Posts Tagged “Shipping a car across The Darien Gap”

Before leaving Panama City we go to the Marfret office one last time to settle our bill. Apparently it’s quite normal in the shipping industry to pay the bill after the ship has sailed because the agent knows they have the original Bill of Lading, without which you have nothing. When you pay, you get the paper. Seems fair.
When all the calculations are made, the final figure is significantly lower than we were expecting. Both of us keep out mouths shut and pay the $554 each.

Skip a few days to Colombia and the port in Cartegena is not far from our hotel, so on another blisteringly hot & humid day we walk down to our customs agent, hoping to start the paperwork game on the Colombian end. We’ve heard all manner of horror stories from paying many hundreds of dollars to vehicles being impounded to waiting weeks for customs clearances. Sounds like fun in any case.

The agent working for Marfret knows all about us and has our paperwork ready and waiting. Again there are stamps and signatures, this time even a really fancy one that makes the paper bumpy, and us say ‘Ooohhh’. The agent wants us to pay $35 each for a ‘Documentation Fee’, which we try to get out of. When we show the original quote that included a $50 fee, the agent happily raises the price to $50. Damn. After a good deal of negotiating we end up paying $35 each and then split the other $15 (?!?). We’re OK with this as we think it partly makes up for paying less in Panama City.

We move just down the road to customs and get the process happening there and are more than a little amused to once again run into our French friends. It’s great to see familiar faces and we catch up on all the news since we saw them.
I’m impressed when a customs guy checks our container number in a database and immediately knows exactly when the ship docked, when our container was offloaded and exactly where it is. After filling out a standard vehicle form and making certain we have just the right number of copies of everything we’re told to wait while it’s all typed up. The office is extremely professional, clean and air conditioned and I’m really happy with how things move along, not at all stressed. Unfortunately it’s now time for a two hour lunch break, so we settle in for some waiting. After lunch we discover the only person that can give us the final signature is in a meeting and we wait a further two hours for that one signature before we are all set to collect the container.

Around the corner at the port itself we a given security passes and move inside and meet a guy that has been waiting for us. He speaks great English and obviously assists tourists through this process regularly, making things much simpler for us. I don’t have life insurance so am not allowed to enter the actual port to collect the Jeep. I want to go in, but hand the keys over to Vince to keep the process moving along. They seem pretty serious about safety here, actually checking up on his insurance and giving him a vest and hardhat to wear.

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Vince playing workman

Vince moves the two vehicles out of the container and parks them in the port, a service we have to pay for. It must be our lucky day as we are not selected for ‘random’ inspection so the process can continue and we don’t have to pay extra for the inspection. A few hours later I watch Vince drive the Jeep out of the port, before he returns for his Land Rover.

I’ve never heard of anyone getting their vehicles from this port in only one day and most people end up paying around $115 after the inspection fees. Talk about a lucky break.
It’s 9:15pm when I drive out into the streets of Cartagena, more than a little dumbfounded to be driving my Jeep in South America. It makes my head hurt icon smile

Final Price (per car, sharing a 40′ High Cube container):

  • Actual Shipping (inc. Ocean Freight, Bunker, Stuffing & Unstuffing & Lashing) $554
  • Documentation Fee for Bill of Lading paid to customs agent Mario $100
  • Bribe for Mario’s guy to correct paperwork at customs $10
  • Port Fee in Colón: $5
  • Documentation Fee in Colombia: $43
  • Port Fee in Colombia: $58
  • TOTAL: $770

(A regular 40′ container is the same price as a High Cube)

Our shipping agent

Rozo / Marfret:
The man in charge who helped us immensely was Mr. Martinez (
I would take his advice on which customs agent to use (maybe Mario, maybe not)

Feel free to ask any questions about the entire process, I’m more than happy to help anyone attempting this.


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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

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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 icon 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.

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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.

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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

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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.
  • 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, (in French).
Absolutely amazing!

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

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