Last year when we were in Central America, I had the most fun walking through the markets and looking at different fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables. Unfortunately I didn't know what half of it was, and my Spanish wasn't good enough to ask and then remember what it was called.
Another thing I loved to do was admiring the beautiful tropical plants and flowers that we would find spilling over rooftops in Antigua or blooming on the side of some dusty road in the country. Again, the flowers were lovely but I had no idea what they were.
This year I decided to make my vacation more enjoyable by learning some of the plants ahead of time. To do this, I bought a book about tropical plants of Costa Rica (because I couldn't find one for Panama). In this book there are over 430 plants profiled. These range from trees to flowers to fruits and grasses, with each entry including a photograph, pertinent illustrations, plant description (including flowering time, where it grows and related species), and my favorite part... "Comments". This section includes interesting tidbits like historical use of the plant, medicinal properties and other cool factoids.
Traditionally, souvenirs are bought during the trip, not before. However, I've had bad luck finding exactly what I want at gift shops (regional or traditional recipe books, for example), and when I do find it the item costs 200% what it would, used, on Amazon. If the item IS something I can buy online, I'll do a little research and buy it ahead of time. In the case of my plant book, I was able to look forward to our trip even more, knowing that I could spend my time actually identifying plants instead of looking for the book at a gift shop (which I never would have found, because they don't even make a plant book for Panama).
Buying a souvenir ahead of time allows you to find something that is useful and that you will really enjoy for years to come. It allows you to price-shop (and thus save money), and also ensures that you will enjoy your souvenir throughout the trip. If it is something you won't use on your trip, buying ahead of time still lets you get what you want for a good price, and you don't have the hassle of bringing it back home.
What I'm Doing
Though I bought one vacation "souvenir" before we ever left home, it's not the only thing I'll have from Panama. Next week I'll be doing a post on free souvenirs, but in addition to the free- and pre-souvenirs I still plan on buying some "stuff" to take home, because we have room in the suitcase anyway. However, what I wanted to buy most (the plant book) is taken care of.
Though it only cost around $20, the knowledge gained from my plant book will return with me every time we come to Central America. In fact, tropical plants and those sold as houseplants, exotic fruits and herbs overlap a great deal, so even if I never return to the Caribbean or Central America my book will still serve me well at home.
Here's to buying souvenirs that last!