Shipping Across the Darien Gap: Panama to Colombia Part 1
Written by Jessica on June 26, 2012
This is a long post. I'm sorry, but it's unavoidable. Before we get into this arduous process in detail, let's cover a few pieces of general advice.
There has been a rumor for about four months now that a ferry service is going to start up between Colon and Cartagena. Currently, first sailing is scheduled for July 2nd, but along with quetzals, I don’t believe it exists. The ferry has been delayed three times due to the bureaucratic permit process. Meaning it’s in the hand of corrupt officials and slow-moving government employees.
First-hand info about the ferry is being posted on Drive the Americas.
Check Your Paperwork
The easiest way to delay the shipping process is to have incorrect information on your paperwork. I know how exciting it is to finally be finished after spending five hours at a border crossing, but seriously: CHECK YOUR PAPERWORK. Read everything a dozen times. Compare numbers to your title, passports and other permits. Argue with the custom officer if you have to, just get it RIGHT. You shouldn’t care if they say it doesn’t matter. They don’t know what will matter to the shipping company or Panama City police.
This is especially important for your Panamanian temporary vehicle import permit, the one you get after you cross the Costa Rican border. Read everything carefully and make them change it if it’s wrong. Your alternative is to spend hours driving around and sitting on your thumbs at the customs office in Panama City.
Managing Your Paperwork
You will need lots of copies of everything. After you cross into Panama, go to a copy shop and drop some change. Every time you complete a step in the shipping process you are usually given a new piece of paper. Make copies of it! Five copies of everything should, in theory, get you through the first half of the process. Take all your originals and all your copies to each office. Spending a few extra dollars on copies can save a lot of time and hassle.
Here are the documents you’ll need to have in quintuplicate: vehicle title, vehicle registration, driver’s passport photo page, driver’s license, car insurance that you bought at the border, temporary import permit received at the border, police permission certificate (from the Secretary General in Panama city), and the bill of lading (from your shipping company or agent in Panama City or Colon).
Get a Phone
If you don’t have a phone, we recommend buying a cheap one in Panama. If you have an unlocked phone, pick up a $2 SIM card and put some time on it. All of our agents and shipping officials spoke English. If you have a phone, they can call when things are delayed. More importantly, you can call them when they don’t show up. Email works ok for initiating the process, but once you start inspections, paperwork, and loading, you’ll need immediate responses. If you are shipping without an agent, this is less important.
Agent vs. Solo
There are pros and cons to shipping with an agent. We had two separate sets of overlanding friends ship two weeks before us. One used an agent and the other went solo. We compared their costs and they were nearly identical (less than $50 difference). Our agents spoke great English, knew the process, and most importantly, were able to connect us with another traveler, saving us the cost of shipping solo.
If you speak Spanish well, and have a little extra time, shipping direct is possible and not super difficult. As we walk through our process we’ll annotate where and why the agent helped us.
Note that having an agent does NOT mean the process is going to go smoothly. Officials and shipping companies can cause difficulties regardless of whether you are alone or with an agent. Also be aware that certain companies do not have agents in both Panama and Colombia. If your agent does not have an equal on the Colombian side, you will have to pay extra if you want help. More on this in part two.
Ask for Advice
Help from other overlanders saved our butts more than once. Finding a cheap hotel with parking in Panama City, fixing an incorrect number on our permit, and using an agent to find a shipping partner were all bits of advice that came from others. Reach out when you start the process, and ask for advice. Do your homework via Google and read other bloggers’ accounts. It will save your bacon!
Timing is everything in this process. Most ships sail over the weekend. Meaning you need to load your car into a container on Wednesday, Thursday, or possibly Friday. Before you load you need to have your vehicle inspected in Panama City and return later in the day to finish up the paperwork. Perfect timing would be having your car inspected on Wednesday and then loaded on Thursday.
However, if anything goes wrong at the inspection, like it happens to be raining, then you are delayed an entire week. Get the details and plan your dates accordingly. If you show up in Panama City on a Wednesday, expect to be hanging out for 10 days. If you show up on Monday, you’ll be in Cartagena by the weekend.
Pants and Shoes
Make sure you have closed-toed shoes and a pair of pants in your pack before you lock up your car. You will need them to be admitted into the police station in Panama City, and the owner of the vehicle will need both to enter the port in Cartagena.
Ok, enough advice. On with the steps!
- Contact a shipping company or agent. Starting this two to three weeks before you want to ship is a good idea, but not 100% necessary. We emailed three days before starting the process.
- Ask an agent and look online for someone you can split a container with, it will save you at least $200.
- Arrive in Panama City. We recommend arriving on a Sunday or Monday.
- Day 1: Have your car inspected by the police. If you have an agent, they will likely meet you at the hotel and accompany you through this process. Inspections only happen between 9 and 10am, Monday through Friday, when it’s not raining and when Mercury is in retrograde (ok, kidding about the Mercury thing, but not about the raining thing). Your engine must be cold for the inspection, so arrive early. Bring originals and one copy of the following documents: driver’s passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, Panama temporary import permit, and Panama insurance.
- Later the same afternoon (between 2-3pm), you have to go to the Secretary General. The office is in the big police building across the street from where you did the inspection (and by street, I mean dodgy 4-6 lane highway). Wear pants and close toed shoes or you will be denied entry!
- The secretary general will issue you a piece of paper that I will refer to as your police permission certificate. This certifies that you don’t have any outstanding tickets and that your car is otherwise allowed to leave the country. They will need originals and one copy of the following: driver’s passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, vehicle registration, and Panama temporary import permit.
- You will need to send a copy (photo or scan) of this document to your agent and possibly the manager of the shipping company.
- Day 2: Get your bill of lading and go to customs. We have heard some people do this in Panama City, but we did this in Colon just before loading our vehicles.
- Go to the customs office and present the originals and three copies of the following: bill of lading, police permission certificate, driver’s passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, insurance and the temporary vehicle import permit.
- Customs will type a bunch of stuff in a computer; neatly staple your copies into three piles, and issue you a canceled vehicle import permit. It looks exactly like the one you got when you entered Panama, except the “salida” section is filled out. Customs keeps one set of the papers and you keep the other two. Also, they will also stamp the driver’s passport so that she/he can leave the country without the vehicle.
- Next, go to the loading area. This varies depending on the shipping company; there are multiple ports within the city.
- Do the container paperwork and pay port fees. Usually a representative of your shipping company will for this for you.
- Drive your vehicle onto the platform to have it weighed and inspected.
- Follow the shipping company representative to your container. Drive in, strap it down and close the door. A special lock with a serial number on it will be placed on the container.
- The container area officials will issue a piece of paper with the container number, the lock number, the ship name, and some other info. If you are shipping with others, make sure you get a copy of this document.
- Pay the man (or the company). Cash is easiest, but bank transfers are also allowed.
- Get back to Panama City, drink lots of $1 beers, and figure out how to get your butt to Colombia.
A moment of honesty: this half of the process is not fun, but it isn’t that hard. Maybe we just got lucky. After reading peoples accounts of piles of paperwork and endless hours waiting I have to say that compared to other major bureaucratic events in my life, like trying to transfer college credits, or applying for a green card for my husband, this process was a piece of cake. Be patient, be nice, stand your ground, and you will get to Colombia just fine.
Three fellow overlanders: DriveNachoDrive. Home on the Highway and Adventure the Americas all shipped their cars exactly two weeks before us, with two different shipping companies. Although we were sad because they left us in the Panamanian dust, we were delighted that we could learn from their shipping experiences. And if we ever catch up, we promise to buy them lots and lots of beers. Read the account by Drive Nacho Drive here and the account by Home on the Highway here .
Shortly after crossing into Panama we got a heads up from Home on the Highway to check our vehicle permit, specifically that the vehicle type (camioneta) and vehicle motor number were correct. Our permit listed N/R for the number, which would have caused us to fail inspection at the police station. We went back to the border to have them change it to be the same as our VIN number. If you are reading this and are already in Panama City, there is a customs office you can go to to have it fixed, but our agent told us this could take three hours.
A note on VIN vs. engine numbers: technically your VIN number and engine number are not the same. If you know your engine number, awesome, put that down. If you have an American car, your engine number is not likely on any paperwork. It is also probably in a very difficult spot to read on your engine. The officials in Panama accepted our VIN number in place of the actual engine number. It's probable that they will accept anything except N/R if the number isn't easily readable.
Tuesday afternoon. We knew the timing would be tight, but it was worth asking.
Tea responded within an hour. Yes we could ship, but if there were any delays we would be pushed back a week. Also, she would try to find us someone to ship with. She quoted $1350 for a solo 20’ container and $2100 for a shared container shipping with Everlogistics. This would cover all costs in Panama, but nothing in Colombia. This cost was accurate, but we also paid a bunch for photocopies, taxi rides and a hotel.
Tuesday we arrived in Panama City and sent Tea an email with our hotel location. She told us that her colleague Amy would meet us at our hotel at 8:45 Wednesday and we would follow her to the police inspection. She said that she may have found another person for us to ship with, but we would have to see if they showed up the next morning. She told us to bring the following original documents and five copies of each to the inspection: driver’s passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, insurance from Panama, temporary vehicle import permit. We only needed 1 copy for this inspection, but the rest were used later in the process.
Amy (who spoke excellent English), met us at our hotel and we followed her to the police inspection area (N8 57”59.8” W79 32’42.1”). We parked and she went inside and told the official we were waiting. They said we had to wait an hour until our engines cooled. An hour later is was pouring rain and our shipping partner hadn’t shown up. Amy told us that if it doesn’t stop raining they won’t do the inspection. Not to mention that we couldn’t find the engine number on our car and were paranoid that the officials wouldn’t accept the VIN. Stress level was at maximum.
Then, all our travel karma points were cashed in. Our travel buddies (who had been lost in Panama City for the last hour) showed up, the clouds parted, the rain stopped, and Amy told us to stop looking for the engine number because the officials won’t care as long as the paper doesn’t say N/R. Ten minutes later the official came out, took our paperwork, double checked the VIN and told us to get out of there. Bullets dodged.
Note that you don’t receive any paperwork after this inspection. Amy said we needed to come back around 2:30 and go to the Secretary General’s office across the street (N8 57’56.2 W79 32’42.7”). She said we would need to pick up the police permit. As I understand, the officer that does your inspection takes your paperwork across the street to the secretary general’s office who checks to make sure you don’t have any outstanding fines on your car. Then they issue you a permit to leave the country.
We returned to our hotel for lunch and I found an email saying that we had to load our car on Thursday. Originally we planned inspections on Wednesday, Thursday as a buffer and to load on Friday. But the shipping company said Thursday was our only option. If you load on Friday, your car goes next week. Tea said we needed to be in Colon at the Super 99 supermarket at 9am the next day.
At 2 o’clock we parked in the same lot as the inspection and ran across the highway to the police station.
Of course we totally forgot about the whole Secretary General thing and wandered around outside lost for at least 15 minutes before a really nice receptionist, in the wrong building, actually wrote on a piece of paper “Ir a Secretaria General”. Duh.
We went back outside and there was a small check-in booth. The lady took an ID from each of us and gave us a visitor badge. Make sure the owner of the vehicle has a backup ID, do not hand over your passport, you’ll need that later. We went into the building and another secretary took down our passport information and then gave us directions to the Secretary General’s office.
The lady at the Secretary General’s office asked us for the original and one copy of the following: vehicle title, vehicle registration, driver’s passport, and the temporary vehicle permit. She took the papers and went to a computer and after entering in some information, printed our police exit certificate. We had to sign a few papers, and fill out a form with our name, shipping dates and shipping company name.
We left the office and ran into our shipping partners on their way in. We went back across the highway to our car and just as we were about to leave, the manager of the shipping company, Boris, called me. He wanted to know if we had the police permission certificate. I said yes. He wanted to know about the other car. I said I didn’t know. He said he needed to know right away. We went back across the highway and waited for our friends to finish.
They came out 20 minutes later and said they had the police permit, but had to go to customs because on their import permit the vehicle license plate number was wrong. This was extra lucky. If the inspection official had noticed in the morning, they would not have passed and they never would have been able to make the loading the next day. They went to customs and had the form changed. We called Boris and he said we needed to move the meeting time back to 11am the next day.
We had to take a photo of the police permission certificate and send it to Boris and Tea, they used this to get the Bill of Lading completed.
We left our hotel at 8:30 the next day, planning to arrive plenty early, as it’s an easy hour drive between the two cities. About 20 minutes from Colon my phone rang again. Our shipping partners had been waiting at the Supermarket since 9am. Neither Boris or Tea called them to explain the change in shipping times. Doh. I explained (in Spanish, proudly), the time changed, we’d be there in 20 minutes, Boris would arrive at 11.
We hung out at the Super 99 and waited for Boris. And waited. And waited. 11 rolled around, then 11:30, and just before noon. We started to worry, so I started emailing, and texting and calling. I called Boris, and Tea and Amy. I emailed Everlogistics and Evergreen shipping and all our agents and possibly their friends. I wasn’t rude, I just said, “Hello, we are waiting, if the loading has been delayed please let us know.” I don’t know if it helped, but 10 minutes later our guide for the day, Luis, showed up.
Luis gave gave us our Bills of Lading with three copies and we followed him to the Aduana office near the port (N9 20.783 W79 52.735). He didn’t really help with the customs process, just showed us the door. Our Spanish-speaking shipping partners helped a lot here. The lady at the desk needed the originals and three copies of the following: bill of lading, police permission certificate, driver’s passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, insurance, and temporary vehicle import permit.
First, she stamped the driver’s passport, essentially cancelling the vehicle permit stamp Kobus got when we entered the country, allowing him to leave the country without the car. She split the documents into four piles while the lady behind her typed all our info in a computer. They created our vehicle exit permit. It looked exactly like the permit we got at the border except that the “salida” section was filled out. She made three copies of this exit permit and we signed all of them.
Then they returned our originals and stapled all of copies together in three separate piles. She kept one pile and gave us the other two. She said one was for us and the other would be surrendered later. Then our shipping partners went through the same process.
Finished at the aduana, we started looking for the next place to go. Our guide, Luis, had run off. We asked around and couldn’t find the next place to take our papers too. Normally, I would chalk this up to bad Spanish, but since our shipping buddies were fluent, this was just a flat out mess.
Back at the aduana, someone explained that we needed to go to CCT (the port) to load our car into a container. We drove to the end of the road to the well-marked CCT area and went into the office. The official took our papers and said we had to go pay a $100 fee. Hello, red flag. I told our shipping partners that I thought we shouldn’t pay. I called Boris, he said, “Where is Luis?” and I said, “I dunno, he disappeared, we are at the CCT.” Boris said, “One moment, I will call him.” Literally 20 seconds later, Luis showed up. Lesson learned, when your guide runs off, call the boss.
Luis took our papers and went back into the office. He ran around for a good 20 minutes while we made sandwiches in our cars and finished packing our daypacks for Cartagena.
Finally he came back and told us onto drive on the scales. We drove up and got out of the cars. The officials checked the VIN, inspected the inside, totally impressed by our fridge, and sent us on our way.
Luis gave us directions to the container. We drove around a few stacks of containers and there she was, smack in the middle of a huge empty lot, just waiting for us. We drove in, tied the cars down with Luis’ help and then sat around and waited. Luis went to get the officials to seal the container.
We waited about another 20 minutes.
At last the officials came back, instructed us to close the doors, and then placed a seal on the container. The officials gave Luis a piece of paper with the container number and a bunch of other info on it. We follow him to a small office where he made a copy for us.
Then as discreetly as possible we counted out $1050 in cash and handed it over. Our shipping partner did the same. Luis didn’t even count it, just stuffed it in his bag.
We walked to the front of the CCT area, and listened to a stern warning from Luis about not walking anywhere in the streets of Colon. After we promised not to leave the train station, he let us get in the taxi. It cost $3 to go to the train station where we hung out for about two hours before we could get on the train. Dying of thirst, Kobus set off to find us some beers. The security guard said there was a shop three blocks away. I made Kobus take off all his valuables, including his wedding ring. He walked to the store and came back with a 6 pack. When a guy from Joburg says the streets are scary, you know you shouldn’t be walkin’ around.
The train back cost $25 a person, plus another $15 taxi ride back to the city center (the train stops about 10 minutes outside Panama City). It’s a nice ride and a good way to see the canal. Plus they serve $2 beers. Back in Panama City, we called it an early night. The next morning (Friday), we booked tickets from Panama City to Colon for $356 per person. We spent another day in Panama City and flew out Saturday morning.
$1050 for a shared 40' container
$5 for photocopies
$75 for three train tickets back to Panama City
$40 for taxis from the train station and to the airport
$1068 for three one-way tickets to Cartagena
$180 for four nights in a hotel in Colon