Shipping Our Vehicle Across The Darién Gap

Our shipping process was similar and yet different to many overlanders. The following information attempts to give tips and specifics for things we didn't really find on other people's blogs. Perhaps after reading one of the step-by-step guides, you will find our page especially helpful. Step-by-step guides can be found at: liferemotely.com, vangabonds.com, homeonthehighway.com, fromatob.org, dare2go.com

This information was put together in September, 2013.

Procuring a Shipper
The obvious first step is to choose a company to ship your vehicle. Here's a tip, when contacting anyone for a quote you can fudge the vehicle dimensions a little because it seems that no one ever measures the vehicle. Even a few inches of fudging can save hundreds of dollars if you are shipping RORO (roll-on-roll-off) or LOLO (lift-on-lift-off). If you are going with a container, it probably doesn't matter.

We contacted:
  1. SC Line (www.SCLine.com) who is an actual shipping company
  2. Seaboard (www.SeaboardMarine.com) who is also a shipping company
  3. Tea (teakalmbach@hotmail.com), who is an independent agent that usually ships with Seaboard or Walenius
  4. The RozoGroup (jmancia@therozogroup.com.pa) who is an independent shipping agent as well. 
SC Line returned our email immediately with a quote. We requested a quote online for Seaboard, and they quickly provided a quote after a few emails. A few days later Tea responded with a quote for Seaboard and Walenius. Many days later, The Rozo Group aka Canal Shipping Services responded with a quote to ship with SC Line.

The quotes:
Agent: none, Shippper: SC Line, RORO, Cost: $860
Agent: none, Shippper: Seaboard, LOLO, Cost: $2000
Agent: Tea Kalmbach, Shipper: Seaboard, LOLO, Cost: $1774
Agent Tea Kalmbach, Shipper: Walenius, RORO, Cost: $2126
Agent: The Rozo Group/Canal Shipping Service, Shipper: SC Line, RORO, Cost: $1207

We chose the $860 SC Line option. Their quote was 2-3 times LESS than the more commonly used Seaboard and Walenius. We could not find an account of anyone using SC Line for the Darién Gap. It appears that SC Line started RORO (roll-on-roll-off) service between Panama and Colombia only about a year ago. Now, they typically sail between Florida, Panama, Columbia, and Venezuela. Even if your vehicle fits in a container, the SC Line quote for RORO could be much less than sharing a container.

Our total shipping cost:
$860 to SC Line for RORO of 35 cubic meter vehicle
$58 port cost in Colon, Panama
$100 port cost in Cartagena, Columbia
$100 OPTIONAL agent in Panama (see below)
---------
$1118

Agent or No Agent
We were nervous to go through the process ourselves and decided to hire Tea to help with "paperwork" and to give us instructions on the port process. She offered her services for $100. This fee DID NOT include any personal assistance in Colon, which is really the hard part. This was our choice. For another $150, she would have provided help in Colon. She said this was her first client who chose SC Line. In retrospect, we are not sure Tea was necessary. She was VERY responsive over email and a bit comforting to have as an ally, but she didn't really help us that much. She filled out our preliminary Bill of Lading, which we could've done ourselves (email us for a copy). She also filled out the IMO Dangerous Goods Manifest which we later learned from fellow travelers IS NOT NEEDED for RORO service, only LOLO and container-shipping. SC Line took an electronic copy of it (email us for a copy), but no one else ever asked for it (probably because it wasn't needed).

We did not hire an agent for Cartagena. We do not think an agent would've helped. There is so much information from other overlanders about the process, that having an agent really doesn't add much. In fact, using an agent can even slow things down. We met a guy that used Manfred. His opinion of Manfred: to know him is to hate him. Incidentally, we met Manfred, and heartily concur. This client thinks that Manfred's belligerence actually caused a work slowdown among the port authorities and customs inspectors, causing a delay in getting his vehicle. Unfortunately, Manfred is involved with the new San Blas Ferry service, which would make us think twice about that option.

Panama City Logistics and Tips
We spent 2 nights near the Balboa/Amador Yacht Club (N08 56.486 W79 33.310), parked for free in the big empty parking area. Our first day in Panama City involved getting our vehicle inspected by the Police at the DIJ (N08 57.947 W79 32.719). After the inspection, we drove our truck back to the Balboa Yacht Club to leave it there. We took a cab back to the Secretaria General (across the street from DIJ) at 1 pm. The Secreteria General gave us the clearance to cancel our vehicle permit (this is what results from the morning inspection).

Tip: Panama City taxis should not cost more than $3 to get anywhere around the city. Agree to a price beforehand. If your destination is really close, you could ask to pay $2.

Tip: Do not empty your propane tank. No one asked about it, and we have found no information from fellow travelers that indicates it's necessary. In fact, you can fill a fixed tank with a USA connector at a Terpel station in Panama City (N08 59.416 W079 32.690). It's the only one we could find in Panama. You may need to be persistent with the employees because they will need to track down the connector.

We stayed at the Hostal Amador which is very close to the Balboa Yacht Club. This made it easy for us to drop off our belongings before we took the truck to Colon. The Hostal Amador has a giant kitchen with great laundry facilities. It was very, very worth it for the A/C room - $38.

Colon Port Logistics
On our third day in Panama City area we agreed to bring our truck to the port even though our ship hadn't arrived. Heather waited in the truck on the side of the road while Scott rain across the street to cancel the vehicle permit at the first aduana located outside the port (N09 20.781 W079 52.731). Then we went to the Panama Agencies office at the port (the building with all of the other agencies next to the port aduana building [N09 20.783 W79 52.735]). Panama Agencies represents SC Line and were super helpful (English!) about the rest of the Colon process. They told us what to do, where to go, and provided copies of a modified Bill of Lading after customs wouldn't accept our original. We were very impressed with Panama Agencies.

After we finished with everything, one of the really nice port workers called a taxi for us. He emphatically told us that we shouldn't pay more than $5 to get to the Colon bus station. When we arrived at the Colon bus station, the cab driver wanted us to pay $10. In retrospect, we should've agreed on the price before we got in the taxi. Our shipping agent told us the cost should be no more than $6. We read an account of travelers before us who paid $20.

Cartagena Logistics and Tips
There are tons of hotels/hostels in Cartagena and most of the lesser expensive ones are in the Getsemani area. This area is a 5 minute walk to the famous Old Town. Even better, it is walking distance to the Manga port area you will be visiting for at least 1-2 days. If you are willing to walk a few miles in a day, you can save lots of money on taxi fares and get a lot of sweaty exercise.

There are 2 ports in Cartagena.  All of our paperwork was done at the port near Manga, called Sociedad Portuaria (N10 24.390' W75 31.707'). The other port, Contecar (N10 22.628' W75 30.376'), is where the vehicle is inspected and of course where you pick your vehicle up. You will not be able to walk to Contecar. We only did 3 taxi trips, all of them to or from Contecar.

The agency for SC Line in Cartagena, Jans Mar, is in Manga (N10 24.907 W75 32.464). Jans Mar is a 15 minute walk from Getsemani.

We stayed at Hotel San Roque for $43 with A/C (81,000 COP). We requested a discounted rate over email before we arrived and this is what they offered. The included breakfast was delicious and plentiful - coffee, fruit, oatmeal, yogurt, bread, and yummiest of all, arepas con huevos y queso.

After our ship left Colon, but before arriving in Cartagena:

  1. We picked up a copy of the new BOL at Jans Mar (SC Line shipping agent)
  2. The new BOL enabled us to start the temporary vehicle import form at DIAN. DIAN (N10 24.598 W75 31.977) is a 10-15 minute walk from Jans Mar. 
  3. A copy of the incomplete BOL form enabled us to get vehicle insurance before our ship had landed (see "Getting Vehicle Insurance in Colombia" below).
  4. Nothing else can be done until your ship has arrived, your vehicle has been off-loaded, and most importantly, entered into the system. You can track your vessel using www.marinetraffic.com or www.vesselfinder.com.

Once your vehicle has arrived in Cartagena and been off-loaded, you can begin the port process. Many people end up working with Andres, the Port Operations guy, who is located in the Servicio Cliente office at the Sociedad Portuaria. He is super helpful, patient, and speaks perfect English. This is another reason why an agent in Cartagena might not be necessary.

Accidental Injury/Death Insurance
Andres, the Port Operations guy, asked Scott to provide proof of accidental injury/death insurance in order to schedule the inspection at Contecar (the other port). We had an electronic copy of an edited (eh ehm, fake) certificate, along with policy documentation from an old health insurance plan we had in New Zealand. While in the office, Scott emailed the policy to Andres who emailed it to another guy to make sure it "checked out". Apparently, they want to see an actual dollar amount associated with injury/death compensation. They will also make sure that your policy is not expired. Whether or not you have a policy, be prepared with something in case you are asked for it.

Getting Vehicle Insurance in Colombia 
Before you drive your vehicle away from Cartagena, you will need to get vehicle insurance (called SOAT). Tip: the person who doesn't have their name associated with the vehicle can handle this step (maybe while the other person is running around at the port!). We had read that you cannot get insurance until you have your completed vehicle permit and that you cannot get a policy for less than 3 months. Not true and not true. When you visit the DIAN office, an unfriendly woman will give you a temporary vehicle import form to fill out. Take the form back to the lobby area, fill it out, and discreetly take a picture of it before returning it to the unfriendly lady. She absolutely will not make a copy for you, and she does not want you to take a picture of the incomplete form. We only got away with it because when she walked away to find an English speaking translator, we dropped the document on the floor, and took a picture of it while picking it up. Super sly.

Once we had the picture (cropped properly with our computer), we went to one of the zillions of internet cafes with our trusty USB stick to print it. The lady at the HBL Seguros office in Old Town (N10 25'30.6" W75 32'52") told us that she would have to issue a 90-day policy because we had filled out "90" in the field labelled "Visa Issued by MIG.C., period of days" on the preliminary vehicle permit (once you see the form, you'll know what we're talking about). We did not want to pay extra for a 90-day policy since we knew we wouldn't be in Colombia that long. We left the office, did a little photo-editing to change "90" to "60", printed a new vehicle permit, and got our insurance later that day, saving $30. In hindsight, we could have just put 60 (or 30) days on the vehicle import permit. Also, I recently read that you might be able to get 1-month policies at a Sura insurance office. Does the Sura office care how many days you have on your vehicle permit?

If you have better information or corrections, please leave a comment or email us at heatherandscottsadventures@gmail.com.

34 comments:

Cristian Riquelme said...

Hi, we are looking for the best price RORO, and we quote with SCLine, and they gave us a budget, but it includes a lots of fee, like the following:
USD 800.00 + USD 20% BAF + THC MIT USD 150.00 per unit + IMO Certificate USD 150.00 per unit + DVD Doc USD 150.00 per unit + USD 50.00 BL Fee = USD 1,460.00 + Insurance Fee

Did you have to pay all this??

Thanks

Matthew Inglis said...

I did half the drive from Canada to Nicaragua last year and plan on finishing it up to Argentina this year. Thanks for the info as the next step of the trip is to get the truck around the Gap.

Michelle said...

Just wondering how you secured your vehicle when you did RORO from Panama to Columbia? We have a Mercedes Sprinter high-top that is not going to fit into a High Cube shipping container and that seems to be the more typical route when getting across the Darian Gap. And it seems that everything we do read about RORO are bad experiences that end in theft. Anyhow, any info would be greatly appreciated.

Heather and Scott said...

Hi Michelle, Like you, we have met people who have had stuff stolen during RORO. If you can secure ALL YOUR STUFF, then RORO is definitely a good option - it's less expensive and straight forward. We've met two different couples that have had stuff stolen from the inside. One had a wood barrier pushed out so that the thieves could get into their camper- it was only attached with screws. The other couple left their van completely open (no barrier). We have never heard of (or met) anyone who had their vehicle broken into from the outside (have you?). At the port, if they can steal something easily, quietly, and from the inside, it's almost a guarantee.

Our cab and camper are connected so we put 13-ply 3/4" plywood up between them with bolts/nuts (not screws). We took everything out of the cab, put a chain on the outside of the door of our living quarters, and a metal bar across one of the bigger windows in our camper. Your number one priority should be putting up a barrier (wood, metal, etc) between the cab and the living area. Second priority should then be additional locks on your side and rear doors. Good luck. Please send an email with additional questions - we'd love to help. heatherandscottsadventures@gmail.com

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Fran Calder said...

Hi Heather,
just an update to RORO shipping process; we HAD to empty our propane tanks; apparently this regulation changed in 2016 we were told.

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