Hello, Bocas! Goodbye, Money!

We arrived at Bocas del Toro, Panama late in the afternoon with plenty of time to anchor prior to sunset. It was a good thing that we had Paul as a lookout while we debated where exactly to anchor because he spotted a shoal and kept us from grounding ourselves. Straight away we learned that the chart was a tad off kilter and that it was extremely difficult to read the water. To avoid the potential challenge of navigating the larger anchorage where all the boats seemed to be, we all agreed that the anchor should be set, “Here!” and we dropped the hook.

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We were just off the shoreline of Bocas Town; so close that we could hear conversations among the land dwellers. It was not quite 4:00pm. Hopeful that I could get this clearance process finished before closing time I hailed the Port Captain on the VHF. No answer. I tried several times on VHF-16 and received no response, nor did I receive a response from any nearby boats. I had hoped someone would at least be listening to VHF-16 and give me some pointers. Brian pulled out the guidebook and our notes from Noonsite to see if we could locate the Port Captain’s office and dinghy ashore to inform the authorities of our arrival. This tends to be ‘Plan-B’ in many of the laid-back areas that we’ve previously visited. Brian discovered, per Noonsite notes, that the Port Captain’s office had closed at 3:00pm. We’d be stranded on the boat all night, since upon entering a new country we are under quarantine not allowed to go to shore unless we’ve been cleared by the officials. We made the most of this dilemma by pouring rum drinks, making supper, and sitting in the cockpit to observe our new surroundings.

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There were all different kinds of boats whizzing and paddling to and from. Taxi boats called pangas were transporting people; these are fiberglass skiffs with large outboards and bench seating. We saw dug-out canoes, dinghies, and boats we couldn’t quite describe like this one below which had two boys aboard.

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This motorboat blazed past the two boys on that, whatever it was, and left the poor kids in a huge wake! He did a few sweeps back and forth. He’d spotted my zoom lens and on his last pass he gave a look in our direction.

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Some backpacker dudes took a dip off this dock; not sure if they were cleaner before or after that dip. The water around Bocas Town was absolutely disgusting! There were all sorts of trash floating by. We of course hadn’t noticed the trash until after our dips to cool off. Yuck! Ah well, nothing a little soap and fresh water can’t handle…hopefully.

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Soon, darkness and rum concealed our surroundings and we enjoyed the cool night air while listening to music blaring from the local bars. The next morning I was relieved to see that none of us had mutated after having swum in the disgusting water. The guys took quite a while to get motivated; the rum was still wearing off and it was a rainy morning. Rainy! Brian and I debated hauling anchor and moving to a sunnier location. I was anxious to get cleared into the country however, so Brian made pancakes while I hailed the Port Captain on the VHF – every 15 minutes – and tried to refrain from doing laps up on deck in the rain between calls. Another sailboat had arrived and sure enough on their first attempt to hail the Port Captain they received an answer. I piggy-backed on their call and told the Port Captain we’d also just arrived. The Port Captain replied that he would be out within the next hour and a half. And then we waited…

The ferry arrived from Almirante, a town on mainland Panama.

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I’d cleaned the breakfast dishes, and we waited…

We reviewed Noonsite notes to get out the appropriate amount of cash, and we waited…

We watched a US Coast Guard ship anchor. Why the ship was there we had no idea, but this was indeed good entertainment. The ship anchored essentially backwards by setting the hook with their stern to the wind. Makin’ us proud, USCG (she said sarcastically)! Paul and Brian busied themselves to determine the exact location of the ship by using our radar and chart. And then we watched as the ship slowly pointed itself into the wind, and we waited…while the Port Captain visited the USCG first. But hey, we were here first and we anchored appropriately!

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A panga delivered a slew of officials to Rode Trip. (By the way, they came to us first even though I had piggy-backed on the other sailboat whom had originally hailed them first. Sorry ’bout that, fellow cruisers.) The panga driver and the Port Captain remained in the panga. Customs, Immigration, and we assumed a second Port Captain came aboard. They each wanted copies of our boat documentation, crew list, passports, and Zarpe. I was handing out papers left and right, one copy of that, two copies of this…This was the first location that required so much paper! I may need to spend a day at a print shop just to replenish my stash. (Thanks to my friend, Kim on s/v Anthyllide I had ample copies because she had forewarned this about Central America.) Customs and the Port Captain completed their paperwork simultaneously. Immigration, a woman, told us that we’d need to visit her office prior to 4:00pm that same day to get our Visas. She said the Visas would cost $105/person (more than Noonsite stated). We explained to her that Paul, who had arrived by sea, would be departing by airplane in just three days and asked if he could obtain a lesser Visa. “No,” she replied, “when you arrive by yacht the Visa is good for one year.” We tried again to explain that he wouldn’t be staying for one year and showed her his flight reservations. It seemed a long shot that we could save Paul the expense, and so we told him he’d just have to stay for the year instead. Customs had Brian sign the Customs Declaration, provided us a copy, and then searched the boat. His search was not very in-depth, because he had pulled on one of the cupboards to open it and pulled off the toggle on the back that keeps the cupboard door shut. This embarrassed him, although we observed it and he acted as though maybe we hadn’t, and so he stopped searching and he went outside where it was much cooler anyway. The Port Captain was wiping his brow and cursing the heat under his breath. He provided us with our Cruising Permit. He explained clearly and slowly that this permit is valid for one year, after which we may request an extension for a second and even a third year. The Cruising Permit cost $103 (boats under 10 meters cost less and we measure in, without our bowsprit or boomkin of course just below the high price mark at 9.7 meters). Then the Port Captain told us we had to pay him $20/person for all these officials who had boarded the boat and that we had to pay $50 for the panga fee for them all to get here. Paying for the panga we’d anticipated, not at $50. But we’d not anticipated shelling out $20 a pop for the officials ($100 total) whom we could have easily gone to ourselves. Brian and I looked at each other in one of those moments where we expect the other to make a decision. Brian asked if he could get a receipt. We were assured we could get receipts by visiting each office. This was a bribe, a scam, an unnecessary fee. Naturally, we paid it. Stupid. We did not, however pay the panga fee.

Kicking ourselves, but at the same time thinking it simpler to just pay than to argue with officials we took down the yellow quarantine flag and hoisted the Panama flag. Paul helped us to get the dinghy ready and we ventured ashore. Still not completely cleared, we headed to the Immigration office. En route, we found a print shop where we made copies of Paul’s passport and a copy of our Cruising Permit; Immigration requested we provide this at our visit to the office. Apparently the government can’t afford to supply copy machines even though they are raking in the dough for travel visas. The office building was at the center of town and our visit with Immigration was pleasant. While there, we were also met by Quarantine; received yet another document and an official government receipt for the cost of $15 for Quarantine’s services. Quarantine conveniently searched our boat from the comfort of the air conditioned Immigration office.

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Only $428 and we’re IN! Maybe we should get our year’s worth…

2 thoughts on “Hello, Bocas! Goodbye, Money!

  1. No need to criticize the USCG! I hope you never need them, but they help a lot of travelers.

  2. We hope we don’t ever need to be rescued by the USCG, and really do appreciate all that they do. It was a little strange to see them in a Panamanian bay. When it got dark they had Red over Red navigation lights on indicating ( we had to look it up) a vessel not under command. It stayed that way for several hours before changing over to a normal anchor light. We never found out anything about why the ship was here, we hope everything was OK.

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