Renewing our Visas and Cruising Permit

We had checked into Panama from Costa Rica at Pedregal, 88 days earlier, on June 26th. Finally, after just about 3 months in the country, on September 24th, it was time to renew our Panamanian Cruising Permit and Visas. So we set off early in the morning with our taxi diver Luis, hopeful that we understood the process and just had to stop by the two offices for a few minutes each.

We went to Immigration first, to renew our visas. When planning the trip, and when we entered the country, we had been told that our "tourist" visa, good for 90 days, could be renewed once, and then we would have to leave the country for 3 days to start the cycle over again. That's why we had planned on spending the 6 months of hurricane season safely down here in Panama. However, since we had checked in, in the meantime, a new law had been passed that did away with the possibility of renewing the tourist visa. Other cruisers had already confronted this issue, and we had heard about the solution, so we weren't surprised when we went to the Immigration office and, instead of renewing our tourist visa, they gave us a "marino" (sailor) visa. We had to make a run to a local copy shop to get photos taken for the visa, which is much like a drivers license or identity card. The major difference between the marino visa and the tourist visa is that, with a marino visa, we have to check into an Immigration office each month, and the visa is rumored to not be good for more than 5 miles inland away from the sea.

Once again, we had heard about this before, so were not unduly surprised or put off by the new visa. It is a little constraining, having to check in each month, but apart from that, it did not really change our travel plans.

Next we went to the Port Captain's office to renew our Cruising Permit. This is similar to the Mexican Temporary Import Permit, and is essentially permission for our boat to be in Panamanian Waters. Like the visas, we had been told in Pedregal that the cruising permit was valid for 90 days and could be renewed once before the boat had to leave the country for 3 days to restart the cycle.

The Port Captain's office is in the huge, and very busy, Port of Panama cargo facility. As we pulled in among the thousands of shipping containers, with many diesel trucks moving in and out, we found the office in a dusty old set of offices in the middle of the hubbub. Once inside, we found the correct office after a few hits and misses, and were soon talking to the officials therein about renewing our cruising permit. We were not pleased by what they were telling us.

The three officials at the port captain's office, though sympathetic with us, told us that there was No Way to renew the cruising permit. Period. After about 15 minutes of basically asking the same question over and over, for clarification, they communicated to us that we had until Saturday, three days hence, to take the boat out of the country.


This absolutely flummoxed us, as the trip back up to Golfito, Costa Rica is about 4-6 days, and we were not mentally or physically prepared to make such a voyage. We asked the officials again and again if there was anything we could do, and they said no, the boat HAD to leave the country. Finally, we asked them if a lawyer would help, and they said they doubted it, but did give us the phone numbers of a couple of lawyers and directed us to the "Autoridad Maritima" office, the next authority up the chain of command from the Port Captain.

As we understand it, most cruisers, when their permit runs out, just let it slide and stay here in Panama anyway, more or less illegally. The enforcement is lax, so they are usually not noticed until they go to check out of the country, at which time they are liable for a $100-$500 fine. Perhaps sometimes the officials let them slide on the fine and process them out of the country, but by and large they can expect to have to pay a fine, or be notified that their boat will not be allowed back in the country in the future.

So we went over to the Autoridad Maritima office (at the PanCanal Plaza), where we were going to look for one of the lawyer's offices, and while we were getting into the elevator, a nicely dressed gentleman got in the elevator with us. On a hunch, I asked him if he spoke English and he said "yes". I asked him further if he was a lawyer and he said "yes" again. I then endeavored to enlist his help and he asked me to explain the problem to him right there in the elevator. He was very gracious and nice and said he thought he could help.

From the elevator, he went to several offices, courteously bringing us along, explaining to various officials that we just wanted to stay in Panama a bit longer because we thought it was so beautiful and there were more places that we wanted to see, and that we were taking the time and effort to try and do it legally. Well, to make a long story short, after about 3 hours, after having us pay the $69 to the cashier, he managed to get us a 90 day renewal on our cruising permit! Not only did he get the permit, but later we found out that it was signed by the Secretary General of the Autoridad Maritima, the head honcho, himself! We tried to pay the lawyer $100 for his time, but he laughed and said that he would take nothing more than $50. By using a little slight of hand I was able to slip him $60 as a compromise!

Anyway, this lawyer rescued us from impending tragedy. It would have been really difficult to have left Panama at this stage of the game. His name, by the way, is Martin Recuero, his phone number is (507) 214-4045, and his email address is, and we, of course, recommend him highly to any cruisers in need of representation.