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Stories about Living / Cruising on a Boat

Exploring the Atlantic Coast of Panama, Part 3

Visa problems require Joe & Sharon to make an eventful land trip to Panama City and Costa Rica. 

Kuna Yala nativeby Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon

It isn´t that life ashore is distasteful to me.
But life at sea is better.

- Sir Francis Drake

Joe and I were at the Riande Airport Hotel in Panama City, a much nicer accommodation than we would usually spring for because we thought we would be taking an international flight from Panama City to Fort Lauderdale. Because of lack of pre-planning and our general state of poverty, we weren’t.

During WWII, the U.S. military installed several airstrips throughout the Kuna Yala territory of Panama. But the schedules of Air Panama and Aeropuerto were not too clear to us. We thought we could fly out of Cartí but we weren’t sure. However, in the West Lemmons there is a man named Alberto who was born to do well in a capitalist society, because he is making a fortune supplying goods and services to cruisers. He even runs a Happy Hour site under the shade of coconut trees, where cruisers meet every afternoon at 5:00 p.m. for cold beer and soda – which he also sells. I asked Alberto about getting a ride to Cartí in his high-powered panga, then made arrangements with Manuel for a 4x4 to take us to Panama City. Two other cruisers, Cheri, who needed to visit a chiropractor, and Susan, who needed to visit her attorney, joined us.

HitchikerOur ride from the small town of Cartí to Panama City was thrilling – literally – because it was in a 4x4 that slid all over the mud roads and barreled across a river without hesitation. We picked up some militia women who were hiking through the jungle and they hung onto the outside of the vehicle for dear life as our driver sped up, down and around the backroads. Our friend Cheri, S/V Namasté (homeport Kemah, Texas), laughed heartily when a soldier’s machine gun poked through her window. The irony was, Cheri was en route to visit a chiropractor and I had to wonder if the rough ride was helping or hindering her backache. But she’s a Texas woman and a cruiser, so she’s made of tough stuff. You know what I mean.

4-wheelingThe beauty of the Panama jungle and countryside kept our eyes glued to the windows almost the entire trip. We sighed in disappointment when we finally rolled onto a paved road and re-entered civilization.

From the comfort of our plush hotel, we surfed the Internet and saw that none of the international flights were affordable. Joe and I bit the bullet and the next morning went directly to the Ticabus station and bought two tickets for San Jose, Costa Rica ($50 for both of us, one-way).

While at the bus station, we reunited with two cruisers who’d left their boat on the Rio Dulce and were taking the Panama City bus to the David/Boquete area of Panama to buy property. Panama has a stable infrastructure and the highlands area is climate-controlled by God, who has the thermostat set on Perfect Weather. It is never too hot or too cold in that area, but some evenings require a sweater. We asked if they had applied for their Pensionado Visas yet and they had.

Several cruisers already have the Pensionado Visa, and it appears that will be the only way Panama will allow extended tourism in the future. At this time, tourist visa extensions are being denied past the usual 90-day stay. Joe and I believe if we want to continue to keep our boat home-based in Panama for awhile, we will need to apply for the Pensionado Visa.

The Panama Pensionado Program is a fairly unique method of getting a lifetime visa for retired persons. There is no minimum age requirement; a Pensionado is a foreigner on a pension for life retiring or residing in Panama.

One must be receiving a pension for life of at least $500 per month. This goes up by $100 per month for each dependent brought in under the program. The pension should be from a reputable source like a publicly traded major corporation pension fund or from a government agency. Usually a letter from the pension granting fund is required and a few bank statements showing the deposit can be helpful. Pensions from non-public, small corporations will be difficult to prove and this is not going to be successful.

Basic documentation also includes:

  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage certificate if married
  • Police records check for all coming in over 18 years old

The above three documents need to be certified by the Panama Consulate or Embassy. You will need a passport valid for at least six months as well. A health certificate is also required.

Panama Pensionado Benefits:

  1. Discounts of 50% off the ticket price charged for movies, theaters and Panama sporting events like soccer, boxing, baseball etc.
  2. 30% Discount for City Buses, Panama Trains and Boats (not cruise boats)
  3. 25% on airfare if flight is in country or if ticket purchased with COPA airlines in Panama
  4. Hotels discount 50% from Monday to Thursday and 30% on Friday, Saturday and Sunday
  5. 25% discount of food eaten in a sit down inside restaurant
  6. 15% discount in fast food establishments
  7. 15% discount services in hospitals and private clinics
  8. 10% discount in for prescription medicines in pharmacies
  9. Discounts for medical services
  10. A Pensionado can buy a car every two years free of import duty
  11. A Pensionado can bring in $10,000 worth of personal goods one time with no import duty.


However, because we are retired people we often qualify for discounts and I say the word  ¨jubilado¨ (retired) with every transaction involving money so I can get the retiree discount. The requirement for retirement discounts in Panama is to be over the age of 55 and unemployed. We definitely qualify.

We boarded the Ticabus with misgivings. The trip to San Jose, Costa Rica would be over 14 hours, and we carried two bags (one bag was carrying two more empty bags for hoped-for provisioning), laptop, handheld games and books. We were ready for the long haul.

Border boredomIt wasn’t that bad. They immediately served chips and offered passengers Pepsi from a 2-liter bottle.  A few hours later, they brought in boxes of baked chicken and rice. Four or five hours after that, they brought in more boxes of baked chicken and rice. As we approached Costa Rica, we were boarded by militia, who examined our passports. We reached the Costa Rican border around midnight, and spent over an hour shuffling clearing through Customs and Immigration. It was dark, and confusing, but one little boy took charge of the gringos. The minute a visitor stopped and looked confused, he would appear at their elbow, steer them to a line and tell them to stay put. I figured he was selling something, because many locals were selling souvenirs, duty-free perfumes, refrigerator magnets . . . all the usual stuff. But this young man was simply doing his job, and that was to herd the tourists to their designated checkpoints.

At one point, he told me hand our passports to a strange man and I hesitated. Then I said, no, I would rather give it to the official myself. He told me again that I must hand my passport to the man and the woman behind me spoke impatiently in broken English, ¨Do it! It is what you do!¨ So I handed over our passports and then the young man took us to a room and gestured for us to place our bags on the ground. As the rest of our fellow bus passengers joined us, they were instructed to line our bags up, end-to-end. A Cocker Spaniel was brought in to sniff the bags. A Cocker Spaniel? That was a first, but I guess any breed of dog can be trained to sniff out drugs.

Tired and dirty, we loaded our bags and with our newly stamped passports, shuffled back on the bus for the drive to San Jose. We checked out of Panama and into Costa Rica; San Jose was three hours north. Much debate is held about how long you have to stay out of a country before you return; general information is three days. But what constitutes the three days? I did the math several ways and figured we would stay two nights and take a Ticabus back to Panama City on the third day.

As soon as the bus was underway and about the time the air conditioning had put most of us back to sleep, we were pulled over and boarded by military people, who checked our passports. Half an hour later, we were boarded again. Joe started to grumble but I shoved my elbow into his side and shushed him. They like Happy Face Gringos, not grumpy spoiled Norte Americanos. Joe immediately put on his Happy Face.

Joe and I like to think we are fairly seasoned third world travelers, and while we are willing, occasionally, to be exploited and ripped off (¨gringoed¨), we’ve never been scammed. Until now.

It was about 3:30 in the morning when we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica.

As we approached the bus station exit, taxi drivers blocked the door, offering their services. I ploughed through the throng of men saying that it was necessary for me to ¨see the car¨ first. It’s important that the man you follow is driving a marked taxi. A very tall young man stood heads above the others and immediately pointed to his clean, red taxi and I followed him. He looked like my nephew Nathan and I liked his honest face immediately. He asked our destination and I said the Hotel Balmoral. He seemed confused, so I gave him the paper with our Travelocity reservation. He scratched his head in perplexity when I pointed out the address. Then he said, ¨I will call them.¨

He dialed what I thought was the number on the paper, spoke quickly with someone, then handed me the phone. ¨We have no rooms here,¨ said a man. ¨But we have another Balmoral Hotel. Your driver will take you there.¨

The young taxi driver was courteous, pointed out some points of interest, and drove us to a very nice Clarion Hotel near the downtown. He said the fare was ten dollars for what I later discovered was a three-dollar ride, but again…we were exhausted. When I explained my story to the well-spoken young man at the reception desk, he apologized but said he could not honor the Balmoral Hotel reservation of $68/night. Instead, our room would be $125/night and we would have to pay as if we had checked in the day before. He and the taxi driver seemed quite familiar with each other. I handed the desk clerk our credit card and we limped to our room, showered and promptly fell asleep.

The next morning, I spent an hour on the phone with Travelocity and the Balmoral Hotel. After a conference call, our credit card was to be refunded, but the woman at the Balmoral Hotel was stumped. ¨With whom did you speak?¨ she asked. ¨We have plenty of rooms.¨ I explained that I did not ask the man’s name, which I should have, but gave her the name and number of our taxi driver, Manuel Garcia. (Yes, I now know that his name was most likely NOT Manuel Garcia.) She said there is no other Balmoral Hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica. She was very nice and I promised we would visit her hotel our next trip. Then I went to the Clarion’s front desk, told them that I was happy to pay an early check-in fee but would not pay for a check-in dated one day before I actually checked in. They agreed. I recounted the confusion upon our arrival, and the Clarion employee said, ¨This is a much nicer hotel anyway and it is not so close to the downtown noise.¨

I like downtown noise.

We left the hotel and hiked uphill about 4 blocks to get to the downtown area, then spent the entire day walking and sightseeing. When I saw the Balmoral Hotel, located in what was obviously a more convenient location to the tourist sites, I realized what had happened. One of the Clarion Hotel employees was in cahoots with our honest-looking taxi driver. I could not imagine why or understand what the financial advantage could be for a taxi driver to steer his clients away from a popular hotel like the Balmoral to the Clarion, which was a very upscale hotel anyway, just . . . located out of the way a bit. Location, location, location. We’d been railroaded. When I returned to the Clarion that evening, I sent an email to the Balmoral Hotel. I hope they followed up.

The beaches on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica are said to be marvelous, but not many cruisers visit them in their boats. I understood why we had to get past Nicaragua, fast, but when I asked why we were passagemaking past Costa Rica and on to Panama, Joe said ¨There’s no place to stop. ¨

Parque CentralYour walking tour of San Jose, Costa Rica begins at Parque Central, the city’s oldest park. It is charming and clean and bustling with businesspeople on a break or shoppers resting weary feet.

Catedral small sanctuaryDirectly across from the park is the Metropolitan Cathedral, the most important church in Costa Rica. It was built in 1871 and its exterior architecture and ornate interior are beautiful the way most Central American cathedrals are designed to be, but there is a side chapel, Capilla de Santissimo Sacramento, decorated with carved flowers and hosting an impressive altar. It was there I spent most of my time in the church. When I visit sanctuaries, I study everything, the floors, ceilings, statues, paintings. Sometimes I close my eyes, let my mind wander and I think. Even better, sometimes I don’t think.

Joe waited for me at the back of the church. He was spending his San Jose time in banks. Because there is no way to get money in the San Blas islands of  Panama, no ATMs, no banks, nothing, it is important for cruisers to take a minimum of $1,000 cash, at least half of which is in tens, fives and ones. There’s no such thing as ¨change¨ from a Kuna Indian vendor, so if a twenty dollar bill is all you’ve got, twenty is what you’ll spend.

While I was filled with the serenity of my time in a beautiful house of worship, Joe was stressed because he couldn’t get money out of any ATMs. We had left most of our cash on the boat, gotten one $200 limit at Panama City ATM, and had been operating on a cash-only basis. Realizing we still had the return trip to Panama City before we would again have access to our accounts, we counted our pennies carefully and used credit cards. Ticabus tickets are cash only.

It was lunchtime, so we walked back across the street to the Gran Hotel, which has an outside café offering perfect views of the park and the pedestrians. Joe ordered a drink and took off for another ATM, so I ordered a white wine. For lunch! Ten minutes later I was in a vine-ripened mellow place and holding an animated conversation with a woman who was doing research on the African influence in Central America. She worked for a museum in South Africa. My contribution to our conversation was to tell her about Sitio Barriles, in the northern part of Panama, where curious statues of obviously black slaves carrying smaller Chinese men were discovered and later housed in a museum in Panama City. She agreed, Sitio Barriles sounded like a major dig for her project.

Joe returned, penniless, and joined our conversation. We sipped our wine and enjoyed the soothing piano music from the Gran Hotel lobby. Joe decided poverty was just fine. ¨No money, no problem,¨ he said. ¨No credit . . . PROBLEM.¨ We both laughed.

Teatro NacionalThe one must-see in San Jose, Costa Rica is the Teatro Nacional, right next to the Gran Hotel. Its neo-classical exterior is stunning, but the true opulence is inside, where the baroque interior featuring Italian pink marble and wallworks with 24-karat gold trim . . . well, you find yourself staring at the ceiling and the room and turning in circles with a look of sheer amazement on your face. I’m not able to behave like an intellectual in places like that; everything about me screams ¨Rube! Tourist!¨ But my appreciation is sincere and people of other countries are proud of their history and how it is represented. The Teatro National was from a time when Costa Rica was booming with wealth from its coffee and banana trade.

Following our visit to the National Theatre, we shopped a bit and returned to our hotel. Once there, I made a last ditch effort to find a cheap flight to Panama City with no luck. It was just as well; I wasn’t sure if we’d been out of country long enough and figured the Customs and Immigration people at the airport might be pickier.

We took a cheaper bus, $30 for both of us, one way, because no chicken and rice would be served. Near the bus station was a Campero Chicken restaurant (famous in Guatemala), and I urged Joe to buy a box of chicken for our return trip. He found the restaurant, bought the chicken, then decided since it was nearly time to board the bus, he’d take a taxi back to the bus station. He left our cellphone in the back seat of the taxi, so we added one more thing to our shopping list: cellphone. The one we’d had didn’t work well in the San Blas and other cruisers were switching to another company offering better reception.

This time we stayed at our favorite hotel, the Marparaiso, which was within our budget ($44/night) and closer to the downtown. With other cruisers, we had put together an order for forty pieces of double-smoked meats that did not require refrigeration. Joe said he would pick up the meats at Berard´s Meat Market, then shop for a couple of items he needed for the boat. He returned with the large box of meats with several bags balanced carefully atop. He looked happy.

¨Got what you needed for the computer,¨ he said, as he lined the room’s floor with shopping bags. Then he disappeared again. Hours later, he returned with more shopping bags, checked the phone book, made a few phone calls and took off again. I was in wifi heaven on my computer and watching CNN, so I barely noticed when he dashed out the door. Again. Two hours later, he returned, exhausted and happy, eager to select our restaurant for the evening.

As I studied what appeared to be the leftovers of a Paris Hilton shopping spree, I asked, ¨Exactly what all did you BUY?¨

Joe bought the only can of Cetol he could find in Panama City and brushes. He bought boat cables and lugs, coated electrical clips, a computer hub for my USB port, a 12-volt fan for the master berth, dive weights and a belt so he could mount the Diver’s Zinc he’d also purchased, a new swim mask to replace my leaky swim mask (which he won’t throw away because maybe he can ¨fix¨ it anyway), a plastic thru-hull, shrink tubing, and electrical connectors.

¨But this is the BEST!¨ he declared gleefully, and he pulled something out of a box that looked like a refrigerator, circa 1940. It had a rounded top and a little refrigerator door handle.

¨What is it? ¨ I asked.

¨It’s a refrigerator!¨ he exclaimed. It will cool one box of wine and 4 beers!¨

I saw a return trip in the makings and asked about the cost ($80) and decided if his temporary insanity could be cured with an eighty-dollar refrigerator the size of a shoebox, so be it.

I was beginning to enjoy warm boxes of Concha y Toro Clos white wine with a squeeze of lime (It’s not Chardonnay . . . but it’s ¨Clos,¨ is the joke around the Happy Hour campfire). Joe was never going to enjoy warm beer. On a more serious note, one of our daughters is diabetic and we realized she could never visit us if we did not have a reliable way to refrigerate her meds. It was probably a good buy.

Our return trip to Cartí in the 4x4 did not go as well as our ride to Panama City. A Venezuelan couple was in the backseat, the driver had a buddy in the front seat, so seat shuffling had to be done to allow for us and our luggage. Our driver pulled over near a park and unloaded the luggage from the luggage compartment and put it on top of the car. When I realized Joe had handed our backpack and computer to the men, I immediately jumped out and asked for my backpack. The driver began to argue, and the young Venezuelan woman stuck her head out the door and tongue-lashed the man in rapid Spanish. I understood only one word, ¨computadora.¨ The man sullenly retrieved the backpack and handed it down to me.

I thanked her and with my limited Spanish, the woman and I engaged in conversation most of the trip. I liked her. She was in her twenties and her husband obviously was much older, of Spanish heritage, and financially secure. She may have been a trophy wife but she said she liked an adventurous vacation and I knew she couldn’t be in this 4x4 with the rest of us if she was a princess.

Joe was in the front seat so the driver’s companion sat in the baggage area of the car. Less than halfway to our destination, our driver, Elliott, pulled over and his younger brother joined the man in the baggage compartment. Then we picked up two more men, then a third. There were FIVE Panamanian men stuffed into the luggage compartment of the SUV, two concerned Venezuelans and me and Joe.

Then the driver stopped for lunch. This was incredible! A basic three-hour ride, $20 per person, and the driver stops for lunch? Joe bought a Pepsi and I sipped it carefully, aware that when the road ran out of pavement, my stomach was going to be doing gymnastics in the back seat. The Venezuelan couple had a small bowl of chicken soup.

I had told our panga (boat) driver to meet us in Cartí at 2:00 p.m. and it was 1:00 p.m. when Elliott wiped his mouth, belched daintily and then climbed in the luggage compartment with 4 other men. And Elliott is no lightweight! His brother got behind the wheel and began driving like a man possessed. I was no longer concerned that we would be late to meet our panga driver. I was now concerned that we would plummet off the road into the Panamanian jungle and no one would miss us for days, maybe weeks.

I held onto the overhead strap for dear life and wondered if Joe would shriek like he sometimes did when I drove in Houston. He was in the front seat, and I figured he wouldn’t survive the crash and roll anyway, so I whispered to him that if he wanted to scream like a soprano, go for it. He laughed and held onto his ceiling strap even tighter.

Then I glanced at my lovely young Venezuelan neighbor and her creamy skin had turned gray. There were tears coming from her eyes. ¨Joe!¨ I demanded with as much urgency as I could muster, ¨Get the baggies out of the backpack! Hurry!¨

Joe began digging through the backpack but the woman’s husband and I could see she wouldn’t make it in time for Joe to find a carsick bag. We gestured frantically for the driver to stop the vehicle. The poor girl stumbled over her husband and threw up on the roadway. Twice. I felt very sorry for her and the driver slowed down considerably after that.

When we arrived in Cartí, Alberto greeted us with hugs and I apologized for being late. I told him the driver stopped to eat and another passenger threw up. He said, ¨Look at Elliott! Of course he has to eat to stay so big!¨ and laughed.

Meanwhile, Elliott was telling Joe the ride was ten dollars more because we had so many bags. Joe was trying to understand, I butted in to argue, then we paid the shakedown fee. Cruisers learn early to order what you want, take what you get and pay what they say. But you learn, you learn.

Alberto and his men loaded the panga and the five of us prepared to return to the West Lemmons. A young lady joined us, and Alberto stopped to buy cold beers for everyone. The panga raced though the water, pounding out foam in its wake. It was a fun ride, even though most of the beer splashed out of my can and onto my face. I dug around and found a half-eaten can of potato chips and handed out potato chips.

Thanks to our friends on S/V AngelHeart, our boat was safe and sound at anchor. It was good to be home!

Two days later, our boat’s water tank was empty and we were on our last jerry can of potable water. Every morning we tuned in to the Panama Net (SSB 8.107) so we asked for information about where we could fill our tank. Several cruisers offered the necessary information. There were two sites near us, so we departed the West Lemmons and sailed to Soledad Miria, a small Kuna settlement. This place had water, but the pressure was so low that it would take several hours to fill our tank.

Upon our arrival, we saw another sailboat at the water dock, so Joe dinghied in to see if we should drop anchor or wait. The other boat’s water tank was almost filled, and he said the wait would be about an hour. I sorted my clothes during the wait, eager to begin washing the dirty clothes that had filled two duffle bags since my last laundry day one month ago.

We had conserved our tank water as best we could, and the 80 gallons had lasted about 4 weeks. In addition to the tank water, we carry three 5-gallon jerry cans of water but only drink bottled water. We carry 20 gallons of bottled drinking water and buy more when we get down to ten. That’s a lot of water, and we plan to buy components to build watermaker for our boat in the U.S. this year.

As soon as the other sailboat left the dock, we motored in and tied up. While Joe was readying the water hoses, I saw three children sitting nearby. One boy said something offensive to another boy, who stood up angrily, glared at his friend, turned his back and then spit on the ground in frustration. He then stomped off to sit by himself on a rock. I’m afraid this behavior reminded me so much of our Guatemalan grandson I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

We paid a man five dollars and began filling our wash and rinse buckets first. I plunged into the wash cycle, stomping the clothes in the sudsy water with my feet. Following a quick wring, they went directly into the tub with fabric softener. We were moving as quickly as possible and Joe was jumping back and forth, moving the water hose from jerry cans to my laundry tubs, and wringing out the ready-to-hang laundry. It was as if we knew we were on borrowed time, and after about an hour, a large working boat appeared at the dock. We have only one fender, but we put it between us and the boat and asked the men on the dock if we should raft up with the large vessel. No, we were told we should leave, so we left.

We dropped anchor nearby, and finished hanging our wet clothes, then Joe left to explore the village. He returned with some tomatoes, cucumbers, a pineapple and a couple of onions. Apparently the big boat was a veggie boat. All the makings for a terrific supper! ¨How long will the veggie boat be at the dock?¨ I asked.

¨They said he’d be there until the people quit buying veggies,¨ Joe replied.

We slept comfortably and the next morning we watched the veggie boat depart, so we returned to the dock and began filling our tank. Based on the water flow, we figured we’d be there four hours, but we were actually filled up in two. While sitting at the dock, Prado the ¨Mola Maestro,¨ as he fashions himself, appeared at our boat, so we invited him to join us. Normally this is a BIG no-no. If you allow a Kuna Indian on your boat, you’ll have a LOT of Kuna Indians on your boat. But Prado was different.

He sat in the cockpit and played with the binoculars. He asked for a magazine and I was out of magazines but he was very pleased with the hotel shampoo bottle I gave him. Then he studied the Bauhaus Cruising Guide to Panama and became quite excited when he saw a photo of a young girl. He jumped out of the boat and ran to a nearby hut to show her the photograph. She was two or three years older, now, and not nearly as excited as Prado about her photo being in a world-famous book for cruisers.

Prado returned to the boat about the time the word was out: gringos were at the dock. A dozen children flocked to the boat, hands held out and Prado took charge of handing one piece of candy to each child. The he bade us a fond farewell, telling us he would see us again soon, and disappeared into the village.

As we readied the boat for departure from Soledad Miria and back to the West Lemmons, a little boy approached our boat. He was nervous, half scowling, but wanting what he had missed out on and the other children had gotten: a piece of candy. I recognized him right away. He was the spit-on-the-ground boy. I said, ¨Uno momento,¨ and went inside the boat, where I retrieved one piece of candy and one pair of rainbow-striped sunglasses. When I handed them to him, his eyes widened and you could see he thought he’d hit the jackpot. Beaming, he said ¨¡Gracias, gracias!¨ then scampered back into the Kuna village.

continue on ... Part 4



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