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.


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.



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.


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.



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.


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.


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!


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.



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


As we do prior to entering any new port, Brian and I researched our destination for several weeks prior to arriving. We’d read and taken notes from two cruising guides: Cuba: A Cruising Guideby Nigel Calder and The Cruising Guide to Cuba First Edition by Simon Charles. We’d conversed with cruisers of various nationalities about their experiences visiting Cuba via the water. I’d been learning Spanish from a program called Fluenz (I’ve been thrilled with this program, it’s perfect for my hands-on learning style). Brian was reviewing his high-school learned Spanish as well by using Rosetta Stone. But with all that preparation we still felt the anticipatory jitters of the unknown as we neared the entrance to the Bahia de Cienfuegos.

Our wind died about five miles from the bay’s entrance, then very lightly reappeared right on our nose. “That’s got to be a sign,” Brian commented. “Oh, shush!” I commanded, “let’s fire up the engine and get there already!” As Communications Officer I was given the job of contacting the authorities to let them know we’d like to enter their country. I was shuffling through the appendix of our cruising guide hastily memorizing key nautical words and rehearsing various openers for the VHF conversation such as: “Capitan del puerto…barco entrada, por favor…dos personas…” The guides had warned us that we may be stopped and escorted into the harbor by the Guarda Frontera, Cuba’s equivalent to Coast Guard. We’d seen only one fishing boat thus far and no other activity on the outskirts of the bay. Finally, the Captain put his authority to use, “I’m not continuing until you hail someone.” Ok, ok time to shine. After some debate we’d decided it best to just hail a marina, who according to the guide books may also facilitate our entry. Here goes…”Marina Cienfuegos, Marina Cienfuegos, Marina Cienfuegos.” And we waited…

No Guarda Fontera boats came zooming around the corner, no response en Espanol came over the VHF. Here is where arriving last comes in handy. We heard the familiar voice of Matt (sv/Serendipity) on the VHF. He instructed us to continue onward into the bay and head toward the marina, that someone would direct us to a slip once we arrived. Well that’s easy!

You’ve seen our beautiful Bahia de Cienfuegos entrance photos, a nice ending to our five day sail. So I’ll skip ahead to the juicy stuff…clearing customs! Sure enough as we approached the Marlin Nautica y Marinas a gentleman was on the docks waving for our attention and directing us to a particular slip. That gentleman was the harbormaster and he gave us a smiling, “Hola!” as he grabbed our bow line. Matt and Jessica were also on the dock as was Luki (sv/Skebenga). Quite the welcoming party! We settled in next to our new neighbor (yes, that pirate ship is actually sitting on the bottom and there are real fish swimming on deck), and awaited the parade of officials that per our research would soon be entering and searching out boat.


The clearance process wasn’t nearly as intimidating as the guide books had informed. It actually went quite smoothly and lasted about two hours at most. Had we known more Spanish it would have been even simpler. Most of the officials spoke broken English and between that and our combined, limited Spanish vocabulary we did understand what was happening every step of the way. An Immigration officer came to the dock first and requested our passports. Then he walked away with them (SCARY!). Ok, still under our quarantine flag we couldn’t get off the boat in pursuit so…we waited to see what would happen next.

A physician on behalf of the International Sanitary Control was our first guest. He completed a questionnaire with us to ensure that we were in good heath and that no crew members had died en route. Then a woman on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture entered the boat. She inspected the expiration dates on our canned foods and eyeballed our produce. She was quite chatty and gave us some good tips regarding changing money, shopping, and traveling via land in Cuba. Then we had a bit of a wait prior to Customs, Immigration, and Guarda Frontera coming aboard.

It is important to note that it was extremely hot in Cienfuegos. Of course Rode Trip has no air conditioning, poor ventilation, and little space. When five officials piled aboard representing Customs, Immigration, and Guarda Frontera the heat encouraged them to move through their paperwork as quickly as possible. They brought with them two dogs; each took a turn sniffing through the interior of our boat. It was quite entertaining to have the dogs aboard. They leapt inside with one jump from the hatch and scampered up the ladder with ease to exit. Two men sat at our small table and each completed a pile of paperwork. I had prepared two copies of our boat’s documentation, two copies of our crew list, and two copies of our passports – the documentation and crew lists were appreciated and I didn’t need any more than two. The officials and Brian signed and stamped several documents and left us with a neat stack of papers and two visas.

There were fees associated with clearance, of course, but we couldn’t change money prior. This was another moment when arriving last came in handy because we were able to borrow CUCs rather than utilize the marina’s exchange at 20% (at the nearby hotel where we did exchange money the exchange rate was 14%). So here’s the breakdown for fees: Immigration for Visas
$25/person, Customs $20, Ministry of Agriculture $5, and there was another $10 that quite honestly we don’t remember where it went. We also gave out three glasses of water, one beer, one tube of toothpaste, two toothbrushes, and two sets of Wiki Sticks (children’s toy).


Finally, we went to the marina office to complete a contract to stay at the marina. We splurged and stayed at the dock for connivence at $ .53/foot. Docking included water and electricity; we used as much water as we wanted and did not hook up to the electric. The facilities weren’t great; we actually used the shower only once during our week long stay. We preferred to use our own bathroom and solar shower on the boat which were clean. There were no laundry services and there were trash and recycling on site.

At the marina we were encouraged to purchase health insurance; $3/day/person. This is twice as expensive as our current health plan. It seemed that only the USA boats were approached regarding this plan. We were given the night to think it over. We forgot to return the next morning to purchase the plan and we were never asked about it again.

All cleared in!