We arrived at Shelter Bay Marina near Colon, Panama on March 5 in the early morning. As you approach Colon, 6-8 miles out, you should make radio contact with 'Cristobal Station' on VHF 12 and ask for permission to proceed through the breakwater. Usually they will ask you to call back once you are 1nm from the breakwater for further instructions. Since we have an AIS transponder hooked up to our navigation program we could easily stay out of the way of the many big ships both underway and anchored. Once at 1 nm out we asked for permission to proceed through the breakwater at which point you make a turn to starboard and head for Shelter Bay Marina. Be aware that the marina has a new dock 'B' and plans for more docks in the future.
Once on the dock I put in a call to an 'Agent' named 'Tito' at (507) 6-463-5009. Tito did not answer the phone, but instead 'Tito's brother' who informed me Tito was on vacation, but that he 'Tito's Brother' could be at Shelter Bay Marina around 9:30 that same morning. Great! Around 10:00 I called to find out the current planned arrival time and about 10:15 'Tito's brother' arrived in a Taxi. Several other cruisers who were using Tito descended on 'Tito's brother' for schedule updates and paperwork hand-offs. 'Tito's brother' was pretty busy so I interviewed a few of the other sailors whom were waiting to talk with 'Tito's brother' about what services 'Tito's brother' offered, costs and how he had performed for them. One guy was pretty happy, one guy did nothing but bitch, and another wasn't sure yet. With the existing clients cleared away 'Tito's brother' said we should go directly to Colon and start the process. OK, I had all my relevant paperwork in hand so we were off. First to the ACP (Panama Canal Authority, the guys that run the canal), but before arriving 'Tito's brother' jumped out of the cab and it was just me and the driver whom had very limited English to compliment my limited Spanish. At the ACP office the whole scheme started to become more clear. Tito's brother was just a handler and the Taxi Driver would be my guide through the process (i.e. take me to the relevant offices in the relevant order), not an agent... just a guide. At the ACP office I asked for and scheduled the ACP admeasure for Monday. Great so far. Then off to the Port Captain to check in the boat and obtain a cruising permit ($29 bought me one month although more time was available for an additional fee). I was also warned that if I let the cruising permit expire then it would cost me an extra $100). The port captains office offered very poor service to say the least. Employees were extremely uninterested in doing their jobs and seemed to stall or do something else for as long as possible before even acknowledging our presence, the first guy was very good at ignoring us even though no one else was in the office. He even had a TV set up so he could distract himself for the nothing he was doing. It was at least 15 minutes before he looked up at us then once the paperwork began he would pause to watch TV for several minutes at a time. Finally I asked if I could fill out the form. And then, finally, we got to move to the next office where we paid the fee. Again, we are the only customers in the office. The clerk enjoyed a 12 minute personal phone call before looking up then stalled more, until we asked if she would take our money that had been on the counter the entire time. About 15 minutes another client arrived so she served him first! Then about five minutes later we got the 'forms' we had to fill out. The only problem was there was only one pen in the office and we had to share between the other client, clerk and us. Grin and bear it is all you can do or risk who knows what sort of 'bad' service for acting impatient or rude. After the Port Captain we had to make some copies of the documents and then we headed to an Immigration office for a stamp, then another for a $10 visa. Then to 'Tito's office to pay for the tire and line rental. Then back to Shelter Bay. All in all it was a good deal for me as I like an adventure. If you want an agent look elsewhere as this service offers only a glorified taxi driver, although still a good deal as I would have racked up significant taxi fees should I have gone it all on my own.
On Monday the ACP admeasure arrived per schedule. Although, I called serval times in the proceeding days to reconfirm. ACP office was very professional and you could speak either English or Spanish. All other offices it was Spanish only. Several other boats reported delays in getting admeasured, but I think this unusual.
As soon as you are measured you can head to town to pay the ACP fee at Citibank near the Port Captain office. Be sure to bring bank info for an international wire (if you want the refund of $891 to be wired to you home account). 'Tito's brother' should have provided the ride, but said no taxi was available so I joined up with a few other cruisers and we went it alone. The ACP fee needs to be in cash and the bank DOES NOT have an ATM although there is one down the street. Riding around Colon with two other guys whom are also packing $1500 in cash is asking to get mugged. I brought my big can of pepper spray 'just in case'. At the bank I managed to smuggle it past the guard who checked my bag and scanned me with a metal detector... he should be fired for doing such a lousy job and not catching my pepper spray!
Then back to Shelter bay a $15-20 dollar ride from Colon... too bad we couldn't get a refund from 'Tito' for having to bear this expense ourselves.
Beginning after 6PM the day you have made the payment to ACP you can then call ACP and schedule your transit. I was able to call on Monday at 6:04PM and obtained a transit date for the following Saturday. Others whom called later ended up with a transit on Monday or later. Have the number in speed dial!
Check in to Panama $49 ($29 cruising permit and two $10 visas)
Exit Zarpe for Coast Rica ($25 through my taxi driver, otherwise only $1.50 if you did it yourself which would cost more in taxi fees)
Agent $100 (really just a glorified taxi driver)
Line and tire rental $120 (I rented twelve tires)
ACP Fee $1500 (Panama Canal Authority) For boats up to 50' that can make 8+ knots under power.... more on this later.
Refund due from ACP in 4-6 weeks ($891)
Total cost if and when we get the refund back: $903USD
More on the actual transit later.
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