Checking into Panama in Pedregal and David

When we first decided to go to Isla Ventana, we were thinking of staying there only a few days, but here it was Wednesday and we had already been there nearly a week. I have to mention here how much we're liking Western Panama. It's truly a cruiser's paradise. There are dozens of sparsely or uninhabited islands within 10-20 miles of each other. One could easily spend 6 months just exploring this region. Inasmuch as we had now been in the country for quite a while, we decided to make it official and do the check-in process in the nearby city of David and the port of Pedregal.

Regarding the fuel situation, since the distance from Golfito, Costa Rica, to Panama City is about 450-500 nm, well within RHAPSODY'S 600-800 nm motoring fuel range, we didn't do much in the way of detailed fuel planning for this part of the trip. However, now that we're spending significant amounts of time at each anchorage, and want to do more of the same, the amount of fuel we're using running the generator each day is becoming significant. We run the generator for 2-3 hours a day and it uses about 3/4 gallon per hour, so in two weeks we've used about 25-30 gallons of fuel for the genset. This turns out to be roughly our safety margin for the entire distance to Panama City - we never want to run the tanks dry. So here at Isla Ventana we found ourselves in the position of either needing to skedaddle and go directly to the Canal, skipping this wonderful cruising ground, or needing to get more fuel so that we could linger awhile.

The cruising books all point out that nearby Pedregal has a fuel dock, so one would expect going there to be the obvious solution. However, the channel depths to Pedregal run as shallow as 5-6' and with our 6' draft we're not thrilled about doing the 24 nm run upriver thru the many twists and turns in the channel. We have heard of cruisers who have gone aground as many as 5 times on the way and one guy said he had to stay stuck aground overnight until the next day's high tide because, of course, you can't do the unmarked channel at night, and he went aground at dusk. Also, later, we learned that there is a power line stretched from Boca Chica to Isla Brava that is only about 45' above the water at high tide. A boat had caught it and brought it down a few months earlier much to the dismay of the skipper. Since our mast is 55' high, and we need to approach the channel at high tide, this confluence of factors meant that we preferred not to go into Pedregal for fuel.

Checking with the locals we learned that there was no diesel to be had in Boca Chica. The only alternative here is to bring jerry cans to shore by dinghy and take a taxi about 20-30 miles to gas stations in the city of David. A further detailed inspection of the cruising books told us that the only other fuel between here and Panama City is (a) jerry cans by taxi about 6 miles inland from an island south of here called Catalina, and (b) another upriver channel, called Puerto Mutis, that has a fuel dock. From the charts Puerto Mutis looked to be a less windy, shorter 9 nm trip upriver, as opposed to the 24 nm to Pedregal. So, on Wednesday night we decided that, in order to spend more time in this cruising ground, we would plan to go into Puerto Mutis, later in the trip, to get more fuel.

Now the 2nd gotcha came into play. Two of the cruising books that describe the fuel dock at Puerto Mutis also pointedly mention that when you go there the local police WILL check your boat's papers. Puerto Mutis is not a port of entry, so, one cannot check in there. And since we had originally thought we would put off checking in until we got down to the Panama Canal, all of a sudden, following the logic of the situation, it became important to formally check in to Panama in Pedregal, by dinghy and taxi from Boca Chica, before proceeding any further.

Fortunately, Bill and Ariana had offered that they would be willing to take us into David for anything, if we would like, in their car, so we took them up on their offer. Wednesday night we asked Bill if it would be alright if Ariana took us into David to check into the country the following day. He said sure, so the next morning, on Thursday, we got up early and were ready to go by 8:00 am.

Ariana called a water Taxi and they picked us up on Rhapsody at about 8:30 am. By 9:00 a.m. we were in Boca Chica, getting into Bill and Ariana's late model Hyundai 4WD SUV for the drive into David. It was an interesting drive as Ariana pointed out the sights along the way. We went about 10 miles along a dirt road. At one point there was a steep incline that was paved and Ariana told us that Bill's grandfather had paved that many years ago as the road was otherwise impassable during the rains. Along the way we were greeted with fabulous panoramic views of the Panamanian countryside, rolling and lush green, with occasional glimpses of the ocean and islands, and faraway mountains, in the distance.

After the dirt road connected with the main highway (the famed "Inter-American" highway), we picked up speed as the 2-lane road is in very good condition. Ariana pulled over at one point to show us a beautiful waterfall to the north, easily several hundred feet tall and majestic looking. As we approached the outskirts of David, the countryside gave way to suburban housing and eventually the urban setting of Panama's 2nd largest city (with approximately 85,000 people). As we drove thru David, Ariana pointed out places that she had known since she was a little girl.

From David, it was a short 5 mile drive out the other side of the city to the port of Pedregal, where finally about 10:15 we parked in front of the Port Captain's office to begin the check-in process. We went into the office and presented ourselves. We were told to wait for Aduana (Customs) people to come over from the airport. So we waited. And waited. After awhile we went outside and waited while walking around looking at the marina and fuel dock. Finally after about an hour, one of the workers, Pedro, came outside to tell us that instead of waiting for Aduana, we should go to the bank and get our "immigration stamp" and that he would arrange things with Aduana later.

So we piled back into the Hyundai, taking Pedro with us, back to downtown David and to the Banco National where we needed to purchase two $10 stamps for immigration. We got there about 11:45 just as the lunch rush hour was starting. After waiting in line for 20 minutes or so, it was our turn at the teller where we were informed that they were out of the $10 stamps. We inquired whether we could combine them and get one $20 stamp. The answer was "no". How about if we buy two $20 stamps and forego the change? No! Immigration requires exact value stamps. Sigh.

Frustrated, we bailed from there and went to another bank, this one called Banco General. Thankfully there was no line there and with Pedro, in suit and tie, in 5 minutes we had the stamps and were on our way to the Immigration office. Along the way we found out that in addition to working with the Port Captain's office, Pedro is a full-fledged Abogado (lawyer) with his own practice. His professional manner and neat personal appearance played well to our cause when we got to the tiny, but very busy, immigration office. There were about 10 people waiting to get processed and it was obvious some of them had been there for several hours. Several of the office staff were huddled around a copy machine that had a jam and which had apparently brought the office to a standstill. Pedro motioned one of the workers aside, passed our passports and stamps to him, and a few minutes later the worker returned and returned them to Pedro. A few words were spoken, then Pedro told us we needed copies of some documents, and since the copy machine was broken, we went to a copy shop next door and had the copies made ourselves. In another few minutes we had our passports stamped, and got our 90 day tourist visas.

After the stop at immigration, we learned from Pedro, who was using his cell phone profusely during the whole time, that the Aduana (Customs) people were too busy to help us today, but that since Pedro was a lawyer, he could, by visiting our boat, do all the paperwork for customs himself. Wow, were we ever lucky to hook up with Pedro! We stopped for lunch at a franchise of the U.S. T.G.I.Friday's chain, right around the corner from the K.F.C!

After lunch, we all got back in the Hyundai for the drive back to Boca Chica to visit Rhapsody. We got to Boca Chica around 3:20 p.m. and had to wait about 20 minutes for a water taxi to show up. Even though it was a major hassle, we could tell that Pedro was enjoying being out of the office and out on the water as he took personal photographs of Boca Chica, the surrounding boats, and Rhapsody.

Once on Rhapsody, Pedro had a quick look around the boat, filled out some papers, then had us fill out a customs declaration. 1 kilogram of beef on board. About 1/2 kilogram of cheese. No vegetables. No plants. No animals. One motor, 82 horsepower. The boat is 50' long. 2 bottles of tequila. 30 beers. So on and so forth. After about 15 minutes the papers were all filled out and we all got back in the water taxi, returned to Boca Chica, got in the Hyundai and drove back thru David to Pedregal and the Port Captain's office.

Finally, by about 6:20, after having everything officially stamped, paying $20 for overtime charges, $69 for port and paperwork fees, and $20 for immigration stamps, the Port Captain's office issued us our local zarpe (ship's document) and 90 day renewable Panama cruising permit. Whew. That only took all day! On the way home, Ariana, took us for a quick provisioning and ran some errands of her own. By the time we left David 7:30 p.m. and a light rain had started. Along the way back to Boca Chica we stopped and got gas, and as the light rain had turned into a tropical deluge, it was slow going the rest of the way back.

Finally, about 8:45 p.m. we parked in Boca Chica where thankfully the rain let up a bit and the water taxi guy was waiting for us, so there were no further delays as we got a ride back to Rhapsody and Ariana and Dootie were taken to Isla Ventana. It had been a long day but we were very very thankful to Ariana for her gargantuan effort in getting us cleared into the country. We celebrated our new official Panamanian status on the boat with a couple of shots and beers and went to bed happy that night!