Darien Gap Crossing (The Car)

Trip Start Jul 01, 2011
Trip End Jul 21, 2012

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Flag of Panama  , Colón,
Thursday, February 2, 2012

After yesterday's failed attempt to drop our car off at the port of Colón, today is the second time and hopefully it will be a charm. For those like me who didn't know about it: there is no way to travel from Panamá to Colombia by road, although the two countries are connected by land. The Darien region is a jungle full of diseases, bandits and guerrilleros. There is no road, and no ferry service (discontinued about 10 years ago). So the only way to get from Central to South America with a vehicle is to put it in a cargo ship and to put yourself on a plane (a 1-hour flight) or on one of the many private sailboats that offer a maritime crossing via the beautiful San Blas / Kuna archipelago (a 4-day journey). Our shipping partners Robin and Miet chose the latter option but none of the boats accepted dogs so Mai and I booked a flight.

At 7.30am I find myself driving from Panama City to Colón - again. I make it to the customs area around 9am, soon joined by Robin and Miet. I rejoice to find an old-fashioned phone booth near the office, insert a few coins and call Señor Boris (our shipping agent). He says that the messenger will meet us soon with the new Bill of Lading (the document essential to any shipping procedure).
Around 10.30am the messenger arrives and delivers the freshly-printed and stamped documents. We enter the customs area, greet the same lady who helped us the day before, and joke that this time we're planning to ship our container in a boat that is neither damaged nor delayed. By 11am we have the customs approval. Things are going pretty smoothly so far, especially compared to yesterday! We exit the office and meet the messenger who hops on his motorbike and guides us to the Container Port, about 10 minutes away.
We park outside, give our ID's to the security guard and proceed to the office. We hand our papers to the security folk: they instruct us to park on the side, near the palm trees, and wait. By the time we move the cars, our messenger / guide has disappeared. After 15 minutes I ask the port security staff what's happening next: they explain that our guide is in the process of paying for the port services. Once he is done our cars will be inspected. A few minutes later the man comes back and we move the vehicles to the inspection area.
The inspector checks the VIN and chassis number of my vehicle then asks me to open the trunk. He unzips each bag and looks inside for 2 seconds before closing it back. He jokes that going from Panama to Colombia is quite laid-back: It's when you leave Colombia and enter Panama that inspections are very thorough. The inspector moves on to check Robin and Miet's camper van. They are both expecting a hassle because their vehicle is full of gear: they live and sleep in it. The man opens the trunk, sees a surfboard on the bed, says something about surfing, lifts the board slightly, puts it back, then tells Robin: "Ok." I suppose he got scared of all the work he would create for himself if he started asking them to remove all the stuff from the back of the van! We step away from the cars as they are being weighed. Inspection: done!

On foot for the first time, our messenger leads us towards a big red 40-foot container. Our container. It looks huge from a distance but tiny when I get close. Is it wide enough for a full-size Mitsubishi Montero? Of course it is. It must be. After a quick discussion we agree that the camper van will go first because it is lighter: this way the 3.8l engine of my big Montero will be closer to the center of the container, for better balance. This my idea... no one else seems to care.

Robin drives his vehicle into the dark container, and our guide starts strapping it and nailing pieces of wood to prevent it from moving during the loading / unloading process. Robin and I are both a bit freaked out that our vehicles weighing about 2 tons each are tied with pieces of string and straps that are normally used to tie ladders and sports gear on roof racks. Later our shipping agent Señor Boris will tell us that this strapping is only good to prevent the cars from shifting in case of rough handling by the crate operators. If something really shakes the container there is no way to prevent the contents from damage. How reassuring :) Fortunately one of the straps (a towing rope) looks pretty strong  and ties up the rear of my Montero. This makes me feel a tad better.
After we double-check the straps, a guy comes by to seal the container. I pictured the old-fashioned wax seals but the modern ones are plastic rings with a unique number. It's not very romantic but it does the job. We take a few final pictures and walk to the exit of the port. 
We are now pedestrians, a strange feeling after traveling by car for over 6 months.

Señor Boris sends his son to pick us up and take us back to his office where we remit payment for the container shipping fees (about $1,000). There will be more fees to pay at arrival in Cartagena. All in all there is a good chance that this shipping method will cost us less than the original one planned for the day before, but we won't know for sure until we are done in Cartagena. Fingers crossed! For sure, the container preparation process was a lot of fun. Scary but fun.

I take a taxi back to Panama City to catch my flight while Robin and Miet take a bus to their hostel in Portobello (their boat doesn't until 2 days from now). The car is now taken care of but Mai and I still need to fly to Cartagena with our beloved doggies.
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