Background & Shelter Bay Marina~ We have already spent a hurricane season in the San Blas and mainland Panama in 2012, read that info here so this time we arrived in directly from Jamaica and went straight into Shelter Bay Marina. Shelter Bays “off season” rates do not start until July so the marina was expensive, water is free, power is metered, wifi code is charged per device $11 per week and signal on the boats is pretty poor. Depths throughout the marina vary considerably so let them know your draft. Panama uses US Dollars. There is a fuel dock but the fuel barge is not always there so check before you go around, current charge was $2.92 per US gallon, the fuel barge does not have petrol (gasoline). Gas (butane) tanks can be taken by the marina to the filling depot, $37 for 9kg tanks this can take several days so organise straight away with the office, and they can also get petrol. We did not haul there this time but did on our last visit and were very happy with how it all went, the same staff were there this time. There is a small well stocked store sometimes with fresh produce, they also have phone sim cards (sometimes) useful to have to organise transit – cell signal is poor there, last time we had Digicel this time Movistar, neither great but both do internet packages too. Good restaurant and bar and very cheap happy hour from 5 – 7pm except Sunday, self service laundry, cruiser lounge (air conditioned) upstairs with good library for book swap and there’s a big screen television with all the satellite channels. The marina runs a shuttle bus weekdays to the Quattro Altos Shopping Centre, see timetable on outside of office door for times, best to put your name on it to book space as very limited in the busy season. The Notice Board opposite the Marina Office has a wealth of information on it. WARNING We blew up our microwave the first time we were in Shelter Bay and only managed to buy another 240v this year, unfortunately I forgot that our first one died here and our rather expensive 3 month new microwave met the same fate when I was microwaving flour to avoid weevils. Would STRONGLY recommend you don’t use a microwave if plugged into shore power.
Checking In ~ Last time we completed our check in at Porvenir in the San Blas which went smoothly and cost $319.70. This time it wasn’t so straight forward. Avoid checking into Colon if you can. There is an office at Shelter Bay but honestly we don’t actually know what it is there for anymore. We could not check in or out with them. The staff speak no English and were not at all helpful, and we do speak some Spanish. Anyway, we still needed to go into Colon to apply for a cruising permit and to visit Immigration. You do not have to get a cruising permit or visa if you will be less than 3 days in Panama but it would be virtually impossible to have your transit organised that quickly, even if you use an agent. So first you have to go to the Port Captains office for your Cruising Permit $185 (we are 14 metres) in downtown Colon, however it is in the wharf area with lots of armed police so about as safe as Colon gets. To get here take the morning shuttle from the marina to Quattro Altos then a taxi, ask for Citibank at el Puerto, the drivers don’t know where the Port Captain is. The Port Captains office is on the top floor of an unnamed white colonial building (crumbling down) with blue painted trim opposite the Citibank (where you pay for the canal transit). Firstly he issues a piece of paper to take to Immigration (this took about 90 minutes to get and he wanted photocopies of everything imaginable), then we went to Immigration by taxi (everyone must be present) in the Colon 2000 (ask for Colon dos mil) shopping strip, the office was upstairs through a glass door above a Moneygram agency. You must have the Cruising Permit or receipt, passport photos and copies of passports. We were only given 3 month visas at a cost of $100 pp plus $10 for something else, (we should get up to a year for that but we weren’t staying long so couldn’t be bothered querying it). Then we taxied back to the Port Captain (taxis are between $2 and $3 everywhere around town) and waited about another 60 minutes to get our cruising permit, we were the only ones there ~ they just take their time! Meanwhile while Skipper waited I went across to Citibank to pay for our transit. We did not check out in Colon and you do not have to get a zarpe to transit the canal (the canal is international waters) See Checking Out below.
Canal Transit Without an Agent ~ Everything was so straightforward that I can’t actually see what an agent would have made easier. Visit www.yachtadina.co.uk to read everything you need to know, this info is from 2014 and the only update I have is that we phoned (507) 272 4202 to get our transit date instead of the one they mention. First you fill out the couple of forms (PDF files on Adinas website) and email through to Transit Office, then call after a while. It helps to have a local phone, (skype is unreliable) so you can call the offices, they all spoke good English. Next is the Measurer, ours was very professional, once you have been measured you pay at Citibank (the one mentioned above), it is a special counter on the left when you enter, make sure you have completed the documents especially your bank details to get the bond returned. The bond was credited to our New Zealand bank account about 18 days after our transit. Our cost was $1,875.00USD and our refunded bond was $891.00USD. You must pay in USD Cash so start hitting the cash machines every time you leave the marina (no machine at marina) to stockpile, especially if you are moving on to the Galapagos. We did all of this in the off season, maybe it would have been beneficial to have an agent in the busy season, we can’t comment on that, but we found it all very easy to do, a few forms to fill out and a trip to the bank to pay.
Line Handlers ~ We hadn’t been through the canal previously and didn’t get the chance before we transited as there we so few there so we paid for one professional line handler who had been recommended by several of our friends who used him this season. Rick is just starting up in business for himself but has been working as a line handler for some time. We got our lines and tyres through him, the lines were all brand new, the types all wrapped in new black plastic. He also organised our Fumigation Certificate for $50. He visited us a couple of times before the transit then arrived around 11.30am on transit day (transit time 5pm), just to check fenders and lines were all in correct positions then came back later in afternoon. He did all the VHF liaising with Port and Canal Control and was an absolute asset onboard, can not recommend him highly enough, he told us what we needed to do every step of the way. His contacts are email@example.com and phone (507)6427 3044 or 507 6573 3613, we found him quite hard to contact by phone as cell signals everywhere poor but he was very reliable. He speaks very good English but with a strong Caribbean accent although he is Panamanian. We paid him $280 which I think was only $30 for the lines and tyres (think we had 14 tyres), and $125 per day for his services, he was worth every cent and he works at least 2 full days including transport. You must have 5 on board, (one each corner and skipper to drive) so there was the 2 of us, Rick and then we had a wonderful Dutch cruising couple who had put a sign on the Shelter Bay notice board looking line handle. In addition you have the Canal Advisor, our first got on at “The Flats” and off after dinner and tying up in Gatun Lake around 9.30pm, our second arrived about 7am in Gatun Lake and was off around 11.30am by the Yacht Club in Panama City. Both our Advisors were excellent, they both knew Rick and they worked well together, the Suez Canal Advisors should be sent here to learn a thing or two! Footnote: Line handler Tito also came highly recommended, his details are on the Adina notes, we met him at the Port Captain office, English very good and seemed very pleasant.
The Transit ~ Just a couple of notes, your line handlers stay onboard the night so just remember as you are filling up every available space onboard with food and drink for your Pacific Crossing that you need to fit 3 extra bodies on for a night! Rick was happy to sleep in the cockpit. You also need to feed everyone of course, I made a big pot of chilli for dinner just with rice and some flat corn tortillas, had lots of El Rey small bread rolls and fresh fruit. For breakfast cereal, big fresh fruit salad, more bread rolls. For lunch I had made a big quiche/pie sliced up with more bread rolls and fruit! Snacks ~ El Rey do packs of muffins in their bakery and sometimes banana loaves, I got both and just kept bringing out the food. Cold water was most popular, got 12 pack big bottles but had soft drinks too & tea/coffee.
Shopping ~ COLON: the El Rey supermarket at Quattro Altos will take your shopping (and maybe you) back if you spend over $600, need to ask for it as soon as you arrive at supermarket, otherwise taxi back is around $20. First choice of course is free shuttle if enough room. It is not the greatest supermarket ever but there is not much they don’t have. Produce and fresh meat vary hugely from day to day, it is best to go several days if you have the time, energy and money (they take all credit cards). Stock up big time on drinks here, you will not get them as cheap until Langkawi in Malaysia although we have heard Samoa is not too bad, but French Poly and Galapagos both expensive for alcohol. Check all dry goods for weevils and presume that you might get them even if you don’t see them when you buy them (an extr4a source of protein!) Food staples prices comparable in Marquesas to Panama so no need to go too crazy. Other stores in Quattro Altos include an small Abernathys Chanderly, several clothes/shoe shops with very cheap clothing ($2 flip flops make good give aways), about four banks with ATM machines and armed guards, and a pretty good department store called Madisons that has some quite nice things (homewares on top floor) good quality mens clothing and ghastly cheap perfumes, lipsticks and nail varnish around $2 for give aways/trade items.
Shopping ~ PANAMA CITY: far superior in choice to Colon but if doing bulk purchases here it is so much harder to get everything back onboard the boat unless you are in the marina which is unlikely, I would recommend to do the bulk shopping in Colon and top up here. The road that goes out to the marina and both anchorages has a half hourly bus service to All Brook Mall, a huge modern air con mall just like you would find at home, lots of label stores, food court, cinemas – all very normal, Super 99 Supermarket on ground floor. By the time we got to Panama City we had seen the insides of more supermarkets in 4 months than the last 4 years so I had overdosed, all the lockers and bilges were bulging I had no need to look any further. By the 2 anchorages is another Abernathys Chandlery, a few small restaurants and along by the marina is the Yanmar Agent for spares, we got fuel filters there for a good price and they had them in stock. Past the marina is the cruise ship terminal/shopping area and there is a duty free store there, we didn’t go in so don’t know price comparison.
Checking Out ~ Walk along to the Cruise Ship area, past the duty free and into a two storey building with a handful of shops downstairs. Go up the big wide stairway and turn left, think first door on left. Think we got exit papers/zarpe here (note – not necessary to show in Galapagos or Marquesas), then on same floor but other direction was immigration, total cost $6.45 incl a couple of photocopies – they actually had a copy machine! Even wished us a pleasant sail, much better experience than checking in. At Your Own Risk, we know of the odd boat that did not check in to Panama because of the cost, you are not required to show any papers at all to the Canal. We were only there 2 weeks so it was very expensive however read the notes on Noonsite about cruisers being imprisoned – your call!!!!!
Gatun Lake 09 13.22N 79 52.49W Rick and our advisor guided us to a huge unlit buoy in the dark and we attached on one side and our lock “buddy boat” came in on the other. Rick worked out the lines for both the boats and we had a peaceful night. Lovely spot when we could see it in the daylight and we had a quick freshwater dip before the crocodiles and our advisor arrived in the morning. Movistar signal for data
Las Brisas 08 55.33N 79 31.92W The anchorage at Las Playitas was very choppy with an onshore wind as we passed so we carried on around the point to the city side which felt better and was dead calm (until the wind changed!) 6m mid tide, lots of boat left to die here, dreadful dangerous dinghy landing on steps or as bad via rusty iron partly submerged dock which is no longer attached to land. Maybe new one soon, who knows, but you do not want to be provisioning via here. Movistar for data ok. Dinghy access much better at Las Playitas but weekly charge around $35.
We did not cruise any of the Pacific coast of Panama or the Las Perlas as we were so late in the season and wanted to head on to the Galapagos, maybe next time!