After well over three years living in Panama, we haven’t availed ourselves of the Panamanian postal system until now. The biggest reason is that we rarely need to mail anything to the U.S., and when we do, we usually hand it off to friends that are headed for the states and won’t mind dropping it into a mailbox once they get there. The Boquete Tuesday Market at the BCP also has a mail drop that works basically the same way.
There are a few other alternatives, all of them expensive. Last year we had to get a time-sensitive letter to our CPA, and it cost a whopping $32 to send for a standard letter-sized envelope via DHL. But it did get there in 48 hours! Another option is Airbox Express in David, but we have no experience with them.
Which brings us to the Correos y Telégrafos de Panamá (COTEL), the public postal service. COTEL has an office in most communities. There’s no home delivery because there’s no formal address system here (somehow, “the fifth yellow house down on the left” doesn’t quite cut it!). To receive mail, have your sender designate “general delivery, Boquete.” Or, you can rent a post office box for a small fee. There are no mailboxes and no retail sales of postage stamps; outgoing mail has to be dropped off at the COTEL office.
So why have we avoided using COTEL for outgoing mail until now? The time factor is probably the biggest reason. COTEL does deliver overseas, and airmail letters to the United States and Europe are supposed to arrive anywhere between 5 and 10 days. We did try a test a few months ago and sent a postcard to Susan’s folks in Austin, Texas. It got there, but it took a full month.
With the MUY IMPORTANTE U.S. mid-term elections coming up, it was time to give COTEL another shot. Through the Federal Voting Assistance Program, overseas voters can request a ballot by mail – but the catch is that it has to be postmarked from the resident country. So off I went to the tiny-teeny COTEL office here in Boquete, which feels exactly like an old-style 1940s post office.
The Boquete COTEL office is located in the municipal building off the main square. I walked up to the window with my two
letter-sized envelopes (time for Spanish practice). I was the only one in there with the four lady employees. The women behind the counter looked at the letters and asked, “¿Necesita un certificado?” Me: “Si! ¿Cuanto cuesta?” She: “Dos dolares cada uno.” Me: “Perfecto!” What a deal, certified with tracking to the U.S. for $2 each!
The lady filled out a triplicate carbon form with the destination and added a tracking sticker number thingie and a sticker with proof of my payment. I paid her, she stamped all the paperwork and envelopes, and then went over to her jefe (boss), who signed it and returned to me with a receipt. Me: “¿Cuántas semanas se tardará?” Jefe: “Seis dias!” Me: “Ah, bueno. Muchas gracias. Que tengan un buen día!” with a big smile which was returned to me by all the ladies. (Note: One of the first Spanish phrases I learned while cruising on our sailboat was “Que tengan un buen día.” Every time I say that I always get a big smile in return and a big “Igualmente.”)
So what happens now? That was Monday and it’s now Saturday. So far, no delivery yet. We were surprised to find out that COTEL has a website and the “certificado” includes a tracking number. I just checked again and the number is still not in the system – but I still have faith that the ballot requests will get to Austin there soon. After all, this is Panama!