Trips to Colon and Renewing our Paperwork

One important thing we needed to do in Colon, together, was to renew our Visas, Check In with the Port Captain, and get a "local Zarpe" to the San Blas Islands, so one morning I joined the 8:00 am shuttle ride into town. It took about 45 minutes to go from the Marina to Colon, crossing over a bridge at the Gatun Locks, where we had to wait ten minutes for a ship to clear the lock before we could proceed.

When we got to Colon, we took a taxi to the Port Captain's office. The taxi driver was not familiar with the location, and so it took a few tries to get to the correct office. Once there, we were subject to the hated bureaucratic process that we've become a little too familiar with in our time in Panama. First we checked in, which was relatively quick and efficient, as the clerk in the first office we visited filled out the papers and dispensed with us in about 20 minutes. Then we went to another office to get our Zarpe, but here we were made to wait about an hour and a half while the inefficient clerk typed two pieces of paper so slowly that one had to wonder if she was really working or not. Several other people waited with us, and everyone was becoming impatient as she sat and pecked at her antiquated typewriter.

We had to be back at the shuttle bus at 11:15, or we would have to pay for a spendy taxi back to the marina, so were somewhat impatient ourselves. Finally, she called our name, gave us some papers, and told us to go to another office to pay a few dollars and get a receipt, which we did. We then took the receipt back to the first office, where the efficient worker once again filled out a few papers and presented us with our Zarpe at about 10:30 am.

From there, we got back in our taxi and went to the Immigration office, which the taxi driver was able to find without too much trouble. Therein, we were met with more inefficient clerks as well as several more impatient people waiting ahead of us. One of the couples ahead of us was from another boat and had hired an agent, supposedly to take care of all of this, for something like $150. But he left the room, and them, to fend for themselves. While they were trying to get the clerks to stamp their passports, we could not help but feel that, even though the process was tedious and time consuming, at least we had not paid someone a bunch of money to do nothing. Soon it was our turn, as the clock was nearing 11:00 am, and, of course, there was a problem.

The clerks got together, looking at our Marino Visas and Passports, firing questions and comments back and forth, and then apparently decided that it required the attention of a supervisor. The supervisor took our passports and visas, and got on the telephone, making several calls, asking various questions, little of which we understood of course, being in Spanish, and then signaled us to come back to his office area, where he then asked us some pointed questions, like when had we originally checked into the country (June 26th), where had we gotten the marino visas (Panama City), and did we know that we had another check in stamp on September 24th (Yes), but had we ever left the country? (No). Then a few more phone calls, and with our time running out, the immigration official finally said to us in a condescending voice that he would, as a personal favor to us, renew our visas for another month. Sheesh. What a hassle. This was supposed to be automatic. We had been told in Panama City we just needed to stop by an immigration office each month where they would simply stamp our visas, but this guy was treating it like a major policy exception.

Anyway, at 11:10, with just 5 minutes to get in our taxi and get back to the shuttle, we were out of the Immigration office with our renewed visas. We told the cab driver that we were in an extreme hurry, but he didn't seem to understand (or care). As he was driving slowly down the street, someone, presumably one of his many friends, called out to him from the sidewalk, and as he started to pull over to chat with them, We both exploded simultaneously. "What are you doing? Go Go Go!". I guess he got the message, because then he drove moderately instead of slowly, and as we pulled into the parking lot where the shuttle was, I threw some cash at him, we jumped out of the cab, and just made it onto the shuttle as they closed the doors and started back to the Marina.

This whole experience, along with our other experiences with Port and Immigration Authorities in Panama, has caused us much unhappiness and consternation. In fact, we have decided to radically alter our plans as a result. Instead of spending, or attempting to spend, the next three months in Panama, leaving the boat in Boca Del Toro and flying home to the states for the holidays, we have now decided to leave Panama, and go to Cartegena, Columbia for the holidays, then to return to Panama in January to fly back to the States. The reasons are complicated, but basically by doing so we can start a new cruising permit and visa cycle, good for three months, and hopefully not be burdened by the Panamanian bureaucracies for doing so.