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 (email@example.com). 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).
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.