Shipping across The Darien Gap Pt. 1
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2014 update: There is now a vehicle ferry making this much cheaper and easier. See Panama To Colombia car Ferry Xpress on WikiOverland for all the details.
It turns out there is a small problem associated with driving the entire Pan-American Highway from North to South; there is no road from Panama to Colombia, only 100 kilometers of dense jungle and swamp called The Darien Gap.
The Wikipedia article for the Darien Gap has all the details, which are pretty interesting. A couple of seriously equipped vehicles have made it across, so technically the Guinness Book of Records is correct in listing the Pan-Am as the longest drivable road, though it’s not something I’m about to tackle.
I hear the current president of Panama is very interested in building the highway through to Colombia, a topic that comes up every few years and has lots of opposition due to political, environmental and economic concerns.
I’m not holding my breath.
There are a number of common ways to cross the gap with a vehicle:
- Load the car into a shipping container and use traditional ocean freight, normally from the port of Colón in Panama to Cartegena in Colombia. Costs just under $1000 for a 20 foot container big enough for one vehicle.
- “Roll-On, Roll-Off” (RORO), similar to a ferry. The main difference is the port workers have the keys and drive the vehicle. This method appears to be cheap, in the $500 range, and is accompanied by many horror stories of theft. There are reports of a service from Costa Rica to Ecuador and other variations.
- “Lift-On, Lift-Off” (LOLO), similar to the above, where the vehicle is lifted with a crane on and off the ship, without handing over the keys. Clearly the best choice for a vehicle that doesn’t fit in a shipping container but expensive because it’s charged by the cubic meter (around $2000 for a big camper).
- A traditional ferry used to make the crossing, but it went bankrupt a few years back. 2014 update: There is now a vehicle ferry making this much cheaper and easier. See Panama To Colombia car Ferry Xpress on WikiOverland for all the details.
- In all of the above only the vehicle is being transported – it is not possible for people to ride along so that’s a story for another day.
The motorcycle crew have a huge advantage here in that they can take advantage of the numerous small yachts making the crossing. Bikes are man-handled on and off at each end and ride on the deck of the boats covered in tarps. Almost all boats allow the rider to come along for the amazing trip through the San Blas Islands and some even take care of the customs paperwork at each end. I’m told costs are around $700 for bike and rider. Checkout Hostal Wunderbar who have tons of experience organizing this trip for riders and come very highly recommended.
Since meeting Rupert on the Belize/Guatemala border I’ve been thinking about and trying to plan ahead for the Darien crossing. A ton of travelers have ben exchanging emails trying to figure out details and dates and I’ve known about a French couple that have literally been only a few days behind me for the entire trip. Vince and Marie are driving around the entire world in their Land Drover and we’re really excited to share a a big 40 foot shipping container, which makes things slightly cheaper than going alone. More than saving money, it’s great to team up with other travelers I can relate to so well, and they fill my head with stories and adventures to come. Checkout their website, http://www.viamundi.fr/ (in French).
I very quickly have to learn a lot of new terminology related to shipping and Vince explains it’s all in the details. If we’re not careful and don’t negotiate everything in the price a ton of ‘extras’ will bite us later. We’ll pay extra to have the container moved to a location suitable for loading, we’ll pay extra to have the vehicles “lashed” in, we’ll pay extra for.. well, pretty much everything.
Here is a small explanation for anyone new to the process:
Ocean Freight: The cost of actually shipping the container from A to B.
Bunker: The cost of the fuel for the ship.
Stuffing: Getting the goods into the container and sealing it. The details here are important as this may include moving the container around or not.
Lashing: Physically lashing the vehicles into the container so they don’t move around.
Unstuffing: Getting the goods out of the container, which again may include moving the container from the port to the yard or not.
Documentation Fee: The cost of lodging all the paperwork with customs.
Bill of Lading: The official document describing the contents of the container.
Port Fees: The amount charged by the port to allow the container and it’s contents to pass.
- All of the above may be charged per container or per vehicle and may cover both ends or not.
- Everyone seems to have a different idea about having separate Bills of Lading for each vehicle. If you do only get one, make certain it’s clear who owns which vehicle.
- Also make sure the Bill of Lading says “vehicle in transit”. We’re told this will make the process in Colombia much easier.
Lots more to come on this one.
This story continues in Shipping across The Darien Gap Pt. 2
Hey Dan, I finally found your website (forgot the url, took some time googling…), but sounds like a lot of trouble getting your car shipped to Colombia… I just flew back home from panama city 2 days ago, after week of sailing in San Blas. If you still have time, you must go there, you’ll love it! Endless number of small islands with white sand and palm trees, clear water and lots of life in the sea.. Loved it better than the Bocas, but that might have to do with the rain at Bastimentos. Still travelling with Mike? Good luck with all the car hassle and I will keep track of your site from now!
Hey Yvonne – It’s great to hear from you. It’s a pain to move it to Colombia for sure, but I knew that all along. Crossing the Darien was always going to be the hardest part of the whole trip. San Blas islands sound amazing!
Mike doesn’t want to come to Colombia, so is heading North.
Keep in touch.
Sounds like,the two hard basket for me!Does the idea of purchasing another vechile on the other side come into the equasion.Leave the Jeep where you are, find yourself across the Darien Gap,see what is on offer.Come back and sell your jeep,go across again pick up your new purchase and go south.
For sure it was an option. Ideally I could just swap with another traveler going North and call it square.
The major problem is that I have a stamp in my passport that says I can’t leave Panama without the Jeep.. and I’m the legal owner.
Also, it would be hard to find a vehicle on the other side I’d be happy with.
I’m told the trick is to buy one in Brazil, because then you can drive it into every bordering country with no paperwork hassles. Nice.
I’ll stick with the Jeep for now
Dan: You sell that Jeep and you and I are gonna fight like Spock and Kirk.
Haha. No worries Brian. We’re sticking together for a while yet.
What’s the worst that could happen?? They took a couple Range Rovers through the Darien Gap! lol
I can think of nothing
Is it necessary to have a 4X4 (Jeep or whatever) to do this trip? Excluding the Darien Gap of course.
I was thinking of driving my car. Is this just plain unthinkable?
I met plenty of people doing the drive in large RVs, small sedans and everything in between.
If you’re happy to stay on the more major roads, and adjust your speed at times, you will be perfectly fine in any regular sedan. In all honesty, I only used 4×4 in my Jeep about once a month, and even then it was because I was trying to go somewhere a bit silly, not because I actually needed it to get from A to B.
What kind of car do you have?
I’m American and considering driving to Brazil maybe next year and have been looking at options to ship my vehicle on a container to Colombia. I understand this is the most challenging part, but from your experience, what advice do you have that might facilitate the process now in 2020?
I actually just posted a video with everything you need to know!
Let me know if you have any questions!