Day 288: more unfortunate events in Panama

Updated: Apr 11


To continue our story of a series of unfortunate events in Colombia, the issues didn't end there. Further proof that it is difficult to travel on a South African passport.

Further reading: Day 280: a series of unfortunate events in Colombia

We arrived in Panama, and were completely surprised by this country - it was nothing we expected!

Super modern, and expensive since the official currency is the Dollar (but we knew this), but it has a nice atmosphere about it.


We didn't plan to stay long, as we just went there to get out of Colombia in a rush, and book our tickets out to South-East Asia.

We booked a nice hostel, the cheapest we could find, and started looking for flights that 1) weren't ridiculously expensive, and 2) didn't require a layover in the USA, Europe or the UK. Hahahaha - joke was on us! It was nearly impossible.

You can get really cheap flights to Thailand or Singapore for example, but they all stop over in the USA or Europe. In case you missed the previous post, South Africans need transit visas for these countries. We had to apply for these visas in person at the relevant Consulate, make an appointment which was only available in 2 weeks time, and had to pay $160 for the US transit visa or 35 Pounds for the UK transit visa, or an actual Schengen Visa for Europe - to sit at the airport for 2 hours! That is just ridiculous. And to stay another 2 weeks in Panama was just too expensive.

I spent a week searching every possible option available!

I eventually found some nice cheap flights to Mexico. This was a great option as we still wanted to explore Mexico, but we also needed visas. They are free! But we had to make an appointment once again with the Consulate and they only had appointments available for a month later! And then still to get from there to Asia.

Again, back to the search for the holy grail.

Found flights to Thailand from Buenos Aires via Dubai - great! but it stops over in the UK. We thought, OK, maybe we can just do that, but once again - we needed flights back to Argentina (expensive) and then wait 2 weeks to apply for transit visas. Scratch that.

This is where the option of going to Turkey came up for the first time. Using the widely recommended search engine Matrix, I found flights to Istanbul via Dubai for R13 000 per person. Still more than we wanted to pay, but a great alternative, and not R20 000.

Now, you cannot buy tickets directly from the Matrix platform, you basically have to provide the flight codes and itinerary to a travel agent to search, or use a number of other online flight search engines for these codes to get the right tickets. I could not find these flights for the price indicated. Once again, I discussed this with my parents (they have been a great blessing for us during our travels - thank you), and they offered to go see their travel agent to find the tickets. Alas, these tickets cost R20k each, they could not find anything cheaper. So I lost my trust in this Matrix.


Anyway, eventually after a week, I found tickets on Travelstart from Panama to Thailand via China for a very hefty R20 000 each! At least we would then be in Thailand where we wanted to be, unlike the Turkey flight where we still had to get from Turkey to Thailand.

We decided to bite the bullet because this was literally the only option. Fine.

On the day of our flight, we checked out of our accommodation, chose to get an Uber to the airport as the Metro takes about an hour, and off we went. We got to the Air China check in counter, but was a bit confused because the boards show Beijing and ...Houston (as in Texas, USA)?

But we are not worried, because the tickets did not say anything about a stop over in the USA (otherwise I wouldn't have purchased it), we are just going to Beijing. I did know that other Air China flights had a technical stopover in Houston. I actually did double check this, and a technical stopover is for refueling, and according to all websites I read, you don't get off the plane. But, our tickets and itinerary did not indicate this stop.

We get to the counter, the lady asks "where are you going?". Confidently, we reply "Beijing for Thailand". And you guessed it, she asks where is your ESTA? (ESTA an electonic system determining if you qualify under the USA free visa waiver program, but South Africans do not qualify). Of course we say we don't need an ESTA or a visa because we are not going to Houston. Hahaha, the flight stops in Houston, and guess what? you have to get off the plane AND go through immigration, and guess what else? we don't have visas for that! Uncontrollable, crazy laughter ensues.

Honestly people? What the f'n hell? We just spent R40 000 ($2 800/Euro 2 500) on flights that we cannot take after all that searching! This was just unbelievable. What now?

Once again, I call my parents after triple checking our flight tickets. Thank the universe that you get 30 minute free Wi-Fi at the airport for WhatsApp calls, and they weren't sleeping yet. We didn't know what to do. Since Travelstart is a South African company, they could contact the 24 hour helpline (on a landline once again) to find out what the situation was. Apparently the system did indicate a stopover in Houston, but clearly our tickets didn't show this. Finally, they agreed to refund the full amount. Also, Travelstart had a flight sale on from the next day for flights with Emirates to Turkey via Sao Paulo, Brazil and Dubai(!) for R15 000 each. We took it.

The next day, we went back to the airport, and got on our plane to Turkey with no issues.

And that is how we ended up in Turkey...

You can read more on Turkey here:

How to apply for Turkey visas: Turkey visas for South Africans

A must-see when you are in Istanbul: A visit to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul

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