To many, crossing the Darien Gap is ‘THE’ hurdle of overlanding the Americas. For us it was Costa Rica, with the enforcement of their law against right hand drive vehicles from passing through, even though they’re breaking a ratified UN treaty – but don’t get us started. Once we had snuck through there undetected, our biggest hurdle was done. Nothing was going to stop us after that! The last ten years of my freight forwarding career had me ready to ship our van around the gap. While it is possible to drive, or should I say 4×4 through, you’re likely to encounter guerilla rebels or unfriendly local tribes and, if they don’t get you, the large cats, deadly frogs or mosquito-borne illnesses probably will. Plus, we’re driving a glorified minivan. Although it’s quite capable off-road, there’s no way it can blaze a trail through a thick jungle swamp! So, shipping was our obvious choice.
On the Panamanian side it was quite simple. Get an inspection done and have the police sign off on it. Then, when the loading date came, we showed up to drive the vehicles into the container, locked up the doors and dusted off our hands! At this point I was thoroughly impressed and wondered why everyone shipping their cars stressed so much.
Over the next five days while the van was on its way to Colombia, so were we, passing through the San Blas Islands and set to arrive the day before we could unlock our container. As soon as we were on land, walking off our sea legs in Cartagena, we checked the tracking on the vessel to find the ship hadn’t even left with delays due to mechanical malfunction. Since our container was already loaded we would have to wait for the ship to be repaired. Over the next coming days the delay would be pushed further and further back, ending up being a total of 11 days past the intended ETA. Although it was unexpected and an inconvenience, it was a blessing in disguise by giving us a chance to truly be tourists, sometimes the goofy, ridiculous kind, in a city while unattached to our vehicle.
We ended up renting an apartment within the walled city off of AirBnB and saw way more sights, tasted much more street food and even got in on some of the local festivities by keeping an eye on the street-post signs for upcoming events. We learned to find shade during the hot, hot afternoon heat and explore the city during the late afternoon when everything became a shade of gold. We found that although the San Diego neighborhood is picture-perfect, we much preferred the soulfulness of Getsemani with its colourful graffiti, street baseball tourneys and the keep-you-coming-back-every-day greasy burgers at Plaza Trinidad.
Without our shipping delay we wouldn’t have even got close to experiencing everything we did. And, lucky for us, our anniversary also fell into these dates so we were “stuck” living it up for the day in one of the world’s most romantic cities, cruising La Muralla (the wall) on a tandem bicycle, meandering through the balcony-laden Colonial streets and people watching while we dined on a patio.
When our container finally did arrive, it truly was a run-around and, even with all my expertise, it was a nightmare. It was definitely the most unorganized process I’ve ever seen – and this is after 8 Latin American border crossings! In total, it ended up taking two days running around, spending money on unnecessary taxi rides to the same locations over and over again. If all the parties in Colombia communicated, there would be two or three stops and off you would go within four hours. Instead, the port authorities and freight brokers treat their clients like cattle and then blame any delays on them. Being in that exact same line of business for the past 10 years, you can be sure they got an earful! Alas, they won’t be changing their processes anytime soon. But, with patience and a positive outlook and you can get through just about anything… even shipping your vehicle from Panama to Colombia!