After a month of relaxing time comes the most feared part of the trip. The crossing of the infamous Darien Gap. The Panamarican highway stretches all the way from Alaska to the bottom of Argentina. All the way? No not all the way. A small 160 km section between Panama and Colombia was never build. Thick jungle, drug smugglers and protests by the indigenous population are some of the reasons why you can’t drive all the way from Alaska to Argentina. This means I’ll have to go by boat. A few years ago there was a ferry going between the two countries but that one no longer exists. So now the only option is properly shipping your car, in a container on a big boat. There’s plenty of stories going around on how this shipping is a huge pain. It’s supposed to be insanely expensive and take forever to organize. If there is only the tiniest mistake on your temporary import permit when you enter Panama they’ll refuse to let your car on the boat. And nobody really knows what will happen when you get to Colombia, how long it’ll take to get your car out or how much it will cost you. So this scary gap in my trip had been on my mind for quite some time but of course I always decided to make it future-me’s problem. The one thing that was clear is that you could put two cars in one container and save a lot of money. So one thing I did was that since I entered Mexico, whenever I would meet an overlander heading in the same direction I would ask them for their contact details to see if we could ship together. Sometime during my stay in Costa Rica I got an email from Renzo and Mary (literally the first people I met in Mexico and the first people I discussed the shipping together with). They had contacted a shipping agency and had a quote and a date and asked me if I wanted to join them. Both the price and the date were good for me so I was happy to agree and have this part organised. We would need to get our cars inspected in Panama City, then drive to the other side of the country to Colon to put the cars in a container and a few days later we would be able to pick it up in Cartagena, Colombia. The shipping starts in Colon on the Caribbean side of Panama because crossing Panama Canal is insanely expensive. So not a good idea to have your car on the boat already.
Inspection in Panama city would be at 7 in the morning and since there are no good camping spots near the city we decided to meet up at a bush camping spot used by almost every overlander. It’s in a dead end street squeezed between a hotel and the Panama Canal. I had one more thing I wanted to do before then. I needed an oil change and I had found a mechanic who spoke English, knew something about VW vans and who could do a general checkup of the van. I haven’t had any problems since my throttle cable snapped in Guatemala and my parents brought a bag of spare parts to Nicaragua. But I’d like to know if some new issues were coming up any time soon. Well… That question got answered when one of the red lights came on while to the mechanic indicating: generator problem. I stopped and a quick check showed I lost the generator belt (again!). I guess when I replaced it myself I did not put enough tension on it. Luckily I had a spare and luckily I was on my way to a mechanic. They fixed the belt and did the oil change. After the inspection the mechanic told me that my van was by far in the best state of all the overlander VW vans he had seen (only some 6). Not sure if that is good news for me or bad news for the others. The topped up some of the liquids and had only one thing that could use some work: my power steering belt was a bit loose. That explains some of the squeaky noises. The problem was that you need a special tool to fix this. They did not have the tool. It’s not a big problem but it would be good if I would fix it soonish. After the inspection I spend an hour driving a 20 minute stretch through Panama City. Complicated intersections and multilevel highways make for a lot of detouring. Renzo and Mary were already at our spot. Later that night we were joined by two more overlanding cars and, in the middle of the night, someone making noises right outside my car. I did not sleep that much that night.
At 7 we show up at the inspection place. There are quite a lot of local people that need a car inspection too. We get a number and wait. At 9 it’s finally our turn. The inspector only looks at the VIN number, takes the copies we made of all our documents and we’re done. Now we have to wait until 2 to get some more documents. We show up at the office across the street at 2 and have to wait there until 4 for us that get a piece of paper back saying our vans can leave the country. We decided we did not want to camp at the same spot again so we headed to Colon where just outside of town we could camp in the driveway of a hostel. We stayed there for two nights so we could clean our cars and pack for our days without them.
In Colon we meet our shipping agent and an American guy with a motorbike and a German guy with a car who are sharing another container. We drive to the aduana together where we hand another big stack of copies and get a stamp in our passport saying we’re allowed to leave the country without our cars. After that it’s time for the harbor. I’ve not often seen something so disorganized and chaotic as the Colon harbor. There’s containers and trucks everywhere without any logic or plan. The paths are full of trash and giant potholes making driving a pain. Our containers are already on trailers and the harbor does not have any ramps to drive up. So we need to back up onto a towing truck who puts us in front of the container so we can drive in. After that we need to disconnect the batteries, squeeze our way out of the container, pay for the shipment in cash and witness the sealing of the container. After that it is time to get the hell out of Colon (not the nicest city in Panama). One taxi and one bus ride later we are back in Panama City where we have booked a hotel for the night with a rooftop pool. The rest of the day we do not get much further than the pool.
We have one full day in Panama City before we fly to Cartagena. We walk along the coast line watching the Panama City huge glass building skyline. We follow the coast until we get to Casco Viejo, the old city center. Amazingly the city changes from glass and concrete to nice colonial buildings. That evening we hang out at the hotel until after dinner when we take a taxi to the airport. Our flight is at 5 in the morning so we decided to sleep at the airport. The sleeping plan didn’t really work because the AC at the airport was set to freezing. It was ridiculously cold, time to go buy hot chocolate. Our flight via Bogota to Cartagena was pretty quick and the next morning we’re at our hotel in Cartagena. Sadly this all went so quick that we’re too early for check in and need to wait in the lobby for a bit. After not sleeping at the airport we are so tired that the only thing we manage to do is get to the city wall for a sunset beer at the bar there.
The next two days I explore the city during the day and meet up with Renzo and Mary for dinner. Cartagena is one of the prettiest colonial cities I have seen so far, but it is also pretty touristy. There’s loads to see: city walls, parks and churches. At some point when I walk in the less touristy area I accidentally walk into a baseball game that’s being played on the street between the houses and the city wall. The field has a bit of an odd shape being 3 times shorter in the one direction than the other but the game looks pretty official. One night dinner comes from a whole bunch of street food stands, the square is full of people, music and dancing: a good fun night.
After this two day intermezzo we can finally go to the harbor to start the pickup process. This involves going forth and back between multiple offices and banks in and around the harbor to get papers, copies and pay bills. We learned some important lessons: never have walk up to a bank counter with two people; never try to copy a legal sized sheet of paper onto a letter sized sheet of paper; you cannot pay by card at a bank but they do have an ATM right next to their counter where you can withdraw money to pay them with. At about two we have the appointments and permissions to open the container the next morning. This last night in Cartagena we stay at a tiny weird hotel next to the harbor so we don’t have to go back to the city.
On our final day of harbor fun we get our containers open, drive out the cars and get the harbor and aduana people to inspect the cars (the magic VIN number is enough). Then at about noon we are free to go and officially in South America. Nothing can stop me now until I get to the bottom of Argentina. Except for maybe the Andes.
A big thanks to Renzo and Mary shipping together, these things are so much easier and fun with more people.