fullsizeoutput_f29-1024x768 Sending and Receiving Mail in Panama Boquete Panama
Boquete’s municipal building (city hall), which was once the train station

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.

fullsizeoutput_f2b-1024x768 Sending and Receiving Mail in Panama Boquete Panama
Entrance to the Boquete COTEL office with PO boxes

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.

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A postal employee sorts the outgoing mail

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!

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The lady clerk fills out the paperwork for my certified mail.

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!

18 Comments

  1. Gwen Manning Reply

    A year ago I sent a small parcel to my son in Japan. This was early December. I had to go to post office in David. I paid a lot of money to get it there via air to arrive for Xmas. It had a tracking number but after it left Panama it appeared untraceable
    I had my son try to trace it in Japan
    Nothing
    The Xmas gifts arrived late March

    Personally, I think they shipped it via ocean voyage

    I am beginning to think there is no trusty service except the very expensive courier service – fedex, etc

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Talk about a slow boat! We’ll see, I guess – hoping it helps that our mail doesn’t have to cross oceans. We have contingencies for getting our ballots if the request doesn’t get there in a timely manner.

  2. We actually have a PO box at the post office in Pedasi because Social Security requires an address where we live for “Proof of Life” forms,etc. But I am surprised the postal worker in Boquete told you 6 days for mail to be delivered in the U.S. We are always told “tres semanas or más”. But it does get there. The tracking does work but only as far as the first delivery point in the U.S. which is usually Miami. From there on we just have to hope it is delivered shortly after. Fortunately for us, voting registration in California can be done online for those living outside the country. (Not available in every state.)

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, we were skeptical about that “seis días,” also, especially after the experience with the postcard to our folks. Fortunately, we’re already registered to vote in Travis County, Texas – so if it looks like this is taking too long to get there, we’ll find another way to get our absentee ballots.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, yes – considering it’s already been 7 days, the “sies días” promise was a bit much. We’re also planning to fax our ballot requests on Monday, just as a backup.

  3. The postal system, or lack of it in various Latin countries, seems to be the biggest head scratcher for friends & family ‘back home.’ They just cannot conceive of a place without mail, or mailboxes, or mail trucks, or home addresses. It does not compute. The same situation exists here in Colombia, so after Panama we were already familiar with the dilemma of getting letters & packages etc. back and forth, and the expense of doing so. Funny story: Before we left the U.S. in 2016 to return to Boquete, we ‘mailed’ a letter to ourselves from Columbus Ohio to the COTEL office in Boquete. When we left Boquete five months later en route to Medellin it had still not arrived. Maybe it’s there now? No se.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Jaja! Maybe we should go check for you! Yeah, we know it’s a long shot but it will be interesting to see what happens. I’m going to fax our ballot requests on Monday as a backup, just to make sure they get processed in time.

  4. Janis peace Reply

    Hi Susan and John!
    Sorry that I have been so MIA recently. Just super busy and in three different locations going round and round. I did read though that you are moving to Columbia. Wow! Good for you! I have enjoyed all your blogs and photos!! You both look terrific and happy! Really, you just about have a book now to sell!!!
    Keep me posted on your adventures!
    Much love as always!! Janis

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Janis! So great to hear from you. Hugs from John and Susan

  5. Fingers crossed it will arrive in the US soon enough (probably in the upcoming days) because it’s muy importante! I haven’t used mail service for a really long time, but I do receive some mails occasionally. It would be fun to try sending a letter just for the sake of it.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It’s muy importante indeed! We really can’t miss voting in this election. We already have contingency plans in place to get our ballots as soon as possible. Just thought it would be interesting to try the mail service and see what happens.

  6. Hi Susan and John. We used (for 3 years) the local PO (had a box) and it was fine for things with no deadline. Ladies were super friendly…just like your experience. Loved living the “life” there and we miss it.
    Abrazos
    John & Susan Hays

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Susan and John! We miss you too, as do many others here. Hope you’re both well.

  7. Good article. But one error, you do not need a P.O. Box. They do seperate mail by last name and file accordingly. You can get a P.O. BOX but there is a long waiting list.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks – yes, that was pointed out to us so we made the correction.

  8. We have never attempted to send mail from any of our Central or South American locations. I’ll be interested to know how long it takes in the end. Only once have we had mail sent to us. We did it in Chile and got the card in two weeks!! I was impressed. The suitcase of a friend seems to work best, lol.

  9. John and Susan Pazera Reply

    Ha – well, here it is two weeks later and we’re pretty sure those ballot requests haven’t arrived yet. We’ve already activated plan B – we were able to send the requests via email and will be able to get ballots back via email. The tricky part will be getting the ballots sent back in before the deadline. We’ll see!

  10. I once used the Penonome COTEL to send a letter to Japan. Surprisingly, it made it there within a couple weeks. I half-expected it to be lost considering some of the horror stories I’ve heard.

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