Shipping across The Darien Gap Pt. 2

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.

Day One – Finding a shipping company
Driving in Panama City is pretty nutty, so we leave the vehicles at the hotel and get around in taxis. This is an adventure in itself as drivers are basically suicidal and prices must be negotiated beforehand, which can be a tense affair. To give you an idea how hot and humid it is, I finish my one liter water bottle before 10am and am constantly bathed in sweat from the minute I wake up until taking a shower late at night.

Seaboard Marine: The well known favorite of tourists offer a good service for a fair price that includes all the little extra costs and annoyances. The detailed quote we are given is for $1880 for the two cars, showing all the various items. It’s confusing why something like unstuffing would be per vehicle, which is not adequately explained to us. Of course it’s not supposed to make sense. After a lot of back-and-forward they won’t budge so we move on, using this as our baseline.

Barwil: The second favorite of tourists is obviously used to dealing with foreigners. A lady speaking good English ushers us into a very nice air conditioned office and hands us a very simple piece of paper showing $1900 with no breakdown of the costs. When we try to clarify we’re told everything is included except the customs charges in Colombia which they can do nothing about. We ask them to get back to us and are assured they ‘will not be more than $200 – $400 per vehicle’. Hmm

While sitting in the Barwil office Marie picks up a small newspaper all about ocean freight. It shows all the shipping companies in Panama City so we quickly get in contact with as many as possible.

Marfret (Rozo): Marfret is a French company so partly as a joke we decide to stop in and get a quote. The quote is low at $1460, but appears incomplete. When we try to clarify the details with Raiza, an assistant, it’s obvious she doesn’t know the details and doesn’t want to commit to anything.
We leave the office with more questions than before we arrived, but we are excited about the possibility of such a low price.

At the end of the day we still think Seaboard Marine is in the lead, and will continue to investigate the options at Marfret and other companies we have emailed.

Day Two – The search continues

We receive an email from Marfret that doesn’t really answer any of our questions so we jump in a taxi and head back to the office. Again Raiza is incapable of answering our questions and mentions her boss will be in the office shortly should we wish to talk with him.
When Mr. Martinez arrives everything changes immediately. He’s extremely professional, speaks excellent English and clarifies every question we have and then some. He even makes the quote lower because unstuffing is per container, not per vehicle. Now we’re down to $1233 and feeling much happier, with only one small hick-up to go. Marfret is purely a shipping company and as such don’t handle any of the paperwork, for that we’ll need a customs broker.

We move across town to the office of Mario, who can help us out. After he’s clarified exactly what we’ll need and some serious bargaining from Vince the price drops from $250 down to $100 each, with a guy to help us along the way. The ship we’re aiming for sails on a Sunday, which means we’ll have to load the container on Friday, leaving not a single day to spare.
We’ll make it simple smile

Day Three – Customs, Inspections & Insanity
We must get permission take our temporarily imported vehicles out of Panama, which is quite a task because we are not going with them. Our first stop is a customs inspection, only open from 10-11am where they will check over the paperwork we recieved at the border when entering the country. Waiting in the lot becomes quite amusing when another two French couples with vehicles show up, and then four guys on motorbikes. The police warn us this is a very dangerous neighborhood and we should be extra cautious, especially of children. We’re all dumbfounded considering we are standing in the parking lot of a police station, but keep a lookout all the same.

waiting for inspection with land rover 640x480

Waiting for inspection in Panama City

The inspection guy looks at the VIN number of the Jeep for about one second before he circles a mistake on my paperwork and walks away. The VIN number is correct, but at the border they only put the first half of it under “Engine Number”, which is not acceptable. My Jeep doesn’t even have an Engine Number, so apparently the entire VIN again is required. With no time to spare our customs chaperon and I race down the road to customs, get a new form, race back and get re-inspected. During this time Vince and Marie went back to the hotel and now a problem is found with their paperwork (a mistake in the VIN). Again we race down the road, I forge Vince’s signature on the form and we race back in time to get our papers in. While getting a new form I bump into one of the French couples and two of the motorbike guys, all with mistakes on their entrance paperwork.

vince and land rover 640x480

Vince posing with his Land Rover

At 2pm an office of the police over the road opens that will finally approve our paperwork. We’re told our customs guy will meet us there so we wait, and wait and wait. Stress levels slowly rise and person after person runs out of the building and down the street to get a copy of some piece of paper or other. Everyone I talk to requires different copies and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the madness. After calling twice our guy finally shows up and we find we can not enter with shorts or flip-flops. After much shuffling and loaning of clothes and shoes everyone except me makes it inside. As time ticks down one of the motorbike guys gives me his pants and boots (he wears my shorts and flip-flops on his motorbike) and I walk into the office at 4:57pm, just as the lady says she will not process the paperwork for anyone else.

I somehow scrape through and get a hold of a single piece of paper that for some unknown reason has become the focus of my life. At one point there are three identical copies of my eight pieces of paper, each with at least three or four stamps and signatures. I shake my head.

A problem is found with the paperwork of one of the French couples’ and so everything for them grinds to a halt. The office over the road is closed and nothing can be done until 10am tomorrow when the whole process is started again. They are also short on time and have already booked non-refundable plane tickets, which is all falling apart. Stress levels are through the roof for all of us and one guy completely loses it and starts yelling and screaming, not helping anything.
Vince and I have survived to progress another day.

Dan’s handy advice to others:

  • Firstly, give yourself plenty of time. If your ship is sailing on Friday, get the inspection done on Monday and relax for the week. Almost all of us had a short timeline and it was pure madness for no good reason. Running your heart out to a photocopier and back is not very fun.
  • When you enter Panama and get a piece of paper for your vehicle, make certain, and I mean 100% certain that every single piece of ink on that paper is correct. Nothing is too insignificant, trust me on that. Of the eight of us trying to get through that day, six had problems on their entrance paper.
  • If you later discover it’s not correct, get yourself to customs (Aduana) and get a corrected form before you do anything else.
  • For the inspection day be certain to wear long pants, closed toe shoes and sleeves. The guard will not let you in otherwise and you’ll save a ton of hassle this way.
  • At a minimum you will need copies of everything you have, probably multiple copies. The one that snagged most people was a copy of the entrance stamp to Panama from your passport.

We’re a step closer to Colombia and South America.
The madness & excitement continue to build.


This story continues in Shipping across The Darien Gap Pt. 3

14 Responses

  1. Brian12566 says:

    I think you just described the 8th circle of hell for me.

  2. Rejeana in Alabama says:

    I’m almost in tears just from reading your experience. A world’s record would have been set for the number of times I said “S**t”

  3. Juan D. says:

    Hey Dan,
    Can’t wait to know the end of the shipping story, hopefully the customs procedure will be easier in Cartagena. So,what’s your plan when you get to Colombia? I’m sure you’ll love Cartagena and Parque Tayrona (those two are a must), but then are you planning to go south to Bogotá or east to Venezuela? If you choose the first option be careful with the speed bumps on the road (between Santamarta and Pailitas). Seriously every town has at least one at entrance and one at the exit, and almost all of them aren’t painted, so you notice them when you are too close to brake.
    Good luck.

    • Dan says:

      Hey Juan, those speed bumps sound like Mexico all over again (groan).
      I’m going to hit Parque Tayrona for sure, and am still undecided on Venezuela. So many mixed reports. The lure of stupidly cheap gas is strong.

  4. Brian from New Jersey says:

    Wow, that is just crazy man. I don’t know how I would have handled all that.

  5. Ron Parker says:

    Unbelivable,and i thought Thailand was over the top in certain parts of the country.Is there such a thing as a 4th world country? Because i think you are in it!!

    • Dan says:

      Haha. I can see where they are coming from though. Obviously they had a lot of trouble with stolen vehicles being taken into / out of the country so they made some very very strict rules to prevent it happening.
      When there are rules, they must be enforced.

  6. Konstantin says:

    This is just insane:).

  7. Love your post. I’ll share it on facebook if you don’t mind.

  8. Heather & Daniel says:

    Hey Dan your blog is very helpful and inspirational!

    My Argentian boyfriend and I (from Colorado) are moving to Argentina the first week in January. Any road warriors out there want to caravan? We’d love to split the cost, AND the hassle of the container process in crossing the Darien gap. We’re shooting for the last two weeks of January. We are open to leaving from either Panama or Costa Rica, and arriving in either Colombia or Ecuador.

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