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The Darien Gap: Vehicle Shipping, Panama Side

September 3rd, 2013 | Posted by Ian in Border Crossings | Colombia | Darien Gap | How To | Panama | The Places We've Been

By now you have theoretically decided on a shipping company or agent and set up a date to load your vehicle into its container (read this post for more info on preparation – if you are waaayyy behind, here is an explanation of what the Darien Gap is). What follows is a step by step breakdown of the process, followed by our personal experience.

1) Get Your Paperwork in Order and Make Lots of Copies

Happy Copy, El Cangrejo, Panama City, Panama

The Ian-meister, makin' copies...

Make copies of the following documents:

  • Vehicle title
  • Owner’s passport
  • Owner’s driver’s license
  • Panamanian vehicle insurance
  • Temporary import permit
  • Police permission certificate (you will get this in Step 3 below, which means you will more than likely be making a return trip to the copy shop)
  • Bill of Lading (this will be supplied by your shipping company or agent)

Our Experience: Our contact advised us that seven sets of copies of vehicle title, owner’s passport, owner’s driver’s license, car insurance, temporary vehicle import permit and police permission certificate would be sufficient; they would supply the needed copies of the Bill of Lading.

2) Vehicle Inspection by the Dirección de Investigación Judicial (Day One)

  • DIJ Vehicle Inspection in Panama City, Panama

    DIJ Vehicle Inspection in Panama City. The office is through a door directly below the bus in this picture.

    Have one set of copies ready (vehicle title, owner’s passport, owner’s driver’s license, vehicle import permit and car insurance).

  • Inspections only occur at 10:00AM on weekdays.
  • Drive to The DIJ building in Panama City (here is the location on Google Maps). Arrive before 9:00AM to give the engine time to cool. Raise your bonnet (hahahahahahaha, where my Brits at?!) hood to help in this process.
  • Find the door all the way on the left (east) side of the building facing the parking lot. It should be up a small set of stairs. Give a knock and let them know you are there for a vehicle inspection to exit the country.
  • Sit around bored for one hour. Keep your fingers crossed it doesn’t start raining – according to some other travelers, the inspector won’t come outside if it does. Kick yourself for not parking as close to the office door as possible and letting latecomers squeeze in front of you in line.
  • The inspector will come out and start in on his work. When it is your turn, hand him your paperwork. It seems as though the only thing he is really doing is making sure the VIN and engine numbers match your import permit and title, presumably in an effort to prevent the exportation of stolen vehicles. He’ll fill out a bit of paperwork on his clipboard, take the set of copies you gave him, then tell you when and where to go later in the day to pick up your official form granting your vehicle permission to leave the country by cargo ship.

Our Experience: Although we realized on our way that Panama City traffic is horrible at 8:30 in the morning, everything went quite smoothly on this step. We were the third car in the lot. A fourth showed up and parked between us and the second, but kindly told the inspector we should get to go first when he came around (he paid no attention to this comment, but each inspection lasted about ninety seconds anyway so it didn’t really matter). A motorcycle also showed up and parked in front of everyone. Respect of the queue is hit and miss (but generally miss) in Central America.

3) Visit the Secretary General’s Office to Receive Your Vehicle Exit Permission (Day One)

  • Have a set of copies of your paperwork identical to the one from the morning’s inspection ready.
  • Return to the parking lot where you got your inspection. You can theoretically park closer to the building housing the Secretary General’s office, but this fenced and half-empty lot is probably the easiest and least stressful option available.
  • Walk directly across the street (here is a Google Maps link showing which building you need to go to). You can either play a real life game of Frogger or take the pedestrian bridge a few hundred feet out of the way.
  • Stop at the security booth on the way in, tell them where you are trying to go, and trade them an ID for a visitor badge.
  • Walk in the building. There will probably be some young men in fatigues hanging out in the building entrance that can point you in the right direction. If not, take an immediate left. Go through a glass door and continue going straight. When you can no longer go straight, turn right. A door or two down the hall on the left side will be a door with a sign saying “Secretaría de la Dirección.” It doesn’t have a door knob and it doesn’t have a window. Knock on this door and someone will let you in.
  • Tell them you are there to collect your papers from this morning’s inspection. Hand over your paperwork copies, and you will likely be instructed to have a seat to wait. Wait for awhile. Get your official vehicle exit permission certificate.
  • Leave the building, trade your visitor badge back in. Your day is over! The certificate is valid for one week. Be sure to make some copies of this before you head to Colón.

Our Experience: Our wait was about forty five minutes. All of the same people from the lot that morning were in the waiting room. The motorcycle guy turned out to be an overlander from Chile, which earned him back an ounce of respect.

4) Load Your Vehicle (Day Two)

  • Leaving Aduana in Colón, Panama

    Leaving Aduana in Colón, Panama

    Have your paperwork ready (vehicle title, owner’s passport, owner’s driver’s license, vehicle insurance, temporary vehicle import permit, permission certificate from the Secretary General, and Bill of Lading). If you are not using an agent, make sure you have copies of your Bill of Lading.

  • Drive to Colón bright and early. It takes about an hour. If you are using an agent or other contact, they will likely meet you somewhere to guide you through the day.
  • A special note about Colón: This seedy port town has an apparently well-deserved reputation as a place you want to avoid if at all possible. Make sure you know where you are going and don’t walk anywhere unless you are certain it is secure.
  • Head to Aduana (Customs – here is a Google Map showing its location). They will need three sets of your paperwork. They will do some paperwork, issue you a canceled temporary vehicle import permit in triplicate, add this to each set of your paperwork, have you sign each copy, and stamp the vehicle out of the owner’s passport so that you can leave the country without the vehicle.
  • Colon Container Terminal

    Loading the CR-Van into the container

    Drive to the port entrance (there may be a couple different places where this is done, depending on which company you use – we loaded at the Colon Container Terminal [map]). If you haven’t already been shuttled about by a contact, they will likely need to meet you prior to this step, as you will either be denied entry to the port or asked to pay a ridiculously high phony fee. Your representative will take your paperwork, run back and forth between buildings and people for awhile. Wait outside the port entrance while trucks drive all around you.

  • Drive your car onto the scales to be weighed and have it inspected.
  • Drive into the port and follow your shipping rep to your waiting container. Drive in, lock it up, and strap it down (straps will be provided). Important: Make sure you have everything you need out of your vehicle.
  • Wait around for some official, security-esque gentlemen to arrive. They will briefly inspect the container, making sure some numbers on the container match the numbers on the papers on their clipboard. Then, they will close the container and lock it with a one-time use lock. Make sure this lock matches the number listed on your Bill of Lading or other paperwork; it is supposed to give you proof on the other side that your container has not been opened.
  • Pay your shipping fee. Be sure to get a receipt.

Our Experience: Our shipping contact (still not sure if he is an agent or an actual shipping company employee) met us in the Blockbuster (wha! Blockbuster is still a thing?) parking lot at 9:00AM. From there we followed him to Customs and sat in the corner while he took care of our paperwork. Then, he introduced us to his motorcycle messenger Carlos, who guided us to the port and through the loading process. We waited maybe ten minutes outside the port entrance before having the most thorough inspection we have ever had. They checked every internal compartment, looked through our stuff in the back, even had us pop the hood to look for things hidden under there.  After driving into the container we had to wait for about an hour for the final inspector/lock guys. Thankfully, the container itself provided a small amount of shade in the middle of the vast, paved-ish, sun-baked lot we were in. The crazy machines around us loading and unloading containers onto trucks and stacking containers four rows high kept us fairly entertained.

5) Get Back to Panama City (Day Two)

  • Seriously, don’t stay in Colón any longer than you have to.
  • There are two basic options. You will have to take a cab to either the bus station or the train station. The cab ride will probably be exorbitantly expensive ($20). Whether this is because, as we were told, cabs don’t normally come out to the port because it is so far and there is road work so it takes a long time or because it’s easy to gouge foreigners due to Colón’s reputation is up for debate. An express bus with AC will set you back $3.15 per person and will leave when it fills up. For a more interesting experience, take the Panama Canal Railway. At $25 bucks a pop it’s a bit more expensive, but supposedly you get fantastic views of the Canal and surrounding rainforest on your one hour ride back to the capital. Super interesting bonus fact: The Panama Canal Railway is owned by the Kansas City Southern Railway!

Our Experience: Our day in Colón went so smoothly that we were done loading by noon. This was great news, but also meant that we’d have to wait over five hours for the train. We flip-flopped on this a few times, as we had for several months imagined the train as a short and needed break from reality. Ultimately, the fact that we could leave almost immediately on a bus won out, so we grabbed a bottle of water, a couple donuts, and settled in to watch Grown Ups 2 on the ride back to town. Bonus: The bus dropped us off within easy walking distance of our apartment.

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

Driving between Panama City and Colón

Driving between Panama City and Colón

Following Carlos through Colón

Following Carlos through Colón

Port terminal entrance - Colón, Panama

Port terminal entrance


Getting ready to load

Getting ready to load. Carlos and I called each other the night before to coordinate outfits.

Strapped in

Strapped in and ready to represent the Jayhawks on a new continent.

The view from inside

The view from inside

It's hot out there

It's hot out there

This is what a shipping container lock looks like

This is what a shipping container lock looks like

Ian and Brianna at the port in Colón, Panama

Covered in sweat and grime, but still in good spirits!

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