When you look at a map of North and Central America, it looks like a giant funnel. All cars that want to continue the drive to the south need to make it to Panama to be shipped across the Darien Gap. It all comes together in a container terminal in Colon…
We were very fortunate to go through this process together with Nate, Sarah and Truck from thelongwaysouth.com . Considering the waiting times involved, it’s always a bonus if you get to hang out in the meantime with fun people! We drove our car into a container on 2 October and had it back 7 days later. All in all we have to say that that was pretty smooth… although it was pretty stressful and confusing at times.
The aim of this page is to demystify the process a bit more – next to all the resources available – and hopefully take away some of your concerns… Maybe the below is a chronological information overload and I will just use it as a reminder of those crazy days in Panama City and Cartagena…
8:42pm – Email to Tea Kalmbach (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ask about rates for shipping a car from Colon to Cartagena and to see if there is a potential shipping partner for us. We got her contact details from liferemotely.com and many overlanders use her services to arrange shipping and shipping partners.
4:38pm – Receive reply from Tea listing all the documents we need and quoting a cost of $990 (in Panama) and $150 (in Cartagena). Estimated shipping date is 4 October and we need to be in Panama City on 30 September at 8:30am to start the process. Tea confirms that she will look for a shipping partner and also sends some information (websites and e-mail addresses) of how we can get ourselves from Panama to Colombia. Also included is a step-by-step process of how the process in Colombia will take place.
11:41am – Tea confirms that Oscar is on his way down the Panamerican highway and is looking to share a container for shipping on 4 October.
5:29pm – We confirm to Tea that sharing a container with Oscar is fine for us.
6:04pm – Tea confirms that we can start the shipping process on 30 September, starting with the police inspection. She requests us to send by e-mail the basic information (name, passport number, nationality, vehicle colour, model, year, license plate, VIN/motor/chassis number, dimensions and weight). Tea confirms we will be shipping with Seaboard Marine and reminds us to make sure that the import documentation at the border must be correct. She also informs that our shipping partner will not be Oscar, but Nathan and Sarah. Tea provides a basic timeline for the week in Panama and the documents and copies that we need. We already have a bunch of copies of passports and driving licences, but it seems like we will need a few more of the vehicle title.
11:33am – We send Tea the basic information she requested and inform that the car only has a VIN number and no separate motor or chassis numbers.
07:57am – Tea sends out a confirmation e-mail to Nathan and myself that she will proceed with booking the container. Nathan and I e-mail back & forth to get introduced and inform each other of which hostel we are staying at.
09:22am – Tea sends out the booking confirmation. We are shipping on board the SBD Pride 360 that is leaving on 5 October. The booking shows that the cut-off point for all documentation is 3 October at 04:00pm and the cut-off for loading is 4 October at 10:00am
5:31am – Tea sends out an e-mail confirming our appointment with Amy at 8:30am on 30 September at the Amador Yacht Club which is now called the Balboa Yacht Club. Amy will guide us in Panama to arrange all the documents.
7:20am – Nathan confirms everything is okay for them. Nathan also informs us that they have booked a sailing boat to Cartagena that leaves on 4 October. We have not made any arrangements yet, but contact a few boats to see what is possible. We eventually decide to fly to Cartagena on 4 October.
27 September (border crossing)
11:15am – We arrive at the Panama border to pass through immigration and import the car. It takes us almost 3 hours to complete the process due to long queues at immigration. There is a new rule that you need to show $500 in cash or a bank statement showing you have this in your bank account – so we have to go to a internet café to print something. We triple check the documentation we receive: a ‘formulario de control vehicular’ which is the import document and an insurance document. Our VIN number is listed 3 times as the car, engine and chassis number.
08:00am – We leave our campsite and drive towards Panama City. On the way me make 7 copies of the import document and the insurance document in a supermarket. We’ll need those next week.
7:04pm – Tea sends out 3 documents to Nathan and myself: a draft bill of loading, a dangerous goods form and a disclaimer document. Nathan’s name is miss-spelled on his bill and the year of the car is wrong on ours. The car model is also wrong on our dangerous goods form. We send the modifications to Tea by mail. Amy should bring the updated documents when we go to Colon for loading in the container.
8:30am – We meet Nathan and Sarah at the Balboa Yacht Club parking (GPS N 8°56.378′ W 79°33.280′). It’s a big car park, mostly empty, where you can probably camp overnight as well in your car. There is a German couple shipping their Volvo truck and a French family shipping their motorhome. We are wearing long trousers and closed shoes today to make sure we can enter all the buildings.
9:10am – Amy arrives by car & instructs us to follow her to the police inspection area (GPS N 8°57.997′ W 79°32.702′). It’s about a 10 minute drive through morning traffic but everyone makes it to the gated parking lot. We line up the cars and open the engine hood to let the engines cool. We give Amy a copy of the owner’s passport, the vehicle title, the insurance and the import document. Amy will hang on to those and hand them to the inspector when he comes out. Amy also tells us that we will have to be back in the afternoon around 3:00pm to the ‘Secretaria General’ across the street (well, highway). Their is a pedestrian bridge crossing the road if you don’t feel suicidal.
9:30am – The inspector comes outside, wearing a black jacket and a red tie. He looks at one of the cars (not ours) but as it starts raining he goes back inside. What can we say, the man does not like rain. We look to the sky and only see more rainclouds coming in.
9:45am – The inspector wants us to line up the cars one by one under the roofed area. We go first and after some back and forth with some cars that need to leave the parking lot, we are parked and ready for inspection.
10:00am – Amy goes inside to see if the inspector feels like coming out. She comes back outside after a few minutes but there is no sign of the inspector.
10:15am – The inspector finally comes outside wearing a baseball cap – presumably against the rain? Amy hands our car document copies to him and he looks at the VIN number under the windshield. Due to the glare the number is completely unreadable and the inspector goes back inside (through the red door behind the car).
10:30am – The inspector comes back outside, opens the car door to check the VIN number there, quickly glances it and signals to Amy that everything is OK. We reverse the car out of the parking area and wait for Nathan and Sarah to finish. Their inspection takes 2 minutes.
10:40am – We decide to head to the Albrook shopping mall (GPS N 8°58.406′ W 79°33.224′) to wait it out. The mall has a free car park that will fit any size car and inside you can find all shops and a couple of food courts.
2:15pm – After spending some time at the mall, we decide to take a taxi to the Secretaria General (GPS N 8° 57.937′ W 79° 32.712′), which costs us $4. You can drive there as well and park outside, but the mall car park seems safer to us.
2:30pm – We arrive at the Secretaria General and meet the other overlanders from the morning inspection. The vehicle owners give a form of ID to the security guard for a visitor badge and proceed to the entrance door. Inside there is an army officer sitting behind a desk. We ask where we can pick up our inspection document. The lady sends us down the hallway on the left (through the door). We follow the corridor, turn right and see a door marked ‘Secretaria de la Direccion’. We knock on the door and push it open to see the assistant behind her desk. She asks us to fill out a simple form with today’s date and time, the applicant and driver’s name and passport number, nationality, shipping destination (‘Cartagena’) and mode of transport (‘Maritima’). Additionally we need to note down that we are shipping with Seaboard Marine and have a target date of departure on 5 October. We also hand over a copy of the vehicle title, driver passport and import document.
2:45pm – With the document filled out, the assistant asks us to sit in the waiting area on the other side of the room.
3:15pm – An official walks in with our document and hands it over to the assistant. She calls us over and asks us to double check the information. When everything is okay, we sign the document and sign the register to show that we have received the document. Once outside we drop off the visitor badge and get our ID back.
3:20pm – We take a taxi back to the mall and make 5 copies of our new document. There are copy shops outside the Secretaria General as well but we know that it’s three times cheaper at the mall. We pay $4 for the taxi ride.
3:30pm – In the ‘Copy Red’ internet café above the carrousel food court at the mall we get some more copies of our documents
4:00pm – With the copies in hand we make our way back to the car and drive to the hostel through the evening rush hour. We did not have to show any original documents today, only copies.
8:47am – We confirm to Tea by e-mail that we have all the police documents and copies and ask for when we are heading to Colon
9:24am – Tea confirms that we will meet Amy at 8:00am at the Balboa Yacht Club and she will guide us through the process in Colon.
8:00am – We are ready and waiting together with Nate and Sarah at the Balboa Yacht Club.
8:45am – Amy arrives and needs to help one of the other overlanders with some paperwork – they will be shipping roll-on roll-off and need to wait a couple of days still. At 9:00am we are driving behind Amy’s car to Colon. The route we take does not require that we buy a prepaid highway toll card.
10:20am – We arrive at the customs office and park across the street. Due to the roadworks in the area, it’s a complete mess of cars, taxi’s, trucks and containers but somehow we find spots. We head inside the building and find the office door marked ‘Direccion de Aduanas – Admon. General Zona Norte’. We go inside and get our copies. We give Amy 3 copies of the driver’s passport photo page, the vehicle title, the import document, the insurance and the police document we received yesterday. Amy stacks them in three piles and after the lady enters some information.
10:35am – The drivers’ passports are stamped to show that they are not leaving behind a car. We leave the office and find our cars back in one piece. We then drive behind Amy to the port to load the container.
11:05am – We arrive at the port and park the cars outside. We go inside the building and Amy finds an inspector to check the cars. The car check is a quick control of the VIN number and any dangerous goods.
11:20am – The cars checks are done and we head to another window around the corner marked ‘Caja’ to pay for the fees. We queue up but it seems that the shipping company ‘Seaboard Marine’ did not send through all the documents yet. Amy heads to the Seaboard offices while we sit in the airconditioned waiting area.
11:45am – Amy comes back and goes to the ‘Caja’ with the missing information.
12:05pm – All the documents are ready and we pay $162 in port fees to the ‘Caja’ and get a receipt.
12:30pm – We drive the cars into the port area. There is a checkpoint at the entry and the drivers must wear fluorescent vests – which Amy had provided. We drive through a fumigation area (although only our rear wheels are sprayed as they did not turn the machine on…), drive around some containers and then drive up a ramp to a warehouse.
12:40pm – The cars are inspected by 2 officials. One makes a detailed write-up of the car and we correct some mistakes (VIN number and year) before we sign off. The document basically says our car is in good shape.
1:15pm – The big moment is finally there and we drive Rodrigo into the container. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get out of the car, but everything works out. We are instructed to leave the car windows about 5cm open. The car is strapped to the container and then Nathan drives his truck in behind us.
1:55pm – The container is closed and sealed and we wait for the bus to take us back to the entrance.
2:00pm – At the entrance we get in Amy’s car and drive to Panama City. We pay Amy the remaining money in the car ($828 per car) and she drops Nathan and Sarah and ourselves off at our hostels. Job done!
8:05am – Tea e-mails us to ask if we can send a copy of our passports to the Seaboard Cartagena office, so that they can start the import processing. She informs us again that we need to wear closed shoes and long trousers in Cartagena.
11:25am – We catch our flight to Cartagena and get stamped into Colombia by a very nice border official. No questions about the car.
9:00am – We are continuously checking the marinetraffic.com website to see if our boat, the ‘Seaboard Pride’ is already in Colon. Unfortunately it’s running a day late and looks like we will have to wait an extra day in Cartagena
9:00pm – We see on-line that the ‘Seaboard Pride’ is just outside of the port of Cartagena and we hope and pray that it will unload our container tomorrow morning. We did not hear anything from Seaboard Marine or Tea, but we decide to go to the harbour tomorrow and get the process started
8:00am – We grab a taxi outside our hostel in Getsemani and head to the Seaboard Marine office in Cartagena (location N 10° 23.708 W 75° 31.395).
8:45am – We arrive at the office, go inside to the window with the blue fences. Linda Patricia from Seaboard Marine knows who we are and does not need to see any documentation. She informs us that the boat has arrived but that it will only be unloaded in the afternoon. With the Bill of Lading, we can however start the import process. There is some unclarity about the payment of the fees in Colon – and we explain to Linda Patricia that we will double check with Tea.
9:15am – We get a taxi to the DIAN office in La Manga (location N 10° 24.555 W 75° 32.022), where we can request the temporary import document.
9:45am – When we arrive at the DIAN office, we ask the security guard directions to the ‘Division de Commercio Exterior’ and he escorts us to a lady’s desk. She gives us a form to fill out and asks for copies of vehicle title, passport photo page, passport entry stamp, bill of lading. We provide all this documentation. The lady informs us that we have an appointment with the DIAN inspector tomorrow at 8:00am in the port. When he signs off the document, we can come back to her desk and she will stamp it.
10:30am – We decide to go back to the port today still to see if there is anything else we can process. We have heard that it’s important to know the location of the container for when the inspector arrives, so we figure to at least try and find out that little detail will help.
11:30am – Back at the port, we head to the ‘Document Center’ (location N 10° 23.774 W 75° 31.398). You need to give an ID to get a visitor badge and the document centre is straight through the turnstile on the right.
11:45am – At the document centre, the lady asks if we have the car keys on us. Unfortunately Nate does not have the car key, so we need a taxi ride to the hotel and back to get the keys. We get lunch as well, because there is no activity between 12:00 and 2:00pm…
2:00pm – Back at the document centre, the lady informs us we cannot proceed because of bill of lading is not stamped by Seaboard Marine. The only thing we can do is get the port invoice (although we don’t want to pay that yet as the inspection has not taken place). We walk over to the Seaboard offices where they tell us that everything will be okay by tomorrow. With that, we go back to the document centre, hand in the visitor badge and agree to come back tomorrow at 7:30am
7:20am – The taxi drops us off at the the Document Center. We tell the security guard that we have an appointment with the DIAN inspector and he lets us in, although they only open in 10 minutes
7:30am – We are told by the Document Center that the inspector will come to the Document Center to meet us, but we’re not sure how that will work. Also, we don’t know who the inspector is. A couple minutes later, the Document Center sends us inside the port area (they give us hard hats) and tell us to go find Alejandra who will tell us where the container is
7:50am – We cannot really find Alejandra and ask about a dozen people. Everyone tells us just to wait around the little office. Suddenly a girl turns up in the office and we hand her our paperwork. She is indeed Alejandra and tells us our container is at the end of the building. If we go find the foreman, he will open the container and we can drive the cars out. She also tells us the inspector will meet us at the container.
8:10am – We have found the container and notice that the seal is already broken. The foreman opens up the container and yes, our cars are inside! We begins to untie the cars and 20 minutes later the cars are parked in the inspection area (location N 10° 23.741 W 75° 31.535). All we have to do is wait for the inspector.
9:30am – No sign of the inspector yet. A guy with a DIAN shirt walks by and we ask him if he is here to inspect our car. He tells us that there is another inspector for that and he will come soon.
10:30am – Still no sign of the inspector. We go back to look for Alejandra (who is no longer there) and speak to her colleague. He tells us if that he has seen the inspector but that he has gone back to his office already. We check also with Seaboard if they can call the inspector to come back, but we only have a name and phone number of a guy who could be our inspector. Nobody picks up the phone and we go to the Document Center – expecting to be told to come back tomorrow for a new inspection. The Document Center lady, now our best friend, calls the DIAN office where, apparently, our signed-off inspection sheet has already arrived! Turns out our car was inspected…. without us noticing it… We decide to rush to the DIAN office and get our paperwork before the lunch break
11:40am – After a taxi ride to the DIAN office, we go back to the lady’s desk and get our paperwork stamped!
2:00pm – Back at the document center, we pay the port invoice and we proudly show our import document. The lady tells us that is fine, but there is still a stamp from Seaboard missing. We walk over to Seaboard and they give us a stamped Bill of Lading.
2:20pm – The document centre gives us all the documentation and we walk to the cars. We still need the foreman to sign off the documentation and after 15 minutes we find him & he signs off.
2:45pm – We drive out of the harbour, stopping at a scale and then a police checkpoint. We are ultimately waved through and released into the wild traffic of Cartagena! Freedom!!! Tomorrow we will buy vehicle insurance and we’ll start exploring a new continent!