No Approval Needed

If you sail to Panama read this!

We had our first difficult experience leaving a country yesterday. When I look back I think that’s not bad considering that was country #8, we don’t speak the language very well and we have crossed into countries via plane, bus and now boat.

It’s a bit funny because we’re always worried about getting in. Most countries have the authority to request proof of onward travel – typically a printed out plane ticket showing you are in fact leaving their country within the allotted number of days you’re given. Lindsay and I have spent a lot of time implementing the “Orbitz’ trick. On Orbitz you have 24hr to cancel your itinerary with no fees. So we buy a ticket to leave the country, print it and then cancel it. The printed ticket works like a charm and we aren’t out any money. We always do leave on time, but we never really know when or where we will be going next.

Now, for Panama. The situation was our fault to the extent that we hadn’t done our due diligence on entering and exiting Panama. That coupled with the extremely shitty information that our captain – who by the way sails out of Panama – gave us immediately before boarding, while we were on board and once we were on Panama land.

Looking back I should have known that something was going to go wrong. We met our captain the day before we left in Cartagena at a Juan Valdez (it’s South America’s version of a Starbucks). It was 2pm and our boat left at 7pm the following day. We had some small talk, I paid him the balance of what we owed him in half Colombian pesos and half USD. He explained the stamp-out process for Colombian immigration and asked for our passports. We somewhat reluctantly handed them over – we would be without them for what I thought was a day and a half. I didn’t like it. It felt weird. The research I did seems to verify this is how it’s done though.

He then told us that we needed to print a “fake ticket” out of Panama that was within 72hrs of arriving. Right up our alley – no problem. He continued to tell us that the workers at the port are always trying to make a buck by charging anyone coming into Panama $100 if they stay longer than 3 days, that the director of immigration (or some other official title) was on record saying this was illegal and all we needed to do was have some sort of proof of onward travel. We were very clear with him that we would be staying longer than 3 days and asked if it was ok. He said it wouldn’t be an issue.

The next day we meet our sail-mates and we’re getting the low down on do’s and don’ts for the boat. The captain was peppering in little rid bits about the complexities and complications of getting into Panama and how things were changing, mostly for the worse, yada yada yada. At some point during our sail we asked him once again – will we be alright even though we’re staying longer than 72hrs? Yes he said.

I should note too that we decided to book with this particular captain and boat because it sailed all the way to Portobelo, just south of Colon, and it made the entrance and travel to Panama City, our final destination, much quicker and easier.

The day finally came and we arrived in Portobelo, got off the boat and walked to the immigration office. Another interesting point here is that all the passengers hadn’t seen their passports since the day before we left Cartagena. The captain had told the group to wait at a restaurant nearby while he went and checked us in. He had our passports and our fake tickets.

An hour later he came back and told us the lady who needs to stamp us can not be found, that he was getting the run around from other employees and that we’d have to travel, by car, to Colon to their immigration office. He paid for the cab, $20, and sent us with an associate who was a lawyer or something. We got to Colon and did the check in. The lady there charged $20 just to look at our documents because we came from a different port, required us to show $500 cash each and was asking about us leaving the country. We showed her our fake ticket the next day, she stamped our passport and then hand wrote “72 horas” –72 hrs. Hmm.

The handwritten 72 hours we should have paid more attention to as yesterday’s events could have been avoided. If this is written on your passport, you must be out by 72 hours.

We went on our marry way kind of wondering what this handwritten 72 hours thing was all about. We kept thinking that our captain said over and over that it wasn’t a big deal. We will be fine. Let’s just do our thing. And we did. Until yesterday.

We bought two tickets on a shuttle from Bocas del Toro to San Jose. The program was transport by boat from Bocas to the nearest mainland town, there we board the shuttle and head to the border about an hour away. After check out of Panama and check in to Costa Rica the bus will continue up the coast to Puerto Viejo where some passengers will get off to stay in that town and the others heading to San Jose will have a nice beach-side lunch at Banana Azul and then make the long, winding drive to San Jose. It takes at least 10 hours but it is a fraction of the cost of flying. The van we were in had 9 other people in it.

We arrived a little early to the Panama immigration office. Lindsay and I, because we sat right by the van’s doors, were the first out and first in line at the office. The guy is reviewing our passports and then it started happening. He points to the “72 horas” and says something. Then hands the passport to his boss. He looks at it, looks at me and tells me to come around and visit him in another part station. Once I was in the room he told me to take off my pants. I’m kidding. He asked if I knew Spanish, I said a little. Long story short they we’re not stamping my passport to leave. I had to go to a different town, pay a fee, get a receipt & different stamp, then come back here and get the official exit stamp.


A complete pain in the ass. We asked the shuttle driver if he would wait, he said no problem, so we left our luggage with him and rushed to the other office. Of course once we were there the lady told us we needed 3 photo copies of 2 different sections of our passport – so we did that, then came back then waited for her to do her thing. Slowly. But she was super sweet and spoke perfect English so I decided to ask her about this. Is this a legit thing? The whole pay $100 or leave within 72hrs? She said absolutely. When arriving by boat those are the rules. It has been this way for a long time. This isn’t a scam by the immigration officers at all. It’s 100% legit. Everyone must either pay at entrance, leave within 72hrs or do exactly what we were doing. And what do you know? Just as we’re finishing up another 3 people show up at the office with the same exact story. They took a boat from Cartagena to Panama, their captain told them not to worry about a thing and print a fake ticket and upon leaving the country they were completely blindsided.

I cannot help to think that all of these captains running these “budget” trips from Cartagena to Panama are bullshitting their one-time passengers (basically no boats themselves are on TripAdvisor – aka no one can review the boats) because adding an extra $100 to enter Panama would make the trip not cost-effective. (You do NOT pay the $100 if you fly or bus in, only by boat). This really pisses me off. I don’t know for sure if this is the case, that the captains are intentionally misleading their passengers to protect their business, but I would sure as hell expect them to be more familiar with the rules regulating the entrance and exit to the countries they sail into and out of several times a month. What the fuck, you know? I would have paid the $100 at the border – easy, done with – let’s go!

By the time we paid our fine, got our receipt and headed back to the immigration office to get the exit stamp our shuttle had left. No one we knew was there and we hadn’t a clue where our bag was. It was pouring rain and eventually we found a Caribe shuttle employee who told us the bag was being held at a restaurant on the Costa Rica side of the border but that the shuttle had left. We finally got our stamp to leave, crossed into Costa Rica and had to pay another cab to drive us to Puerto Viejo to catch up with the group. Luckily it worked out, we found our friends, had a great lunch (and cocktail) and eventually made it to our hotel in San Jose. It was a long, stressful and tiring day. Lindsay and I got into two arguments – once in the van ..which is funny because we were arguing in a very soft, 6-inch voices. Have you ever done that?? It’s fucking weird, and hilarious to think about. The other was at dinner. So clearly we were on edge from the 14+ hr day of travel that on a direct route takes 6hrs.

Moral of the story??

If you enter Panama via boat and stay more than 72hrs it costs $100. Don’t listen to whatever bullshit your captain tells you.

And just in case you don’t want to take my word, here is a direct quote from the U.S. Government website:  (

“The Servicio Nacional de Migracion is currently enforcing an entry permit fee of USD$110 for sea travelers piloting their own boats or yachts and arriving as tourists. This fee permits entry into Panama for a period of three months, which can be extended for up to two years through an approved application with the immigration authorities in Panama.  U.S. citizens navigating private craft through the Canal should contact the Panama Canal Authority at (011) 507-272-4570 or consult the Panama Canal Authority web site to make an appointment.”


Any ways. I’m writing this from our hotel cafe with a piping hot cup of coffee. Lindsay is sitting across from me tearing up TripAdvisor reviews, I am paying attention to the British Open (c’mon Dustin Johnson), my parents arrive here in less than 4hrs and we’re going to drive to Manuel Antonio on the west coast of Costa Rica. As my old boss used to always say — All is well that ends well. 🙂

One thought on “If you sail to Panama read this!

  1. Pingback: NAN's Q&A on South and Central America - Jeff & Lindsay's Travel Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge