[We've fallen a bit behind with the blog. Tsk. And so much has happened recently. So for that reason we took half each and turned this next post into a two-parter. Fellow travellers who want more details about shipping and boat journeys from Panama to Colombia can email us or wait until we get round to posting a separate page of tips]
Transporting a vehicle from Panama to Colombia is rarely trouble-free. Take two countries, two separate ports, two customs authorities, four shipping agent workers and two sets of independence celebrations, then sprinkle liberally with a bucket load of inexplicable bureaucracy and questionable language skills… and you’ve got a headache before you even begin.
However, even by the usual standards I think we did well to turn it into the epic it became. But my, what a journey. And here we are, finally, in South America.
Following a seven-day delay due to riots paralysing the port in Panama, we were relieved to get the go-ahead to load the cars onto the container ship the following week. In all, twelve overlanders were shipping on the same day with the same company – us with Zach and Jill, plus eight others, from Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea and Germany. For many reasons it was comforting to all be in the same boat, so to speak.
We met each other and our agent in Colon and set off in convoy across the city, which had been the scene of riots, gunfights and looting just days before. Even at the best of times Colon, a desperately deprived and run down place, is not a safe place to hang around. It’s fair to say we were all keen to get the day done and get out of there.
After a long sweaty day at the port and customs offices, two cars were driven into each 40ft container. The containers were locked up and we waved them goodbye, hoping we’d be reunited successfully in Colombia asap.
In the meantime, we were backpackers once more. All we had to do now was get ourselves to Colombia in time to meet the cars in one week.
Now, we could have flown in a few short hours, but that just sounded far too easy. We could have taken a sailboat direct to Cartagena, but it was pricey and we were worried about its route over open water and the risk of severe seasickness. Option three was a more basic motorboat to the Colombian border, with stops on the San Blas islands for some beach camping and a chance to meet the indigenous Kuna people who live there. After that we’d have to make our own way over the border and east to Cartagena, by means of various boats and buses.
It sounded like a mixture of both adventure and unnecessary hassle. Perfect, we said, let’s book it!
Along with Zach and Jill – with whom we shared every step of the process – we took a bus to the scrappy Caribbean town of Portobelo, which was the departure point for the trip we had provisionally booked, but was not due to leave until three days later. It was a fairly miserable place to kill three days, and we had some doubts about whether our boat was definitely going to leave on Saturday. Arriving late to Cartagena was not an option for us, as this would incur storage charges at customs. We spent a day deciding whether to switch to a direct sailboat, but in the end plumped for our original plan and sat it out til Saturday.
On day one of the trip, we all wondered if we had done the right thing. It was clear from the start that our captain and his mate were nice enough blokes, but worryingly hapless. Shortly after setting off we broke down and stopped for over an hour in the water. As we bobbed about in the waves, inhaling engine fumes and trying to ignore the smell of burning, people started to go green and at least one vomited. I stared at the horizon for an hour, unable to talk, willing the contents of my stomach to stay put.
Finally it was established that they had forgotten to put any oil in the engine. In what was to become a recurring theme, they appeared to be blaming each other for the cock-up. Were we really going to put our safe passage across the sea to Colombia in the hands of this pair?
We’d had to change the island we’d be sleeping on that night, because it was a major holiday in Panama and the boat guys hadn’t realised that all the sleeping huts were booked out at their usual destination. Fine by us, we said, we are flexible and easygoing.
We felt less easygoing when we realised they couldn’t find the island. We drove from island to island, asking various Kuna people for directions. It didn’t inspire confidence. But things gradually began to look up. We pushed our anxieties to the back of our minds, and made light of little incidents like seeing the captain drinking at lunchtime and falling off his hammock, before taking to the helm again.
Over the four-day trip we stopped at truly deserted palm-fringed Caribbean islands, camped on the beach, snorkelled, made new friends, drank rum and roasted marshmallows on the bonfire. We slept in hammocks in a Kuna island community, and ate fresh lobster, crab and octopus. We slapped through the waves, got continually soaked, and (mostly) managed to avoid going green again.
On the final day we stamped out of Panama at a bizarre little border crossing town and arrived, tired and not a little hungover from the previous night’s rum festivities, at our final destination of La Miel. The inviting turquoise water cleared away the cobwebs and the four of us set about getting ready for stage two.
Despite having officially left Panama we were still in a Panamanian no-man’s land, and had to get to Colombia under our own steam. Although going by boat to the next door Colombian village was possible, we opted to go on foot, just a short hike over the hill and into South America.
It seemed to us like a pretty cool way to arrive. It was unfeasibly hot as we climbed up to the top of the peak, to be greeted by two immigration officials. They looked at our passports and then kindly agreed to take a group photo, with both the Panamanian and Colombian flags fluttering above us.
The downward path into Sapzurro, Colombia, became increasing muddy and slippery. So our entrance into South America was not so much cool as downright undignified. The locals must surely enjoy watching foreigners sliding into their country, smeared with mud and sweat and trying to look nonchalant with it.
With one more boat ride we were in Capurganá, where we found a hostel with the only four things we wanted in life at that moment – a comfy bed, a shower, a seat that didn’t move, and a TV on which we could monitor US election night. Zach and Jill in particular were becoming increasingly nervous about a Romney win, which they and their compatriots were mercifully spared.
Early the next day we set off on the long journey to Cartagena. We’d thought long and hard about the trip, and how to make it work and get back to the port in time to collect the cars. We were on the home stretch and it felt good.
First, a final boat trip, to the town of Turbo. At times we almost flew through the waves and landed with such a thump I thought my bones would shatter. But the stunning scenery more than made up for it. At Turbo we jumped straight onto a bus, the first of two 5 or 6 hour journeys to Cartagena.
After a long and stinking hot day we finally arrived in the beautiful colonial city late on the Wednesday night. We’d done it! We knew we’d have to hit the ground running the next morning to make sure we got the vans back before the weekend, so there was just one more thing to do – check our emails to see whether everything was on schedule…
Colombia ahoy! Part two
Kafka would not have dared make it up. It would have been too far-fetched even for those giants of Russian literature intent on exposing and ridiculing the dehumanising morass of a maze-like bureaucracy. But, I was there. It’s true.
After our gruelling 15-hour journey to Cartagena we arrived to be greeted with the wonderful news that the van had arrived safe and sound in Colombia. We also arrived to the devastating, and surprising news – news which our shipping agent had failed to mention – that a five-day public holiday was starting in the morning and all the ports, customs and government agencies would be closed or closing early. And so, after all that, it was unlikely we would be able to get the vans for another 6 days.
Oh, and all the hostels were filling up fast, in time for the fiesta.
Undeterred by such trifles we swore a bit [a lot – ed] then set about finding a bed – surely I am too old now for sleeping with a dozen other fragrant backpackers in a dorm. Apparently not. With no choice we settled down in our bunks to a night of noisy sleeplessness and arose what seemed like just a few short hours later to begin the process of trying to beat the holiday half-day closing and get the van back.
We had just 25 steps to achieve – after 4 hours of form-filling, waiting, waiting a bit more and pacing up and down we were still on step 2. This was never gonna happen. But at least we learned how to conjugate the Spanish verb – esperar. (to wait, to hope).
There are great blogs (eg Life Remotely) which explain in detail (and without the ranting) the process, costs and address details of where to go to retrieve your imported vehicle so I’m not going to bother. Suffice it to say that in a 3-day epic, said steps required us to go – armed with forms, innumerable photocopies and endless patience (not one of my strong points) from the shipping agent’s office, to the port authorities, to the cashier’s office, to the customs office, to the port – where not one but two inspectors had to fill out separate reports – to the customs office again (where we were dealt with by a man with the slowest writing in the world), to the shipping agent again and back to the port authorities – which on day 2, with noon closing fast approaching, we arrived at with 7 minutes to spare. We’d already decided that if we hadn’t been seen before they tried to close, we’d have to occupy.
From there it was another trip to the cashier, to the container port, to the car park to be reunited with the van and another inspector who checked to see if we had an ashtray, fire extinguisher, windscreen wipers and various other vital parts of the van and duly noted them all down – in triplicate. I’ve no idea why he felt the need to check since no-one had noted any of this down at the Panama end.
From the car park we drove (after Zach had to jump-start their van from ours) 100 metres to the port office to get another stamp, then drove (after I had to jump-start our van from Thomas’s car) 100 metres further to the gate to hand in the stamped bits of paper, and then back to the port office to put a fingerprint on the stamped bit of paper and give it back to the man at the gate – in triplicate.
Except we couldn’t get insurance until we had actually left the port with all the necessary paperwork, and by this time it was Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend. All we could do was drive to a car park, head back to our new and much-improved hotel and wait until the insurance office re-opened at 8am on Tuesday morning. It meant it had taken us 14 days to travel 80 miles or so. At this rate we’ll be in Argentina in 33 years time.
As if all that were not surreal enough, Cartagena was in the midst of the biggest fiesta of the year – its independence celebrations. It’s a culture shock to emerge from the bowels of the bureaucracy onto the sun-drenched streets filled with beauty queens, exquisite carnaval costumes and grown men in diapers. Everywhere people painted themselves – and anyone else they could lay their hands – sprayed unsuspecting passers-by with foam, dressed to thrill and frankly just had a ball. What choice did we have but to join in?
Cartagena is beautiful. And the steaks at El Bistro are amazing. The ice-cream is heavenly. A cold Aguilar beer atop the city walls is a fantastic way to cool off and spend the evening.
Finally Tuesday arrived and we all marched down to the insurance office, paperwork in hand. Had we learned nothing from the past few days? How could we have been so naïve as to arrive without multiple photocopies of every document? So back out again we went, to the photocopy shop and eventually the scared piece of paper was handed over, meaning we were free to go.
It was a moment of joy tinged with the sadness of saying goodbye to new found friends who’d shared the tortuous process with us. But in particular to Zach and Jill, whom we had by then spent several weeks with, in a number of countries. We all meet interesting people on our travels, but it is rare to find friends who you can be truly at ease with; where you can be silly, grumpy, blunt, excited, drunk, serious, hysterical or smelly – and occasionally all at once.
It was only our livers that were glad to say goodbye. Hasta pronto comrades.
Ours is a journey from north to south. Not for the first time on this trip, though, we found ourselves heading in the wrong direction. This time deliberately. If we were going to make it to the southernmost tip of the continent it would seem rude not to have arrived there from the northernmost. So we headed for Punta Gallinas – a remote and rugged desert on the northern tip of Colombia.
On the way we stopped off at Palomino for a few days of fantastic tranquil beachside camping – and the chance to catch up on some reading. I think I might try Kafka next.
Things we now know to be true: There’s nothing that can be done with a drunken sailor.