The border crossing between Panama and Colombia is considered the most difficult border crossing in the Americas, primarily due to the fact that there is no road connecting them. This problem area is called the “Darien Gap” and is about a 50 mile gap in the highway system. People have driven through this area, but it takes a tremendous amount of planning, permitting and an awful lot of luck to get through as the area is dense with drug traffickers and indigenous people who want to protect their land and ways of life. Essentially, it is next to impossible to do.
In prior years, there was a ferry system in place which made crossing around the Darien Gap very easy and relatively inexpensive. We were told that the ferry was shut down after it was continuously found to be moving drugs and unauthorized merchandise from Colombia to Panama. As of the date of our arrival to Panama, only one option exists for passenger vehicles which is loading the vehicle in a shipping container, which is then loaded on a container ship and unloaded in Colombia.
The first step is determining what size container is needed to make the shipping possible. There are three sizes of containers available; 20’, standard 40’ and 40’ high cube. Also, for vehicles that don’t fit in a container, there is an option called “roll on roll off” which can fit nearly any size of vehicle, but costs more and vehicle security is compromised as the keys must be turned over to the shipping folks who can rummage through your vehicle at will. In our case, our truck measured 21’ in length, 7’8’’ in width and 8’3” tall. We were too tall for a standard container, but as it turns out, there is no difference in price for the high cube containers over the standard 40’.
Next, we had to find a shipping partner. Now that we have worked through the process, we realize the importance of having a trustworthy shipping partner. If your shipping partner bails on you, you may end up paying the other half of the container. Both vehicle owners must be present to retrieve the vehicles in Cartagena and if your shipping partner doesn’t show up, you cannot retrieve your vehicle and may end up paying $25/day to leave the vehicles at port. While staying at the marina in Belize, we met our friend, Karl from Germany, and ended up running into him again in Antigua, Guatemala. We met for the weekend at Lake Atitlan and before saying goodbye, Laughlin and I thought we would ask Karl if he would like to ship together. Later the following week, we met again in Antigua to measure our trucks together as his truck was 19’ long and the internal dimensions of the container were 39’6”. Our overall combined length was 40’, too long for the internal dimensions of the container, but Karl’s front end was just a little lower than our rear end allowing his truck to go underneath the rear of our camper, giving us 1” of wiggle room. We decided to move forward and I think everyone had a little bit of anxiety reserved for shipping day.
To reserve a container, we used shipping agent Boris Jarmillo. Shipping agent Tea was another agent we contacted but she took three weeks to respond to the initial email and we decided to begin working with Boris instead. Once we contacted Boris, it was just a matter of providing our vehicle information to him and he sent an email back to us with instructions for the first inspection process. We initially thought we would have to reserve a container a month or so in advance but, surprisingly, it is only necessary to reserve one week ahead. That said, I would make sure to contact an agent earlier than one week to make sure everything is taken care of.
The first step in preparation for shipping was our DIJ inspection in Panama City. We received instructions to arrive at the inspection building at 7:00am but did not arrive until much later due to crazy rush hour traffic which didn’t seem to be a problem. The DIJ inspection for us was strictly a VIN inspection, nothing else. Karl had an error in his VIN which was problematic, but not a problem to have fixed. For anyone with a VIN error, there is a customs building close by that should be able to get you in and out in less than ten minutes. After the VIN inspection is complete it is necessary to wait until 2:00 to pick up the inspection report. Quick and easy!
Our next step in shipping was preparation for loading the trucks. We met Boris in Colon and right at 9:00am our friends, Joe and Josee, showed up to join in the festivities. Following Boris, we drove a short distance away to customs where our paperwork would be handled. It was necessary to provide five copies of our import papers, vehicle title, owner’s passport, insurance document and DIJ report which were handed to the customs agent. The customs agent did her magic, stamped my passport to indicate I no longer had a vehicle in the country and provided us with a signed preliminary bill of lading. The process took about 30 minutes for all three vehicles and then we jumped in the trucks to begin the loading process.
When we arrived at the loading yard, two containers and a crew were waiting for us. Since the containers were on top of a trailer, we were required to back onto a flatbed truck to drive into the container. Joe and Josee were first to load. Their truck is a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 four door with an awesome XP camper attached to it. The overall length of the truck was nearly problematic for the flatbed, but there was just enough room to do the trick. As the flatbed began backing up to the container, the truck looked like it was on a giant flimsy spring and Joe looked a little nervous way up in the air. Once the flatbed was finally aligned, the shippers asked Joe to air down his tires to make sure he would fit without hitting their solar panel or roof vent. Finally, he began to pull in which took a decent amount of time and was slowed by the fact that the guy giving directions forced him to drag their awning nearly the whole way into the camper. It made everybody cringe and Joe was pretty unhappy once done as there was plenty of room on the other side of the camper to accommodate the awning. Fortunately the shipping company said they would pay for repairs if necessary. Before Joe was even out of his truck, it was our turn to load.
Everyone was high on adrenaline after watching Joe and Josee load their truck and when I crawled in the truck it seemed surreal that the moment had finally arrived. Most of the crew was focused on securing Joe and Josee’s truck at this point and when I began to back up the ramp, I was lucky to have Karl help tell me when to stop at the top of the flatbed. Once on top of the flatbed, it was very strange being in the truck as we moved closer to the container as it felt like being in a truck on top of a spring flopping side to side. When the signal came, I began to pull into the container very slowly easing forward until the signal came to stop. It was much less dramatic than Joe and Josee’s had been but we were just a little bit smaller than their rig. As I crawled out the window and onto the hood, the first thing I noticed was that it was probably 110 degrees in the container. The second thing I noticed was that we had nearly six inches of room in front of the truck still and we knew the fit would be very tight. I crawled out over the hood, down between the grill guard and the container, onto the floor and finally army crawled my way out underneath the truck. As I emerged from the container, I saw that Karl was already in his truck and headed for the flatbed to begin loading. Without much incident, he was on the flatbed and in just a few minutes was pulling into the container behind our truck. When he reached our truck, it was clear that both trucks would not fit without pulling forward a little more. So, I jumped back in the container, army crawled back under the truck, climbed on top of the hood and through the window feet first, started the truck and pulled forward until our grill guard hit the end of the container. Once again, I crawled out the window, narrowly squeezed between the even tighter space between the grill guard and container, and army crawled my way under the truck. As Karl pulled forward, we finally had enough space to close the doors when his truck was 1/2” from our truck. I emerged from the container, very sweaty and relieved that we would actually fit in the container together. Within two minutes, I was reminded that our battery cables must be disconnected and that I had to pop the hood meaning I had one more trip back into the container. So I army crawled back into the container once more, climbed up the even tighter passenger side space between the truck and container, through the window, popped the hood, climbed back over the hood, opened the hood and back out of the container. This was the final time I had to go back into the container, but nonetheless, it was miserable.
And this is how you make a combined 40′ of vehicles fit in a 39’6″ space:
Once the container was closed, a special lock or “seal” was placed to hold the container door closed. This seal breaks if the container is opened which allows us to ensure the container has not been tampered with since it was closed in front of us. Once this was done, everything was taken care of on the Panama side. Now, onto the retrieval process in Cartagena!
Boris sent us a link with a writeup about retrieving our vehicles in Cartagena and it consisted of 21 steps… yes you read that right, 21 steps. The majority of the steps were fairly minor requiring minimal time, however, it did take us a day and a half before we were free to go. Our ship was delayed by four hours leaving Colon but we were still able to get the majority of the paperwork done on the first day beginning at 8:00am. I have provided a link Boris sent us above, but thought I would add a few notes as to our process.
Firstly, we arrived at the Customer Service area of the port and showed our passport to get a visitor badge to be able to get in and out of the secure area of the port. Once we had this, we visited with Nicolaus and Ivan who are two very helpful guys working for the port. Ivan took us to GSA (our shipping company) where we began the process. At GSA, we received a copy of the Cartagena bill of lading along with an invoice that needed to be paid. From GSA, we left the secure area of the port, walked six blocks away where we paid the invoice at the Occidental bank (this must be paid at this specific bank), then went across the street to the DIAN office (customs) where we filled out a form with the help of Adriana. Finally, we had to make a copy of this form and leave it with the DIAN office with our other copies.
After we left the DIAN office, lightning began to fill the air and just before we made it back to the port entry, it began to pour rain. Awesome. As we were running to escape the wall of water around us, our paperwork began to get wet, along with our shirts, pants and thoroughly soaked through our shoes. Karl and I were dripping wet when we arrived at the GSA office where I first spilled Karl’s water bottle on the floor, then spilled the water in a humidifier on the floor. I’m not sure why they needed a humidifier, but I sure spilled the heck out of hit. Fortunately, everybody working was very friendly and they even made us an awesome espresso while we waited. We gave David at GSA the receipts for payment and he gave us a letter authorizing the port to release the container to us. From here, we headed back to Nicolaus and Ivan’s office for more fun.
At Nicolaus and Ivan’s office, we filled out some more paperwork, they reviewed our release letter and, while we began to freeze being soaking wet under the blasting A/C, notified us they needed a copy of our health insurance. We were told we needed to provide “accidental insurance” which we read to be auto insurance but was actually health insurance and neither of us had a copy as they were in our trucks, inside the shipping container. I was able to locate a renewal form in my email without too much trouble and was sufficient, but Karl could not log into his account. From here, Ivan gave us another invoice to pay at the bank just outside of the office just before everybody took a break for lunch. Karl and I packed a sandwich that was thoroughly smashed throughout the morning’s festivities and sat on the steps outside the office enjoying the break, but a little concerned about the lack of proof of health insurance for Karl. At 1:00, Ivan came back, told us the inspection would be in the morning the following day and said goodbye. Apparently, the health insurance doesn’t really matter. We jumped in a taxi and returned home for the day.
In the morning, we packed up all of our luggage and left the Air BNB at 8:15am to arrive at the port for our 9:00am inspection. Since only the drivers are allowed to be in the shipping area, we dropped Laughlin at the visitor’s entrance with our luggage, got badged in and went to visit Ivan and Nicolaus. Karl and I received one hard hat and one orange vest between the both of us which must be sufficient personal protective equipment. We were escorted to the container where the container inspector and customs inspector were waiting to open the container in our presence. As the seal was cut with bolt cutters, I began to get nervous expecting to see a terrible scene inside but when the doors opened, the trucks were just where they were left. Almost. When we inspected the front of Karl’s truck, we noticed that his fog lights had been pushed back by our camper and cracked the glass cover. I suppose this is the risk of shipping two vehicles at max container capacity.
After opening the container, we had to remove the vehicles. Karl jumped in his truck, fired it up and backed out without a problem. His battery had not been disconnected in Colon and I hoped ours might still be connected as well. I crawled under the truck, squeezed up the front and opened the hood to find one of the batteries disconnected. Without a wrench to reattach it, I crawled back under the truck, climbed in the camper to get a wrench, and back under the truck once more to reattach the battery. Once the hood was closed, I crawled up on top of the hood, put my feet through the window and squeezed into the driver’s seat. The truck fired up without an issue and I began backing out of the container watching the space between the camper and container closely as nobody was in front of the truck guiding me out. We parked both trucks in front of the warehouse right next to the container where Adriana completed the customs inspection which was pretty much just a VIN inspection. After the inspections were complete, we parked the trucks where they would wait until we received our final bill of lading and authorization to leave the port.
To begin the final steps in completing the shipping process, we went to GSA one more time to inform them that the trucks were received, received the final bill of lading and took an additional, fine cup of coffee. Next, we went to Ivan and Nicolaus to present them with the final bill of lading. We paid a final bill to the port for cleaning and returning the container then returned to receive our letter authorizing the release of the trucks. We ventured back into the port one final time and showed our letters and Karl showed his driver’s license. (Remember, I had my wallet stolen in Mexico City and I keep saying it was stolen in the last major city which works every time). We met the container inspector by the trucks, waited ten minutes for clearance and left the port.
Despite being the most difficult border crossing in the Americas, which it certainly is, our experience wasn’t too bad. We had a lot of built up nerves that weren’t necessary. The only real reason to have a bit of anxiety was fitting both trucks in the container as it was extremely close. We were happy to ship with Karl as he was a reliable shipping partner and a great person to spend a couple weeks with. Ultimately, we made it to Colombia in one piece and without much hassle, so we conclude it was a successful undertaking.
So, the question everybody wants to ask; how much did this cost? One of the reasons we booked with Boris was that he gave us a fixed price and we actually paid slightly less due to the exchange rate. Boris quoted us a price of $2,030 for the entire container which we split equally between both trucks. We paid right at $1,000 each which we were happy about considering the cheapest I previously read about was nearly $1,300 for shipping. Now, we did have to pay for flights, two nights of hotels and four nights at the Air BNB but it was great to have a break from our camper for a week. Already we miss the A/C but we love having the Blanco Caballo back!