Policies may restrict Panama cruising

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To the editor: Panama possesses some of the most diverse and idyllic cruising grounds in Central America. With long coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, this safe and hurricane-free country boasts hundreds of picturesque coconut palm-lined tropical island anchorages. For nature buffs, its jungle river anchorages allow close encounters with wildlife unmatched in their diversity. For collectors of native crafts there are intricate molas, tagua and cocobolo carvings and Darién baskets.

The Panamanian people are also friendly and beautiful, an interesting mix with strong indigenous groups such as Kunas of the San Blas Islands and the Embera and Wounaan of the Darién jungles, Caribbean peoples and criollas of European decent, plus a smattering of Asians. Panama has attracted many voyagers who, once they perceive what the country offers, inevitably linger and enjoy its beauty and serenity. Recently implemented changes in law and policy will unfortunately and inevitably reduce the attractiveness of Panama as a voyaging destination.

Park fees: Many of Panama’s premier cruising destinations are under the management of an agency called the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM). In early 2008, ANAM began to demand excessive anchoring fees in addition to park admission fees. The marine parks and managed lands possess no facilities for voyagers &mdash moorings, showers, etc. &mdash though the diving is world class. A cruiser recently reported the cost for a couple aboard a 50-foot boat was $220 per day at Isla Coiba! Many cruisers choose to leave the park rather than pay the exorbitant fees.

Cruising permits: Panama has no system for temporary importation of vessels for those wishing to keep their vessels in Panama for an extended visit. The mechanism Panama has used is called a cruising permit, or a “permiso de navegación para naves de pacer.” The cost is $23 per month, normally issued in three month increments. Beginning in March 2008 in some, but not in all ports, cruising permits have been restricted to one 90 day permit. Instead of being allowed to purchase additional cruising permits, as in the past, cruisers are currently being directed to take their vessel out of the country, face fines or seek Panamanian registry.

Immigration: New laws taking effect August 27, 2008, return to the 90-day tourist visa, but make extensions difficult. During the last year when tourist visas were only being issued for 30 days, a visa marinero had been implemented which required a boat inspection and fee, passport photos and monthly renewal, allowing for a total stay of up to six months in Panama. New rules now being implemented suggest that this visa marinero will be restricted to those with a cruising permit, which means that voyaging boats will be restricted to a total of 90 days before being forced to leave Panama.

In reality, it is almost impossible to cruise Panama in 90 days. Plus, leaving the country via small yacht is often onerous due to difficult wind and offshore sea conditions on passage routes to Ecuador, Costa Rica or Colombia. The Panama Canal transit wait alone was eight weeks in early 2008!

The debate within Panama concerning tourism is complex. Regardless, the changes recently applied will significantly deter cruisers from lingering to enjoy Panama’s magnificence.

&mdash Leslie Linkkila and Philip DiNuovo live aboard their Mason 33 Carina. In 2003 they departed Seattle and have cruised throughout Pacific Central America, Ecuador and the Galápagos. Their website is at www.sv-carina.org.

By Ocean Navigator