Oh, don’t you worry, this planned trip is just a visit to the States – we’re not ready to move back from Panama just yet!
Crazy times we’re living in aren’t they? This pandemic has probably affected every one of us in one way or another… it’s kind of insane when you think about it.
At the end of March, we had decided we would take our chances here in Panama rather than head back to the U.S. It was an excruciatingly tough decision for us to make as there were major pros and cons to each option.
I do think we made the right decision based on all the information we had at the time. The President here in Panama has been extremely aggressive in fighting this virus. We’ve basically been in quarantine for a couple of months now.
The outcome has been positive so far – there have “only” been 13,018 known active cases of the virus and 330 deaths in the entire country as of May 31. And most of the cases have been outside of our province with only a handful in the Boquete region who are all recovered.
Regardless, it’s been extremely hard on a lot of the Panamanians here and the economy. In a country where many families live day-to-day and can’t afford to feed their families if they don’t work, shutting the entire country down has been devastating.
There have been food and money distributions given out to citizens by the government that’s been helpful. There have also been charities and fundraisers that many of the expats (including us) have contributed to help ensure people aren’t starving.
Recently, the country has started to slowly (very slowly) open back up. As of yesterday, the quarantine has ended but it’s been replaced with a curfew from 7 PM until 5 AM every day. And kids are only allowed out with a parent from 4 PM until 7 PM.
So that’s a step in the right direction. At least we can get outside a little more now.
But restaurants are still only allowed to provide pick-up or delivery and most stores (other than groceries or pharmacies) are still closed. It’s a different world right now. Everything is being done in phases they’re calling blocks here in Panama…
Block 1 opened on 5/13 and as of yesterday, Blocks 2 is allowed to open. There aren’t set dates for each phase but I believe the plan is for block 6 to hopefully be opened up by the end of July.
It’s interesting to see the differences between how different countries are rolling with things. Only hindsight will tell us what the right and wrong moves were.
Why the planned trip?
All of this leads us back to our planned trip back to the United States.
When we made our decision to stay put when the pandemic started, that was with the knowledge that the airports here were shutting down. We knew that we would need to wait until they re-opened before we could head back to the U.S. for a visit.
If you’re wondering why we’re making this trip now, there are a couple of reasons. The first is that we still haven’t gone after residency here yet. We wanted to make sure that Panama was the place for us before we drop the thousands of dollars needed for attorneys to make our Visas happen. Residency also adds a couple of weird variables that I’ll share with you in a future post.
So for now, we’re tourists here and that means we have to play by those rules. One of those rules is that you can’t stay in the country for longer than 6 months at a time. After that, you need to leave Panama for at least 30 days before you can return.
As a side note, your U.S. driver’s license is only good for 90 days at a time here. This doesn’t apply to us as we don’t currently have a car, but that makes being a tourist even more interesting!
After our last planned trip to the U.S., we returned to Panama on December 23, 2019. That meant we would need to be out of here by the end of June and we originally had a flight booked out for the beginning of that month.
With all the fun that’s happened lately though, that’s obviously been canceled. And then, Panama extended the deadline by a couple of weeks for folks in our position. They may or may not extend that even more, but my guess is that they’d simply turn a blind eye while the country is in shutdown. I was told by a friend of mine who’s a liaison for the U.S. Embassy here that it’s likely we’d be able to leave without a problem. However, when we would come back then we’d be fined.
Honestly, the fine isn’t too bad either – I’m still trying to find documentation, but I believe it’s $50 per person for each month you’ve overstayed. If that’s accurate, sure, losing a few hundred bucks wouldn’t be great for staying an extra month or two, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world either.
So we could probably stay longer one way or another, but the second reason for the planned trip is the big one. The homesickness here is pretty astounding. Lisa and Faith are just ready to go back for a visit. Being cooped up in the condo every day with a limited number of things to do hasn’t helped. It’s time.
Right now, a suspension is in place for commercial flights until June 22. There’s a reasonable chance that could get extended (air transport is in Block 4), but based on what we’re seeing with flights available in July, we think we might have a shot.
Last week, our next-door neighbor mentioned that she booked a flight back to the U.S. and extended an offer for us to ride to the airport with her and another friend if we flew out on the same day. She probably didn’t think we’d take her up on it, but I booked everything later that day.
Our planned trip out of Panama
So here’s where it gets interesting. We were happy with our finding that going through Costa Rica first was a little easier than going through Panama City. Plus, that would mean we could fly Southwest from Costa Rica to Ohio taking advantage of our Companion Pass we earned.
With the current conditions though, that doesn’t seem feasible. Southwest doesn’t show any flights from San José, Costa Rica to Cleveland through January of 2021. This is the wonderful screen I see for each month:
Hopefully, they open this route back up in the future, but for now, it’s not an option. That’s a good thing anyway. I’d rather not have to add a third country into the mix on rules I need to keep up on due to COVID-19.
Instead, we’ll be flying through Panama City.
Here’s the planned trip from start to finish for the second week of July…
1) Boquete to David
We’re planning to mooch a ride with friends from our condo in Boquete to the airport in David if possible. It’ll be cramped with 5 of us plus bags in the SUV, but we should be Ok. If not, then we’ll take a cab. We’ve been staying away from those during the pandemic as a precaution, but you do what you gotta do!
2) David to Panama City
We take off on Copa Airlines around 5 PM for a short one-hour flight. It’s still too early to say, but the flight looks pretty empty as of now. However, they don’t look to be blocking off middle seats like a lot of the U.S. airlines are doing…
This ran us just under $300 out the door for the three of us… unfortunately, you can’t beat the monopoly Copa has here.
3) Crowne Plaza
The Copa flights that run between David, Panama (our closest airport) and Panama City aren’t offering a lot of options. We’ll get into Panama City too late to hop on a flight out that day so we’ll fly out the next morning.
Well, well, well… a night at the Crowne Plaza for $100 with free breakfast – apparently, some good has come out of this pandemic! Normally, we’d aim for an even cheaper place, but this is right by the airport so it’ll save us time and money going back and forth.
4) Panama City to Cleveland
The next morning, we head to Cleveland. The first leg of the journey goes from Tocumen (PTY) to Newark (EWR) on United. I struggle with long flights and this one’s five hours and twenty minutes. Hopefully, I don’t become the looney guy who ends up getting zip-tied and pinned to the floor of the aisle on the flight.
This flight doesn’t look too busy either…
You’ll notice that all the middle seats are blocked off here. I put Lisa and Faith on a window and an aisle and I’m in an aisle seat across from them. I know that the window seats are probably better off during this whole thing but I get claustrophobic if I’m not on the aisle. With any luck, I’ll have the whole row to myself anyway!
Remember that we have to go through customs before heading to the next plane. With only 1 hour and 46 minutes of a layover, things could get interesting… even worse if our flight into Newark runs late!
On the plus side, all three of us have Global Entry (thank you credit card benefits!). That should help us skip right through a long wait. I’m also guessing that most airports won’t be too busy this summer anyway, but we’ll soon find out!
From there, we’ll jump on a 2-hour flight to Cleveland getting us there in the late evening. This one’s on United as well and looks just as unoccupied as the PTY to EWR flight…
No complaints from me!
We used miles for the Panama City to Cleveland flights but there’s still a “Panama Departure Tax” charge of $40 (ugh!). The total for the United flights for the 3 of us with all taxes and fees after using our miles was $227.10.
5) Head to self-quarantine
At this point, we’ll see what happens. Most likely, Lisa’s parents will pick us up and bring them back to their house. Otherwise, we’ll take an Uber or Lyft. I prefer not to get into a strange car in these times, but we’ll see how that plays out.
Then we’ll set up shop in my in-laws’ basement… it’s like our own tiny apartment! We’ll be taking a chance after all this that we picked up the virus and pass it on to them, but it seems like they’re willing to take that risk.
Other than that, we plan on staying put and self-quarantining for a couple of weeks to ensure we’re good. My hope is that testing becomes more widely available by the time we’re there though… two weeks of just hiding in a basement is a long time. I’d rather take a test and know within a few days if we’re good to go.
6) See what happens
At that point, we’ll just play it by ear. We’ll be staying for at least a month to make sure we comply with the tourist laws of Panama.
It’s hard to express just how much early retirement removes the stresses of time constraints from your life. We don’t have a planned trip booked to return to Panama since we have the flexibility to wait and that’s wonderful.
That way we can see how things are looking once we get to Cleveland. We may book a flight to Texas to stay with my brother and sister-in-law for a little bit as well before heading back. Freedom of choice!
In the meantime, once we know we’re clear, we’ll spend our time visiting friends and family with some social distancing throughout. It’s nice that winter’s over so we can do things like space ourselves out around a bonfire among friends in the evenings.
What could go wrong?
Air travel ban extension – The suspension on commercial air travel could be extended here in Panama. That’s probably the most likely problematic scenario and it would just ruin our planned trip completely. We’d have to reschedule everything for later on down the line… I think Lisa and Faith will lose their minds if that happens!
Flight delays – One of the flights could be delayed screwing up everything along the whole chain.
The VID – That’s the fun nickname Lisa, Faith, and I have given to COVID-19. And with all this travel, it’s very possible we’ll get the VID! What would we do? Well, we’d figure it out just like anything else.
Here in Panama, we’ve been so careful since day one it’s ridiculous. The reason we’ve been so careful is that the hospitals closest to us are in David (about 45 minutes away). Although we think things would flow fine, what if one or both of us got sick and/or died? What would happen with our daughter, Faith, during and after? We have some emergency plans in place, but why the hell would we ever want to test them out?!
In the meantime, we’ll take all the precautions we can for this trip…
- Masks aren’t hard to get your hands on here. I just bought a box of 50 surgical masks. My thinking is that between those and the cloth masks we have, we should be in good shape on this front. We could wear a disposable mask on each flight, toss it, and use another for the next flight.
- Disinfectant wipes are our friends. If you don’t think we’ll be using Clorox or Lysol wipes on every armrest, pull-down tray, and seat buckle on each flight, you’re crazy! We’ve been doing that for years anyway. We’ll also bring enough to wipe down things in the hotel like doorknobs and handles and whatever else we might touch.
- No face touching, hand sanitizer at every turn, and washing our hands whenever we have an opportunity.
Getting back to Panama – Leaving Panama is only half the battle… we’ll need to get back here as well. They may open up the borders to let us out of here, but will they let foreigners/tourists back in? That hasn’t been announced yet and could be a big problem for us.
I’d guess allowing us back in will happen sooner than later because tourism is important to Panama. However, with how aggressive the President has been here, it’s tough to know for sure.
There you have it – our planned trip with a good chance of it going off the rails before it even begins!
You can’t worry about all the what-ifs or you’ll never make anything happen in life. We’ll see what happens and adjust as needed – it’s what we’re good at.
It’s entirely possible that everything I’ve told you about this trip could fall to pieces over the next several weeks – especially with all the variables involved. However, I think everything about what’s going on with this is interesting enough that I thought I’d share.
Thanks for reading!!