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Entering Panama


March 2nd, 2017

Panama is the seventh and final country in our journey through Central America. It is the narrowest and southern most country. It is slightly bigger than Ireland.

Panama was discovered by the Spanish in 1501 by de Bastidas & Balboa. Christopher Columbus also stopped here in 1502 on his fourth and final journey. In 1513, Balboa crossed the continental divide in search of gold and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. In 1821 Panama was no longer under Spanish rule but became part of the Gran Colombia confederation which included Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Panama gained independence in 1903 and in 1921 the US compensated Colombia with US$25 million dollars. Panama has had a tumultuous relationship the US ever since including the Noriega affair in the late 1980’s but for the most part things have been calm. Like El Salvador, nearly everyone has a relative who lives or spent time in the US.

Panama has become a retirement choice for many expats and this has brought a great deal of modernization which conflicts with local cultures but they seem to be coexisting. One third of the country sadly lives in poverty. The population consists of 70% mextizo (mix of indegenious and Spanish descent), 14% African as well as 10% Chinese.

The national sport is baseball with some players heading to the US including Mariano Rivera. The currency is the Balboa which is the equivalent of a US dollar. There are two national beers: Panama and Balboa.

Panama is said to have the fastest growing economy in Latin America, due mostly to the Panama Canal – a huge engineering feat begun by the French in 1878 who failed and taken on by the Americans in 1903 who built it and are now expanding it.

We left Golfito before eight and headed to the border of Panama. The last five kilometres of road are dirt but has men and machinery on it that indicate they are getting ready to pave it. When you hit the town of San Marcos it is dirt/gravel road. You don’t even notice the Costa Rica exit buildings but we did see the Panamanian flag so we were a bit perplexed. We asked a local and he advised it was back around the corner. We parked in a small lot across the street, grabbed our passport folder and vehicle paperwork and began the process.

Our updated Central American flag collection:

Side Note: Panama is in the eastern time zone so this is our first time zone change since the Yucatan in Mexico.   However, Panama does not observe daylight savings.

We figured cancelling the TIP was first so we found the Aduana (after asking three times) and were told you need your exit stamp first from immigration and we were pointed to that building. There the gentleman gives you the exit paper which you fill in and then once you return it and your passport to him, he sends you to pay the exit fee – at the hardware store around the corner!

You return with your stamped exit paper and you get stamped out of CR. Then you go to the Aduana next door and she takes your TIP and gives you a piece of paper saying it’s now cancelled (we assume you can just suspend it as well IF you have sufficient time left and that is your plan as you cannot return the vehicle to CR for 90 days after leaving so if you were only dipping into Panama with a plan to come back, you would suspend). So now we drive Tigger across the border behind a fence and after asking three people again, we find their immigration office. Here we learn this is not the first step but getting vehicle insurance is (and that’s before you get your import permit – go figure!). So we go out of the fenced area and around the corner to buy a month of insurance. The TIP they give you in Panama is only for 30 days which you can renew twice (total of 90 days like CR but you personal visa is good for 180).

Now this should have only taken fifteen minutes; but the woman made a few errors including getting vehicle description incorrect (which was partly out fault) and the VIN wrong. When it was all done we’d been there an hour! Insurance cost was $15 per month. As the prospect of Doug have to go to the States to work is still up in the air, we only bought one month.

Next you return to Immigration and he tells us it’s lunchtime but accepts our documents. We show him the insurance and he goes to stamp our passport but can’t find the CR exit stamp so we explain that we had used our US passports in CR but now wanted to use our Canadian passports as they had more pages. Despite showing him the US passports with the stamp, he was having none of this and insisted our Canadian passport needed a CR exit stamp.

So back to the CR side of the road we go and explain to the same man (luckily) what the problem was and although he was a bit hesitant at first, after examining both passports he agreed to give us exit stamps. Phew!

We return to Panama Immigration fully expecting the man to be at lunch now but he was on the phone. When he finished the call he took our passports and insurance and we were stamped in. Now the stamp just says today’s date but the length of the visa; we asked for 180 days but apparently they just go from the date of entry, not a final date written on the stamp like other countries.

So then it’s off to the Aduana to get the TIP; it’s a tiny little shack, again outside the border compound and the guy was at lunch so we had to wait a half hour. Doug stayed there to keep our place in line (first) and Fran went to Tigger to get us some lunch.

The man did return at one o’clock and was almost done the documentation when the computer crashed (or something……) and he had to start again.

Next was fumigation, for which you are asked if you have plants or animals, pay $1 and he stamps the copy of your TIP but NEVER fumigates your vehicle????

He sends you back to the immigration building where you give a copy of your passports and the stamped copy of the TIP to the police at the front desk and you head on your merry way.

We were done before two o’clock so the whole process took 3.5 hours – one of the longest for sure. So much for a quicker border crossing!

Side bar: We have now heard from Doug’s supervisor and they definitely want him to come to Atlanta for a while, supposedly on our terms. HR has told him that this quarter Doug has not worked an average of 20 hours a week (he’s on PT 20 status that requires that to keep our benefits) so this is part of what began this whole issue along with working outside the country. His boss has arranged for him to keep his benefits into next quarter and assuming we do go to the States, he’ll be good for awhile. We await word of what the “terms” are he’ll be offered. As far as the California project he’s been working on goes, they say they DO want him to transition and now that too, needs to be worked out.

We drove about 40 kms through the mountains to the first substantially sized town, Volcán, where others have parked at the police station for a night. This is located on the west side of Volcán Barú which Doug wants to climb – but from the eastern side – (up there you are supposed to see both oceans on a good day but it’s a strenuous climb so Fran won’t be participating).

The first order of business was getting Tigger washed after all the time we’d spent at beaches in the past several weeks. We also needed gas so we stopped at a Delta station first, were told they had no gas right now (!) but the car wash across the street was reasonably priced and good.

The young man at John Car Wash was unsure what to charge us so we waited for the boss to come and he said $10 – that sounded good to us. We left Tigger and our telescoping ladder (so they can wash the roof and solar panels as well) and went to explore the town and see about cell phone service. The latter was not obtainable here as they only sell recharge cards not sim cards.  Everyone told us we had to go to the city of David.

Flower pots and a view of Volcán Barú from town:

We also picked up a few groceries and upon returning to the car wash, asked about some other Tigger related things we needed done: welding, emergency brake adjusting and electrical work. We waited until Panama figuring it would be cheaper. Umberto knew of a welder and agreed to take us over there tomorrow afternoon after we did a hike in the morning.

We left and drove over to the police station on iOverlander, only to be told, “No we couldn’t park there” but to check at the main police station two blocks away. We drove there only to be told the chief was not around to ask and they were not sure when he’d return. We decided to go back to the car wash and ask about parking there for the night. Umberto was fine with this and offered us water if we needed it.

At car wash attempting replacing battery doo hickey:

The next morning the weather was not conducive to doing the hike we wanted to do so we went looking for Umberto. He was not around but his son, John, was and he called his father who arrived soon and took Doug to the welder. We drove over and had two some welding jobs done: a loose muffler connection and a small puncture in one of our jerry cans. The electrician he took Doug to didn’t impress Doug, so we’ll wait on that.

We returned to the car wash to ask about a mechanic to look at the ER brake and John sent us back to the welders, where a couple of mechanics work. They took a look and adjusted it so we took a “test drive” up to Cerro Punta (where the trailhead for the hike is located) and found the brake still was not working; we returned, they did some more adjusting and after another short test drive, we were satisfied it was now working.

As it was midafternoon already, we decided to stay here another night and John told us that was fine. Volcán is at a good altitude so it’s comfortable at night for sleeping. We have not gone grocery shopping yet so we treated ourselves to dinner out. We found a highly recommended Mexican place within walking distance and enjoyed reasonably priced meals of Nachos and Chicken Quesadillas which we shared as well as Margaritas for Fran.

As the weather did not look good for Volcán Barú or the Quetzal hike for the next several days and looked halfway decent for the Bocas Del Toro islands on the Caribbean side, we thought we’d head that way.

Now getting the ferry to the main island is not cheap and even if we took it, there’s no place to camp with power so again, we have opted to get a hotel. We booked online and left Volcán to head into the bigger town of La Concepcion de Bugaba.

Upon turning onto the PanAm Highway, there was an accident in the middle of the road; going around it a bar sticking out of the back of the pickup involved in the accident, caught our upper fridge vent on the driver’s side and torn the back bottom corner up some. Hopefully we can find a replacement.

Fran had been corresponding with a fellow on FB who had answered many questions she’d posed on the PanAm FB page and he offered his place as a place to camp when in his area. He lives outside Bugaba outside the small village of Tijeras. He has a large piece of property with a house and outbuildings, a pool and some farm animals. Norm is an ex dairy farmer from the UK and is now married to a woman from Costa Rica.

Norm gave us some advice on cell service and shopping and we arrived at his property midafternoon on Saturday.   He set up us up with power and showed us where there was a bathroom with a shower and gave us his Wi-Fi password. He offered his washing machine and Fran took advantage and did a load. It was already mid-afternoon but all but one thing dried before dark.

Norm has two pet white faced capuchin monkeys as pets; one runs free and the other is leashed up as it tends to bite anyone but him. We parked just out of his range of “attack”. There are ducks, chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, sheep and rabbits as well as his two dogs.

We enjoyed his open concept “not walled” living area with chairs and tables and spent some time chatting with him over beers before going out to dinner with him. He was a font of knowledge and said we could stay as long as we wanted. Doug spoke to him about the electrical work on Tigger that needed doing and he recommended a guy on the road north to Boquete. He called up and set up a time for us to go see him the day after we return from the coast. He took us to a local family restaurant and the choices were: chicken/pork or sausage with fries. Dinner for all three of us (our treat) and several beers, came to $22! Beer at the bar next door was only 75¢!!!!

Should we be flying to the US for an extended time for Doug’s job, he recommended parking at the Aduana (customs) storage lot in David rather than Panama City as it’s less than a quarter of the price and you can catch a direct bus to PC from there. We’ll keep this in mind.