Shipping across The Darien Gap Pt. 3

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 Four – Stuffing
The big day has arrived to ‘stuff’ our vehicles into the container and we’re moving at 7:30am, driving across the city in rush hour traffic. First stop is the office of Mario for some last minute paperwork and payment, which we don’t want to do until the job is done. After we mention his customs guy ‘bribed’ us $20 to get our forms corrected a huge argument breaks out where Mario throws the paperwork at us and tells us to do it on our own. Eventually we calm him down and get things happening again.
While waiting for an hour we get our cars washed, hoping to avoid Colombian officials finding mud and charging for exorbitant fumigation.

We finally negotiate with Mario to send along his customs guy who clearly does not want to and proceeds to drive like a maniac as we follow him along the toll road to Colón and the port we will ship from. We stop in at the Manfret office to get more copies of paperwork and more important-looking stamps then move to the ‘free-zone’ and customs. Here we hand over everything we have and receive a permit for our vehicles to exit the country. Again everything is in triplicate, including stamps and signatures. The stamps in our passports that prevent us from leaving are also cancelled here.
It’s funny when we bump into the French travelers once again, who somehow talked their way around their paperwork problem and are back in the game.

Back at the port a random guy is asking for us and calls us in to get a security pass. He explains in great detail where we must take the cars, which sounds easy enough. Back outside Mario’s customs guy tells us to stand in line X and hand over our paperwork before he bids us farewell and disappears.

Time is rapidly ticking down and we’re starting to get a little anxious about the closing time of the port.
Forty five minutes later we’re still waiting in the scorching heat and summarize our position:

  • We have no idea why we are standing in line.
  • We have no idea why we gave all of our paperwork away.
  • We have no idea why we must pay $5 each.
  • We hope like mad we are in the right place doing the right thing.

We eventually get everything back and jump in our cars, excited to actually load the container. The directions we got earlier turn out to be useless and we are quickly driving aimlessly around the port with no clue where to go, even driving along a muddy gravel road that negates our car wash plan. At one point I follow Vince into a security check point where the guards furiously yell and wave their arms at us before we can even ask directions.

On a complete guess we try to walk into a yard with a lot of cars around and a guard takes our passports and hands us another security badge. We realize we are at the extremely busy RORO section where people are furiously getting cars inspected for importation. Still with no idea if we are in the right place we ask a lady who takes half of our paperwork into an office then gives the other half to another man, before they tell us to wait with the 25 guys importing cars.

We both have doubts we are in the correct place and now we don’t even have the paperwork we’ve invested so much time in.
We stand around in the hot sun feeling lost and helpless.
Heat, exhaustion and frustration make losing it look like a valid option at this point.

Finally we get an indication of progress when the guards from earlier are alerted to our permitted entry. We drive into the yard and wait for an inspection by the K-9 unit. The dog climbs in and on everything, never once looking more than downright bored. Again we wait, with the clock approaching 4:30pm, knowing the port closes at 5. Finally a customs guys says he can take us to our container so he jumps in with Vince and away we go deep into the port.

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The K-9 unit throughly searching the Jeep

I’ve never been to a major shipping port like this and can’t help but be in awe. We drive right down to within 20 meters of the water where enormous cargo ships are slowly gliding by. Directly overhead is a crane that is simply too big to be real and shipping containers are stacked high all around us. When we park in front of our container we both know we’ve made it and begin to smile and joke around at our success against all odds.

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Photo of the dock I was not supposed to take

A few minutes later we get another K-9 inspection that also walks through the empty container before we drive inside. We got a 40 foot ‘high cube’ container so Vince can drive straight in with his roof tent and we have plenty of room to spare lengthwise and about 40cm on each side. While waiting for the lashing crew to show up, I sit quitely on the concrete at 4:45pm, feeling happy and exhausted at the same time.

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Waiting to drive into the container

All four wheels are chocked and the four corners are tied down. We do a quick inspection, take a few photos, and sign a few forms as customs close and put a special seal on the container, now ready to go.

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Vince driving the Land Rover into the container

At 5:30 we are back at the entrance to the port and I sit on the gutter to eat my ‘lunch’ of fried chicken, fries and coke, the first thing I have had to eat or drink since 7am. We catch a taxi into downtown Colon, the express bus to Panama City and another taxi back to our hotel.

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Home for the next few days

This is by far the biggest, most insane few days of paperwork I’ve gone through in my life and as I drift off to sleep I can’t help smiling at the enormity of it all.
32000kms, nine months and ten countries down the adventure continues to grow.

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Lashed down and closing up


This story concludes in Shipping across The Darien Gap Pt. 4

9 Responses

  1. Brian12566 says:

    Holy crap, I was exhausted from reading your ordeal! It sure does seem alot harder than it needs to be. Way to get throughout and congratulations on not blowing your top.

  2. Luis Getter says:

    Woo hooo!!!! Awesome.

  3. Avery says:

    How in the heck did you get out of your jeep when it was inside the container?

    • Dan says:

      I did not put it exactly in the middle and there was enough room to slide out the door (just).
      I thought I might have to go out the window or even climb right through and out the back!

  4. Juan D. says:

    Hey Dan,
    I’m glad you are done with all the paperwork and you are finally heading to Colombia which is I’m sure you’ll enjoy (and being Colombian has nothing to do with that statement, well.. maybe a little). Fun stuff, I always write to warn you about little details that can sidetrack your plans: I don’t know if this actually affects your jeep (having a foreing plate), but most Colombian cities have laws barring vehicles transit during specific days based on the last number of the plate. Here’s some information for Bogotá.
    Anyways, if you’re in Bogotá and want to grab a beer send me a message.
    Good luck.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks so much Juan. I do not plan on going to Bogota just because the big cities are such a nightmare to navigate. I love your country! it rocks!

  5. Mike Grec says:

    That is some crazyness!!

  6. Your mum says:

    Your jeep looks so comfortable in the container- at home & all is well. Thomas the Tank Engine has a new friend! LOL Mum

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