There are a number of ways to send and receive mail and packages here in Las Tablas.
Quite a few expats find coughing up a monthly fee to Mailboxes, Etc. a fine thing to do. These folks pay anywhere from $14 to $130 monthly. The first price entitles them to receive 1 kilos (about 2.2 pounds) of stuff per month, the second entitles them to 16 kilos (a bit over 35 pounds). Their “loose mail” (letters and bills) are included in their kilo allowance. Anything over-limit is extra and charged by the GRAM. The way it works is that they provide you with an address in Miami and handle things from there to the Panama MBE location of your choice.
As a point of interest, Mailboxes, Etc. users tell me that the facility in Chitre is much cheaper to use than the one in Las Tablas. I suspect that has more to do with the price of gas than anything else, as Chitre is a 40 minute drive from LT. Most of the account holders in Chitre opened their accounts before the Las Tablas facility was available, and changing would be a small hassle. They prefer to drive or spend the $3 for the round trip bus fare, plus the $4 round trip for cabs from the terminal and back, than to switch to the Las Tablas facility. But, to be fair, most of these folks have other business to handle in Chitre besides their mail, so they would be making the trip anyway. The personnel at both MBE facilities are very pleasant, responsible and helpful. As a point of interest, the Las Tablas facility now offers “occasional” service for those who don’t want a monthly account, although the cost seems a bit steep.
A second alternative is Airbox Express. Just as with Maiboxes, Etc., they provide you with a Miami address and handle things from there to Panama. You can subscribe just as with Mailboxes, Etc., or you can bring things over on a onesie-twosie basis, and only pay for what you ship. Lowest minimum air charge is $6.95. Any loose mail you get will be charged separately, and runs about $2.25 per letter without a subscription. Note that Airbox Express seems to be quite fond of additional, add-on charges.
I have used Airbox a total of three times. I doubt I will use them again, as all three were unpleasant experiences. Most recently I ordered a sewing machine from Amazon, which was shipped in its original box with a shipping weight of 16.4 pounds, stated right on the box. Airbox charged me for 25 pounds, plus this, plus that, plus the other thing.
Airbox takes care of your goods from Miami to Panama. Once your things arrive and are processed through customs, they arrange for shipment from the city to Las Tablas. One of the subcontracting companies they use for this purpose is Uno Express, which has an office here in Las Tablas. <sarcasm>By all means, if you enjoy rude staff, unbelievably poor service and being overcharged, make sure you use Uno Express for shipping within the country.</sarcasm> An alternate, which provides completely the opposite experience is Donaldo Guerra Transporte. You can request that Airbox use them instead. For me Donaldo Guerra Transporte was the difference between being charged $12 to get less than six pounds from Panama to Las Tablas and being charged $3 to get 16.4 pounds (billed by Airbox as 25) here, as well as the difference between being treated with courtesy and being sneered at.
My personal solution for “loose mail” is my son, who receives it and scans it and emails it to me. Of course, I have minimized the amount of mail I receive to almost nothing. The few bills I still have are emailed to me directly, my friends know to use email in preference to snail mail, and my boy is free to chuck out any junk mail that comes. For those whose more complex situations preclude child labor or really enjoy their junk mail, there are companies you can hire to perform the same service.
Another alternative for mail and packages is the Panamanian Postal Service. While not particularly speedy (neither are Airbox Express or Mailboxes, Etc.), it does have the virtue of being cheaper. You can get a box (an apartado) for $20 for the year, be you gringo or Panamanian. If you have pensionado status, a box will only cost you $15. In either case you must cough up an additional $8 per box key.
I have three times received important documents from the States using my postal account. Two of those times were for myself, and my shipper used US Priority Mail International Express. It cost $49 a pop, but I had the docs safely in hand within a week. The post office requests you include your phone number as part of your address, so the not too cheerful, but always kind, ladies and gentlemen at the post office can call and tell you when you get something that won’t fit into your box. As in an International Express envelope, which is way too big for the box.
The friend I let use my PO Box did not have as easy a time. He asked his (person) in the States to send him some important papers, and gave specific instructions about how to do it. The (person) did not follow instructions – I personally believe his (person) didn’t send the stuff at all – and the package didn’t come and didn’t come and didn’t come. Finally, after a month of waiting, my friend raised a bit of dust with his (person) and the package was re-sent, by International Priority Mail Express. It arrived within a week. AND it was hand-delivered to my door. I didn’t even have to go in and get it.
A small US Priority Mail International box is $23 right now, I believe. Your shipper can put up to 22 pounds of goods in said box, assuming they will fit. If the value is stated by the shipper as under $100 (you must be able to prove this, and your box just might be opened to do that) there are no customs charges. Such a box won’t fit into your little postal apartado, so the ladies will call you. I wouldn’t send electronics or other highly resalable items this way, but nearly anything else will probably arrive safely, especially books in English.
If you want to open a box, take a copy of your passport with you (along with the original). Know that box rent runs from January 2 of one year to January 2 of the following year. There is no prorating of the fees. They told me that even if you should open a box on December 31, 2014 (with the intention of using it effective from that date) you would pay for the entire year of 2014 up to the immediately looming January 2 of the following year when it would be necessary to renew. Also be warned that there are not that many boxes (check the photo – that’s IT, there are no more) so you may have a bit of a wait to get one. But it’s worth trying.