The Heroine of the Darian Gap!
This page is intended to provide general information about how we shipped our vehicles to South America, there is another page detailing each company we contacted and their response (if any).
Those of you who have been following our route on a good map will probably have noticed that whilst Central America is joined to South America, there are no roads that cross from Panama to Colombia. This is the Darian Gap!
Our original plan was to ship our vehicles from either Costa Rica or Panama to Ecuador. As we have been driving south, we have been sending e-mails to shipping agencies in both Costa Rica and Panama asking about sailing dates and costs. We have sent e-mails to more than twenty companies. Most e-mails went unanswered or produced very negative replies.
By the time we reached the excellent XS Memories RV Park (N 08.388611 W 80.109944) about 100km outside Panama City, we were running out of options. Because XS Memories is the only real RV park in Panama and on the only road to Panama City, nearly every overlander stops there. As a result the RV Park have accumulated information on shipping agencies. Although much of their information is now out of date (some as far back as 1998) there were a few recent references.
As you may know there are three real options for shipping a vehicle; in a container, on a flat-rack (a sort of open top container) and on a RoRo (Roll on Roll off) ferry. Our vehicles are too big to fit in a container. Shipping by RoRo is generally cheaper and easier but you have to leave the cab open and somebody else drives it on to the ship and off at the other end. With a flat-rack the locked vehicle is secured to the rack with cables and then the rack is lifted by crane onto the ship and stacked on top of ordinary containers. It is almost never possible to travel on the ship with your vehicle.
When we arrived at XS Memories, we sent our standard e-mail asking for information on RoRo or flat-rack shipping to Ecuador to all the new agencies mentioned in the XS Memories files.
This produced a couple of replies, none very encouraging. In summary, we have been told that there are now no RoRo ships going from Panama to Ecuador and the one reasonably priced flat-rack shipping line has stopped accepting overland vehicles. This leaves only one very expensive option (over $8000 USA per vehicle) that also required us to have two empty flat-racks shipped to Panama first!
However one company e-mailed back within minutes to say:
After we had e-mailed Evelyn back to say "yes", she phoned us at the RV Park! (We had not given the park's phone number in our e-mail.) The gist of the conversation was repeated in minutes in another e-mail:
This all happened on the afternoon of April 26th, with the ship leaving on the 28th! To meet this deadline we needed to:
On April 27: Drive 100km into Panama City, find the Barwil Agency, get a provisional Bill of Lading, go to the traffic police (two different offices), get the vehicle VIN number inspected, get permission to export it, find the appropriate customs building and get the "entered Panama with a vehicle" stamp in our passports cancelled (without this last step you can not leave the country without the vehicle!)
On April 28: Drive the 80km north from Panama City to Colon where the Manzanillo port is, remove all the equipment from the cab (CB radio, reversing camera monitor, fire extinguisher etc.), pack the stuff we will need to take with us by air to Colombia for up to a week without our vehicles, dump all the perishable food, secure the back of our vehicles, find the right RoRo section of a massive port, complete the customs procedures and security inspections. All by 16:00!
It was just possible but very tight.
On the 27th we drove into Panama City, parked in the right area of town and phoned Evelyn. She immediately got in her car, drove to us and lead us back to the Barwil offices! Having produced four copies of the provisional Bill of Lading, Evelyn then equipped us with five sets of copies of the other four documents we would need and provided an English speaking guide, with car, who lead us to the police inspection offices and helped with the paperwork.
In spite of this help, we almost immediately ran into a problem. At the border into Panama, Clive's temporary vehicle import document had been completed incorrectly (no VIN number had been recorded). The police therefore refused to issue the document allowing the vehicle to be exported. So Clive, K-Nine and our guide had to go to customs and get a replacement temporary vehicle import document, and then return to the police. Unfortunately by then the man needed to stamp and sign the police permission to export the vehicle was in a three hour meeting and he did not emerge by the time the police offices closed. So at the end of the 27th Clive had completed one of the three stages needed and Stephen two of the three! It might still be possible to complete the the police and customs procedures on the morning of the 28th and make it to Manzanillo in time.
Then the good news! Evelyn got an e-mail to say the ship was going to be two days late! We now had time to complete the police and customs on the 28th then drive slowly up to Colon, stopping off to visit the locks on the Panama canal. After camping one night near Colon we could tackle the port early on the 29th. We could relax. Evelyn even arranged for us to camp in the guarded car park outside Barwil's offices.
On the morning of the 28th we were at the police offices (with our guide) at 08:30. Clive's papers were already signed, stamped and waiting; we were out in 10 minutes. Customs took only 30 minutes and we were back at the office by 10:00 ready to book our airline tickets to Colombia (return or they may not let you in!). By 12:00 we were ready to start our leisurely drive up the Panama canal to Colon. We said good bye and thanked Evelyn.
But just as we pulled out of the car park Evelyn rang our mobile to say "come back". We stopped on the main road a 100 metres from the Barwil office and ran back. Now the bad news! The ship was back on time! We had to be thru customs and security and on the dock-side by 18:00! Evelyn immediately asked a colleague, who knew the back streets of Panama city, to lead us to the start of the toll road to Colon. After an interesting drive, we stopped just short of Colon, threw clothes, papers and computers into our overnight bags, stripped the valuables from the cabs, locked everything we could, gave away all our perishable food to a startled passerby and arrived at the incomprehensible dock gates. Dozens of small windows each with several truck drivers going thru the well rehearsed process of getting their containers into the port.
Eventually we found a "problems" window and somebody who not only spoke English but also seemed to know how to process a couple of Gringos who wanted to put their strange vehicles onto a RoRo (thank you operative number 2025!). After a last minute very thorough search (we had to empty many cupboards and boxes) we finally left K-Nine and Mog amidst dozens of new cars, tractors and bulldozers also en-route to Colombia.
We now hope that both K-Nine and Mog are sitting quietly on the dock-side in Cartagena. Only time will tell.
The heroine of this tale is:
Evelyn N. Batista
For service way beyond the call of duty and for keeping her cool when we didn't, many many thanks.
An outstanding example of customer service.
What of Bodo? We still don't know where they are. We have kept them informed by e-mail and text message, but so far no reply.
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