Tag Archives: Darien Gap

Colombia ahoy!

23 Nov

[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]

Taganga, Colombia
By Paula

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.

Van enters the shipping container in Colon, Panama

Bye bye van. See you in Colombia!

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.

Jeremy with some local Kuna kids, San Blas

Jeremy shows off his colouring-in skills, San Blas, Panama

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.

Our boat to Colombia at its final stop, La Miel

Our transport to Colombia stopped off at several islands in the San Blas, and dropped us here at La Miel.

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.

Roasting marshmallows

Roasting marshmallows for dessert on one of our overnight stops. Yum.

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.

Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill

Yay! Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill.

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.

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands, Panama.

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
By Jeremy

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.

Carnaval time in Cartagena

Carnaval time in Cartagena provided a welcome distraction from the boring car stuff.

Oh, and all the hostels were filling up fast, in time for the fiesta.

Undeterred by such trifles we swore a bit [a loted] 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.

Carnaval in Cartagena

Everyone tried to out-wig and out-outlandish eachother during carnaval.

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.

And then….freedom!
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.

Celebrating getting the cars out of the port

When we finally got the cars back, beer was drunk.

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.

Jill gets foamed at the carnaval

Jill got well and truly foamed during the parade, Cartagena.

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.

Days: 378
Miles: 12,667
Things we now know to be true: There’s nothing that can be done with a drunken sailor.

So near, yet so far

29 Oct

Santa Catalina, Panama
by Paula

We’re back. After a dizzying, joyful, exhausting, emotional, treat-filled, wine-fuelled five weeks back in the UK, we again said many goodbyes to family, friends and the cat, and returned to Panama City.

Deer, Glencoe, Scotland

For a short time we swapped the humid hazy Panama skyline, for the misty hills of Scotland.

Panama has been great. We enjoyed spending a month here before we left for home – but now we’d like to leave, please. However, we can’t get out.

We should have sailed to Colombia at the weekend but are stranded here for at least an extra week by an unexpected bout of political protests, violence, strikes and blockades which began in the port city of Colón and then spread to other parts of the country. As we need to use the port to ship our vehicles out, there’s nothing for it but to wait it out.

It’s not the first time we’ve been stuck, so waiting is one thing we have become proficient at. And this time we have our fellow road-trippers, Zach and Jill to share the waiting with – not to mention sharing a few bottles of wine and rum, and some fine plates of campervan cooking.

If we drove to the end of the road in Panama, and really squinted, we could probably just about see Colombia. It’s tantalisingly close, but there’s just the matter of a swampy, dangerous, guerilla and disease-infested jungle separating us.

But despite there being a land border, there is no road through the Darien Gap, so the only way there is to ship the vehicle in a freight container and then make our own way by a separate boat, or plane. We’d planned months ago to share a 40ft container with Zach and Jill, thereby reducing our shipping costs.

One of the most frustrating things about being stranded is that we had been within a hair’s breadth of pulling off what felt to us like a logistical miracle. We’d managed to meet up in Panama City, both sort out mechanical issues with our vans, and then organise shipping for the vehicles and a four-day sailing trip to Colombia for ourselves – all within three working days.

Castle Stalker, with the parents, Scotland

A weekend near Glencoe, with both sets of parents, involved spectacular scenery and country walks, but mostly wine.

And what a few days it was. We’d arrived back in Panama after a long journey from Edinburgh, and hit the ground running the next morning by tackling all the bureaucracy involved in getting our van out of storage and updating all the paperwork.

It was one of those frustrating days that involves a bottomless pit of patience and a permanently fixed grin. Not great when you’re jetlagged and discombobulated then? Not really.

It went a bit like this:
Us to storage company: ‘Can we have our van back please?’
Them: ‘Yes, but only once you have extended your vehicle permit’.
Taxi to customs office.
Us to customs official: ‘Can we extend our vehicle permit please?’
Ninety minutes of confusion and paper-shuffling later…
Customs official: ‘Nearly done. So all we need now is your renewed insurance policy.’
Us: ‘Bugger’.
Taxi across city to insurance company.
Us to insurance company: “Can we renew our insurance policy please?’
Them: ‘Yes, but first we have to contact the office at the border where you first entered Panama.’
Ninety minutes of inexplicable faxing, phoning and typing later…
Them: ‘Here you go. You just have to go back down 21 floors to the payment office, pay, and then run back up here with the slip..’
Later.. Taxi back to customs office.
Us: ‘Now can we have our extended vehicle permit please?’
Customs official: ‘Okay, we just have to fill this out in triplicate, then you have to go to that window and pay for three photocopies, and then go to that window and pick up the copies, and….
Us: ‘Aargh, will someone just give us back our bloody van before everything shuts for the weekend!’

Paula on the computer, Santa Catalina, Panama

Getting on with some chores while we wait..

By a stroke of good fortune, we had bumped into Zach and Jill at customs, and they were able to help us with the final stages of retrieving the van from storage.

Firstly, we were just relieved the van was still where we’d left it. It started with a cough, a couple of misfires, and a flashing check engine light. Zach’s trusty scanner informed us we were not about to self-destruct and could move off and worry about it later. We all drove back, through horrendous traffic, to our city camp spot and collapsed into the chairs with a beer. Welcome back to the road.

After a weekend of driving around the city, getting our sorry brakes fixed, squeezing all the extra stuff we’d brought from the UK into the van, making our onward travel arrangements, celebrating Zach’s 30th birthday and stocking up on food and water, Jeremy and I headed off to a pre-arranged appointment with a mechanic in another city, to get a shopping list of work done on the van.

As we waited it out overnight in a hotel, we began to realise the situation in Colón was escalating. Protests over a new government law allowing the sale of land in the city’s duty-free zone had spilled over into gunfights, looting and strikes. The port was paralysed.

We had so many balls in the air we were starting to resemble a circus act. We’d provisionally booked a small boat to take us to Colombia, but a major storm was heading for the Caribbean and we didn’t know if it would go ahead. Then the riots in Colón had put the vehicle shipping schedule in jeopardy. On top of that, we had just a one-hour window to complete an essential pre-shipping police inspection of the vans, once our car was finished at the mechanic, but if it rained during that hour the police would refuse to do it and the whole house of cards would collapse. And all of that relied on our mechanic doing the job within the timescale he had promised..

He did, and we drove off back towards Panama City. Hurray! An hour into the journey, the check engine light came back on. We just looked at eachother, totally resigned to that damn light just being permanently illuminated.

Next morning we set off for the police inspection, due at 10am, despite the Colón situation not having improved. At 9.45am the rain came on. We sat forlornly in our cars, willing it to stop with a mental reverse-raindance. It worked, and the inspection was carried out. Hurray! All the paperwork was on schedule, but our shipping agent said they could not guarantee whether we’d be able to load the cars onto the container the next day, as planned. She told us to stand by our emails until the next morning.

Jill, Zach and Paula

We’re getting through it with help from Zach and Jill, as well as food and booze.

We were all packed for our sailing trip and poised to get the vans to Colón if we got the go-ahead. We waited and waited, and then finally the email dropped into my inbox. Colón was a mess, said our agent. Our inbound container vessel had arrived, unloaded and left Panama again without any cargo. Our ship had sailed.

Customs offices, banks, shops, everything, had shut down. There was no way we could go, so we’d been re-booked for seven days hence and would have to sit it out until then, she said.

Deflated, we made a plan to head out of the city and wait on the coast. A good decision, as it turned out, because the next day Panama City erupted in violent protests too.

Today – after parliament agreed over the weekend to repeal the controversial law that caused all of this – things seem calmer.

We are waiting for news from the agent about whether we can get out this week. Meanwhile we’ve got the beach, two huge bottles of Panamanian rum, and good company.

If you have to wait, you may as well make it as painless as possible.

Days: 354 [days in the UK not being counted]
Miles: 11,804
Things we now know to be true: Rum helps the days fly by.