the first row is a very sad assortment of fruits and vegetables. Don't buy from here unless you're desperate. Go to the market! It's fresher and cheaper. Also at the back wall you can find some ziplocs, aluminum foil, and matches tucked away at the bottom. Handy!

Against the back wall of the Despensa is the refrigerated meats, mostly variations on wieners, plus the butcher's counter. They have great chicken burgers here! They're Q5 apiece (about $0.80 Canadian) and totally remind me of home. You can get ground beef here, tons of chicken, and some other cuts of meat. Everything is refrigerated, which is great if you're wary of buying from the butchers around town who hang their meat out on even on the hottest days.

Second aisle: about a bazillion ketchups, one type of BBQ sauce, pasta, pasta sauces, cereal, oatmeal, and a huge selection of powdered milk. It's strange that the pasta come in such small packages, only enough for two or three servings, and the sauce is only enough for one person. Odd.

Third aisle: tons of instant coffee, some teas, factory-made bread and buns (if you're into that pappy white stuff), cookies and crackers, pancake mix, syrup, jams, overpriced and weird-tasting peanut butter (go to Chalo's for Jif!), and juices, both powdered and bottled. Pick up some Yus brand powdered juice mix. It's delicious and actually contains vitamins too. We guzzle the stuff, especially the mora (blackberry) flavored one.

Fourth and fifth aisle: this is where it gets weird. There are almost two full aisles of cleaning products. They use up almost as much space for cleaning as for food! I guess it's important. Mixed in there are baby products, hair products, shampoos behind weird plastic doors, a small selection of pet food, and paper products.

Last aisle: along the back half of the far wall are fridge and freezer items, including: yogurt, milk, butter and other dairy, a small assortment of frozen seafood, one tiny frozen pizza brand, some frozen chicken items (not as good as the butcher's), and ice cream. Also in this aisle are candy, chips, chocolate, beer, and liquor. And eggs at the back, not refrigerated.

That is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it makes you feel like it's just a regular grocery store much like the ones in Canada or the States or wherever!

A quick note about the checkout process. The checkout person will ask you for your NIT, which is Número de Identificación Tributaria, the Guatemalan tax identification number. If you're a tourist, you don't need one. If you're doing business in Guatemala, you might have to get one. Just say, "No" to the first question. Then they'll ask if you want a bag: "Bolsa?" Plastic bags cost Q0.20 (20 centavos, or about three cents Canadian.)

After you pay, take your groceries and your bag to the counter on the front wall beside the ATMs. Pack your groceries there. Lastly, don't forget to pick up your backpack from the lockers before you leave!

Yes, it is true that Despensa Familiar is a division of Walmart. If you're one of those folks that hates the "big man", you can shop at Chalo's, right across the street, or at Sandra's, the expensive import store, or at any of the small stores in the market.

Why do I like to shop at the Despensa? Two main reasons: the low prices, and the fact that the prices are written ON the shelves. This is one of my pet peeves of shopping in Panajachel. They don't have prices on anything in most stores! The shopkeeper could basically tell you any number he wanted, and you would have no clue if it was right or not. I'm quite forgetful too, so they could be telling me a new price every time and I wouldn't know.

Anyway, this may be a bit boring of a post for most people but I remember wondering about grocery stores in Guatemala before I came, so I wanted to share my experience. I hope it was helpful!

Bonus photo: pretty butterfly I saw on my way to the store yesterday.
Beautiful tiny butterfly in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. He was only about the size of a quarter!

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