Shipping Across the Darien Gap
Hello! I promise we’re still on our trip and trucking south. We’ve been camping almost non-stop since we left Cartagena and the wifi has been spotty at best. Hence the lack of recent blog posts.
I’m sure most overlanders dread this process; we certainly felt it hanging over our heads in Costa Rica and Panama.
A quick recap:
Geography buffs will know that it is impossible to drive the relatively tiny stretch of roadless wilderness between Panama and Colombia known as the Darien Gap. A remanent of the guerrilla wars in Colombia, it’ll be interesting to see if Panama eventually decides to allow the PanAmerican highway to complete the last missing link. My understanding is that South America, and Colombia in particular, would welcome a road joining the two continents, however the people we spoke to in Panama seemed firmly opposed to the proposition. Given how much of Panama’s economy is supported by toll funds from the canal, I doubt we’ll see a completed road in the near future.
Additionally, according to a tour guide, the Darien remains the last unspoiled wilderness left in Panama and is a biological hotspot. A highway through this pristine land, accompanied by the inevitable development, would forever alter the landscape and its inhabitants.
So all overlanders arriving in Panama must somehow get their vehicle to South America. Some motorcycles can fit aboard boats but anything larger has to go across via cargo ship as the ferry that once operated between the two countries is no longer operating. Most choose to ship from Colon (Panama) to Cartagena (Colombia).
I’m not going to go into specific procedural details here (there are many blogs that have done an excellent job of walking through the process, noted below) but this was a tricky logistical problem for us that took a long time to get sorted, due to a combination of standard bureaucratic procedures and unexpected vehicle issues.
- Figure out if your vehicle can fit into a shipping container. They come in various sizes: 20′, 40′, and 40′ hightop. If so, find a buddy with a vehicle that will also fit. This allows you to split shipping costs. If you have a really long truck, look for motorcycles.
- Contact a shipping agent to reserve your container and help expedite the process. If your vehicle is too big/wide/tall, than you’ll likely opt for the Roll-On/Roll-Off option, which will also require a shipping agent. You’ll be required to send them a deposit for the container. It was $300 for us (as of Sept 2017). They’ll also have exact container measurements. Most people we spoke to used Boris or Tea (look to the FB group PanAmTravelers for more info or to find a shipping buddy)
- Have your vehicle inspected at the police station in Panama City (look on iOverlander for the location). They only inspect 20 vehicles per day so GET THERE EARLY. This will take all day as you have to return later to pick up your paperwork. Essentially, they’re cancelling your Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and allowing you to leave the country with your vehicle.
- Load your vehicle into your shipping container in Colon with your agent. Complete paperwork. You are done with Panama!
- Get yourself to Colombia, either via plane or boat. Your ship (with vehicle) will depart for Cartagena, generally arriving a few days later.
- Extract your vehicle from the port. This takes a few days (sometimes longer) and requires insurance, fees, and inspections.
How it went for us
We’d found a lovely couple to share our shipping container; they had a VW Combi and were arriving from Mexico on a tight timeline. We crossed our fingers that they’d be able to make it to Panama in time for our shipping deadline.
The morning of the police inspection we got a message from them saying that their vehicle had suffered a massive breakdown and was in the shop. No inspection = no shipping.
We felt horrible for them and, I’ll admit, a bit badly for us too as it meant that we’d just missed our ship. This was on Monday and we had non-refundable airplane tickets booked for Friday morning. Enough time to make the flight? Maybe.
Everyone scrambled and our agent told us that there was a second ship departing later in the week. We’d lost our first deposit and the new ship was more expensive but we’d still be able to make our flight. We jumped at the chance. The next day our partners got their van fixed and completed their inspection. Hooray! The following day was ‘load’ day and we were given strict instructions for meeting in Colon.
Chris braved the insane Panama traffic and crossed the isthmus to Colon. Unfortunately our poor shipping partners suffered another calamity, this time a blown tire (and no spare). After a tense few hours of waiting (for Chris) and madly fixing of the tire (for our shipping partners) they arrived just in the nick of time and both vehicles were carefully loaded into the container. Hooray!! Chris had to shimmy out the truck window, disconnect the battery, and then slide on his back out from under the truck. Grubby does not even begin to describe his personal state at the end of the day.
A few tips for loading: have only 1/4 tank of gas in your vehicle and none in your camper. Wear long pants and clothing that can get filthy. Have tools to disconnect your battery, if necessary, and electrical tape to tape off the connectors so no fires are accidentally started. It will get exceptionally hot in your container, easily in excess of 110 F, so think carefully about what can be shipped in those conditions. In hindsight, we had several canisters of liquids which we probably should have bagged. None exploded but we got lucky.
We said a sad goodbye to Chris’ parents as they left for home in Alaska and we turned our attention south. The international airport in Panama City is fairly modern and we lazed around the terminal for a few hours, moseying into the fancy stores (something we haven’t done at ALL on this trip) and buying overpriced muffins. The 50 minute flight to Cartagena went off without a hitch.
South America at last!!
If we thought Panama was hot and muggy than we were in for a surprise with Cartagena. It was like being enveloped in a hot, wet washcloth. We grabbed an Uber and headed directly for our AC-cooled apartment. I’d wanted us to stay in the historic walled city but our last minute booking meant that we got a place about 15 minutes away in BocaGrande. In the end it worked ok as we had a full kitchen, a nearby grocery store, and we could have parked the car on the street for a night if we needed the option. The streets of the walled city are beautiful but also tiny and twisty, with zero parking options. Not a good place for our big ole truck camper.
We spent the weekend exploring the old city and hanging out on the beach (but not swimming – they had signs everywhere about the water being contaminated and we didn’t want to risk another bout of GI tract issues, especially with lots of camping planned for the immediate future).
Our poor little Em suffers the most when it comes to humidity. Get that kid some gelato!
We also experienced a fabulous tropical thunderstorm – our best yet! The buildings shook and all the car alarms started blaring. Within 15 minutes the streets were flooded and would remain so for several days.
Bright and early Monday morning Chris girded himself for battle and marched (or Ubered) off to the port. A note: only the driver is allowed into the port and you need to show (or buy) proof of accident/life insurance in the event that you are injured while on the property. You’ll also need long pants, closed-toe shoes, and all your documents.
The process took two days of running between various offices in Cartagena and then waiting…and waiting.
But there she is! The newly opened container revealed one hot and dirty truck camper, waiting to start her South American adventure.
It was a fantastic feeling to be free! We promptly headed for the hills in the hopes of finding some cooler weather. Which we did! And we found a sociable pig. BONUS!
So many puppies. These were especially cute and fluffy. Ben was (again) completely smitten and set about (again) negotiating the acquisition of a new family member. Sorry kiddo, but we don’t have room for a pup in the truck.
Recommendations – Cartagena Area
Travelers Suites Orange, BocaGrande area of Cartagena
This apartment-hotel worked fairly well for our family. It’s about 10 minutes by Uber from the Walled City and 15 minutes to the port. It had a nice included breakfast, decent wifi, and the world’s tiniest swimming pool. It had an underground parking garage (into which our truck would not fit) but we could have found a place on the street for an overnight, if necessary. We liked that our apartment had a kitchen and two bedrooms and was within walking distance to a grocery store. Found it on booking.com. Don’t take their airport shuttle, however, as it’s quite expensive. We used Uber instead, which was way cheaper.
Camping outside of Cartagena: Finca El Manantial
This was a fantastic family-run farm outside of the city. It was a great place to decompress after the stress of the camper retrieval. Ben fed the pigs, let the sheep out for grazing, and tried his best to steal a puppy. iOlverlander entry.
Walking Tour of the Walled City
Our Lonely Planet guidebook had a good map and we loosely followed this free guided walk. To be honest, we got started too late and our little Emma wilted spectacularly after a few hours so we cut the day short and didn’t have a chance to visit any restaurants or do an in-dept tour.
Other people take boat trips out to the island or visit the old jails, convents, or markets but we didn’t make it to any of those activities. Next time!
Step-by-Step Shipping Accounts
Boris Silva of EverLogistics (in Colon, Panama)
I’m not sure this qualifies as a recommendation but here is some information on our shipping experience. We split a container with a couple driving a VW combi and they were already working with Boris when we hooked up with them. There are actually two Boris’ (senior and junior) but we didn’t realize that until we met Senior on Shipping Day and then Junior later to complete paperwork. Lots of overlanders use EverLogistics. Our experience with him wasn’t without a number of challenges, especially on the last day when we were trying to extract our vehicle from the port in Cartagena and he hasn’t sent through the final payment (and subsequently refused to pick up the phone when we desperately tried to contact him). We weren’t sure if the problem was on his end or at the port in Cartagena but we definitely became less of a priority once we’d payed his final bill and left the country. That said, he did get us booked onto another boat when our poor shipping partners had a catastrophic breakdown on the way to the inspection and we consequently missed the sailing of our original ship. Most people use him/them or Tea (see Song of the Road post). firstname.lastname@example.org. We did not use a shipping agent on the Colombia side.