In this document I attempt to explain the full process that I went through in getting my motorcycle from Panama to Colombia. Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.
I wasn’t going to write a document like this, but after having been helped by many similar blog posts I decided it was worth it. This whole process is so confusing and intimidating. My hope is that my account can help other travelers know what to expect as they make the jump from Central to South America.
Part One: The Explanation
The Darien Gap
These three words have been the source of countless hours of research and frustration. You see, the spuriously named “Pan-American Highway” is a true source of false advertising. There is still no road that connects the entirety of the Americas. As soon as I figure out who to sue for this farce, intense litigation will surely ensue.
The Pan-American Highway has just a single piece missing: The area known as the Darien Gap. This area of thick jungle between Panama and Colombia is host to all sorts of people and things that are better to avoid. Crossing on land is more adventure than I need ride now, but it is theoretically possible.
Depending on who you ask, fellow Nebraskan Danny Liska was actually the first person to complete a total overland journey of the entirety of the Pan-American route (1962).
Even he shipped his motorcycle ahead from Panama and continued on foot. His journey through the Darien jungle is a harrowing tale and he was very nearly killed after being captured by an indigenous tribe.
(My Grandma had the newspaper clippings.)
Of course, a road has been discussed. The map below is from is from a 1980 issue of National Geographic. It shows a dotted line through the Darien, indicating that the road is “under construction.” Additionally, there has been a ferry service in the past.
But right now, there are no convenient options for this crossing. Accordingly, I will attempt to explain in this document the method that brought Annie (my motorcycle, in case you are new here) and I from Panama into Colombia.
Part Two: The Planning
I arrived in Panama with no concrete plan. So much of my planning time in Central America had been devoted to the plethora of bureaucratic border bonanzas. On Sunday, February 18th I arrived in Panama City and began vigorously sending emails investigating my options. I will try to summarize each one below.
Flying the Motorcycle:
This was what I considered my most likely option. Though it is much more expensive, the 41 step process to cross each border in Central America had worn on my psyche. I was ready to exchange a chunk of my meager budget for a method which would be logistically more simple. It is not in my nature to “throw money” at problems, but I was prepared to make an exception. Some of my quotes and contacts:
Notes: Very good response time. Seemed eager to work with me.
Notes: A little late in getting back to me, but sent a specific response once they did
Contact: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Panama Soluciones Logisticas
Notes: They were on holiday the first time I emailed them, but still responded with information. They were always quick to answer any questions, even after office hours. They requested measurements and pictures before giving a quote.
Contact: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Carriers which did not respond:
Air Cargo Pack. email@example.com
One of the negatives of flying for me was that the flights go to Bogota. My next song place is Barranquilla which is at least a two day ride to the north from Bogota. I tried to factor that in as well.
Additionally none of the companies allow passengers with the cargo, so it is still necessary to pay for a plane ticket to Bogota. ($70-$150, I think).
The biggest upside of this method is the timeframe. Some of the financial dicrepancy is mitigated by not having to spend any days waiting. These waiting days are not free. One has to pay for food, lodging, transportation; as well as accepting the emotional toll of being separated from one’s beloved vehicle (or maybe that’s just me) 🙂
Sailing with the Motorcycle
There are a couple of sail boats that specialize in motorcycle transportation. They offer a cruise of about 5 days, stopping to visit some tropical islands along the way. Food is provided and they seem to have experience with navigating the paperwork on both ends.
The Stahlratte is one of the vessels. Many motorcycle adventurers have had great experiences with them. Unfortunately, they were not in season during the time I was making my trip. Even so, they did chime in on my ride report over on ADVrider, attempting to help me find other options. I thought this was a really nice gesture. The price for passage with a motorcycle is $1,200 + 20-ish for other fees. (someone correct me if this is off.)
Another boat is called the Wildcard. They had a ship departing the week that I arrived, but unfortunately it was full. The price they quoted me was $1,100 + 120-ish in other fees. They were very responsive and seemed easy to work with. They sent me a last minute email, as apparently they had a cancellation, but I had already loaded my bike into a container by then.
One of the major pluses I see with this method is that you never have to be apart from your bike. Even as I sit here typing this, I feel a certain amount of consternation not having seen Annie in a number of days. My whole life is on that bike.
This ended up being the method that I chose. Though definitely the most complicated, logistically speaking, it almost always ends up being the most affordable option for motorcycles. For cars and trucks, it’s basically the only option.
A sea carried shipping container is the way that the majority of freight moves around the world.
Obviously it is a major waste to put a single motorcycle into one of these, so most people try to find others with whom they can share. The Pan-American facebook group can be a great place to find other travelers, though I personally was a little late to connect in this way. To find partners, most people work with a shipping agent. There are probably others, but these two seem to be used the most often for the Panama-Colombia route:
email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Tea responded to me almost instantly, saying that she had a container available but that I would have to have the bike dropped off in just two days. We probably exchanged a dozen emails in the first 24 hours, trying to get everything arranged. After seeing that the price was going to be much less than flying and that the departure was relatively soon, I made the decision to use the container.
Part Three: The Execution
I’m going to go over a full timeline of events. I will use the day that I dropped off Annie at the docks as day “0”. So for example, two days before that day will be referred to as “Day -2.” I hope that makes sense.
Day -2 (Feb 19th)
I made the decision to ship using the container. I sent Tea all the information about the bike: Measurements, VIN, book value and lots of other things. Originally I was told that I would be sharing a 20 foot container with another car. Tea was also coordinating a 40 foot container, which had one car plus four motorcycles.
I made a ton of copies of my documents at the hostel, further aiding the deforestation of Central America.
Day -1 (Feb 20th)
Tea decided that it would be better for my bike to go in the 40 foot container, making it one car and five motorcycles. I would still be paying for my portion (30%) of the port costs for 20 foot container, since this is what I agreed to. That came out to $87. If I had arranged earlier and coordinated to fill a container more strategically, this number could have been a bit lower.
The big task for this day was to get a vehicle inspection. It is a requirement for all vehicles being shipped out of Panama. I arrived at about 7:30am, which seemed sufficiently early, but I was still number 25 in line. Here is the location.
I waited for about three hours. During this time I was able to meet the other people with whom I would be sharing the container and some other interesting travelers. I’ll include some more of these stories when I write my narrative of these days (link here when it’s done).
After the epic wait time, the inspection was a bit anticlimactic. It was over in less than five minutes.
Thanks to Elizabeth and Jeff from Travel Ur Dreams for the photo. No thanks to facebook for lowering the resolution.
In the afternoon it was time to pick up the form. Here:
I got there at 2 and sat around until about 4:45. This day is the true definition of hurry up and wait.
Also on this day, I bought my airline ticket to fly to Colombia. Since I was a bit late, it cost me $152. This is probably on the high end for a flight from Panama City to Cartagena. However, it was a direct flight which made me feel slightly more at ease.
In the evening, I tried to make the tough decisions of what to leave on the bike and what to have on my person. I would only have a small backpack for at least (foreshadowing) 5 days of supplies.
Day 0 (Feb 21)
I was on the road by 6:30am. Time for one last ride.
We were supposed to be at the office of the shipping company in Colon (about an hour drive) at 8am. I’m pretty sure this is the location for our company, Seaboard:
Here we picked up more forms and got stamps on some of our documents. I had a little extra time, so I removed my windshield (which would travel with me as a constant reminder of Annie while we were apart) and my Sonic the Hedgehog whirligig hood ornament.
Next was to the Aduana (customs office). Luckily, two of our travel companions were Argentinians who had shipped the other way a few months previously. Otherwise, I may have had a hard time finding this place. There was a lot of construction. I think this is the exact location (the info from Tea was off by a bit):
Here we had to collate three stacks of six or seven copies and turn them in to various people. This section was kind of a blur for me. I’m sorry I don’t have more information.
After that, it was off to the “garita” (that’s how it was labled), where we would drop off the vehicles. We made some wrong turns and were given wrong directions at one point, but we eventually found our way there. I’m only about 90% sure on this location, but I think it was here:
We had to be searched and our licenses were held as we did the first step of the paperwork. We also paid a port fee: $12 for the bikes, $71 (I think) for the cars. After that, it was time to move into position.
Here is where all of the physical inspections of the vehicles took place. We were not allowed to take pictures here, so most of my pictures are not framed very well. 🙂
Annie getting sniffed.
Lots more waiting ensued, of course.
We were told to ride to a warehouse where we would leave the bike. There, we received a surprise: We had to leave the bikes there with the keys in them. I was under the impression that we would get to see the vehicles safely loaded into the container before departing. None of us were super happy about this, especially considering that it would be three days before the ship actually departed, but what was there to do?
(Important Note: Some people said that the shipping company removes the keys, so you need to have a spare when you retrieve your vehicle. This didn’t end up being the case in our situation, but it would be prudent to always have a spare key with you.)
One last look.
It was after noon, but there was still more to do. We had to get back to Panama City. We began with a taxi to the bus station ($3/person) and took a double-decker bus (standing room only) back to Panama City ($3.15)
It dropped us off near the Albrook mall, which was convenient for me. To pay the bulk of my expenses ($400 cash) I had to find a “Banco General” location and make a deposit into Tea’s account.
I had wanted to wait until Annie was safely dropped off before paying the fee. Even though I wasn’t thrilled about the security of how I left her, I paid anyway. After that, I had about a four mile walk back to the hostel. There, I wallowed in loneliness. Good thing I still had Annie’s windshield.
Day +1 (Feb 22)
I made a new friend at the hostel, Leebong from South Korea. He was shipping his car over the same route and had used Boris as his agent. We didn’t know it yet, but our vehicles were on the same boat. It was nice to be able to compare notes about what our agents were telling us.
Day +2 (Feb 23)
Andres and German, the guys with whom I was initially going to be sharing the container, stopped by so I could pay them the $87 for my portion of the container. Normally, spending this much money puts me in a bad mood, but they brought their dog along to help smooth things over. 🙂
Day +3 (Feb. 24)
This was supposed to be the departure date for the ship, but we had no tracking information with which to verify its location. We just had to hope that it was on schedule (nope). Leebong and I spent the day sightseeing in Panama City.
Day +4 (Feb 25th)
Thankfully, the process of shipping a person is much more predictable than of shipping a vehicle. I walked about three miles to the airport and arrived two and a half hours before my noon flight. One of the rumors I had heard, was that Colombia requires proof of onward travel (generally a plane ticket) showing how you will leave the country. The lady at the AirPanama desk asked me if I had it.
I was able to persuade them to let me continue without showing an exit ticket. I gave them copies of my motorcycle documents as well as the shipping records. Common sense prevailed and I did not have to purchase an exit ticket.
I have only flown a handful of times in my life, but I was impressed with AirPanama. We took off about five minutes early and everything went smoothly.
I was a little worried about the migration process in Colombia, just because my situation was a little unique. I had enough Spanish to make my situation understood and the guy at the desk processed me quickly.
I decided to walk to my hostel, which was about four miles. It was a really hot day and I went through some areas of Cartagena which I doubted had ever been visited by a white person before. 🙂 I never felt in danger, though.
I got settled into my hostel and prepared to begin the process of getting my baby back the next day.
Day +5 (Feb 26)
Leebong and I had chosen our hostel because it was relatively close to the shipping offices that we would need to visit this day (just a little over a mile). Tea had instructed me and the rest of our group to be at the Seaboard offices at 10am. Right here:
I actually went in an entrance further to the north where I had to get security clearance. It was an incredibly confusing experience. My Spanish isn’t great and I was having a tough time adjusting to the Colombian accent. For about 20 minutes I had people pointing me to different offices and ended up visiting the same desks multiple times. Eventually, someone finally set me straight and I entered the office on the opposite side of the pin shown above.
I was still really struggling with comprehension, but I was able to understand that our ship was not scheduled to come in for two more days! I had thought that it had already arrived. Neither I, anyone in my group nor Leebong (who was working with Boris) were given notice of this fact. Some of us were told that we could come back to begin the paperwork the next day, others were told that they would need to return on the day the ship arrived. Everyone (even those who actually speak Spanish) was confused.
I emailed Tea right after this happened and heard back in the evening. The newest update was that our boat was not expected until the evening after this day (Day +6). I was still hopeful that the paperwork process could begin the next morning.
Day +6 (Feb 27th)
The newest correspondence this morning indicated that there was a mechanical problem with our ship. Though we had been led to believe that it was already sailing, it was still in Colon, Panama (Correction: As more facts came to light, it appears that the ship was actually still broken down in Santiago, Cuba. Again, we were given precious little information by our agent or the shipping company.) The new estimation for arrival time was an additional four days (Day +10). This was also a Saturday, so it now appeared that the earliest our vehicles could be retrieved would be the next Monday (Day +12).
Day +7 (Feb 28th)
Day +8 (Mar 1st)
Day +9 (Mar 2nd)
After receiving double confirmation from both our agent and the shipping company, I finally felt safe proceeding back to the Seaboard office. I was in a different hostel now, so it was about a 3 1/2 mile walk. I wanted to be sure before I took off. We had a list of steps to follow for the liberation process, but it was not very accurate.
I arrived at the office around 10am and started to wait for a bit. My Swiss friends, Severine and Margeaux (with the VW van in our container), were there at the same time. We would stick together for the remainder of the day. Having their help with language (they both speak Spanish very well) as well as their companionship made the day proceed much more smoothly.
Since they were in a four-wheeled vehicle, they had an extra step they needed to make: Stopping by the local supermarket to pay some fee to Seaboard (I don’t know how much it was or why it is paid at the supermarket.) With our Bill of Ladings in hand, we were ready to proceed to DIAN. We took a taxi to this location.
The entrance to the office building that we needed was here:
We received the importation form and were instructed to proceed to a little shop across the street for some copies. The lunch hour(s) was nearing, so we worked quickly to try and have everything. I went a little too quickly and did not notice that the page of my passport showing my date of entry had been folded under when it was put on the copier. Not my fault, but I should have caught it. How many copies have I made in the last month!?
We finished things up and were directed to another building which was not in our information. It was here:
Our goal here was to arrange a time with the inspector who needs to be present to look at the vehicles when they are removed from the container. We arrived at the building over the lunch hour(s) so we would need to wait until 1pm to see the the guy who would do the inspection. We grabbed a $2 lunch beneath a tent with a bunch of the dock workers. We may have stuck out just a little.
After 1pm we were finally able to see Emil Machado, the guy who would be setting everything up. He checked our Bill of Ladings as well as our health insurance. Before someone is able to set foot on the dock, it is necessary to show an insurance policy which will cover you in case of an accident. The Swiss gals and I both had international health plans which would suffice.
Mr. Machado told us that the ship would arrive in the morning and we would be able to get our vehicles out if we had everybody together at 8am with all of the right documents. Cool! We parted ways and began an intense six-way text conversation on WhatsApp, making sure everyone had the documents.
Day +10 (Mar 3)
Since I had about an hour walk, I got a fairly early start to the day. I happened to walk right by the two Argentinian guys in our container, Julio and Ezequiel. They were waiting at one of the insurance agencies so they would have coverage when they arrived.
We reunited in the waiting room and sat there until around 9am when we were called back to see Mr. Machado again. He said that the boat was “here” but it had not docked yet. Long story short, we would now have to wait until Monday to get our vehicles. We did get some paperwork accomplished before splitting up again. By the time I returned to my hostel, it was another expenditure of 5 hours.
Day +11 (Mar 4)
Sunday. No progress.
Day +12 (Mar 5)
Leebong and I walked out of our hostel looking to catch a cab. At that exact moment, a cab carrying the two Argentinian guys from my container, Julio and Ezequiel, drove by. They stopped for us and we all squeezed in to share the fare. At this moment I felt that everything was going to go smooth this day.
I should be careful about trusting my feelings.
We were all at the port at 8am. Since we had spent so much time there on Saturday, we were all hoping to get our vehicles and get on the road soon. After about a 90 minute wait, our process finally began.
The rest of my group paid the port fee. I had already taken care of this on Day +2 since I was initially in the different container. My fee was $87, but it would have been a little cheaper if I had initially been grouped in this container.
For the six of us, we were given three orange vests and three hard hats. At least half of us would at least be half-ways safe. We went through a few checkpoints and finally made our way into the port area.
Soon we were left at the container which held our vehicles. After a snip of the lock…
…the doors were opened. Seeing Annie’s infamous trunk gave me huge relief.
It bears stating again: I’d left her with keys in the ignition in a warehouse 12 days prior. My mind had had time to imagine all sorts of nasty possibilities.
Now I would have a somewhat nasty reality. The BMW adjacent to Annie had not been secured well enough. It had tipped over and was resting on Annie.
It bent my case mounting bracket, my hand guard and took some more skin off of Johnny’s face.
I wasn’t even really that mad. Seaboard had been so unreliable in so many facets, that this just seemed like a typical occurrence.
I was the only one who had removed my mirrors before loading. This ended up being a great decision, as my left one would either have been bent or snapped during shipping.
I had enough time to do a pretty thorough inspection, top off my tires, remount Sonic and screw the windshield back on.
We drove our vehicles over to the inspection area. There we waited and waited, hoping for the mythological inspector to arrive. Shade from the midday sun was precious commodity. Four of us took a little siesta under a semi trailer.
(Great picture, Irineo! Thanks for sharing.)
After awhile we were told that we couldn’t be in the area, so we were returned to the waiting room. We were there over the lunch hour(s) as the day wore on.
It turns out that some paperwork had been misplaced for one of the members of our group. He would actually have to wait until the next day to get his bike back. All told, it was almost seven hours after we got our vehicles out that we made any progress again.
I’m still not sure if an inspector came by or if the inspection was really brief. Someone walked us out, checked the VIN, signed a form and sent us on our way. It was now getting dark. Believe me, I was more than ready for the sun to set on this shipping saga.
There were a few gates to pass through. Nothing too complicated, but they were obviously not set up for passenger vehicles.
A few blocks from the docks, the end of my handlebar that was damaged in the container fell off. Thankfully, a local guy on a scooter noticed it and nonchalantly handed it to me at the next stoplight.
It was probably the worst time to get one’s vehicle out, being that it was right at sunset. Thankfully, the hostel where I was staying was able to find me a cheap, safe spot to park Annie.
Day +13 (Mar 6)
One more step!
Insurance is mandatory to drive in Colombia, but the offices were closed by the time we retrieved the vehicles. I made my way to an office in the morning. It was right here:
I paid for one month of insurance which cost me $15. It is important to note that with this policy, the coverage does not start until midnight of the next day. I actually didn’t notice this until later.
With that, I was all set to drive my own vehicle in Colombia. Piece of cake, right?
Part Four: Conclusions
First I’ll maybe do a quick run-down of the total expenses.
$400 – Main fee paid to agent.
$87 – Container fee in Cartagena. (my portion, which was shared with the other members of the container)
$12 – Port fee in Colon, Panama
$20 – Unpacking fee in Cartagena
Other procedural expenses:
$152 – Flight from Panama to Colombia
$10 – Assorted copies
$11 – Various transportation
(It should be noted that I probably did close to a full marathon [26 miles] of walking during this stage. The transportation costs would normally be higher.)
Grand Total: $692
Obviously it is hard to figure in the cost of waiting. Paying for food, lodging and transportation was another hit to the budget over this period.
If I had known how long the ship was going to be delayed, I would definitely have used another option. Choosing a shipping container is a roll of the dice. It’s the cheapest method for a reason. It can go very smoothly, or it can be a complete disaster. There’s no way to know ahead of time. Still, this method was about $400 cheaper than the best quote that I got for flying the bike. I’m trying not to second guess myself.
I was quite disappointed in the quality of the service that I received, but I’m not sure where blame should be placed or if it should be placed at all. Our agent, Tea, was really helpful in the initial organizing process, but played less of a role once we were in Colombia. I guess I don’t know the exact role an agent is supposed to play, so I think it would be presumptuous to criticize her actions (or lack thereof).
The shipping company, Seaboard, was nearly universally disappointing. I include “nearly” here, since the office in Panama made two free copies for me. 🙂 The things they communicated to us either represented a massive breakdown in communication or intentional deception. It took a lot of days for the truth about our ship to come to light. Being required to leave our vehicles in a warehouse rather than seeing them go in the container was unsettling. The fact that they did not secure the motorcycles well enough was icing on the cake. If I decided to ship with a container again, I will make a conscious effort to avoid Seaboard.
Perhaps most disappointingly was how little communication we received. In an ideal world, the shipping company would be in touch with the shipping agent, who would then disseminate that information to the travelers. It shouldn’t take multiple lines of correspondence to receive answers to simple questions. (Such as: Where is the ship?)
So what is the best option? I guess that all depends on one’s budget and time. If time is of any importance or value, taking a container is definitely a risk. If I have a more ample budget in the future. I will definitely fly or take a sailboat. Though both of those options are more expensive, they are more reliable. The sailboat is a sight-seeing experience as well.
Perhaps it bears repeating that this whole process is only necessary because there are 77 miles (as the crow flies) of the Pan-American highway that are missing. The Darien jungle is definitely a difficult place to build a road, but I hope to see it completed sometime in my life. Alternatively, does anybody want to join me in buying an ocean worthy ferry to start making the journey? 🙂
I hope this verbose account can be of some assistance to someone. I know I was helped by similar documents as I tried to make my decision about crossing the gap. Even though I had a torrid time with my crossing, I would hate for this account to give someone second thoughts about a Pan-American journey. These sorts of experiences are just part of the process. Travel is a powerful force that inspires change and reflection from the traveler. Perhaps I’ve learned just a bit more patience through this process. In that perspective, I guess it is all worth it. 🙂
See you on the road, everybody.