Friday, August 31, 2012

Shipping Across the Darien Gap Panama

Warning: This post is mostly logistics. If you aren't doing this trip in the future or really love reading about logistics, you can probably skip this. If you haven't already, please read the summary post before this one.

Friday (or Monday -- their office opens at 8am supposedly):

After reading a lot about the process, we decided we would arrive in Panama city on Friday (August 10th) and stop by the Barwill office. They tell us the boat is all set to leave the next Sunday and gave us all the paperwork (a draft Bill of Lading along with two sets of photo copies of necessary documents we would give to the Aduanas) we would need for Monday. The woman we worked with was named either Pamela (whose email address is mysteriously missing from our contact email) or Mabel (mabel.estribi@wilhelmsen.comf cell:+507 66 74 68 57), it was really hard to tell (she sent emails from one name, but they sometimes referred to her by the other). She speaks some English, but prefers Spanish if you can understand. Everyone else recommended working with Evelyn (, but she was on maternity leave.

Barwil office: It's in an area outside the city called Panama Pacifico, it's in a very american looking suburban office park. It's on the 4th floor of the furthest north building in the plaza. They're only open from 8am-4pm M-F and don't expect anyone to answer email or their phones after those hours. They require IDs to get upstairs, but fake copies of drivers licenses were fine)

GPS: N8 55.662, W79 35.561
Turnoff from Highway: N8 57.142, W79 35.309

Monday (or Tuesday) at 9am:

On Monday the first thing you do is go and get your car "inspected." Barwill gives you a sort of crummy map of the city with the offices, but it is still difficult to find (even with  GPS coordinates). It's a parking lot behind a nondescript looking building and it's filled with a bunch of taxis and other cars. When you're turning right off the main road (you must approach from the correct side, otherwise it will be very difficult to u-turn and get there), its the second parking lot on your left (the first is tiny and on the corner with the main street). You turn off the main road right after the overpass. We did a trial run on Sunday to make sure we could get there okay, I would definitely recommend this. The paper Barwil gives you says the inspection is from 9-10am. When we get there we ask someone and he tells us the guy gets there at 9, but doesn't work til 10. In reality he came out closer to 10:30am. Back into a parking spot close to the door and open your hood. You will need to give the inspector a set of your copies, which will appear in the Secretary General office later across the street. You will not leave here with anything.

GPS: N8 57.970 W79 32.690

***If you paperwork is incorrect and you cannot do the step above, you will need to visit the Aduana office which is a few blocks away. GPS: N8 58.490 W79 32.819

After 2pm:

Go to the secretary general office across the street in PANTS and SHOES -- they will not let you in without them. When we went they were doing construction so you had to park around the back, meaning you had to drive past it then approach it from the rear. We actually got to the office at 1:30 and the woman was ready to do our paperwork. The entrance is the same side as the main road, you will need to get a badge to go in (and give them ID,  since you will need your passport, make sure to give them a drivers license, the fake copy of mine worked fine). They will give you a form that includes permission to exit the country with your vehicle.

GPS: N8 57.947 W79 32.719

Wednesday 7am (or Thursday):

Wear pants and shoes, you can't go onto the port without them. Drive to Colon, it's on a main toll road and super easy. The Barwil office (says Wilhemson on the door) is on the second floor of a business park in the Manzanillo port (there are three different ports in Colon). It is the entrance to the left of the big fountain area. We were told to ask for Mary and Alfredo. When we got there we had to wait about an hour for Alfredo to show up. Afredo is a fairly friendly guy, he understands English, but prefers Spanish. Alfredo drove his car alongside ours to the various offices to take care of the loading into the container. First we went to customs and then onto the port. At the port we had to go inside and get some paper work filled out and pay the port fees (30 dollars). After that we could bring the car to the container loading area. It took about two hours for the container to show up once we got inspected (inspected = a guy comes by, asks you to open your trunk, pushes stuff around), but it was quick to load. We took pictures of the seal or everything, but this was irrelevant in Colombia. You are required to roll your windows down a bit, the guys will try to get you to roll them down more than a crack, don't.

Once we stuffed our container, since we refused to pay until we had our car in a container, this meant carrying 1500 dollars cash on us. We ended up giving it to Alfredo in the back seat of his car, at which point he kept telling us how terrifying it was going to be driving across the city to the bank with that much money. We held our tongues (mainly because it wasn't his fault) from pointing out that it was in fact their companies policy to pay in cash... People kept saying how dangerous Colon is, but it really just looked like every other Central American city to us.

GPS for Barwil office in Manzanillo: N9 21.931 W79 52.849

We were done by 230. Since the train that goes down the canal didn't leave til 530, we decided to take the express bus. The train is supposed to be a nice ride, but it costs ~25 dollars, whereas the bus costs 3.15. Alfredo drove us to the bus station and pointed us to the correct bus. The whole process seemed eerily easy (from all the terrible things we'd heard). Bus ride back was quick and we were able to get off not too far from our hotel.

As I stated before, I would not leave Panama until you know the boat is leaving Panama city, otherwise you end up wondering whether you need to fly back to Panama when something goes wrong.

I detailed our process in Colombia in a separate post.

Shipping Across the Darien Gap Summary

After almost two weeks, we finally have our car back in one piece and are high-tailing it through Colombia. As I believe I explained earlier, there is one stretch of this journey that cannot be driven. It's called the darien gap and covers the entire distance between Panama and Colombia.

The rest of this post will mostly be about the process of shipping, so unless you're planning to do this trip or you really love reading about complicated logistics in foreign countries, you may not want yo read any further. I will do a nice post with photos and such soon.

We had spent a lot of time online reading (mostly other people's accounts via Drive the Americas Site -- see more links to accounts below) about how the process works, but it seems like it is slightly different for everyone. It was really helpful to be able to read multiple people's advice and how it worked for them (hence me attempting to post this here). Feel free to contact me if you have any specific questions about any of this. We shipped with Barwil (via Seaboard Marine) and were not particularly thrilled with them (in fact they screwed us a few times). We also looked into some other options listed below.

Before the long explanation of everything, here are some useful tips:

1. When you are entering Panama make sure everything is correct on your car import paperwork. We heard from many others that if it is not, you will spend many hours running back and forth to the Aduana in Panama City and may miss your boat. Make sure the Motor Number is not marked as Not Visible (N/V), put the VIN number there if you can't see it in your car. We spent about three hours at the border making them re-type the paperwork (at one point the guy in the office even threw a hissy-fit). This made it so we never had any issues with our paperwork.

2. Do a trial run of driving to the offices in Panama city before you need to, driving is very annoying and streets aren't marked. Even with a GPS we got lost several times.

3. Get formal quotes from several companies. Don't pay anything until your car is in the container, they will try and get you to pay beforehand.

4. Make sure you list out all of the fees and understand what you're paying to the agent. These include: Ocean Freight, Stuffing (Colon), Unstuffing (Cartagena), Doc Fee, Agent Fee, Drayage (moving of the container), Port Fees (Panama), Port Fees (Colombia). None of the quotes you get in Panama will include port fees or an agents help on the Colombia side (this can be hired separately).

5. Find a hotel you are comfortable staying at for many days (with parking). We stayed at Villa Michelle, it is a bit out of the way, but there was a full kitchen and we were excited to be able to cook for ourselves. It costs 45/night (cash only), but had a shared bathroom. In Cartagena we stayed at Casa Tatis for 70,000/night (after moving around a bit). We discovered strong air conditioning is a must. Under no circumstances stay at Hotel Espanaola, there is a very loud club downstairs that will blast techno all night.

6. You must call your shipping agent to confirm everything, they will not call you if something is running late or has gone wrong.

7. Arrive on Monday to start the shipping process, you will want your vehicle inspected on Monday or Tuesday, in time to get your vehicle into a container in Colon on Wednesday or Thursday.

8. Get a SIM card, they are super cheap in Panama. You can even get data for something like 4 dollars for 7 days. This will help a lot with the logistics.

9. Wear pants and shoes to everything, some offices will not let you in without them.

10. Bring snacks. You'll often be sitting around for a long time.

11. Don't get on a plane or boat until your car is in motion, otherwise you are totally powerless to do anything. If I did it again, once the boat leaves, fly to Bogata and take a bus from Bogata to Cartagena once your stuff is ready. Cartagena is too hot and there is not much going on.

Different Companies and Prices:

We had originally contacted Barwil (who is an agency the handles the paperwork for you on the Panama side) about shipping via RORO (roll on roll off), since it was supposed to be cheaper (the downside is you need to remove everything from your car that is not completely locked down, because you give them the keys). They said there was a RORO boat leaving the 16th of August, this was actually perfect timing for us. As the date approached, we contacted again and they told us that the RORO ship was actually not leaving til the 9th of September, but we could ship via a container (which leaves every week on Sunday). Since we are trying to do this whole trip in only 4 months, we decided that we would have to do this (what other option did we have, really?)

There are two main companies we know of for shipping to Panama. Seaboard Marine and Marfret. For Seaboard marine you can work directly with them, or use Barwil as an agent (contact info on Panama page). Barwil was much more responsive to email. Marfret would not work directly with us, they recommended an agent named Boris who also seems to work with an agent that many people use called Tea ( Neither Boris nor tea were as responsive as we would have liked via email or phone. There were a few exchanges with Boris where we'd call him and he'd say, "send me an email," which we already had hours before. Boris and Tea had found someone for us to share a container with (which was not the case with Barwil), but both seemed totally incompetent with logistics. I'd read many other reports from people saying Boris had asked them to meet him in a parking lot in Colon at 9am and not shown up til after 2. To complicate the matter, the shipping partner they had found for us somehow had an expired exit permit and wanted to get it corrected on the same day he was shipping, rather than doing it the day before (with no explanation as to why). We were not comfortable with the possibility of not getting into a container for the next shipment, so ultimately ended up shipping with Barwil Solo in a 20' container. I cannot say this was the correct choice, since the boat left almost a week late (and no one ever contacted us to tell us this, we had to call).

Comparison of Costs:
Costs for Barwil solo: 1475 (includes ocean freight, stuffing/unstuffing, drayage, doc fee)
Costs for Barwil shared: 1000 (includes ocean freight, stuffing/unstuffing, drayage, doc fee)
Costs for Everlogistics (with Tea and Boris): 1050 (does not include things like unstuffng on the Colombia side which I believe is something around 150 dollars).

Other costs:
Port Fees Panama: 30
Port Fees Colombia: ~170
Taxis: Seaboard marine ships to Mulles de Bosque port in Cartagena, the government office (DIAN) for paperwork is at the Magna port. The logistics would have been much easier with a company that shipped to Magna, but I am not sure which do.

We spent a bunch of time reading other people's accounts (thanks so much for their help). You can read there here: LifeRemotely, FromAtoB, and TheRoadChoseMe!

Also, read on for our specific instructions/account of the process in Panama and Colombia.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The journey to Colombia

I'm sad to report that A and I will not be sailing around the world anytime soon. In fact, we have no interest in getting on a boat for a very long time. For some reason I got the idea in my head that it'd be fun to take a boat to Colombia, even though I get car sick (a separate boat from our car, that one is for cargo only). I will spare you the details of how one gets a car from panama to Colombia (I actually won't, I'll post about it later when I have my computer back). This will be a short post since I am writing it on my phone since we do no have our car (and our stuff back).

Some highlights of the car shipping:

1. Carrying 1500 cash in TWENTIES (for some reason panama doesn't believe in 100s) through a very dangerous neighborhood. Our shipping agent was nervous to carry that much cash on him (except of course they make you pay in cash so it is their fault...)

2. Spending days on the phones with various agents and running between offices.

3. Arriving in Colombia a week later to find out your boat has not even left panama and there is nothing you can do about it.

4. A did not murder a single person (yet... we still don't have our car or our documents)

Some musings from the boat trip:

1. We learned a new term: "aqua-poopoo". It's when your ships captain poops in the ocean water instead of using the horrible pump toilet on the boat. He even has special techniques for this involving how to fan away the water quickly.

2. Never get on a boat for 5 days that does not bathing facilities. Ever. Even if you've just taken a multi-hour 4x4 ride and speed boat trip to get there.

3. Salad is not good for the stomach, despite your captain insisting on it.

4. Dolphins swimming next to the boat are very hard to photograph. You'll have to believe us.

5. Apparently snorkeling gives you a really bad sunburn on your back, we're shedding.
6. Don't stay at a hostal with horse art on the walls that looks like a prison, loud techno music will be thumping from the club downstairs, all night.

I'll write more when I have the chrome book back.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Before I get to the exciting stuff, I will tell you a bit about Panama. It's like America. Gas is cheap, roads are nice, people speak English and THEY USE USD. They call it a Balboa, but it's interchangeable with the dollar. They use US bills and coins, but mint some of their own coins. They're just like US coins, except they have different stuff on them (same weights, etc). It's sorta weird. Panama City looks like Miami. No one walks anywhere, they just drive. We saw a woman on a Rascal in a supermarket. 

That's right, this very dark photo is of a capybara (thanks Dad for making it easier to see!)!

Now the good stuff, animals of course. One of our goals for this trip was to see a capybara, little did we know we'd be seeing them way sooner than expected. Turns out there are two types of capybara, one that exists in Panama, Columbia and Venezuela, known as the lesser capybara. On a whim (and having gotten to Panama way too early -- we don't put our car onto the boat until August 15th, we entered Panama on the 8th) we decided to go to Soberania national park, mostly because there was supposed to be some excellent animal/bird viewing on "pipeline road." I figured we would just drive and find a hotel (this was after rushing to Panama City to meet with our shipping company to get our paperwork in order for Monday). When we got to Gamboa (which is the last town up the road into the park), we quickly realized there wasn't much there. Except these GIANT rat like things (not as big as capybabra, but much more rat like, the head is like a rat, the back end is more like a rabbit) called Agouti that run all over. 

Agouti running across the lawn at breakfast

The Smithsonian research facility for the tropics is located in Gamboa, so it's mostly graduate students (we even saw a game of ultimate happening!). There is also a super fancy resort in town (200 dollars a night) that attracts a lot of Canadian tourists. It used to be one of the main towns for Canal workers and then US solders lived there when the bases were full. All of the houses were constructed around the same time, so they all look the same and have very neat floor plans the are above an open air car port.

 After exploring all the expensive hotels/bed and breakfasts in town we found this wonderful couple (Mateo and Beatrice) that rented out little cabins behind their house, they even drove us around to the trail head. After having hiked all day and not seen any capybaras (we did see some awesome plants, lots of birds and five monkeys!), we decided to stay another night to go hunting (they are nocturnal). We ended up only seeing one, but it was totally worth it (see if you can find it in the photo above). It sat there kinda shell shocked for a minute and then waddled back into the reeds. In addition to being super sweet, Mateo let us feed the monkeys in his backyard!!

Feeding a monkey in Mateo's backyard!

That was the fun stuff, now we are preparing to ship the car to Columbia. The next three days (assuming everything goes well) will be filled with waiting, filling out forms, driving across town, waiting, more forms, more waiting, etc. Then off to Columbia! We are spending four days staying at a crazy hostel/hotel thing with the upside of them having parking and kitchen where we can finally cook some meals.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Photo Update (from Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica)

Crazy Flower from Cartago Botanical Gardens, Costa Rica

I should start with a warning that a LOT of these are boring nature photographs. I probably shouldn't be attempting to photograph flowers and plants and such since 1. I'm not an amazing photographer 2. I don't have a super fancy camera, just a decent point and shoot hand me down from my father. So sorry in advance, everything is just so crazy looking, it's hard not to take a billion photos. I again posted a bunch of photos on google+, if you'd like to see them either email me or add me. 

Lago Atitlan, Guatemala

Copan Ruins, Honduras

Waterfall, Honduras

Young Coffee Plants, Honduras

Crazy Blue Lake, Honduras

We have (read I) been reading a lot of blogs of other people that have done this trip, mainly to understand things like border crossing, etc. Our biggest border crossing is coming up soon, the Darien Gap. We have been evaluating our options for getting our car across. There is a website dedicated to people that do the exact trip we are doing that has been extremely helpful. Through reading this though, we have come to understand that everyone else does this in a truck or some such well equipped vehicle. A thinks we should re-title the blog to "low clearance vehicle." Costa Rica has not been so bad in terms of roads, but the sound of the bottom of our car scraping a tope will probably haunt my nightmares forever.  

Today we not only got to see the fabulous botanical garden in Cartago, but we drove through a cloud forest. We could barely see more than a few feet in front of us, it was pretty scary. People also don't turn their lights on in low-visibility situations here. After the cloud, it started pouring. Luckily we saw a hotel sign that said "WIFI HOT WATER," so we pulled over. We will hopefully make it to the beach tomorrow and then on to Panama! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Costa Rica

I again left my camera in the car, so pictures tomorrow!

Things we've been enjoying so far:
1. Licuados -- fruit smoothies, usually some various options for the tropical fruit, mango and banana are usually best, also with milk
2. Popsicles -- they were all over Mexico, but I finally found another one tonight. 
3. Chocolate Milk -- this is really only A, but he gets it everywhere we go. 
4. The roads in Costa Rica -- they are so nice, mostly without topes!
5. Internet Everywhere -- Costa Rica again has internet in every hotel and almost every restaurant
6. Using Credit Cards - we thought we'd lost that ability when leaving Mexico, but here everyone takes credit cards and US dollars
7. Taking USD out of ATMs -- I had been freaking out about using our US dollars when exchanging money at the border, etc. Turns out we can take it out of ATMs again, this makes me feel much better
8. Wildlife - we are starting to appreciate birds and butterflies more since our Honduran adventure, but we still like lizards and pigs best

Costa Rica has been the richest country we have seen since Mexico, this is not totally unexpected, just a change of pace. It has meant the roads are really nice. We drove through Nicargua in two days, this is somewhat due to the heat, but also due to the fact that I've been there before and us getting annoyed at expensive hotels and getting pulled over by a cop.

Our first night in Costa Rica we stayed pretty close to the border, in a city called Liberia. Turns out Liberia has an airport, so it is a one night stop-over for people flying in to do adventure tours and such. The city had not one, but two Best Westerns. You could tell it was much richer than Nicargua coming in, but the quality of the roads and seeing McDonalds and Burger Kings. This was the first place we have felt sort of safe driving at night (back from the super market).

Yesterday we tried to stay in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, hoping we'd enjoy some museums and some more city stuff that we hadn't done since Mexico. We stopped at a Burger King of all things to get some wifi to look up hotels. We starred four hotels that were close to the city center and went to look at them (even a best western), when we drove around the first neighborhood it was completely deserted. It seems like there are a lot of really fancy houses, but they are all behind barbed wire and gates, which did not give us a great feeling for walking alone at night. We then drove to the neighborhood (city center) where the Best Western was. Everything again seemed to be shutting down (around 5pm), but there were people everywhere, including a bunch of drug addicts and prostitutes. I had read on one of the hotels websites "no sex tourism," but I didn't really think too much about it until I realized why they had to state that. We decided to drive North and stay near the National Park and hike the next day. The national park had some of the nicest manicured trails I've ever seen (albeit only about 5km of trails), beat only by a set in Texas that no one had used. 

Tonight we are staying in Cartago after failing to find a locksmith in San Jose to change the lock on our trunk in preparation for shipping the car across the Darien Gap. We found a hotel near the beautiful Basilica near the downtown, we can see it from the window of our very strange hotel. 

Costa Rica also has Walmarts, which we have not seen since Guatemala. The nice thing about Walmart is the ability to buy large things of water and that they sell granola bars. Most granola bars down here are more candy than substantial snack, it is nice to be able to buy them somewhere. We generally end up eating granola bars for breakfast or lunch on the go. The funny thing about Walmart here is its a nice store, they play classical music and everything is meticulously organized. I'm not really sure why this is, but it's interesting.

Friday, August 3, 2012


We made it successfully through Honduras and are now in Nicaragua. We've been off internet for a while, it's sort of a long story (which will be detailed after the brief summary). I left my camera in the car, so a photo update will have to come later.

1. My father was mostly correct, the food in Honduras is fried and not very good.
2. Go see a cloud forest if you're in Honduras, very cool stuff.
3. We met a crazy tour guide at a overall bad hotel that took us up into the small towns and cloud forest of Santa Barbra Mountain, where we met some wonderful people and saw some cool things.
4. It's increasingly difficult to find hotels with wifi or anywhere that takes credit cards.
5. We can't stop drinking smoothies, it must be all the awesome tropical fruit.
6. Speaking of tropical fruit, we tried Naranjaliia, some crazy avocado that tasted like anise, a strange variety of raspberry and some fresh passion fruit. All were delicious except the avocado.
7. We got lost in a coffee plantation and had to slide down the side of the mountain.
8. We got out hiked by a man in jeans, that did not break a sweat in the most humid of climates.
9. We saw a man selling a monkey by the side of the road today. A started screaming when he saw it.

The long of it:

The crossing from Guatemala to Honduras was pretty uneventful, the boarder was much quieter and cleaner than most we'd seen. We headed straight to the Copan Ruins, since we missed all of the other Mayan ruins when we decided to skip the Yucatan Peninsula/Northern Guatemala. This was A's first ruins and I believe the farthest out ones. They were pretty cool, but a lot smaller than I remembered Chichen Itza being when I was younger (maybe I was just the smaller one...). We stayed that night in the town of Copan Ruins, which was cute and touristy.

We found a hotel online (the D&D) that was near Lake Yajoa and brewed their own beer, from everything I read online it seemed really cool. We drove there the next day, only it was not cool at all. The space was nice, but the beer was bad, the food was worse and the crowd was horrible. We were kept up all night by some drunk college kids' renditions of Hotel California. There was one redeeming factor though, we met a crazy English expat tour guide (Malcolm) whose specialty was birds. I had read online a lot about cloud forests in Honduras and really wanted to visit one. It seemed like most of them were inaccessible with our car. I had read online that there were tours up to Santa Barbra mountain (just above Lake Yajoa). When we found him at the brewery that night, he said that he couldn't do the tour like he usually does because the road up to the mountain was under repair. He said if we really wanted to go he could possibly do a three day tour, one day hike up, one day on the mountain and one day down, staying up near the mountain. Since we had not done much hiking yet on the trip, we decided to do it, though he couldn't leave until the day after. The next day, we ended up joining him for a boat ride out on the lake looking at birds (which  I think would have made my mother the bird watcher super jealous) the next day. We also got to check out a really awesome waterfall park that day.

Our tour guide had traveled all over the world, so he had some interesting stories. Mostly, he seemed to be trying to live as much off the grid as possible. He'd stumbled upon Lake Yajoa and the brewery and realized he could make a living. We hiked up to a town above the lake called El Dorado, walking through various villages along the way. It was nice to see Honduras not from the car. We hiked a bit around the mountain before going to visit the local family we were going to stay with. The family turned out to be super sweet and the mother was a great cook (there were also two adorable daughters running around). A got to practice his Spanish, which is getting pretty good. Turns out there were two folks from the Peace Corps in town until about March, when the Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras. Apparently, there were a serious of incidents where a Peace Corps member was shot on a bus and another was raped and they deemed the country unsafe. This came at a really unfortunate time for the village since the Peace Corps members were trying to setup a library and training for nature guides in town. They are trying to add a visitor center to the mountain in order to help protect the forest land (which is being overtaken by coffee farming). The girl that had been working there had set up a beautiful library with equipment, computers, etc, but there was no one there to train anyone.

The whole area around Lake Yajoa is really pretty, but the cloud forest was definitely something different than we'd seen before. Much like a rain forest, everything is extremely damp. All the trees have many varieties of climbing plants on them as well as moss that holds droplets of water. The ground is covered in a layer of damp leaves, mud and fallen plants. There are thousands of air plants everywhere, where snails, lizards, etc feed. A got covered in about 1000 bug bites after forgetting bug spray. I will put up pictures soon, since I probably can't do it justice. The whole thing was really enjoyable and it was nice to have some home cooked meals.