When Gregor first told me that there was no road connecting North America to South America, I thought he was joking. That’s ridiculous, I thought, of course there’s a road.
Well, you can’t actually drive between North and South America because of a 50-km break in the Pan-American Highway called the Darién Gap. It’s a roadless stretch of swampland and forest between Panama’s Darién province in Central America and Colombia’s Chocó department in South America.
Gregor had researched all the travel blogs and scoured all the overlanding forums for all the possible ways to get Lucky across the Darién Gap. He said that the best way was to put her in a shipping container in Panama and then pick her up in Colombia a week later.
The idea of sending Lucky out to sea without us seemed rather scary and somewhat irresponsible. But the options were slim.
There used to be a company called Ferry Express that shuttled cars and passengers between Panama and Colombia in 2014, but it stopped running in 2015 due to lack of demand.
There are “roll-on-roll-off” (RoRo) services where your car is driven onto ship, but you can’t drive the car yourself – you need to give your keys to a dock hand, which opens up the possibility of stuff being stolen from your vehicle (this is a very common occurrence at shipping ports, even when your stuff is locked up and secured).
Based on other overlanders’ recommendations, we chose to ship Lucky across the Darién Gap with an agent named Boris Jaramillo (firstname.lastname@example.org) at Evergreen Logistics. To keep shipping costs down, we asked our friends John and Paula (OurBiggerPicture.com) to share a shipping container with us. When they said ‘yes’, we were relieved that we would be able to go through the shipping process with people we could trust. We were also relieved that Lucky wouldn’t be alone in a dark box in the middle of the ocean – she would share the container with her big 4×4 camper buddy, LoJo.
The travel blogs and online forums warned us that shipping a vehicle between the Americas is a highly inefficient, soul-sucking experience that takes about 2 days of running around on the Panama side, 3 days of running around on the Colombia side, and a whole lot of waiting in between. Fortunately, we knew what to expect by following the detailed and immensely helpful descriptions written by Life Remotely.
Shipping Across the Darién Gap: Panama Side
November 13, 2015, Panama City
John, Paula, Gregor, and I started the shipping process with a 9:00 am vehicle inspection at the central police station, which was located in a really sketchy neighbourhood.
All of us waited in the hot sun for the plain-clothes inspector to come around with his clipboard. He scanned our vehicle permit, checked the VIN number on the van, took a peek in the engine compartment, and scribbled on some paper.
The inspector told us to drive to the Customs office several long blocks away to correct some details on our vehicle permit. After that, we had to drive back to the police station and give him the corrected permit. The bureaucratic nonsense had begun.
Gregor and I drove back to the police station and submitted our corrected permit to the plain-clothes inspector. He then instructed all of us to go to the Secretary General office four hours later and pick up the remaining shipping paperwork.
John, Paula, Gregor and I waited in that office for two hours. We were pretty damn happy when the paper was in our hands.
Next, we all drove to the port city of Colòn to put our vehicles into a shipping container bound for Colombia.
Gregor and I were pretty nervous about putting Lucky into the container, but I think John and Paula were much more nervous because they weren’t sure if LoJo would fit. They stripped their rig of all peripherals and stuffed them inside the camper. They also put their surfboard inside our van. Still, it was a tight squeeze.
When the container doors were locked, I was relieved to know that Lucky was safe inside, but I was also really sad about the possibility that I might never see her again. Good thing I don’t have children or pets – if I could get this emotional over a VW van, imagine what kind of drama I would cause as a parent!
Throughout the whole shipping experience, Gregor and I stayed at the same hotel that John and Paula had booked in Panama City – the TRYP Hotel. This hotel happens to be attached to Albrook Mall, the largest mall in Central America.
The first couple days of living at the mall were very convenient and kinda fun. We could walk around in air conditioned comfort instead of sweltering in the streets of Panama City…
…and we could easily buy replacements for stuff that had worn out over the course of our travels, like my hole-infested underwear, saggy bathing suits, and failing electronics.
The novelty of living at the mall wore off pretty quickly, though. By the third day, we had already walked the mall several times and had become incredibly bored of mall food. We didn’t want to pay heaps of money to dine at the hotel and we didn’t really want to drive the convoluted freeways around the mall just to get to a normal restaurant. So we ate nutritionally questionable, mediocre meals served by exceptionally apathetic food court workers for five days. It was kind of pathetic.
It wasn’t until my 42nd birthday (November 18) that we had a decent meal: Thai food! John and Paula joined us at Thai Garden 2112 in downtown Panama City to celebrate both my birthday and our passage from North to South America. We shared amazing dishes with lovely wine and excellent service – it felt like a real treat for all us.
Big City Tourists
On November 20, exactly 30 days after entering Panama, we flew from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia, and waited for Lucky to arrive at port.
With seven idle days in both Panama City and Cartagena, we had plenty of time to play tourist in the two cities.
Both Panama City and Cartagena have old colonial districts, but Panama City’s colonial downtown felt like a partially re-gentrifed ghetto compared to Cartagena’s well-established colonial walled city (which happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Both cities have similar population (~900,000 people), but Cartagena felt more intimate.
I think that Cartagena is a much nicer place to visit than Panama City. Panama City seemed like a noisy, polluted, fast-paced commercial city full of skyscrapers, rough-looking barrios, and non-descript suburbs. Cartagena felt like a culturally diverse, architecturally interesting, and proudly distinct city with a more laid-back vibe.
And I’ll be totally honest…I think Colombians are way more open and welcoming than Panamanians.
Shipping Across the Darién Gap: Colombia Side
November 24, 2015, Cartagena de Indias
The process of retrieving your vehicle on the Colombia side consists of 25 steps. It basically involves going back and forth multiple times between administrative buildings separated by many blocks of crazy traffic, then waiting in a queue or reception room for hours at a time for a piece of paper, which you must then run back to another administrative building many blocks away, where you must wait some more before processing another piece of paper, which in turn will allow you to proceed to the next building to wait for a different piece of paper…etcetera, ad nauseum, ad infinitum…
It took three days of running around and waiting around to get our vehicles back on the Cartagena side.
Shipping a vehicle across the Darién Gap is not something we would want to do again or wish upon others. While the technical process wasn’t difficult, the emotional experience was rather challenging for us.
Plus, it’s not exactly a cheap endeavour. Shipping Lucky to South America cost us $4320 CAD (~$3200 USD):
– $1325 CAD shipping fees
– $1500 CAD 15 nights of hotels
– $1370 CAD two flights from Panama City to Colon
– $125 CAD transportation (taxis, bus, parking, highway tolls)
Looking back now, all the cost and worry and bureaucracy felt like a rite of passage into the next continent. We are grateful for all the help and support provided by our travelling community and the agents in both Panama City and Cartagena.