Panama Papers & the Final Crossing

If you want to hear the full story  in all its gory details of our border crossing, including 3 attempts over 24 hours on two different coasts… we really encourage you to click to button on the right “Buy us a Beer”.  Its worth it for the story alone and we promise to spend only a small percentage of it on drinking our paperwork nightmare away, the rest will go towards fuel and food.

The export paperwork took 1.5 months longer then expected, and astronomically more then we expected. Did we mention we also bought a new engine? Although we stayed for free (in exchange for work), our beer budget, (although originally studious) is completely blown.  So… feel sorry for us and let us drink away the panama papers!

Normally we are budget conscious. We made a solid plan, and were sticking to it, until the paperwork happened and the engine blew up. We originally estimated 1 month to find a truck, buy a truck and to at least initiate the export process. It took nearly 2.5 months all said and done.

According to all the available information, export paperwork requires many many approvals to legally export the country: Registro Unico – Vehicle registration, DIJ – Security clearance confirming it wasn’t stolen; Certificacion corta (municipio):Paz y Salvo – Confirmation there are not tickets or liens against the vehicle; Muncipal approval – from the municipality of registration; Adunas – customs clearance, etc etc etc.

Its a complicated mess of bureaucracy that is difficult for even the Panamanian to navigate. As non-super-spanish speakers in a foreign land it was nearly impossible. So we took everyone’s advise and hired someone. Prices originally went to over $1500 for a lawyer whom we obviously rejected. We found someone online to assist us through craigslist at a much better price. This was good.

The rollercoaster of emotional ups and many downs (bottomless at times), we faced could have broken us. But in the end it made us stronger individually, as a couple, and mentally.

Although, honestly, we encountered real bad news at least ever 4 days over the course of 45 days… thats a lot of negatively to really go through. So we’ve summarized the best of the worst of the problems for you here:


1 – Engine replacement and 1st set of export paperwork happening at the same time. On the last day of paperwork, when taking the truck to the security clearance, our paperwork fixer found out we had replaced the engine… instantly negating ALL THE PAPERWORK TO DATE. Our Engine serial number had changed, thus canceling all our paperwork which indicated the old number. This was 2 weeks in, and one full set of document/labour costs in.

2 – There was a miscommunication about the price of the new engine. Our mechanics gave us a new engine labour free in record time, but we still did not expect that cost and due to a language barrier mis-interpreted the price by $500USD.

3 – A new engine has to be registered (yes more paperwork) in various places, including the municipality.  After spending $20 to fill out a special form between us and the engine seller (a bill of sale essentially), and registering it officially, we found out the seller/importer hadn’t registered it in the first place. Meaning we couldn’t re-register it…. this lead to complications and about a weeks delay.

4 – There were continuous delays in the second set of export paperwork, because we could not just register a new number or correct the old paperwork. We had to start a fresh once our engine SIN was confirmed.  Every few days a government office, official, courier, etc would basically not efficiently do their job and forget to process our paperwork. Our deadlines kept being blown. Typically it should take approximately 7-10 business days. This second set took 3 weeks.


5 – The border denied our first 2 attempts to cross with all our official paperwork. Again, “Buy Us a Beer” we’ll go into that much more deeply… but for now it was some of the lowest points of our life. After 1.5 months of additional problems in Panama, we were pretty much planning to either move permanently to Panama or burn our vehicle and collect the insurance. It was like we were held hostage in foreign lands, being trapped by a truck and by paperwork. How do you leave a country in these circumstances?

With all this in mind, here are some rules:

1 – Do not pay for anything up front. We recommend a lawyer, a one time fee to someone who has done it before and recommended by someone you trust.

2 – Have patience. UNLIMITED PATIENCE.

3 – Understand that Panama wants to make it essentially impossible to export. As a Panamanian with a vehicle, you actually need to go through this entire process (except the export tax) to drive your vehicle to Costa Rica for the weekend on holiday. To export, you need to do exactly the same paperwork plus export approval (confirming you pay taxes). As a non-resident your only option is final export. You cannot leave the country with a Panama vehicle legally without final export paperwork. You must export.

4 – The vehicle selection in Panama requires patience, a good understanding of mechanics, and a keen eye. There are awesome vehicles driving everywhere, but never judge a book by its cover in Panama. Because the covers are real nice, but the insides are garbage.

Moral of the story is we learned our lesson. We won’t ever buy a truck again in Panama. We promise! We are extremely thankful however that our time in Panama was extended, if only for the fact that we got to experience so many parts of the country that we would have ignored if the paperwork had gone smoothly. Panama is wildly beautiful. The pound-per-pound impact the country has in terms of beaches, jungle, mountains, animals, people really beats a lot of more popular tourist destinations.

Although we may now never be allowed back, we are so grateful for our experiences in this lush and vivid place.



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