After a lot of back and forth about the shipping options we agreed with Einmalrundum to book the flat rack. We confirmed with the agent (Tea) that we’d been in contact with and we received the instructions on how to proceed. It was a relief having made a decision, but we weren’t completely confident, knowing some horror-stories from fellow overlanders. Not that we would have had many other options, since almost every company or agent we contacted didn’t respond (sufficiently). It turned out to be a maze of paperwork, bureaucracy and a patience test.*
Police check in Panama City
It all starts at a local police department in Panama City, here you have to obtain permission to leave the country. Basically they check you VIN number if the vehicle isn’t reported as stolen or has outstanding payments for taxes/fines. The way they do this, is rather strange. You have to report at their location very early in the morning and get a number based on “first come first serve”. They don’t only check overlanders, but do all kinds of checks, so there’s mainly locals showing up. The tricky part is, that they only check 25 vehicles a day and they open at 5.30am. It’s up to you how much you want to push your luck with arriving later than that.
Still half asleep we’re trying to find our way through the morning traffic jam in the middle of the city. The suburb is rather poor and sketchy and no foreigner would go there for any other reason. Getting to the place didn’t make it better, their entire area was full with abandoned and mostly broken cars, so we had to park on the street. Reporting in the office was easy, being the obvious foreigner, they know what you’re there for. The actual check was done in less than 2 minutes, for which we had to wait about 2 hours. Then, return in the afternoon to receive the confirmation letter.
Dropping off in Colon
They next day was drop-off day at the port in Colon, which is at the other side of the country. Luckily, north to south Panama is less than a 100km so we were there quick. Although quick is relative, since the traffic leaving Panama City was so bad it took us 3 hours to cover around 15km. The next day started smooth, got a confirmation letter from the carrier’s office (Seaboard Marine), cancelled our TIP at the Aduana (customs) and went to the drop-off point.
At the Aduana we got to see a little of the inside of their office mentality, where I’m sure Panama doesn’t stand alone.. We got to a small office where the walls didn’t reach the ceiling and there were little gaps to see through. It looked a little like an area to separate bad behaving kids in primary school. There were just over 10 ladies inside, all wearing the same kinda uniform, all doing completely nothing useful. They were occupied with reading shampoo packages, writing WhatsApp messages and staring at blank computer screens while trying to use the keyboard. We were told to wait and they continued doing nothing. Eventually we handed over a bunch of paperwork and more copies than was good for the Amazon Rainforest, got it all stamped and we were done.
When we arrived at the drop off location we randomly met a few other overlanders. Everybody was going through the same process. At the drop off location the main thing (other than more paperwork) is a narcotics check. Just a dog sniffing around your vehicle and leaving dirty paw prints everywhere. I closed and barricaded everything as tough as possible to make getting to our belongings as hard as possible.
Next it was time for the “driver” to take over. Grisu isn’t as easy to drive as your 2018 VW Golf, and anybody not being aware of some things would easily do a lot of damage. But, port rules are I’m not allowed to load/unload the vehicle myself. I communicated this beforehand through our agent, and wrote a small instruction manual. She assured that the guys were professionals and do this every day and confirmed they were liable for damage. Without, we would probably still have been in Panama right now…
Well, they were not professionals. The assigned “driver” couldn’t start, couldn’t put it in first gear and didn’t know what to do with a clutch. His co-workers weren’t any better. I showed them, he still couldn’t do it. After a few more attempts he finally got it rolling, but all confidence was gone.
Leaving for Colombia
They next two days were spend resting in Panama City before we flew from Panama to Colombia. This is when we received the email from the carrier that the estimated time of arrival was set for Wednesday. Wait a minute? We booked a shipping arriving during the weekend to start the pick-up process on Monday.. They of course all knew, but didn’t let us know until we passed the point of no-return; Drop-off and payment. This is how dirty this industry is.. but there wasn’t much we could do.
We flew the day before Grisu left Panama. Normally this isn’t recommended in case there are issues with the vehicle, but due to restrictions flying with Layla we didn’t have another choice. We arrived in Colombia and continued doing what we did before, not much.. besides checking our vessel on Marine Traffic. This is how we found out that our vessel had another stop between Colon and Cartagena, a little further north in Colombia. The caused the “delay”, which wasn’t a delay since they knew, but just didn’t tell us.
Paperwork, bureaucracy and a patience test
Of course nobody responded to my email complaining about the new estimated arrival they mentioned. Neither did our agent respond anymore. Dirty business, disgusting. We went to the carrier’s office on Monday morning nevertheless. We got told there wasn’t much we could do, because A) the ship hadn’t arrived and B) the paperwork for departure hadn’t been completed or hadn’t arrived. The only thing we could already do is pay a port fee. Business as usual.
The next morning we returned, still nothing, still no paperwork. The lady behind the desk was nice, since she also texted more on WhatsApp than she was actually helping customers, she didn’t mind sending us a text when there was an update.
Luckily, paperwork arrived that afternoon. We raced to the office, got the paperwork and went to the Aduana to start the import process. This is where we met our fellow overlanders, everybody in the same boat.. although.. Some of them had issues worse than ours, yes, that was possible. We weren’t all on the same ship, and the other ship didn’t have a different itinerary like our, but just went to another port as they had booked for, 45 min south of Cartagena. Some other also used an agent in Colombia to help them with the process. Unfortunately, the agent only made the task harder. Being useless, and also not being as well informed about the steps to take as we were.
We reported to the guy at the reception what we were there for, and he said we had to wait in waiting area. No more information. With the help of Wandering Peso (another overlanding team) we found out what the guy at the reception couldn’t tell us; We had to make even more copies of even more paperwork. So we did, but after a while we started to wonder if we were actually waiting for something or not? The guy at the reception couldn’t tell us, and so we walking into the employees area were the ball started rolling. We found the guy dealing with our paperwork and got some stuff done, after I had to re-write a customs form twice because I had make a minor mistake that wasn’t allowed.. now out of a sudden they were on it.. We left their office more than an hour after closing time with the message that we could pick up our vehicles the next day..
Pick up at the port
The next day we arrived at the port, where we were told we weren’t be able to pick up our vehicles until a day later. Also, he told us that we had to come back a few hours later for some paperwork. Nothing we could do, besides heading home and returning at 2pm as he requested. We filled in some paperwork, which was full of useless numbers and stuff only he knew, but he was too full of himself so we had to fill out the paperwork. Then we needed an insurance to be allowed on the port to collect our vehicles. He needed proof of (travel) insurance, which was the top of their bureaucracy since he was allowed to accept Austrian/Swiss letter he couldn’t read. The “checking-time” took a few hours, in which he pretended he/the office was checking stuff. In fact, they weren’t doing anything, since you can’t check what you can’t read. The approval had no value, but at least saved as hassle of organising something else in zero time.
The next day at 8am sharp we arrived, we headed to the port for which we needed closed shoes, long pants, a reflector vest and a helmet. Slightly nervous we headed onto the port to see if everything had worked out well. We checked our vehicles, which had arrived in good order. That was a relief. But here the “drivers” story from Panama repeated itself. Only port personal was allowed to drive the vehicle off the rack, just those 5m. The guy assigned should have been informed about the “manual” I wrote, but he wasn’t. He couldn’t read it, couldn’t start nor put it in first gear. Just a bunch of amateurs, but with my help it finally got of the rack.
We had to take pictures, which we had to take to the Aduana to receive our TIP. With the TIP we went back to the port, thinking we could finally drive out. But no, we had to come back later in the afternoon. A few hours later we returned, and went back to the exact same location on the port as we had been earlier. But now, for reasons never explained, all the safety equipment wasn’t necessary anymore. I asked why, but of course no answer. Thinking this would be a quick one, but no. After waiting again for all together almost two hours, we finally drove through the gates of the port and we were free again!
Teaming up with Einmalrundum promoted Plan Q to Plan F-, together we were victorious against all the paperwork, bureaucracy and the patience test. Together we solved the puzzle, supported by overlanders who had shipped earlier and provided us with good write-ups on iOverlander. Together we dealt with all the people involved on both sides, usually not knowing what was going on apart from the one little paper that they were responsible for. As soon as we decided to go on this trip we committed on shipping, which is every overlanders nightmare. But it had to be done and it’s over now. Back on the road for the second leg, down to Chile.
*If you’re shipping yourself, feel free to contact me about details.