Crossing the Darien Gap
Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
187Trip End Ongoing
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We had been told by the shipping agent to have the van at Puerto Caldera, a small port on the Costa Rican pacific coast, by early Tuesday morning in order to complete the necessary paper work. Sparkling clean, and emptied of all foodstuffs, we complied, only to be told to return the next morning at 9 am as they were running behind schedule due to port congestion. We headed off to "put in time for a day" and to find lodgings for the night. We were lucky to have the company of Adrian and Tanja (a nice young Swiss couple who had been travelling throughout North and Central America for the last fourteen months) who were shipping their Mercedes van on the same vessel
MV "Libra Leader" arrived early on Wednesday morning, but the port was still busy loading a container ship, so she had to anchor offshore until the dock was free. Within five minutes of our arrival on Wednesday morning we had provided the port agent with copies of all the documents required by customs. We were then told to wait until 3 pm for further instructions. As they say, patience is a virtue - especially when one doesn't know how long the wait will turn out to be. Luckily, we had books with us, as well as a snack or two to keep us happy. Finally, after two full days of waiting, we were allowed to drive our vans through the port gates to have them inspected and ready to load when the ship arrived.
The port agent had indicated that a turnaround time of four to six hours would be sufficient to offload the new cars destined for Costa Rica and to load our two vans. We were therefore quite ecstatic to see our ship berth at 6 pm - but unfortunately the timing coincided with another of those torrential downpours, so unloading was further delayed until midnight. We could see the ship from our hotel, so awakened and walked outside at midnight, 2:30 am and again at 5:30 am to check whether it had left. It finally set sail at 6 am....only about 24 hours late
A note of interest. Based on reports from previous travellers, we had budgeted up to Cdn $5000 for the Darien Gap crossing (with the possibility of having to ship by container).We were extremely fortunate, therefore, to be able to ship the van with NYK for only US$250, plus $105 for agents fees. Compared to the cost of flying to Quito - US$760 plus $52 airport tax (for the two of us) - we felt that the shipping was an extremely good deal.
Landing in Ecuador - a whole new continent - was a much anticipated thrill for us. The ship wasn't expected to arrive at Esmeraldas until Sunday, so we had two full days to explore the capital city. Quito is a modern, cosmopolitan city with a population close to 2 million, and has a well-preserved colonial centre that was declared a world heritage cultural site by UNESCO in 1978. It has a wonderful location, high in an Andean valley flanked by mountains and snow-capped volcanoes, and although it is only 20 km south of the equator it enjoys a perpetually springlike climate thanks to its altitude of close to 9,000 ft above sea level
By midday on Sunday we were on the bus to Esmeraldas. First climbing out of the city into the mountains, and then the dizzying descent down the western flank of the Andes to the coastal lowlands. The scenery was stunning, and our enjoyment was only slightly dampened by car sickness and the "near misses" on the steep and winding road. After a brief stop for a late lunch, we arrived in the grubby port town by early evening, and quickly found some even grubbier accommodation.
The ship hadn't arrived as scheduled on June 6th, but was expected by early Monday morning, so we were there waiting by 9 am. Security was extremely tight so we had to cool our heels waiting for the agent to accompany us inside the port gates
Esmeraldas has the reputation of being the most dangerous city in Ecuador - everyone from the hotel manager to the taxi driver, and even the ice cream vendor, warned us to be extremely careful at all times on the street - so we were rather anxious to be on our way. Thus we were somewhat frustrated the next morning to find the paper work still hadn't been completed. By this time we were working with our fourth official, and each one was eager to demonstrate that he was more important than the last one. Nevertheless, within two hours we had finally obtained all the necessary approvals, signatures and stamps and were at long last allowed out through the port gates. So, now we're back on the road and ready to begin a whole new series of adventures!
* For anyone who is planning this crossing in the near future, e-mail us and we'd be happy to provide complete details.