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Reached Destination — Panama


   Jun 27

Reached Destination — Panama

Last Border Crossing
Panama does allow tramitors although the process is as simple and straightforward as in Costa Rica. All forms are in both languages, but you win with helper because you and him can stand in two lines at the same time, he knows the windows without asking and knows to catch the officials for signatures while they are on the street – saves you from standing in yet another line. I used Joel Morales to save time. Joel turned out to be honest man who kept his word. He promised to get me on the road in an hour and he did. He speaks English freely. If you wish to use his service call 66098103 (Panama country code is 507 if calling from outside).

The border crossing process works in Panama same way like elsewhere. First you have to get your entry visa which for tourist is a simple form that results in an entry stamp in your passport. In some countries there is a small fee for that in others none. In Panama it cost me $1.00. Next you need to get the temporary vehicle importation permit from customs (aduana). They write down VIN numbers, license plates in addition to general vehicle description. In some countries they take pictures instead of literally writing it from the original title. In countries with mandatory public liability insurance (Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) you have to pay for it before approaching the customs for vehicle permit. They will give you the permit for the number of months you paid for the insurance. Customs will check that the vehicle VIN, license plate etc are the same as on title. In some countries they will charge you a fee for this inspection. In Panama they do not. A separate item for the customs is your declaration. Everyone passing customs in an International Airport usually passes with nothing to declare. Driving your car from a country to another this is not a good idea. It is a matter of making a simple list of boxes you have in your truck or car with general statement what is inside. For example, computer, clothes, food, car maintenance materials, tools. Better make sure you know what is in each box at the top at least because some times the customs official wants to see it, but rarely digs all the stuff out from a box. The rare occasions are usually triggered by something suspicious he/she has seen. Normal tourist stuff in none commercial quantities does not invoke any import tax, but that is where the officials discretion comes in.

Some countries require fumigation, but that is always independent action. In general this is the whole process there is. If the windows in the border offices would be correctly labeled you would never need any help. Unfortunately this simple fact has escaped so far most of Central American countries giving chance to local tramitor service and introducing security and fraud issues in some border crossings.

While in Panama border entry a money changer approached offering to exchange my Colones to dollars. I asked what his exchange rates is. He said he will buy Colones for 580 a dollar. I pissed him off saying that his rate is way off. He wanted to get 12% haircut because the official exchange rate was 520 Colones for a dollar. Usually, in border crossings is a bank where you can get better rates, In Panamanian border crossing there are none because they use dollars everywhere in the country. I did not change my Colones in Costa Rica side bank because it was supposed open an hour later and I did not want to wait. Am I stuck with my 9000 Colones? No, I am not, but it takes some trouble definitely not worth the difference between the rates..

In Central America and Mexico you can get local currency and in most places by choice dollars in every ATM, but the banks are not allowed to deal with currencies of any other country. This is the monopoly of the central bank and you can do this only at the counter, not at ATM. In some countries only the central bank in the capital is allowed to deal with other country currencies. I have to go to Panama City anyway, so for me it is not that big of a deal although the difference between the rates for the amount I would have exchanges is just little more than $2. Calculate yourself if this is worth your additional trouble … or sometimes you do things differently because the person you are dealing with irritates you and you simply don’t want to do business with him/her.
I was done on border in little less than hour and hit the road after being sprayed at fumigation station with their stinky stuff.

On the Road in Panama
I felt relieved at having finally reached the destination country, but I still had another 260+ miles to go. It was nice day and good road, although not the best pavement I have seen. Pan American Highway in Panama is mostly a modern 4 lane divided highway.

Pan American in Panama

Pan American in Panama


Different from Costa Rica, majority of secondary roads in Panama are also paved and regularly maintained.
Country Roads Well Maintained

Country Roads Well Maintained


Roadside in Panama shows nicer houses in villages, nicer and newer cars on the road. People obviously live better no matter what the official statistics says. Like I discovered in Mexico’s countryside official stats may be missing a page or two. There are much less motorcycles in Panama than there were in Costa Rica. I have not seen three wheel bicycles like in some poorer countries.
Nicer and Well Maintained Houses

Nicer and Well Maintained Houses


Although Panama economy crew slower 2009, it never turned negative and it shows. People have money to build large and nice houses even in villages.
New Construction Never Stopped

New Construction Never Stopped


I was warned at the border about the customs checkpoints on the road. They want to see the otherwise useless customs declaration to be convinced that I did not hide anything. Approaching a station the guy stairs at me for a while, then waved – go. Police check points on the road didn’t pay attention to me either.

I met with Leonard and Dyala in their hotel in David. Like myself they had no problem entering Panama with their trailer and stuff in it. They drove it to the customs warehouse in David. Same warehouse they left their convertible PT Cruiser during last trip in January. They hoped to get their car out … but did not. Associated with local Catholic festivities today all people were off. Now they are forced to stay in David until Mon. Hoping to get their car then and take off back to Costa Rica for Dyala’s daughter and Leonard’s son wedding next week.

Rest of my drive to El Valle went easy and event-less. El Valle is a small town inside an old volcano crater. Approaching it from Pan American highway took me first high up to the mountains with spectacular views to the Pacific lowland and the ocean.

Approaching El Valle

Approaching El Valle


This is followed by a steep decent into the crater.

Proximity to the Panama City brings in “big money” from there for weekend residences.

Panama Weekend Residences

Panama Weekend Residences

After checking in the hotel my friend Sven reserved for me I took to the street few hours later to see the source of unusual noise. My hotel was right the other side of the road from a local church. Turned out the same Catholic festivities in El Valle are carried out in form of a thousand people march with handful of wind bands that could have used quite a bit more practice before playing. An hour long fireworks started after the marchers returned from their journey.

Festivities in El Valle

Festivities in El Valle


This concludes the trip report as I have reached my destination and next phase of this venture starts: Settling in Panama.

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2 Comments

  1. Jim Agnello says:

    Nice Pics, can not wait until you have some stories about your stay and land search. Keep in touch Grandpa :-)

  2. Pat Jones says:

    Enjoyed reading all of this. We have traveled extensively in Mexico with a pickup and camper, and a 14-ft black trailer with two quads inside. On the quads, we roamed the countryside in Copper Canyon, city of San Miguel and mountains of eastern Mexico south of Ciudad Valles. We also lived in Antigua, Guatemala for 2 months in ’07.

    Your experiences seem pretty normal, including aggravations, but make me hesitant about taking this rig further south into Guatemala, etc. Thanks for your pictures and time in recording your travels.

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