Country Number 7 on our Overland Central America expedition. Check out our entire route here
We lost a bit of steam in Panama so our review is probably not the same as someone who just flew into the country. As soon as you cross the border from Costa Rica, we instantly noticed a change in scenery (as it's mountainous in the Chiriqui area) and it went back to a Spanish speaking country. Many locals have basic English though. There's an obvious issue with waste disposal here too, with trash piled high and thrown into gutters in the street, again a contrast from clean cut Costa Rica.
Besides the above, we enjoyed Panama, with a definite highlight being the San Blas islands and Panama City. We spent 9 days on Panama mainland and then 5 days island hopping to Colombia, which is probably a decent enough time to spend here (although we could have enjoyed island life for months). Panama reminds us of an extension of Costa Rica, with more culture. It has the same activities (but not as many in quantity) and similar sights on offer, but it isn't as well structured for tourists as Costa Rica. Because we'd already done a lot of things on offer in other Central America countries, Panama never 'wowed' us, but it has world class surfing, diving and white-water rafting, plus probably the coolest city we have been to in the whole of Central America.
We'd still recommend it as a country to visit, but if we had our time again, we'd have spent it differently eg Isla de Coiba and surfing in Santa Catalina instead of Playa Las Lajas and El Valle, but it all depends on what you're after personally. I don't doubt that Panama has lots of hidden gems not yet explored. If we had longer, we'd have probably gone venturing around the Darien Gap, but that has issues all of its own. We think a 14 day trip, including the San Blas is a decent enough time here to see the highlights the country has to offer.
San Blas - one of the highlights of our whole trip. Absolutely beautiful and a must-do in this area. Shame the boat/crew we had were absolute d***ks.
Deep boarding around the Caye Zapatilla in the Bocas.
Boquete coffee tour.
Malena turtle conservation work.
Panama City - our first cosmopolitan city for 4 months and we loved it. Loads to do around the city too.
The beaches - there's some gorgeous beaches along the Pacific coast, where it's fairly easy to find miles of white pristine sand all to yourself.
Cheap for electronics.
Bocas island town - we'd recommend to stay on another island.
Tourist stuff is really inflated.
El Valle - wish we had gone somewhere else to spend our time. It's not worth the 2 hour round trip from the highway.
The slums and sketchy areas of Panama City eg around the historical district.
1) Clear immigration.
2) Go to customs and get your car stamped out. Cross to Panama side...
ENSURE ALL OF THE DETAILS ON ALL FORMS YOU RECEIVE IS CORRECT AND IN THE CORRECT BOX ON THE FORM. IF IT IS INCORRECT THIS WILL HAVE AN IMPACT WHEN SHIPPING ACROSS THE DARIEN GAP
1) Get insurance. This will cost $25 USD and is compulsory.
2) Go to immigration and get stamped in.
3) Purchase your tourist tax - they will put a sticker in your passport.
4) Go to customs. You will need a copy of your insurance, vehicle title and passport.
5) If you plan on shipping your vehicle out to South America ensure that everything on the documents is correct. I had them change the import form 3 times with issues with the VIN number, registration number and spelling in my name. This will make things so much easier when you are dealing with shipping agents and port officials.
6) There is no cost for a temporary import into Panama.
The roads in Panama are easy and well surfaced. The majority of the time you will probably be travelling on the Panamerican Highway. When you come off this road you will still be on well paved roads, just a bit twistier.
Driving in Panama city is a nightmare. It's busy, congested and full of one way systems, which often lead into a dodgey neighbourhoods/slums.
Toll roads in Panama are fairly inexpensive, but you do need a swipe card for them. You can however just give them cash and the worker will swipe their own card and pocket your cash. They will kick up a bit of a stink about this and generally give in once the cars behind you start beeping!
Diesel is roughly $1USD a liter (0.60 GBP) and fuel stops are regular along the Panamerican.
We used Carte Daatas Sat nav. We found it adequate apart from Panama City as it struggled to keep up.
The whole process should begin approx 2-4 weeks before you arrive in Panama City. You will need to find a shipping agent to get the ball rolling with your paperwork.
We used Evergreen Logistics LTD and the account below is based on the series of events we encountered.
Evergreen Logistics can be contacted here.
You should also use the Drive The Americas website to find a shipping partner (another car to fill the container with you), or be ready for some steep costs.
The shipping schedule runs on the same days every week and below is a guide for you:
Sunday - Arrive in Panama City.
Monday - Car inspection.
Tuesday - Day off.
Wednesday - Load cars into container in Colon.
Sunday/Monday - Container arrives in Cartagena, Colombia.
A 20ft Standard container will fit 1 car with a maximum height of 2.28m.
A 40ft Standard container will fit 2 cars and 1 motorcycle with a maximum height of 2.28m.
A 40ft high cube container will fit 2 cars 1 motorcycle with a maximum height of 2.7m .
We opted for the 40ft high container as it meant shipping charges were split. Plus our vehicle was at 2.5m high.
Decide on a shipping date around 1-2 months before. Contact Evergreen logistics and make a reservation and ask if they have anybody else wanting to ship on these dates. They will provide you with a quote at this point.
Post an advert on Drive the Americas forum to say you have a space in a container heading to Cartagena. Be prepared for people to let you down. We went through 2 sets of people who said they could make it before dropping out at the last minute. If your in a 40ft container remember you also have space for a motorcycle to further reduce the cost per person.
Send your vehicle details to Evergreen. They will ask you for all the details they need. Get Evergreen to arrange the vehicle inspection in Panama for a Monday.
Arrive in Panama City on a Sunday so you have plenty of time before the process starts the day after.
On the Monday at 0800 you will need to go to a DIS vehicle inspection. Here they check the numbers on your vehicle title, your temporary vehicle permit to Panama, and your vehicle. They must all match in order to progress to the next step. We had issues with an incorrect Chasis number and had to go to the customs office in Panama (5 minute drive from the inspection place).
You will have to return to the office at 1400 to get the paperwork which says you have permission to export your car from Panama. You will need to wear long trousers and shoes in the building in order to collect these documents. Ladies must cover their shoulders too.
On Wednesday you will have to arrive in Colon for 0900. A representitive from Evergreen will meet you at a pre-arranged location and take you through the rest of the loading process. After the cars have been loaded into the container you will have to count out and pay the balance to Evergreen. At this point they will give you a Bill of Loading and the container details. Your container will be tagged with a unique seal - make sure you take a picture of this or make a record of the number.
That's it! It sounds easy, but I can nearly guarantee that at some step along the way an official will make a mistake. I can't stress enough about making about at least 10 photocopies of everything you have linked with your vehicle, passport, driving licence etc. It will save you the grief of running around manic Panama City looking for a copier.
Also, you do not need to buy straps for your vehicle, as they are provided by Evergreen.
Panama will always be an expensive country if you are overlanding between the Americas. You will have to pay out for your shipping costs as well as your own transportation costs to your first South American country. Expect to pay around $1000USD per car and $300USD per motorcycle sharing a 40ft container (if manage to get the costs split with other vehicles).
You will also have to shell out for your onward travel. If this is via the San Blas Islands then expect to pay around $500 USD per person for the trip. Direct flights to Colombia aren't much different in price. Check out our article on the San Blas for more details.
It is possible to eat cheaply in Panama by shopping in local markets. Eating out isn't too expensive if you are co of weary about spreading the cash.
Fuel is approximatly $1USD per litre for Diesel.
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