The Great Shipping Debacle (part 1)
The biggest hurdle for people who want to drive the Pan American highway is the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is a roadless, 100mi section of some of the harshest jungle and swampland on earth separating Panama from Columbia . Not to mention it is filled with drug running rebels looking for an opportunity to obtain a new truck and maybe a couple of gringo slaves. So, in order to continue the journey south, you must ship your truck on a cargo ship from one of the various ports from Central America to South America. In our case we shipped from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Columbia.
Once we returned to Central America, our hiatus from researching the shipping process had ended and we were hit with the reality that it was going to happen sooner than we thought. Sooner than we were ready for it to! Our first ten months on the road, and the time we were home for the summer, we avoided talking about the shipping process like the plague. However, once we crossed the border into Panama it became the main topic of conversation. Day and night. While sitting out the rain storms in Boquete, Panama, Nate hopped on the computer and started posting wanted ads on Drive the Americas and emailed various shipping agents. The first person we heard back from was Tea Kalmbach. She is a shipping agent who works out the logistics from Argentina and her daughter Amy assists with the errand running in Panama. Originally, we wanted to tackle the whole shipping process by ourselves but after reading the headaches of fellow overlanders we opted to pay the additional fee, which happened to be nominal, and hired an agent. Tea informed me that she had a Belgian couple looking to ship during the same time frame as us. Perfect!
I am not going to bore everyone with a complete write up of how-to instructions. Besides, there are so many good write-ups online right now that I couldn’t do them justice anyway. In our case, we used the excellent write up from Life Remotely.
We were instructed to meet Amy Monday morning at the Yacht Club where we would then follow her to the police inspection area. We arrived at 7:15 am and decided to take a stroll down to the docks to see the infamous Bridge of the Americas.
On the way back to the truck, we spotted Patrick and Marijke from Keep Calm and Drive South, our new shipping partners. After greeting each other, we headed back to the truck to wait for Amy to arrive.
Once she arrived, we all giddily hopped into our trucks and followed her through the chaotic winding streets to the police inspection area. We had heard tales that if it were raining, the man doing the inspections would not come outside. Amy herself even told us that he is “allergic to the rain.” Or so he thinks. We all pulled in and popped our hoods, hoping that the inspector would make it outside before the clouds hovering above us decided to do what they do best.
About a half an hour went by when we saw the door open and a man step out. He had arrived! We all stood in front of our vehicles, heads held high, papers in hand. He had barely completed the first inspection when I felt the first drop. ‘Shit’, I thought, ‘Hopefully, he didn’t feel that.’ No more than five seconds went by when he quickly turned around on one heel, like a soldier during a military march, and quickly returned inside. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
Twenty minutes later, Amy came over and asked us to move our vehicles under the overhang of the roof. Maybe the man made of sugar could complete the inspections without getting a single raindrop on him. We all complied, and lined up waiting for our turn to pull under the overhang. We waited patiently for what seemed like forever, watching the rain pour down. He eventually made his way out, armed with a raincoat, hat, and clipboard. He hesitantly started the inspections. For what we waited for nearly two hours for, took him a total of five minutes per vehicle. He did a quick look-over of our VIN number and motor number, made a couple check marks on our papers and sent us on our way.
After picking up our completed forms later that afternoon, we were free to hang out until Wednesday morning so we decided to visit the Panama Canal. We woke up the next morning, enjoyed some breakfast and hit the road in search for the Miraflores Locks. We arrived at about 11:30, purchased our tickets and headed straight for the 3D film explaining the canal.
After the movie, we visited the small museum and were amped up to see our first ship go through the locks. We went outside, it was about noon time now, and found our perfect spot. There weren’t many people there, we just assumed it was because it is technically the “off season.” An hour went by, no ship. We snapped a couple pictures of each other to keep ourselves busy while waiting.
Two hours went by, no ship. We were getting antsy and were confused as to where all the ships were. Three hours, still no ship! We finally figured out that (even though our guidebook told us the “best times” were to go from 9-11am and 3-5pm) the ships wouldn’t start coming until about 3:30 or 4:00 this afternoon! We didn’t realize that absolutely no ships go through during the day! Doh! It was all worth the wait once we spotted the first ship pulling in.
It is mind boggling to watch the ships, guided by trains on either side, go through each lock as the water lowered and rose on either side. It is truly amazing to watch one of the most innovative engineering accomplishments of all time.
Wednesday morning had arrived, the day we would drive Truck to the shipping port of Colon, drive her into a cargo container and walk away hoping that she makes it to the other side. We left the hotel ridiculously early so as not to hit the notorious Panama City traffic jams. Unfortunately, we still found ourselves fighting our way through the millions of cars.
Once Amy arrived at the yacht club, we followed her on the hour drive to Colon. Upon pulling into town, it was clear that it was predominantly a port town. Large cargo trucks barreled their way through the narrow streets, street vendors offered up their grilled meats and veggies to passersby, and it smelled of diesel fuel, smoke and rotten fish. We parked the cars and headed over to the aduana office to cancel the vehicle import permit and get Nate’s passport stamped to say that he would be allowed to leave Panama without the truck.
We played frogger crossing the street back to the cars and followed Amy over to the port. There, we had the truck inspected and Amy did her thing running back and forth to different offices filling out our paperwork while we sat and enjoyed the air conditioning.
After all the paperwork was filled out it was time to drive the cars into the port!! Nate and Patrick threw on their official orange vests and hopped in the driver’s seats. We pulled into a warehouse where more paperwork was completed, inspections took place and pictures of the vehicles were taken. It was finally time to drive Rodrigo and Truck into their home for the next week.
Patrick went first. He guided Rodrigo into the container like a pro and attempted to escape the confinements as gracefully as he could. But with little room to spare, it was a difficult matter 😉
Nate went second. Truck is just a tiny bit bigger than Rodrigo, okay a lot bigger. We folded the mirrors in and Nate slowly edged Truck further and further into the black box until he could go no more. Like a gloooooove!!!
When it came time for him to get out, there was no way he was opening the driver’s door. Out the back it is! Nate had to belly crawl through the middle window from the cab to the back and hop out the back. It looked as though Truck were giving birth to a real live man, or taking a poop in Nate’s case 😉
Amy was nice enough to give us all a ride back to the city. We still owed her about $1000 each before she dropped us off. In the middle of Panama City traffic, we counted out the cash, sitting real low in a Jetta, and slid it into a ziplock bag. Patrick and Marijke added their money to the bag and Patrick held onto it for dear life. We hopped out in the middle of a street, assured Amy that all the money was there and started walking. We just left almost $1000 in the hands of a Belgian lad, someone we met two days earlier! Good thing Truck is blocking their car in in the container, that way if they tried to pull a fast one on us, we have the upperhand! 😉
The next day, we met Patrick and Marijke for a tour around Panama City. We started out in Panama Viejo where we explored old ruins from the 1500s.
We then made our way over to the old town where we grabbed a bite to eat and walked around sightseeing for the day. We saw beautiful church ruins, the Golden Altar Church, the malecon with a pristine park and graffiti galore!
The next day, we left Panama City and hopped on a plane to Cartagena, Colombia to (hopefully) meet Truck on the other side!!