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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Panama's Truth Or Consequences

Universal political statement.... The three
hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, say-no-evil monkeys as seen in Panama City.
Sailing to Panama is one thing.  Checking into and out of it is another.  Even in a 1977 boat, we find the latter -- customs, immigration, cruising permits, VISAs is expensive, time consuming, confusing and frustrating.  Comparatively, getting through the intimidating Panama Canal is a cinch.

Why the confusion?

Inconsistency.  

We're not sure how much is due to the recent government change, accompanied by an accompanying major turnover in staff, change and opacity as a norm, and our ignorance on not knowing when to push back and how.  We hear a wide range of experiences from other cruisers and from locals....

When we arrived in Panama, tired out after our overnight passage in, our first stop was at Bocas del Toro Marina, to top off our fuel tanks.  Seeing our dutifully flown yellow quarantine flag, the marina folks let us know they were unable to serve us until we checked in, and directed us to the local Port Captain to do so.

Several hours later, the Port Captain, his new supervisor, plus someone from immigration, agriculture and garbage.  All told, including Wayne and me, that totaled 7 people on our tiny boat, each requesting paperwork, duplicate copies and money.  This in 100 degree heat, high humidity and a narrow ~150 square feet area, while we were sleep deprived.  

Fred, 'splaining.  His Panama City-based taxi service caters
to cruisers.  We wish we'd tapped him sooner.
We were surprised the price tag, including "service charges" set us back $513; the most expensive, paper-intensive and time consuming check in of the 15 countries we've visited so far cruising.*  An understatement:  It was not a pleasant experience.  

*None of this includes the canal charges, which once reimbursed for our deposit, will run us about $1200 including ~$100 rental of specially required ropes and fenders. It did, however, include our cruising permit.

When the time came to move from Bocas toward Colon, the feedback was mixed on whether or not we needed to formally check out with Bocas' Port Captain.  It was a weekend, and the cruisers on the local VHF net figured if we did, there might be an extra weekend charge.  We opted to ask forgiveness rather than permission, given the lack of clarity and our prior experience with Port Captain.

As we prepared to leave Panama City, our last Panamanian port, we knew we needed to check out formally.  Whatever the next country we would visit would require that, our "Zarpe."  

Our anchorage neighbors, Jodi and Stephen of Blue Pelican raised their eyebrows when we said we didn't officially check out of Bocas or Colon.  Another cruiser, they warned, had to go all the way back to Colon to fill in their missing paperwork when they tried to check out.

We checked in with the Panama City Port Captain in Flamingo Marina, nervously, amid many questions.  Fortuitously, we'd opted to pay Fred, a cruiser-friendly taxi driver to assist us on our exit prep.  Fred used to manage the La Playita marina, and it just so happens was on very good terms with the local Port Captain.  We wondered how many laws we'd unwittingly broken, and felt grateful in the sense we dodged a potentially expensive paperwork nightmare.  An hour later we left, papers in hand.

Later that day, chatting with fellow cruiser Allen of Nauti Nauti, he said he too got dinged on "service charges" entering Bocas.  He heard others who insisted on going to the port rather than complying with the Port Captain coming to them, avoided those service charges.  Allen also declared that he discovered the check in-and-out at Panamanian ports between your entrance and exit is not required.  "You have to know that, and push back authoritatively," he explained.  Often it seems the Port Captains and other officials do not know, and it requires demanding them to verify the current process to clarify what is -- and isn't -- required.

Common  Panama City commercial delivery vehicle; this one's
at Alderbrook Canal Mall Casa Baterias.
Along the way, we discovered from Fred we could've purchased the two batteries ordered via Shelter Bay's chandlery (which Fred punningly referred to as "Shelter Pay") for at least $50 less each than we paid in Panama City at Casa Baterias.  Further the old battery cores the chandlery associate told Wayne, "Oh, you don't need to worry about those -- I will take care of them for you," were likely worth about $75!

How much could we have saved?  We're not exactly sure.  Adding it up would be painful.

We're not proud of our ignorance, though hope other cruisers can benefit by learning from our mistakes. 

Recently, Nicaragua began making noises about offering a competing canal solution.  Who knows if or when that will happen. Nonetheless, we sure like the idea of some potential competitive alternatives to Panama's lock on a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  

Another pleasant Panama City
 La Playita sunset.
Location Location
Tomorrow we leave Panama City's La Playita anchorage (N08.54.519 W79.31.497) for the islands of Las Perlas, rough 30-35 miles away and a half-day's sail.  Las Perlas will be our last stop in Panama before we make our longest passage to date, to the Galapagos.  That's about 1,000 miles and likely will take us a week and a half.  After that, we're looking at over 3,000 miles, nearly a month's 24/7 open ocean sailing, to get to French Polynesia.  We are enjoying the drier Pacific side weather, with lower humidity, and pleasantly cool mornings and eves.