Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil

The Darien Gap: Preparing

August 31st, 2013 | Posted by Ian in Border Crossings | Colombia | Darien Gap | Panama | The Places We've Been

If you missed our latest post detailing what exactly the Darien Gap is and why we keep talking about it, be sure to check it out here.

For the past year or so we’ve periodically sat down at a computer, done a bit of searching for articles and websites (Drive the Americas is a particularly helpful resource) related to the Darien, then pushed it all into the basements of our minds to be dealt with at a later date. The past few weeks, however, shit has gotten real, and we’ve been forced to actually resign ourselves to dealing with the largest logistical operation we’ve had to undertake on this journey. To simplify things, we basically have three separate sets of matter to figure out how to transport from Panama to Colombia, skipping a 60-ish mile section of impassable jungle that represents the only break in the Pan-American highway, which stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. Those sets are:

  1. Panama Temporary Vehicle Import Permit

    Panama Temporary Vehicle Import Permit - Make sure everything is correct before you leave the border.

    Our Vehicle and Things – For the majority of people, this task would probably be the most stressful. It started at the Costa Rica-Panama border. Thanks to written accounts from people like Life Remotely, DriveNachoDrive, and HomeOnTheHighway, we knew to thoroughly check our vehicle import permit before driving away from the frontier. Apparently, any typo or improperly filled in form field can result in having to drive all the way back to the border for a correction, or at least an extra day spent in Panama City trying to weasel corrected forms out of apathetic customs agents. The next logical operation is to start familiarizing yourself with the actual steps involved in loading up a vehicle and shipping across across the Caribbean – any shipment between these two countries will go from Col├│n, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. The links above provide great accounts of how those couple of days will unfold. An optional step in the process is to attempt to find a shipping partner (sharing a 40-foot container can save you several hundred dollars compared to the cost of shipping solo in a 20-foot container); again Drive the Americas is a great place to start in on this, as at any time many people may be posting in their forums looking for partners. After that, it’s time to start contacting agents and shipping companies. There are several options of companies to actually ship your car with. Per our experience, some of these will work directly with you, some will require you to go work with an agent. Some of these are represented by a single company through the process of loading, shipping, and unloading, while some are represented by a separate entity at each step. The two stark realities of the situation are that there is very little official information available and that someone wanting to ship one container one time is not high on the list of priorities of shipping companies who move hundreds of units a day through the port. After sending out a handful of emails, then watching the ensuing mudslinging and badmouthing between the various parties (Darien-vehicle-shipping agents are apparently quite ruthless), we settled on shipping through a company called Evergreen, guided through the process by a subsidiary or closely-related company (we’re still not exactly sure which) called Everlogistics — look for more on our thus-far positive experience in a few days.

  2. Ourselves – There are two general options for how to transport humans from Panama to Colombia – by sea or by air. The quickest way is to simply book a flight from Panama City to Cartagena. This is the route we ended up taking, largely on account of having two dogs in tow, and tickets were just over $350 per person. There will be more information about this in a later post. Flight time is about sixty minutes, and there are a couple airlines to choose from. For those with some time to kill, a cruise through the islands of the San Blas archipelago might be more appealing. There are numerous outfits offering these several day slow trips to Cartagena for a bit more than the cost of a flight (the average we have seen is around$500). ┬áLeaving from Panama’s Caribbean coast, you island hop through the pristine waters of San Blas, with lots of time for swimming and drinking and fresh seafood. There are apparently also speedboats that make the trip, hopping along the coast; it’s cheaper and quicker than a San Blas cruise, but twenty hours of switching small boats doesn’t exactly sound appealing.
  3. Maya and Olmec share a kennel

    So much inconvenience...but just look at those faces!

    Our Dogs – Neither of us have ever flown with a canine before. If it was just Olmec, this step probably wouldn’t be a big deal. But then there’s Maya. She’s pretty awesome. She’s super sweet once she knows you. Once you are in, you are in forever, and she can tell when we like or don’t like someone. She hates the vet. She barks. A lot. She doesn’t like strangers in our personal space. Unfortunately, her tendencies cause us to be on edge which results in her tendencies becoming even more pronounced, and I don’t know if we’ve ever been as on edge as we’ll likely be Monday morning when we attempt to waltz her into the airport and hope that she behaves well enough for us not to have wasted thirteen hundred bucks on plane tickets, new kennels, and a trip to the vet for an international health certificate. Long story short, if you are a dog owner thinking about jumping the Darien, there’s not a lot of prep you have before getting to Panama. If your pet is up to date on vaccinations, make sure your paperwork is in order. If not, just give yourself enough time to get them done here. You have to go to the vet within ten days of flying to Colombia anyway, so even if they aren’t up-to-date this doesn’t really hurt you as far as time goes. We’ll write in more detail about how to actually get your mutt to South America soon.

In conclusion, there’s really not a whole lot to be done before you actually get to Panama. Make sure your vehicle import permit is accurate before you leave the border and familiarize yourself with the overall process. It might ease your mind to have a shipping company nailed down before you get to town, but we didn’t actually start this until ten days before we loaded our car up and could presumably be done so even later than that with no issues. Now, fingers crossed that all these pieces come together in a halfway orderly fashion.

Added 9/3/2013 – The Darien Gap: Vehicle Shipping, Panama Side

Added 9/9/2013 – The Darien Gap: Dogs

Added 9/10/2013 – Border Crossing: Panama / Colombia

Added 9/11/2013 – The Darien Gap: Vehicle Shipping, Colombia Side

Added 9/12/2013 – The Darien Gap: Expenses

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