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Shipping the Darien Gap: Panama City to Cartagena

The only break in the 29,000-mile stretch of road known as the Pan-American Highway is the 100-mile section of impassible jungle between Central & South America called the Darien Gap. The only way to get our rig across the gap is to ship it. It’s a complicated process. On the Panama side it requires a shipping agent in Panama City, a police inspection to clear us through Interpol (to make sure the vehicle isn’t stolen), and of course lots and lots of paperwork.

Only way to get to Colombia is to fly or take a boat

It’s a logistical hurdle we have been thinking about since we started shopping for a vehicle three years ago. We wanted to be sure we fit in a container. And here we finally were. We did the measurements…and then we did them again. And then again. Yet still we weren’t totally sure we would fit in the shipping container. But there was no turning back now so we made our way to Panama City.

Panama City skyline...storm clouds hopefully not a sign of things to come.

We shared a container with our friends Janice and Gregor (Live.Travel.Play) and it was really good to be able to share this ordeal together. In order to avoid the horror that is Panama City traffic, we stayed in a hotel close to the police inspection site. It was attached to a mall so the four of us basically lived in a mall for almost a week. Great the first few days, but then we all went a little crazy.

We lived together at the on the road provides such bonding experiences.

We spent a full day getting our inspections and paperwork finalized, and then drove our rigs along the Panama Canal to the rough and tumble city of Colon, where we would load both rigs into a container.

Police Inspection. One wrong number on your paperwork and you had to go back to the beginning.

Day one...the hours of paperwork had not yet taken their toll.

Celebrating Janice's birthday in Panama City. We celebrated Gregor's together in Guatemala. It's been a great ride together!

Our shipping agent was Boris Jaramillo of Ever Logistics, Inc. and he made the process pretty easy for us. He met us in a Dominos Pizza parking lot in Colon, and we followed him to customs office where he handled all the paperwork. Then we followed him out to a dirt patch on the side of the road where a tow truck and a shipping container were parked. Oh boy. Ok...let's do this.

Loading our rig was a bit of a nail biter since we calculated only about an inch to spare on all sides of the container. We had to take off the surf board, the awning, and the shovel, but it fit….barely. Once inside the container, it was too tight to open the doors so John had to squeeze out the driver’s side window, crawl on the hood, and then shimmy under the truck out the back.

Awning stuffed through the cab window, bikes squeezed inside, ax & shovel off, sufboard stored in Janice and Gregor's rig...ok, we're ready!

First step...get LoJo on a tow truck

Next, drive LoJo from the tow truck into a box with an inch on each side, front AND back.

Next, exit the box from underneath the vehicle.

It's IN!!

Let's pray we see this box again!

City of Colon...we took a cab to the bus station and got out of there pretty fast.

With the rigs loaded and the process complete on the Panama side, we got ready for a visit from our friends, Mira and Jessica. We played tourist with them in Panama, and then we all flew to Cartagena to get the rig, and meet our other friend, Nickie. Having them here to share in this crazy stage of the trip with us was a little surreal. And fun!

Our visit to the Panama Canal was really interesting. Especially seeing the container ships like the one that had our rigs!

Mira and Jess with us in Panama

Jazz club night in Casco Viejo

Karaoke night. Ouch.

Casco Viejo

On the Colombian side, we didn’t have an agent so it was a lot more paperwork – 24 steps to be exact. On this side, the process normally takes about 2 days. Only the driver is allowed in the port, and only John was listed as the driver on our paperwork. So he had to take on the whole process on the Colombian side (with Janice and Gregor) while I entertained our friends. I definitely got the better end of that deal. The whole process ended up taking 3 days and John spent Thanksgiving Day running around the Cartagena port with Janice and Gregor. A long haul for them, but it all went pretty smooth.

Mucho paperwork. 3 days worth...

It's in there somewhere

Needle in a haystack?

Found it!

Gotta go back in the same way ya came out


What I was doing all that time was tough, too! Nickie arrived in time for Thanksgiving Day lunch. John had rice and beans.

Once John was done we all got to play tourist in Cartagena. It’s a beautiful city, right on the ocean with colorful buildings, great restaurants and a lively local scene. We all stayed together in a cute home in the old city. The heat was intense but during the day we would cling to the shady side of the street, roaming around with the masses, shopping and stopping for seafood lunch at the outdoor cafes. We went to the beach and to a salsa club. It felt very European and civilized. At night, it cooled only slightly, with the humidity still hanging in the air. We were spoiled with good friends and free time out of the rig.

Our home in Cartagena

Night out with the girls? It's been a while!


Our last day together we decided to partake in a truly local experience. We rented a speedboat and headed out to the Rosario Islands for some snorkeling and lunch. To our surprise we landed in the middle of the local weekend party scene, complete with hip hop music, dancing on boats, beach bars set up in the water, and the requisite police boat patrolling for drunk boaters. It looked like Lake Havasu meets the Jersey Shore. Yes, cultural experiences come in all kinds of unexpected places. So…we made sure to join in and participate.

Coco Locos: Rum, coconut water and I think Strawberry flavored Nestle Quick.

Tables and chairs are brought out in the water, people sit in waist deep water, somebody serves you food & drinks. Music thumpin, people selling stuff...Total loco.

A moveable feast.

Oysters delivered from this guy in a kayak. On ice.

And they were good!

Our second week in Cartagena was spent getting the rig ready to store while we are in the States for Christmas. We drove it two hours north to the Iguana 4x4 repair shop in the city of Baranquilla. We plan to get some work done there, so that seemed the best place to store it while we are gone. We took the bus back to Cartagena and packed up the rest of our belongings to get ready for our flight.

Putting LoJo back together in the parking lot in the heat of the day

I’m writing up this post as we make our way back to San Francisco for the holidays. It feels a little strange to turn around so quickly and leave the rig again, but now we have our rolling home sorted and we are ready for the next chapter: South America.

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