The Darien Gap: DogsSeptember 9th, 2013 | Posted by in Colombia | Darien Gap | Dogs | How To | Panama | The Places We've Been
If you’re just joining us in this series of Darien Gap posts, you can read about what the Darien Gap is here. If you’re driving, check out how to prepare ahead of time here, how to complete the Panamanian side of vehicle shipping here, how to complete the Colombian side of vehicle shipping here, how to cross the border as humans via air here, and a blog about total expenses here. This post though, exists to detail the process of getting from Panama to Colombia with pets, specifically dogs, information that we struggled to find before our crossing. We usually rely heavily on the experiences of those before us and for the first time, we felt like we were flying blind. But we made it and so did our pups, so here I go to tell you how it happened.
Things to Know First
As Ian explained in his post about preparing for the Darien, there are two main ways for a person (or dog) to get around the Gap – by water or by air. The water route is then split into various options such as a series of uncomfortable speedboats for cheap or a multiple day cruise for $500. To us, the cruise sounded wonderful and with per day costs considered, wasn’t actually more expensive over time than flights; however, we didn’t do much research into this avenue for two main reasons: 1. We run our own business, and 4-5 days offline followed by 2-3 days away from the computer while collecting the car and then at least 1 day away from the internet while driving to our September apartment in Medellín just didn’t make sense, and 2. Maya, our girl dog, lacks social skills, so we probably wouldn’t really enjoy the trip much anyway. In another situation and with another dog, perhaps this could be a fabulous option. It’s hard to imagine not being able to find some captain willing to take on a four-legged passenger if the price was right for him. That said, we don’t actually know how this works or if it even can. I seem to recall hearing at one point that maybe outside dogs weren’t welcome on the San Blas islands, but I know absolutely no basis for the validity of that statement. If anyone tries this, we’d love to hear about it.
We opted to travel by air, taking our dogs on a plane for the first time ever. Two main airlines fly multiple times daily between Panama City and Cartagena (where our vehicle was headed), Avianca and Copa Airlines. In general, Avianca is cheaper, but Copa Airlines offers a couple of direct flights per day, minimizing the amount of time that the dog is being transported as cargo. We chose Copa Airlines, so it is their process that this post will describe.
It’s important to note that pets are only permitted on Copa Airlines Monday through Thursday. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out which flights our dogs would be welcome on on the Monday we were flying and were repeatedly told that any flight was fine. A week before we left, a Copa Cargo representative finally told us that the flight we had booked our seats on could not take dogs and that we needed to move to a later flight. Fortunately, there was no charge for this change. We were never really clear on why our original flight wasn’t an option or why they couldn’t tell us sooner, but we think that it had to do with the fact that it was the earliest flight of the day, which would have meant delivering our dogs to Copa Cargo before their office at the airport was open. On a positive note, prices for one-way flights from Panama City to Cartagena seem to change little, if at all, and we have heard that they never fill up (ours certainly didn’t) in case you would rather wait to book than have to change flights if you pick the wrong one.
Along with kennel specifications which will be discussed below, a visit to the vet in the departure country within ten days of the flight is required in order for a dog to travel with Copa Airlines. The vet will provide two documents which Copa Cargo will need in order to finalize the reservation and provide a confirmation number. They can provide a quote before receiving these forms, but they cannot actually confirm a reservation, meaning that the dogs cannot be booked for travel until the week before the flight. For travelers who like to have their plans made in advance, this may feel a bit last minute, but no one that we worked with at any point of the process seemed to think it was problematic or abnormal.
Before Travel Day
- Contact Copa Cargo – This step is optional as it doesn’t really serve any purpose except to open your own line of communication with Copa Cargo and confirm that the process detailed below is still in place. Online, information about pets as baggage on Copa Airlines can be found here and here, and information from Copa Cargo can be found here. Contact information for representatives in various cities that Copa flies through can be found here. We sent an email first that was not responded to by the Panama City group, and so ended up calling their call center at +507 304-2660. After a lot of unnecessary runaround, we finally realized that we could just ask to speak with someone in English. Their representatives’ English wasn’t perfect, but it did help as we were discussing a process that was quite foreign to us and included vocabulary that we weren’t used to. I spoke primarily with a girl named Sara, but multiple people answered emails. It seems logical to me to check exactly which flights accept dogs at this time, but we tried it and were not given any information.
- Find Vet - There are many veterinarians in Panama City, and quite a few of them advertise the ability to assist with tramites (paperwork) for travel. It is important to confirm beforehand that the vet can provide you with both a Certificate of Good Health and also a Phytozoo Sanitary Process Certification within a few days of the appointment, both of which are required by the airline for booking and by the country of Colombia for entry. I do not know what the Phytozoo thing is, except that the vet had to send our information off and then go pick up the documentation for it later, meaning our paperwork was not going to be available until 24-72 hours after our appointment. The vet pronounced this piece as “fee-toe-so sahn-ee-tar-ee-oh”. The third document you must have is a Certificate of Vaccination. We used ours from the United States, but if your dog is not up to date, then this will need to be taken care of during your vet visit as well. We opted for a nearby vet that we passed by daily on our walks with the dogs and were very happy with it. Royal Pets is located in El Cangrejo at the spot noted on this map and can also be reached via email at email@example.com. I stopped in a couple of weeks before our flight to confirm that they could provide us with the necessary paperwork, get a quote, and make an appointment. The cost was $150 total or $75 per dog, and we did not need an appointment, but were recommended to come in on the morning of one of a few different upcoming days.
- Get Kennel - Guidelines for permissible kennels are available here from Copa Airlines and here from Copa Cargo. If you’re not already traveling with an airline approved kennel, you will need to purchase one in Panama City. We bought our intermediate sized kennels (Copa Cargo code 300 – 32″ x 22″ x 23″) at Melo Pet and Garden for $68 each, where we had excellent customer service from a young man named Felipe and a good range of options of various sizes and types of kennels. The kennels we chose did not have dishes on the inside of the door as is required by Copa, but Felipe helped us pull bowls from a different size and also to make sure that we had the removable wheels. While at Melo, we also stocked up on Heartguard (called Cardomec in Latin America), a muzzle, and new collars. There are multiple locations in Panama City, but the one we went to was the biggest we saw; its location can be seen on this map. Purchasing a kennel is listed as the third step because its dimensions are required for both a quote and a final reservation.
Get Quote – During my initial phone conversations with Sara, I was told that I needed to send via email the breed, sex, age, and weight of each dog, the kennel dimensions and weight, and a photo of each dog standing inside of their kennel. I also included our flight information for good measure which went entirely ignored despite it apparently being too early of a flight to take pets on. Another option that appears not to require a photo is to submit information for a quote via website, but we did not do this so we’re not sure how well it works or if they ask for a photo later in the process. Here is a screenshot of the quote I received for our two 30 pound dogs. When we paid on the Panama side, we were charged about $70 less than this quote, but then paid about that much in fees on the Colombian side. Whether or not this was intended, I’m not sure; we just went with it. Fun side story: Upon sending my information to Sara for a quote, I began receiving emails in return with the fine print in poorly translated English including restrictions such as the dog must have been in Colombia in the last 90 days in order to go to Colombia now. After a few emails and calls to clarify how that could even be possible after the many, many conversations we had already had confirming that this was a go (and also, how is a dog supposed to return to Colombia if it is never allowed to go there the first time?), Sara called her counterpart in Colombia to confirm that our dogs would in fact be allowed into Colombia and that the information that had been sent to us earlier was incorrect and could be ignored. So… that was a fun hour.
- Go to Vet - Way back when, before we even left home on this grand adventure, we had a soul-crushing trip to the vet with Maya in which she tried to eat the doctor, and at the time, it was so crippling that we thought it might impact our ability to follow this dream and live this lifestyle. Fortunately for us, Panama City was the first time on the road that we’ve had to visit a veterinary office, and we lucked into a really understanding doctor (and also a good muzzle). Maya wasn’t happy, especially when he stuck a thermometer in her hind end, but it went okay, and with a dog that didn’t hate the vet, it probably wouldn’t have even been worth describing. At the appointment 6 days before our flight, we were asked a few basic questions about the dogs before they were weighed and examined. That was about it though – quick and painless, even for us. Remember that you will need your dog’s up-to-date Certificate of Vaccination, so any additional shots or items that need to be taken care of should be addressed at this time. Also take a copy of the Certificate of Vaccination to the vet as they will request it for use in their Certificate of Good Health. I confirmed before leaving that we would be receiving both the Certificate of Good Health and the Phytozoo paperwork, as well as when I could pick them up. A few days later, we collected our paperwork, scanned them at the nearby Happy Copy, and prepared to make our reservation.
- Make Reservation - After having already communicated with a Copa Cargo representative, the only thing remaining for us to do in order to finalize our reservation was to send via email the three required documents: Certificates of Good Health for each dog, Phytozoo Sanitary Process Certification for each dog, and Certificates of Vaccination (vacunas) for each dog. Upon sending these to Copa Cargo, a confirmation of booking including reservation number was sent back. No fees were paid at this time. The Copa Cargo team did send a number of reminders afterwards including when to deliver the dogs, where to deliver the dogs, and not to sedate the dogs, as well as four separate forms that need to be filled out and delivered with the dogs on the day of the flight. If you have not already done so, be sure to confirm the flight number and day-of-flight process at this time.
- Make Copies and Print and Complete Forms - As mentioned above, Copa Cargo will send four forms at the time they send the reservation number. These forms are the Security Certificate document, the Formulario para el Corte de Guía document, the Identificación de la Mascota document, and the Checklist for Acceptance of Pets document. Print a copy of each of these forms, and while you’re doing so, get copies of your pet documents (Certificate of Health for each dog, Phytozoo for each dog, and Certificate of Vaccination for each dog). We got 5 copies of each and used them all. Try to complete as much of the forms as you can ahead of time as submitting them is the first step at the Copa Cargo office on travel day.
- Figure Out Transportation to Airport – Panama City’s international airport, Tocumen, is located about 25 minutes northeast of town. To get there, travelers can take a taxi or rent a car. Though it is the more expensive mode, we opted to rent a car because we wanted to be able to handle the dropoff of the dogs on our own timeline. In retrospect, it is also a good distance between the cargo airport and the passenger airport, so the taxi would need to wait until the dropoff was finished to take the humans to their terminal. Just about every car rental company I can think of had an office at the airport, but we mostly considered Dollar, Thrifty, and National because they had offices near Via Veneto in El Cangrejo and also because they were the most familiar. Our final choice was Dollar because their small car was the cheapest, and they agreed to rent to us with a debit card rather than the required credit card. We reserved it on Saturday, picked it up on Sunday, and returned it at the airport on Monday. Our total cost was $65. Naturally, we took special measures to ensure we didn’t get dog hair in the car.
Travel Day – Panama Side
- Morning Prep - On the morning of your flight, make sure your dog gets water and a good walk.
- Go to Cargo Airport - We were directed to go to the cargo airport 3 hours before our flight, which would have been 8:22am. We were also told to be there at 7:30am, so we split the difference and showed up around 8am. This map shows the location of the cargo airport, which is at the old Tocumen airport just next to the new one. The directions from our Copa representative said, “Do not Worry, the address is easy. The old Tocumen international airport (cargo airport) is before arrive to Neighborhood ‘La Siesta’ with reference you can see the minisuper 188 and after you go customs checkpoint, When you are there just go straight until you reach our storage.” Google maps guided us to a sign for the cargo airport. We did not go through a customs checkpoint, but did drive through the area twice before finding the sign for Copa Cargo, which is the last in the line of cargo areas and tucked back from the road a bit.
- Go to Office - Upon arrival, park in the lot and go to the office on the ground floor on the right side when approaching from the parking lot. Here you will need to give the agent behind the desk the four completed documents that the Copa Cargo representative emailed you (Security Certificate document, Formulario para el Corte de Guía document, Identificación de la Mascota document, and Checklist for Acceptance of Pets document), the three vet documents required for each dog (Certificate of Health, Phytozoo, and Certificate of Vaccination), your passport, and a secondary form of ID (like a driver’s license). The agent will review the paperwork, type some things into the computer, make photocopies of your passport and IDs, and then send you off with a document to take to the loading area with your dogs.
- Go to Loading - The loading area is on the left side of the building when approaching from the parking lot. There is a small office-ish area near the entrance where a staff member will take your papers and type some things into the computer. To be completely honest, my memory gets a little bit fuzzy here as I was super nervous that Maya was going to bark viciously and be rejected from the flight. In reality, everything went incredibly smoothly. The dogs never came out of their kennels, and Maya was decently calm. While typing, the man directed Ian to put the kennels with dogs onto a nearby scale. I was given stickers with forms on them to fill out with our information that were then placed on the side of the kennels. (Note: We thought we were supposed to have this done ahead of time and so had made our own “animal vivo” signs, etc, but they covered ours with official stickers, so maybe they weren’t actually necessary.) The man had me sign off on a few forms while his coworker moved our dogs onto a pallet and drove it away on a forklift. He directed us to return to the office to complete the process.
- Go Back to Office - Back in the office, the agent reviews the document from the loading area and gives you an invoice to pay at the window next to him. Our total in Panama was $183.22 for two dogs. Payment is the last step at Copa Cargo.
- Return Rental Car - The return for all rental cars at the airport is at arrivals.
- Go Fly! - Woot woot!
Travel Day – Colombia Side
On the Panamanian side of the border, we had at least been working with a representative of the airline who told us what we needed and what to expect. On the Colombian side, we were just winging it.
- Fill Out Customs Form - On the plane, the flight attendant gives all passengers a customs form. Here is a photocopy of ours that an above-and-beyond type airport staff member made for us. When collecting these forms, the agent does a quick scan over the bottom questions looking for a yes in the first box and then a no in the next six boxes. Checking yes for “Do you carry animals, plants or goods of animal or plant origin” got us noticed, but we’re not entirely sure if it’s what we were supposed to do (ie – We weren’t really carrying them, so maybe we should have said no and proceeded separately to our cargo). Yes is the way we went though and when the overtly helpful customs agent collected our form and noticed it, he knocked on the window behind him to request the presence of an ICA (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario) agent. This man told us how to exit the airport and return to his office from the outside, and then the customs agent let us move ahead, offering to meet us in the office with a copy of our customs form. Luck? Maybe. Smiles and respect go a long way.
- Go to ICA (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario) – Following the directions of the man we were introduced to at customs, we went outside of the building, turned right, reentered the building at a door that said ICA, walked down the hall, and knocked on the door. He welcomed us inside where I handed him the papers we had received on the Panamanian side (including our Air Waybill) as well as a copy of all of our dogs’ papers. He commenced to fill out his form, which was maybe the vet form, but I’m really not sure (he did not look at the dogs), while a woman in the office explained to us what to do next. She said that we would need to pay to her 37,500 COP ($19.25 USD) for the ICA fee and then another larger amount to a company called DePrisa, who had our dogs. She offered to walk us there as she needed the forms that had traveled with the dogs anyway, and when we asked about an ATM, she agreed to take us by one at the airport on our way.
- Go to DePrisa - DePrisa is a company that handles shipments of mail and cargo. They were fine and completely friendly and helpful, but we were entirely unaware that Copa would not be handling our dogs on the Colombian side. Avianca’s logo was on a few signs in the DePrisa office, but we’re still unsure what their relationship is with Copa. Regardless, they were great to work with. The location of the DePrisa office can be viewed on this map. When exiting the airport, visitors turn left and then take another left at the next block; DePrisa is on the left side in a group of warehouse entrances. The woman from ICA who was chaperoning us to DePrisa was looking for a man named Manuel, who confirmed that our dogs were there. If you don’t have an ICA helper, ask for him or confirm your dogs are there in the DePrisa office. Manuel asked for our documents, so we handed over the form from ICA, the documents from Copa, and a copy of each of our dogs’ forms. He took our forms into an office for processing, charged us 97,150 COP ($49.82), and provided us with a set of receipts to sign off on. One might think this is the part where we took our dogs and left, but unfortunately, that was not the case. Ian was able to take water to the dogs at this time, which was important because it was hot. If they don’t offer, ask. Manuel and the ICA woman then informed us that we needed to visit DIAN (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduana Nacionales – Directorate of National Taxes and Customs), which was a taxi ride away (one we would take many times over the coming days as we worked to get our car back) to get our pet import permit. They gave us a couple of names to ask for at DIAN, told us what to tell the taxi driver when we needed to come back so that we wouldn’t get charged airport prices, and then the ICA woman walked us two blocks away where we could catch a cheaper taxi, which was still 9,000 COP ($4.62 USD). Here we go…
Go to DIAN - If you’re thinking this process is ridiculous, you are right, but you haven’t seen anything yet. All taxi drivers in Cartagena know where DIAN (pronounced dee-ahn) is and will drop you on the corner of a multiple building complex. Walk through the first building and into the second, which is behind it. Inside we asked for Señor Milton Murrillo or Señor Alvaro, who Manuel at DePrisa had told us to ask for. I think that asking for pet importation might have worked equally well, but who knows. If you’ve ever watched the show the Office and have also ever been to any government office, then you can imagine what DIAN is like. It is Dunder Mifflin’s office, except 15 times larger, with desks in clumps, phones ringing intermittently, birthday balloons on some random person’s desk, small groups chatting over coffees and printers, and with essentially nothing being done at any given time and efficiency existing apparently only in our minds as some foreign and imaginary concept. Having been pointed towards a general area where these men were supposed to be, a group of half a dozen staff members stared at us blankly and then looked at each other trying to figure out who was going to have to do actual work on that day. Perhaps this is an unfair assessment, but this was not to be our only run-in with this specific desk cluster at DIAN and patterns emerged. Eventually, the most unpleasant of all of the human props wrote us a note on a piece of scrap paper indicating that we needed to write a letter to the boss of importation. Um… a letter? Yes, by hand is fine. Then go get a photocopy of it at the place down the street. Then take it to that man over there for a stamp and then bring it back here. Bloody hell Colombia. Your people are nice and your cities are beautiful, but your processes are really, really, really silly. Of course that’s not what I said. Instead we agreed happily and headed off to write our letter. You can read it here. Then we walked down the street to get our copies, returned to DIAN to the desk of a man who stamped our papers, and took that stamped paper back to where we started. The stack of forms was then passed to another desk where a very slow, but not unfriendly gentleman typed up our import permit. There seemed to be some confusion over what to type in certain fields because we were only permitted in the country for 90 days, but after half an hour or so, I was handed our permit and free to go.
- Go Back to DePrisa - Per the instructions from Manuel and our ICA helper, we asked the cab driver to drive us to Iglesia Crespo (Crespo Church) and were only charged 7,000 COP ($3.60 USD), a fee that is supposedly double for a ride to the airport one block further. At DePrisa, I showed Manuel our import permit from DIAN, and he happily led us to the dogs and helped us carry their kennels out. During our ride to Iglesia Crespo, we took note of a not perfectly clean taxi and a driver who seemed to be charging less than others and asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking us and our dogs to our hotel in Bocagrande. He agreed and quoted us an additional 6,000 COP, but because he waited while Manuel reviewed our papers and was so nice about us shoving two giant kennels into his taxi, we gave him 20,000 COP ($10.25 USD) for the entire trip.
That’s it, friends. Follow those simple steps, and you can be reunited with your beloved canine in Colombia. Indeed it is a long process, but it really isn’t difficult. As with almost anything, it’s more a matter of patience and positivity than anything else. Questions? Let us know!