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John and Mandi

us --> van --> overland
905 days a wanderin'

Shipping Panama to Colombia, Darien Gap

Sep 27, 2017
by John

We did a fair bit of research on shipping the gap before setting off on our trip, always planning to just ask someone in front of us about the specific details. Josh and Jenna were our go to couple, they gave us a really good step by step overview after we reached out. A few weeks before we were scheduled to ship, they posted a detailed shipping entry on their blog, making us some lucky bastards. It is a great writeup, and what we relied heavily upon.

Getting Started

Having an agent on the Panama side made us feel much better about starting the process, choosing Boris since he had already helped several overlanders we know personally. He was great to work with and he answered every question we had during the process. I don't know exactly what his fee was but the Panama side was really easy, we whole heartedly believe, thanks to him and his dad. He sent us instructions on what to do at each step but we used Josh & Jenna's blog post instead, never encountering any problems.

Using the Pan-American Travelers Association Group in FB we found a partner, Daniel, whose Land Cruiser was small enough to fit with our van. This wasn't trivial as the internal available length of a 40' container is 12m. Our van is 6.1m but the space needed to secure the rigs totals 0.9m (30cm from the front wall, 30cm from the door, and 30cm in between the vehicles). Our van plus the buffer space brought the combined total to 7m, leaving 5m for the second vehicle. Once we agreed to ship together we supplied Boris the requested personal and vehicle information, including dimensions.

DIJ

The first real step was getting our vehicle inspected in Panama City. We saw an entry in iOverlander stating there was a location in Colon but we asked Boris and he confirmed that the only one was in Panama City. We knew Matty & Ingrid had decided to ship the same time but we never found out who their partners were until arriving at the inspection location. To our surprise, Tim & Haley were in the parking lot when we rolled in. We had hiked with them at El Imposible in El Salvador in January!

Arriving early as instructed didn't give us much of an advantage. By 7:30 three of the four rigs were parked and we were all in line to get a number for our inspection slot. While we were waiting a local tried to skip us, you know...we were all just standing around in a crappy, dirty, overly crowded lot for no reason at 7:30 in the morning with mounds of papers. Daniel spoke up in perfect Spanish and the local got in line behind us. We then stood around near our vehicles chatting while we waited for the inspections to start. A little after 8:30 the inspectors arrived, Matty & Ingrid about 15 minutes later. We only mention this because the three of us already there had numbers 14-16, Matty & Ingrid were number 20. We'd still get there early but it might not be entirely necessary.

DIJ, Panama City, Panama

Kinda looks like he's leaning

Eventually the inspectors reached our numbers, Mr. Local Line Cutter tried to claim ours but was denied since we had the actual number stuck to our paperwork. He skulked off with a smirk, what a dick. The only thing the inspector checked was our VIN, took less than a minute. We all went our respective ways knowing we'd see each other at 2:00 to pick up our official inspection papers.

Ingrid & Matty decided to camp near our hotel, we all walked the waterfront before heading back to retrieve our inspection papers. As only the drivers were allowed into the office Matty & I went in and were seated in the lobby, with Tim joining us a few minutes later. Even though we had already provided copies of our documents to the inspectors, who knows what they did with them, we had to provide the official that came to help us with another set and then wait for her to create the documents we were there to pick up. Daniel arrived shortly after we had started the process requiring him to wait for ours to be completed before the official would begin his. No matter, an hour later we had what we needed and could escape the bowels of the city, leaving Daniel behind to fend for himself.

Colon

Four days after our police inspections our group convened in a Domino's parking lot at 7:30 in the morning to meet Boris for loading. Elder Boris arrived, we didn't know more than one person would be helping us, and led the convoy to a lot next to the shipping office where a flatbed tow truck was waiting for us. It took a little over an hour and a half to get all four vehicles loaded into the containers, English speaking younger Boris arriving during the process to assist in getting everything accomplished. This was probably the single most stressful event of the trip to date, unloading possibly being the second. While it went smoothly, we were worried about bumping a wall or having some sort of unpredictable catastrophe occur. It was the 858th day of our trip, we were finally putting the van into a container, huge barely begins to define it.

Colon, Panama

Swanky

Colon, Panama

All nervous but playing it cool

Colon, Panama

Glad you're going first

Colon, Panama

Look sharp, the lot supervisor is here

Colon, Panama

Watch dat ass

Colon, Panama

But they look kind of puny

Colon, Panama

Last but not least, loading of Beast

All high on whatever endorphins our brains satiated us with after each successfully stuffing our vehicles, we split up to have the drivers go with younger Boris to an aduana office. He took our papers one by one, calling us back as they were completed to have our vehicles stamped out in our passports and to sign the final official paper in Panama. The ladies stayed behind to witness the locking of the second container and to get a ride from elder Boris to a shopping center, our final destination in Colon. We arrived shortly after, paid younger Boris the $650 and started the journey to our respective lodgings. Mandi and I got a cab back to Panama City, we flew to Cartagena the next morning.

We did manage to take a GoPro video of our van being loaded. I ended up having to back into the container because the tow truck driver decided our van was too long to back onto the flatbed like everyone else. He has unbelievable skills, positioning each of us perfectly. We sped the video up resulting in a few segments becoming a bit jerky.

Begin Retrieval Paperwork in Cartagena

We had been told that no matter what, retrieval was a two day process. The first day would be paperwork and the second would be unloading and driving off into the hot, sweaty, blazing sun of Cartagena. Arriving at the port early the Monday after the ship arrived, we learned that Daniel's wire transfer to Boris encountered a problem. There wasn't much to do except buy our vehicle insurance, eat some gelato, and regroup to start fresh the following day...he had the transfer sorted late that afternoon. A text that night from Matty & Ingrid made it clear that it was a series of hoops that consumed the entire day.

Day 1: and then, and then, and then, and then

Nothing could have prepared us for the steaming pile of rigamarole we encountered when we finally started the retrieval process. We spent countless hours sitting across from a nice, but severely incompetent individual, who didn't have the slightest idea of what was supposed to be done. He had to be new. The gentleman in the cubicle next to him, Mr. Imnottellingyou, was obviously experienced with the task at hand, but he was only available to answer the questions from the new guy, Incompetent Kevin, occasionally giving him some obscure direction. We started with being trapped for over an hour at Incompetent Kevin's desk when all we were supposed to do was inform him we were starting the process before heading to Global Shipping. He insisted we give him all of the necessary documents, including the ones we didn't have because we hadn't gotten any of them yet.

Following the direction of Mr. Imnottellingyou, Incompetent Kevin also insisted we give him our proof of accidental death and dismemberment insurance. A few minutes later Mr. Imnottellingyou informed us he couldn't get in touch with our providers to confirm our insurance. Let us think, "Hello, I'm Jose from Cartagena, Colombia, calling to confirm that Mr. Fazio has $200,000 of international accidental death and dismemberment insurance?"...he was surprised he never received a return call. Explaining that companies don't provide personal details to random unknown individuals located on other continents would have gone nowhere. I really didn't have it anyway and Daniel's coverage wasn't enough, we resigned to having to buy it, not fully comprehending his insistence to only buy it from SURA until later that night.

Time ticked, we sat waiting, then finally Incompetent Kevin told us we needed to go to Global Shipping...no shit, I said that over an hour ago. We left the office, got our badges approved to access the freight yard and huffed it to Global Shipping making sure to keep within the safety lines that had green arrows painted in them. David came out with a couple pieces of paper that explained the billing receipts, we said OK, he went back to his office to get the actual billing receipts to give to us. The inefficiency was excruciating.

We followed our arrow painted safety route out, got Mandi from the waiting room, and walked the six blocks to the bank to pay our Global Shipping receipts. Even though we reached the bank before it closed there was no way we were going to make it back to Global Shipping before their two hour lunch started at noon. We decided to rush to DIAN to complete their paperwork before they too would close. Interestingly enough, once inside DIAN we were given the correct directions to find the individual we needed, we just didn't understand that cubicles counted as offices. We ended up walking the entire bottom floor, following the directions each person gave us after they told us they weren't the one we needed, even though the individual before them was sure they were. Just before reaching the first person that gave us directions, we found the correct individual sitting in the second office on the right...well, actually the second cubicle on the right when coming from the lobby.

By now, if I were reading this, I'd be thinking that if we had a better grasp of Spanish we wouldn't have had nearly half the run around. Daniel is a native Spanish speaker. Again, Daniel is a native Spanish speaker...from birth if anyone is confused. Up until entering the DIAN building, we always thought our less than stellar Spanish was the reason we sometimes found ourselves being led astray. We feel much better knowing that is really not the case, or not every case.

DIAN completed, we started the journey back around what must be the most fortified building in all of Cartagena. What the hell else is kept in the DIAN building anyway, actually, we don't want to know. Realizing the time, we dropped by SURA and bought our accidental death and dismemberment insurance from the pregnant office girl before stopping to lick our wounds over lunch, waiting for everything to open again.

At 2:00 we returned to Global Shipping, after having our badges reauthorized since they only give you a half day at a time (how optimistic), and turned in our paid billing receipts receiving a convoluted document that appeared to outline the steps we were needing to take. David actually couldn't even explain it to us, he just mumbled a bit. Then he returned to his office to get our letter authorizing the port to unload our container. I still don't know why he never brought out everything he needed to give us up front, maybe he's trying to increase the distance he walks each day?

Back in front of Incompetent Kevin we sat, him eventually deciding I was the primary vehicle owner who had to fill out some forms. He had to ask Mr. Imnottellingyou what was supposed to go where and turned his monitor so I could copy the information from their system. I am an application developer, hand writing information that is already in an automated system is ludicrous. He was so confused it took almost twenty minutes to complete less than 10 fields, most of them repeated data such as my full name in three different spots. I wanted to jam my pen into his eye socket, instead I smiled. He eventually produced our first bill for their services which we paid at one of the onsite banks which were mere feet from Incompetent Kevin's desk. For those that have been following along, we had to walk 6 blocks to pay Global Shipping because, for some unknown idiotic reason, they don't use any of the three different banks that are effing onsite. Returning with the receipt, and sitting around some more, he said we were done at precisely 3:30 and that we needed to be back at 9:00 the next day to continue. I left wanting to destroy something beautiful.

Later that night we received an email from the pregnant girl at the insurance office that included attached copies of the accidental death and dismemberment insurance we had purchased earlier that day. Mr I'mnottellingyou was CC'd and, coincidentally, he had the same last name as the pregnant girl. More than likely, not coincidentally at all.

Day 2: More Fun For You

We were more than serious on the second day, as instructed, and were seated in front of Incompetent Kevin ready to go shortly after 9:00. We received hard hats and vests and were told to venture into the freight lot and find the port inspector assigned to us. Within 20 minutes we were standing in front of our container waiting for the inspector to return with bolt cutters. Lock cut, container open to vent, we couldn't believe we were finally about to free our vehicles. There was a slight holdup on the guy who would unstrap and unchock our rigs, I went ahead and reconnected the van's battery. Roughly 30 minutes later I drove the van out and parked it near the container for the port inspector, and the DIAN inspector who arrived even though we had been told he might not be able to inspect us until 1:30, to look it over.

Cartagena, Colombia

People do work around here

Cartagena, Colombia

Nice hat

Cartagena, Colombia

A breath of fresh air

The DIAN inspector was a decent bit on the heavy side and it was hot. Before Daniel's Land Cruiser was removed from the container the DIAN inspector left to return to his office...he never checked it. I was told we'd have to get our TIPs from the DIAN office because the boss was in a meeting and would sign them after. Joy.

Even though Daniel's battery had been disconnected it was dead, we think from the detached cable hitting the terminal while in transit since he forgot to tie it back. The workers pushed his Land Cruiser out and I used our portable battery pack to jump start it. We were told to park in a different area and to go to Global Shipping to get one last document. That visit David brought out the one piece of paper we needed on the first trip, probably because it was the only thing he had to give us. Joyfully following the painted green arrows we exited the lot and went straight to DIAN, receiving our TIPs within seconds.

Soon we were once again seated across from Incompetent Kevin, who will forever be also remembered as Painfully Slow. It was 10:45, we had a real chance of beating the long ass lunch closure. Time passed, we stared, Incompetent Kevin pecked at his keyboard, more time passed. Shortly after 11:00 Mr. I'mnottellingyou instructed Incompetent Kevin to have me fill out the exact same forms as the previous day, checking a different box on each one this time. Daniel and I remembered most of the information, Incompetent Kevin almost shit himself from how fast we accomplished it, Daniel scribbling the final line they wanted in Spanish. We then received our final bill, once again paying it at one of the banks located mere feet away.

We were so close, but Incompetent Kevin insisted he needed another form, left and returned with one, spent 15 minutes attempting to fill out part of it, then tore it up and threw it away. I guess we didn't need that one after all. At 11:30 Mr. Imnottellingyou printed and handed over what was announced as the last forms we'd need to complete. Each of us received a questionnaire regarding their performance. Daniel and I rifled through them, mostly illegible, giving them high marks since they still had our vehicles captive. Once we handed them over we were told we couldn't get our rigs until after lunch. It was 11:31 but for some fake ass bullshit reason the inspector was already at lunch and we weren't to come back before 1:20, even though their lunch hour was 12-1.

We left and had lunch at the same place we had eaten the day before, returning to the office at 1:00 to start pestering them. Of course, this time we had to wait outside their office but within 10 minutes they were collecting our badges and sending us to meet the port inspector again. It took longer to access the freight area since we didn't have badges any longer. They reviewed our passports and driver's licenses, keeping the licenses until we drove out. Reaching our vehicles we fired them up and cranked the A/C, Daniel finally got a tour of our van while we waited for the port inspector.

Cartagena, Colombia

Now can we have them?

One more check of the VINs, even though he checked them when we removed them from the container (how many orange vans can there really be), then we signed one last effing piece of paper before driving to the weigh station. A worker had to stand on a bucket to type our information into a terminal since it was at the height for big rigs. It didn't work anyway as they had us go through the weigh station individually even though we shipped in a single container and were never weighed separately. I didn't bother trying to explain this and let the frustrated worker radio ahead to just have the gate opened for us to leave. One last stop to have our VINs checked again, licenses back, and finally driving out at 2:00...death by paper cuts would have been much more efficient!

I can read through this and laugh, Mandi cannot. The truth is this isn't even all of it. The amount of useless documents we had to receive before we could continue is why, one day, there will no longer be any trees. The process is stupid and almost entirely unnecessary, except for getting a TIP that is hand written which actually concerns us a little. In speaking to Matty & Ingrid, their experience was exactly the same. A cluster of inefficient effing mundane incompetence, which is all now behind us.

Our Expenses

While all of our trip expenditures are designated under a specific country, we wanted to extrapolate out everything related to the Darien Gap to see our total shipping costs. The embedded expense report includes every essential expenditure from the moment we stuffed the van into the container until we drove out of the port of Cartagena, including all of the copies we made before and during the process. What isn't included are tours, entrance fees, or random purchases under miscellaneous. We ended up spending $2,349.45, just under our expected total of $2,500.

 

We didn't want to create a special category just for copies so we used the existing one under border crossing. A few copies were needed for the DIAN office in Cartagena but the majority were for the Panama side. $10.31 is a lot of copies, the amount of paper we carried around was absurd.

Loading the van on a Tuesday morning and retrieving it by mid afternoon 8 days later resulted in us dining out a total of 16 times for an average of $20.81 per meal. The remaining $40.78 accounted for under dining out was spent on iced coffees or cappuccinos, and sometimes a sweet treat, almost every afternoon. We purchased a few items we could stick in our hotel fridge, but nothing that replaced a full meal. Every place we rented included breakfast, curtailing our overindulgences...a little. Dining out in Cartagena was wonderful, plenty of flavorful options and diversity in dishes. Some of the best food we've had in a long time.

All of our living expenses were for lodging, $420.27. We decided to get a pricey hotel near the Panama City airport, $93.79 for one night, and found a really great place in the Cartagena's San Diego neighborhood for $46.64 per night.

The bulk of our expenditures, as expected, were under transportation, totaling $1,529.67 or 65.1%. Our shipping quote from Boris was estimated at $1015 per vehicle, our total cost for both ports was $1022.29. It did take us longer than the two days allotted so the extra $7.29 is fair. We recorded the special insurance we had to purchase, $24.31 (70,000P), under freighter as we couldn't retrieve the van without it. We opted for the direct flight to Cartagena, at the time of booking it was $25 more per person, spending a total of $393.30 for the both of us. Everything under mass transit was for taxis, including our $70 ride from Colon to Panama City. We walked between the offices during the retrieval process and split cabs with Daniel for the times we shared.

 

The pie chart and expenses table are programmatically added to this page. Meaning, if we update our expense information then those will automatically reflect the change possibly creating a disparity between the textual breakout and the actual expenditures. This information has been provided to assist others in planning a long-term trip so use accordingly, by all means contact us to ask any questions or to point out any errors so we can remediate them.


Say what? (3)
Sep 27, 2017 at 02:40 PM
OMG... I know everyone does it and survives but holy shit.. what a pain in the ass. Lol.. maybe when it's our turn for SA we'll just fly down and buy a vehicle for that continent. lol Thanks for all the great info! XXX
Sep 27, 2017 at 08:33 PM
Wow. Just wow.
Oct 7, 2017 at 11:03 AM
Hey Rhonda and Dennis!

Sorry for the delayed response, good WiFi is harder to come by these days. Shipping is what it is, maybe in a few months it'll settle again and be much faster for others. Colombia is wonderful so it's all just a distant memory now ;)
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