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How YOU can clear yourself into Panama and arrange for YOUR Canal Transit

What's This About?  Boats arriving in Panama seem overly inclined to seek out an agent or a 'pseudo' agent (aka: the ubiquitous 'taxi driver') to handle the paperwork, or to have the marina do the work for them.  If that's your preference, you'll have lots of choices...but it all costs money.  My impression is that this choice is often made because Colon has a shady crime-ridden rep and the skipper simply doesn't know where to go or what to do. If those things are outlined for an arriving skipper, however, there is little reason to use others as the tasks are very simple.  So if you don't mind spending a small amount of sweat equity, you can save hundreds of your cruising dollars.  Therefore, I thought a basic description of both processes – clearing in/out and arranging a Canal Transit – might make some folks more comfortable with making their own arrangements.

These crews knew how to do it...and so can you.

The Eric Bauhaus guide and ACP booklets can be very helpful to any crew.

By the way, all of this info is in the Bauhaus' Panama Cruising Guide, though in somewhat different form.  Describing it through the eyes of a fellow cruiser would, I thought, make it seem a little less intimidating.

Where – Exactly – Does This Begin?  I'll describe the process of arriving in Colon (the harbor is referred to as Cristobal) from outside the country, with the subsequent Transit going north to south via the Canal to Balboa.  As I understand it, the basics remain the basics whether one is approaching from the Pacific side or clearing in at another Panama clearance port.  It's only the locations, and of course local officials being what they are, perhaps the details that might vary a bit..

First Choices:  On arrival in Cristobal and after being cleared to enter the Harbor by Signal Station Cristobal on VHF 12, a boat either makes for The Flats (an anchorage marked off by yellow lighted buoys) or seeks a berth at the newish, recently expanded Shelter Bay Marina (VHF 74; for all contact, reservation and marina info see


The Flats has traditionally been where cruising boats anchored and where they were measured for a Transit.  But with the PCYC plowed under, there is no access to Colon from the Flats in your own dinghy.  At least one taxi driver, Tito, provides launch service to the Flats but there are a series of trade-offs if selecting the 'free' anchorage:  dependence on and cost of the launch services, the need to always make arrangements to get ashore, the safety of being shuffled into taxis from the docks (and back again) in one of the roughest parts of Colon, and the feeling you are somewhat imprisoned by circumstances.  The Flats anchorage makes the most sense if you want to transit immediately, you arrive when there isn't a significant backlog of yacht slots for the Transit, and you plan to do all your subsequent provisioning, boat projects, etc. on the 'other side' (see more on that below).  To test the backlog, call the Canal Scheduler at 507 272 4202 and/or the Admeasurer at 507 443 2298 and see what the backlog is.

The alternative, Shelter Bay, is remotely located on the NW corner of Cristobal's Harbor and of course you'll incur berthing costs by coming here ($.65/ft/day for a monohull currently, although there are many other amenities you can pay for as well, if inclined.  (One of these is renting a mobile/cell phone, $1.50/day, which is a very useful tool for minimizing your time on the Colon side). To offset its remote location, the marina operates a small bus (holds about 25 folks) and does two runs per day, both to and Colon and return.  Currently, both runs are free altho' off-season they charge for the afternoon run.  This bus makes it possible to easily pay for your berthing by doing your own clearance & transit arrangements, as well as provisioning.  Given all that,  it's hard to imagine The Flats being an inviting choice for most people.

The 'Other Side':   If arriving from the Pacific side, there is a mooring field at the Balboa YC (always full, it seems, during the Spring Transit season) and anchorages on both sides of the long Amador Causeway out to Flamenco Key.  The BYC mooring field is probably the most  'settled' spot when considering weather plus work boat and cruise boat traffic.  Otherwise you'll be on the hook, dinghy to a floating dinghy dock ashore (15' tides) where you'll pay $5/day to land the dink, and then catch a cab for most (tho' not all) of your needs.  The crews on boats anchored & moored there will be able to tell you where the necessary offices are located and/or just use the Bauhaus guide.  The processes themselves should  be the same.

Use An Agent If...:  Some boats arriving here from the Bocas or the San Blas didn't realize they were supposed to 'clear out' there first and get a Zarpe.  This might be one good example of why, if your particulars are (ahem...) “unique” in some fashion, an agent might be a better choice for you.  (Still, I met multiple skippers who failed to clear out of the San Blas and who managed, on their own, to work it through with the officials).

Clearing In:  I'm going to keep this simple...or at least as simple as Panama permits it to be. But to motivate you right off:  If you do these four steps yourself, you will save $80 over the marina doing them, recovering the cost of  several nights in the marina)  And keep in mind you do not need to clear in the moment you arrive; you can give yourself a day or better to catch up on your sleep, get organized, and then tackle the bureaucracy.

To start,  be sure you are 'fully equipped' which means you will have: 

a)  Your Bauhaus guide

b)  A pocket Spanish dictionary, if so inclined

c)  10 (yes, 10...) copies of  the face page of every crew members' passport (showing the pic & details),

d) 10 copies of your ship's registration or document,

e) 10 copies of your crew list, and

f)  perhaps $100 in cash. 

About those copies:  You won't need all ten...but nearly so. The marina will make copies for you tho' it's cheaper anywhere else in Colon.  Still, having the marina make them the day before will insure you are ready for the morning bus ride.

This handy satellite picture of Colon, in the Bauhaus guide, is helpful to new arrivals

Take the morning bus to the Rey (done 6 days a week from SBM) on a weekday.  Ask the bus driver if he will be continuing on and clearing in new arrivals at the AMP (as he does this for the marina most days).  If he says 'yes', he will be going right where you need to go.  If he isn't, ask him if he will take you there anyway.  If that isn't possible, just catch a cab at the Rey ($2-3, one way) for the AMP and begin...

1.      Officially “arrive” or clear in to Panama at the AMP (Autoridad Maritima de Panama) Office.  It is shown as building #8 on the Bauhaus sat picture of Colon (point it out to the taxi driver if you need to).  Go up to the 3rd floor, find one of few offices that are open, explain you need to clear in, and you'll be directed to the right office.  (Don't expect to find any signs on the doors).  These folks are very nice and do speak a small amount of English, so relax and look for the humor in the Spanish language form you are wrestling with.  In the end, they will probably be doing it with you.  Once you are done there and after copies are handed over, you will be directed right next door at the AMP where you...

2.      Get your Cruising Permit.  You will be given a form in Spanish to complete (did you bring that dictionary?) and asked how long you want to stay.  The longer the stay, the more the permit will cost (1 month - $49, 2 months - $59, 3 months - $69).  Muchas copias are again distributed, you pay in cash, and they type out your cruising permit.

3.      You now must get passports stamped, which gets you 72 hrs in Panama.  Exit the AMP building and, while facing the CitiBank right across the street, turn right and walk two blocks (these are 'safe' blocks), past the HBC Bank on the left and you'll be at the front gate for the commercial docks.  The second door ('Migracion') at the entrance is where the passports are stamped.  Muchas mas copias are handed over and you get The Stamp (whack!) in each passport.  BUT before leaving, request the address of the Immigration Office that you must now visit, as some cab drivers don't know where it is.

4.      You are now on the home stretch.  Catch a cab at the Docks gate (they will be milling about there) to the Immigration Office to purchase your 90 day Visa (assuming you arrived without one in advance).  When dropped off at the building (no signs again), before going up to the 2nd floor you should cross the street to the little internet cafe and have each of the passports copied on the page where they were stamped at 'Migracion'; you'll need to provide that upstairs.  Now up you go to the 2nd floor, muchas muchas mas copias distributed, your stamps paid for (in cash; for a crew of two our cost was $15)...and now you, your crew and your boat are all cleared into Panama.  Catch a cab back to the Rey and you should arrive in time for the return ride in the morning bus leaving for the marina at 1115.

Arranging YOUR Canal Transit

Tires & Lines (on cabin top), next stop The Flats

Again, this is written from the perspective of a boat transiting north to south (Caribbean to Pacific) which is, by the way, the more challenging of the two runs...but more on that later.  To arrange for a Transit, you will need to do the following:

  1. Visit the Admeasurer's Office (507 443 2298; out at the end of the Commerical Dock) to schedule your measurement.  Everyone in this office speaks perfect English.  You grab a cab at the Rey, or just ride in the bus to the AMP as before, and then walk those same two blocks to the commercial dock's gate where you catch a cab (a bit cheaper if you do it that way).  Buzz through the security gate, go up to the 2nd floor (the cab driver will need to wait for you) and provide some of the copies you didn't use earlier.  They will give you an appointment with the Admeasurer right then.
  2. The Admeasurer will arrive at the boat and – mostly – fill out papers either in the air conditioned marina office or down below in the boat. Some like to inspect the boat's cleats, what fair leads exist on deck but most do not.  If the lines you will be renting are aboard, he may ask to inspect them...but this is not a requirement.  You will be left with several forms, the key ones being the Ship's Information & Quarantine Declaration and the Handline Lockage Request.  Also, among the ACP (Panama Canal Authority) papers will be a description of what information is needed to arrange a wired refund of your 'buffer fee' (the extra payment you make in case you break down during the Transit).  It is widely believed by yacht owners that you want to direct the Admeasurer to NOT permit side-tying to the lock wall, which is one of the four approved methods of locking up & down.  Our boats & rigs are too vulnerable for that option, and the Advisors don't like to do that either.
  3. You are now ready to pay your fees.  Same drill as when clearing in:  Take the bus or taxi to the AMP and enter the CitiBank branch immediately opposite it.  Have all the information with you that the 'wire instructions' require, if you aren't planning to hang around for 3-4 weeks and get the refund personally.  This is 'pucker factor' time, as you'll be walking into this bank branch – in a section of crime-ridden Colon – with at least $1500 in hard cash stuffed in your pockets, which you've collected incrementally from one of the Rey or other ATMs in town.  Taking the morning bus is a safe way to get to the bank with that cash.  Another option is to catch a cab at the marina (they recommend some drivers, if you care) so there's no stopping along the way to the bank.  Visit the little window that is labeled 'Canal Transit', then deposit your money with the teller, and then return to the window to submit your wire instructions (they have a form for this).  And by the way, your 'customer number' (required on the wire instructions) is furnished by the Bank; don't look for it in the Admeasurer's paperwork.
  4. Now it is time to get your Transit date, which pretty much drives everything that follows.  Call the Scheduler (507 272 4202) any time after 1800 on the day you paid the fees (yes, many ACP offices work pretty much 24/7).  The date assigned is apparently fairly rock solid; I've not seen a single boat's Transit date changed by the ACP.
  5. You'll have begun looking for line handlers at some point, and having the date will help you find them.  Backpackers, curious vacationers and other non-skilled (and perhaps non-English speaking) folks look for line handling opportunities, and traveling backpackers in particular look for it as a way to make some money.  (The going rate is $80/line handler for the full Transit...but this is what experienced, strong and young guys who know what they are doing will cost you.)  A non-English speaking (don't forget, everything about the Transit is done in English) and non-sailing backpacker might cost you a good deal more. We watched a mid-30's British steel cutter rip a cleat right off a 54' Amel because their line handlers (yes, non-speaking backpackers) didn't handle the boat-to-boat raft-up lines properly.  So...this is a time to think clearly about in who's hands you want your boat's fate.  As one professional skipper said to me, “Get professional line handlers. That's where many of the yacht accidents start.”  I chose to ignore his advice but 4 of WHOOSH's 5 line handlers have had previous Canal Transit experience, and I'm glad they did.  I also strongly recommend you and your crew make a Transit on another boat before doing one yourself.  It will help you decide how to run the lines on your boat, where the crew should position themselves, whether open chocks may prove a problem for you or not, and much more.
  6. While this has been going on, you have probably also been watching where all the tires are dropped off on boats locking thru to your side of the Canal.  On the Shelter Bay side, they are just dumped in a pile.  The marina thinks it's entitled to charge $3/tire for you to recycle the tires left by others.  I think that's outrageous, a service they should gladly offer for free, and recommend you do what many do:  help yourself after hours.  Choose a number of tires that makes you feel comfortable; there are no specific guidelines.  FWIW we had 5 tires a side on WHOOSH.  The 'dock wisdom' is that these be attached with light line – nothing too strong – so that, if the tire does snag on something, it's the line and not your boat's attachment point that fails, because it certainly isn't the tire that will tear apart.
  7.  Similarly, you've probably been talking with taxi drivers and agents about providing lines.  The going rate (now) is $15 a line, and these must be in excellent shape and 125' or longer.  The condition of these really does matter and you want them delivered a few days before the transit so, on inspection, any problematic lines can be swapped out for good ones.  It is now common to see polypropylene lines being used, in which case you have to tie in the required 3' eye with a bowline. 
  8. Just because you're getting sooo good at visiting the AMP, you need to drop by the Cruising Permit one more time (current CP and a copy of it in hand).  This is where you get your Zarpe that permits your boat to leave the Colon area for somewhere else.  It's a judgment call here: You can clear out for Balboa, in which case you'll need to clear out yet again on departure from Balboa, or you might choose to clear out for your next anticipated destination.  The Zarpe cost us $8.20.  (If you feel you pretty much know when you'll be transiting, then you can take care of this when paying the money at CitiBank.  That would certainly be the more convenient choice)
  9. That's about it.  You call the Scheduler the day before your Transit to get the time your Advisor will meet the boat out in the Flats.  You will also need to visit Immigration at some point when it's time to clear your crew out of Panama.  Otherwise it's about cleaning up the deck to remove lines and other gear that might foul the handling of the lines (roller furling lines might be a good example of this, as are jugs, fender boards and such), and making sure your engine is as reliable as can be...because you will not be turning it off during any part of either day's transit, even when sitting in the locks.
How much will this have cost to have someone else do it?  Well, first understand that an Agent's fee includes him doing all of the running around, making of copies, and such.  A common cost I heard while here in March, 2010 was $250.  A taxi driver is not an agent, so you do most of the running around with him.  Tito, one commonly used fellow (who in fact employs a cadre of drivers and runners; you may never see Tito), charges $100.  What that $100 fee boiled down to was taking me to the Admeasurer's Office and (failing to) take me to the Bank...and for knowing what you now know.  Given what things cost in Panama and how hard some people work for their salaries here, I came to the after-the-fact conclusion the fee is excessive.
WHOOSH made it!  With the Advisor watching, one of WHOOSH's line handlers begins to clean up lines on exiting the last Canal lock

Beyond whatever 'getting it done' fee charged by the Agent or Driver (perhaps $250 or $100, respectively), the other current charges are $3 per tire, $60 for 4 lines, and $25 to fetch the Zarpe for the boat.  So my all-up fee for using a Taxi driver, for WHOOSH, was $215.  If I'd done ALL the above steps myself, rather than only some of them, I would have only paid $60 for the lines.

What's the Transit Like:  One surprise was that most of what I'd read or heard about the Canal and transiting in a yacht was either incomplete or no longer current.  E.g. Advisors (the guys who will be aboard for your Transit) are not 'Pilots in Training'.  The Panama Pilot School is now closed, all the Advisors are part-timers with regular jobs elsewhere, and their experience and aspirations vary greatly.  Most do an excellent job, unlike the line handlers on the lock walls who seem a primary source of problems if what we've heard and seen is any indication.

 Here's an important thing to remember if you are making the N to S (Caribbean to Pacific) Transit.  Without a doubt, the toughest locks are the three sequential Gatun locks.  Right when your line handling crew is untested, you'll get the most action in the locks as they fill and keeping the raft of boats centered is most important.  This is when you'll appreciate how strong a line handler should be, and why many of us rely on sheet winches in the cockpit for our stern lines.

There's lots more to learn about doing a Transit, and the Bauhaus guide does a good job of giving you the detail along with some history.  And don't forget:  Even as I write this, the ACP is expanding the Canal to include a new, third set of locks for post-Panamax vessels – yet another engineering marvel that's in the making now with a completion date of 2014.

Where to provision, repair and prepare?
Because of its location, the limited resources elsewhere in the region, and the large, in part modern Panama City, the Canal area is a major cross-roads for yachts from all over the world, almost always stopping long enough to provision, do repairs, replace equipment and prepare for their next legs.  For these reasons, a key decision is where to put the boat while meeting those needs.  Moreover, the two sides of the isthmus - Colon and Balboa/P.C. - are not conveniently located nearby one another, so matching the primary destination with the particular needs of the boat and crew is important.

Boats approaching from the Caribbean side and Pacific-bound have 6 basic choices to rest, provision & prepare the boat.  Boats arriving in Balboa from elsewhere along the Pacific coast have 4 of these.  None are close to ideal, each will suit some crews (& their wallets) better than others, and much has been published (guides, blogs, commercial websites) on all of them.  Here are some personal thoughts of ours for your consideration:
Colon Side:
'The Flats':  See my comments above.  Despite it being where most boats 'hung out' in prior years, it has little to recommend it today beyond low cost.  And you may or may not be asked to pay an anchoring fee when obtaining your Zarpe from the Port Captain's Office to leave Colon, whether its to move down to the San Blas, do a Transit, or clear out of Panama.  This is an established fee, not some official's idea of graft, and is currently reported to be $3/day for the duration of your anchoring period.

Shelter Bay Marina:  Very much a mix of the 'good' with the 'mediocre', and at a cost that leads some cruisers to call it 'Shelter Pay'.  The new infrastructure (floating docks, small pool, air-conditioned TV/internet room) are all first-class and the best you'll find in the region.  And the dockmaster, Gabriel, is the best we've experienced. However, the distance from poor Colon (the bus ride can get held up by the Gatun Locks and easily make it a half-day just to do some grocery shopping), the one cafe (indifferent management; silly prices), contracted fuel barge (here today, gone who-knows-where tomorrow), the under-managed but overly complicated bureaucracy by which the marina is run (at times byzantine) are all decided drawbacks.  The boat yard has a good deal of room and a big lift, and is about the only affordable game in this region...tho' the conditions (hot & humid with a blowy, dirt-laden wind) are not appealing.  We watched the marina almost double its capacity in the span of the 3 weeks we were there, so they are now able to handle more boats (up to true Megayachts), which is a good thing because the demand is high.

SBM will probably look best in retrospect, after one samples the other options.  And another benefit not to be ignored are that parts can be Fedex'd or DHL'd directly to the marina and delivered to your boat.  This can be done using SBM's shipping agent up in Miami (4-6 week waiting period is advertised tho' it could be half that) or you can order and ship things direct to you on your own at great expense.  E.g. our 2 pound box of mail & small parts, shipped Fedex from Florida at the International Priority rate and declared as 'no value/mail', cost over $200.  On the other hand, we got it in 3 days.  When looking at the six location options, we chose to do as much provisioning and boat work as we could, in as brief a time as possible, at SBM and then minimize our time over on the Balboa side given the nature of the options there. Other folks have made the opposite choice because of the variety of goods & services in the PC area.
Balboa Side:
Balboa Yacht Club:  We did not stay here, so these are impressions formed by others' comments.  This is certainly a more settled body of water than the other options on the Balboa side except the marina, and your time on a mooring exempts one from paying the anchoring fee to the Port Captain for that same period. (Again, this $3/day fee is applied unevenly, it seems).  BYC has shoreside amenities (restaurant, internet, showers & a launch service of limited means) and was charging $.60/ft/day so it's not cheap.  During the high season (late winter/early spring as boats transit and prepare for their Pacific jumps), it is full and with one of those waiting lists that is very 'fluid' so on-site pestering, in a nice way, is to your advantage.  This would give you a shipping address if you plan to order in things directly (although you have other options - see below). You are also a bit closer to Balboa's and PC's markets, reducing the cab fares a bit.  And if you are willing to consider using a marine railway, the adjacent one is very inexpensive ($50/day). Bottom Line:  Probably the most desirable of the affordable options on this side.

La Playita de Amador Anchorage:  This is on the south side of the Amador Causeway and a bit further down the channel from the BYC.  The causeway was built by the U.S. Army decades ago and is now the site of various pleasure zones (restaurants, upscale marina, hotels, etc.). This anchorage lies parallel to the main ship channel and ACP work boats ply up and down that channel at all hours, which is why you can be rolled out of your bed in the middle of a seemingly quiet night.  During the day, the various fishing & tour boats (and occasional tourist cayuco) plow through the anchorage, some at obnoxious speeds, as there is no identified channel and the gaggle of yachts clustered there offer no other alternative.  Along with being an uneasy anchorage quite some distance from shops & malls, one must pay $30/week to use a floating dinghy dock at the tour boat/cafe consession stand inside the adjacent basin.  This facility is run by Senora Carmen, who nets over $10,000 per season from we yachties, yet can't spend $50 for cleats on the dock for her customers' dinghies.  Cabs are easily caught at the concession area, there are several small, nice chandlers in the immediate area (Abernathy's and Pesqueros), diesel and water is at the dinghy dock, and the Ranchita restaurant pleases some of the cruising all is not bad.  But add in the Port Captain's $3/day anchoring fee to the $30/week Carmen expects and there is very little service for meaningful expense if you stay long.  Moreover, the yachts and their crews are viewed as a seasonal plague to be endured rather than a desirable addition to the other businesses.  The unpleasantness ashore at times matched the anchorage.

The Public Anchorage:  This is across from La Playita and on the north side of the Amador Causeway, so one goes around Isla Flamenco from the main ship's channel to reach it.  During the dry season it suffers from the long fetch of the N'ly winds across the Bay and so the anchored & moored boats bob in the white caps...but there is no work boat traffic, so no rolling.  There is a small floating dinghy dock at the east end of that anchorage, altho' low tide and limited space has been known to damage the gear legs of outboards there.  Reportedly, there is a similar dinghy docking fee there ($5/day) but we did not use it.  The walk from the dinghy dock to the Causeway is very short and taxis can be caught there easily.  And in addition, the local bus stops regularly along this route and can take riders from both anchorages into the central area where buses depart for all parts of PC.  Again, note that an anchoring fee may apply when clearing out.

For both the above anchorages, bringing in parts and other things you can't find in PC, folks usually track down a shipping company that offers the same periodic schedule at reduced shipping rates as mentioned earlier for SBM.  Pakya Panama is one such company and is located in a very popular area of PC that includes the large Abernathy's (yacht chandler), a Riba Smith grocery (very modern, with the widest selection of foods of all kinds and always well stocked), Rodelag Ace Hardware and a Do-It Center (two DIY hardware stores), Dilupia (an excellent source of oil filters & oil) and Panama Auto (just across the street and also well stocked) and - wait for it, because you knew it was coming - the MegaDepot, one of many discount food & large-lot stores in PC.  Probably every cab in PC knows where the MegaDepot is located so finding this stretch should prove quite simple.

Flamenco Marina:  This is located in a basin, along with an adjacent yacht club, at the end of the Causeway on Isla Flamenco.  It's priced above most cruisers budgets and lacks some services (no laundry facilities), but it may serve as a good place to dock the boat when bringing aboard or dropping off crew you've flown in and with whom you wish to share the 'Transit Experience'.

It's worth noting, for boats in all four of these locations, that at the very end of the Isla Flamenco complex is a small office of immigration and customs officials, a very handy place to clear out when preparing to depart Panama.

Bienvenidos A Panama and the Panama Canal!


© Jack Tyler – March, 2010

WHOOSH, currently lying Balboa, Panama...on the cusp of the Pacific