The aspirin to your shipping headache

We shipped our truck around the Darien Gap in a 40 foot high cube container in May 2011. The process lasted four weeks and billed out at $1973 in direct costs. In place of a how to guide, we offer only strategic guidelines to ensure your experience will not resemble ours. Results may vary, satisfaction not guaranteed.

  1. When you cross the border into Panama make sure your vehicle paperwork is accurate. A small slip up here causes many problems down the road.
  2. Panama Passage is a great place to stay while sorting our your shipping situation. They provide excellent resources to get you to Colombia as painlessly as possible.
  3. The dimensions of our truck camper [H: 100″ W: 88″ L: 233″] left about an inch of wiggle room on all sides of the container. If your vehicle is even slightly bigger, you must ship RORO.
  4. ¿Habla espanol? If you haven’t started your Spanish studies yet, consider yourself three months behind and start cracking. A firm grasp of the language at this juncture will not only cut costs but reduce that tension headache you keep reading about.
  5. Your agent will likely tell you that your propane and gas tanks must be empty before loading. Neither were checked in our experience. If you want to play it safe, here are the coordinates to the Cartagas propane station just south of Cartagena: N 10°19.188′, W075°30.112′.
  6. There are multiple ports in both Colon and Cartagena, each with their own unique and constantly changing set of rules. If you find a step by step guide, remember this information is specific to a certain port and by now it has probably changed.
  7. The three ports in Colon are Manzanillo, Colon Container Terminal, and Balboa. Manzanillo would not allow us into the port even to supervise. Balboa would allow us to supervise but not load the truck ourselves. Colon Container Terminal allowed us to walk in clad in flip flops and hard hats and drive our truck into the container unsupervised.
  8. Expect delays. There are too many entities involved for any one person to be knowledgeable on all aspects of the process. While you might expect these people to be working together toward a common goal, they are totally separate.
  9. The ship: your departure date is really more of a vague goal, and will probably not leave as scheduled. Our ship left port a day late and then anchored outside of Colon for another day before heading toward Cartagena.
  10. The shipping agency: They only provide the container to you, they have no power to get you into a port or to allow you access to your vehicles once you hand over the keys.
  11. Customs: This is probably the most efficient entity you will encounter. If all your paperwork is lined up you won’t spend more than 20 minutes clearing your vehicle with customs.
  12. The port:  Employees transfer positions each year. This prevents criminal activity but causes a lot of hold up and confusion. They have final say when it comes to permissions on entering port and personally loading vehicles. Don’t waste your breath arguing or pleading, their rules are set in stone.
  13. Do not leave Panama until you know your vehicle is locked and loaded on the ship. Don’t worry about airline prices, the daily flight from Panama to Cartagena is set at a fixed price and is never full.
  14. Sailing via catamaran is the most cost effective way to get to Cartagena. The price is cheaper than a flight and you save five days in food and lodging costs. You will have time for the five day voyage.
  15. Once your ship arrives in Cartagena it seems there is a two day waiting period no matter how you shipped (RORO or container). There is not much you can do at this time.
  16. You must obtain your vehicle permit before you can buy auto insurance. The only place to buy short term auto insurance is in a SOAT office in the walled city of Cartagena. You cannot buy tourist insurance at a gas station. Office Locations.
  17. We highly recommend using an agency that has offices in both Colon and Cartagena. This ensures the invoice you receive in Panama covers everything including the fees in Colombia. Although their reputation is 50/50, Seaboard Marine is the only company we know of that handles both sides of the process, they have a private port in Cartagena.
  18. Lastly, and probably most important, Flor de Cana rum is $6 a bottle in Panama City. You’ll want at least six by the time you finish shipping, stock up!

This information is free and we encourage recirculation, we only ask for a shout-out to PanAmNotes.com.
Please email with any questions or corrections: us@panamnotes.com.

Buen viaje!