we entered Panama without any hassle and by this time we had crossed so many Central American borders that we were now experts. We headed for Panama City as fast as possible since Tom needed his broken ribs checked out as soon as possible. Once we had located Panama Passage which was to be our accommodation for out stay in Panama we contacted a chest clinic.
Due to our poor Spanish we were directed to a Breast Enhancement clinic which caused chuckles all round.
Turns out that the medical clinic was close by and soon I was in the good care of a GP and Orthopaedic Specialist.
An hour later and $100 I had a diagnosis, a brace and pain meds. Awesome medical system. After about a week of rest I could go exploring.
At the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal there is a 2km causeway linking 4 islands, in a moment of madness we walked the entire way in the midday sun. Sweat pours off us and taxis honk as they pass us by, shaking their heads in disbelief that we refuse to accept a ride. We must have had heat stroke to be so dumb. Once back on the mainland we find ourselves alone and unable to find a way off the highway, time to flag down a taxi to rescue us. He is Spanish speaking, no English and he holds his hands to his head as if a gun and tells us we are crazy as robbers will get us. We were too hot to care all we want is for him close the windows and turn on his air conditioning.
Panama City is steamy hot and muggy. Roads are congested and noisy, yellow cabs honk repeatedly and weave their way down narrow one way streets and along boulevards. Skyscrapers reach high into the clouds, and there is a feeling that this city wants to be the next Hong Kong with banking centers on every corner.
We headed to the old quarter Casco Viejo and wandered past beautifully restored buildings located next to dilapidated and neglected buildings with trees growing out the windows. Once a slum this area is now in the process of being restored.
We walked along the esplanade a wall built by the Spanish to protect the city. Today locals dressed in colourful traditional Kuna clothing sell their wares beneath the trees and purple and pink bougainvillea bushes. At the end of the rocky point quaint art galleries and cafes are located in the restored dungeons built originally by the Spanish.
The view over the city from the hilltop of Ancon is stunning. Panama City is huge and modern. A time for reflection for us as Panama is at the end of the Pan American Highway for North and Central America, we have reached a milestone. We are not able to drive across the Darien Gap which remains wild and impenetrable to all but a few hardy souls and drug smugglers. To reach South America it is necessary for us to ship our truck to Colombia from Panama.
We do our research, it does not look good, everyone has a tale of shipping nightmares especially the Panama to Colombia route.
Another couple Logan and Brianna also traveling to Argentina are to share a 40’ shipping container with us. We measure and remeasure, will our trucks fit into a container? God forbid we arrange and pay for a container only discover at the port we can’t squeeze the 2 trucks inside. I am nervous and feel frustrated that Tom does not seem to share my anxiety.
Shaun at Panama Passage helps us, we get quotes, Tom makes the phone calls, emails are flying, finally we settle on an agent, Julio and he agrees to come to Panama Passage where we are staying to meet us. He makes it seem so easy, get the right documents, go to the port hand over the keys to the truck and money and then fly to Colombia. Owners are no longer allowed into the Port to drive their vehicles into the container, it will be done by port workers. I hope they love my truck and take care of it as much as we do. I hope the truck will fit in. We will start the process today by going to the police to get clearance that the trucks can leave Panama.
There is only one place we absolutely wanted to see before we leave Panama and that is the Panama Canal. A man made engineering marvel stretching 80km from Panama City and the Pacific Ocean to Colon on the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly 15,000 ships pass through the canal each year, crossing the continental divide, way above sea level. The ships are raised by several locks and then lowered again by several locks back to sea level. We arrive at the Miraflores locks just before a large oil tanker begins the process of being raised. The is no room for error and it is a tight squeeze, fascinating to watch. If they can squeeze those tankers in through the canals and locks surely we can squeeze 2 trucks into a container.
Panama City will also be remember as the place I celebrated my birthday with old and new friends. Hosted by Panama Passage and organized by Tom and Shaun we had pizza, party jokes and a flaming chocolate cake. It was a fabulous way to end our stop at the end of Central America.
We felt a sense of achievement driving into Panama City, we have crossed Central America and the next steps of our journey will be across South America but first we have to get the truck across the ocean.
Scientists can get men to the moon but can’t get a truck across the Darien Gap. They can build a shipping canal 77km (48 miles) linking the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean that takes oil tankers, container and cruiser ships over the continental divide lifting them 85 feet above sea level but they can’t build a road across the Darien Gap.
The Darien Gap is a large undeveloped mixture of swampland and forest linking Central and South America. It measures just over 160km (99 miles) long and 50km (31 miles) wide. There is no road across this swath of land, that joins Central and South America. The only way to cross from Central America to South America is to ship one’s vehicle. The most common route is shipping from Panama to Colombia, which is not long, it only takes a day to cross the Atlantic Ocean however, to arrange this shipping can take up to several days even weeks.
There are several shipping companies and several options for shipping. Our first choice was to ship the Nissan and camper in a container. The other options are either RORO (roll on roll off) and LOLO (Lift on lift off). The cheapest and safest option is a container. Logan and Brianna who are also driving to Argentina were looking for someone to share a 40’ high cube container with, and we were ready so agreed to share a container with them.
Our shipping from Panama to Colombia has turned into an adventure with our trucks held hostage in the port by workers this is our story.
Step 1; Measure the trucks and campers to make sure they will fit into a container.
Step 2; Remeasure the trucks and campers to make doubly sure they will fit into a container.
Step 3; Choose an Agent. With our measurements done the next step is to get quotes from several shipping companies and agencies. Emails are flying, phone calls are made and finally a decision; we choose our agent Julio C Sanchez of PSLI – Panama Soluciones Logisticas SA. He comes to meet us and Logan and Brianna at Panama Passage and we discuss the process.
Step 4; Police inspection and clearance. They only check vehicles between 10-11am, so we head there early to ensure we make it. They check all our truck permits and documents.
Step 5; We head to have the trucks washed for some reason they need to be cleaned if going into a container. We have lunch in a grimy restaurant while we wait for the vehicles to be washed. Cost US$5.00 a good deal as both trucks were dirty.
Step 6; We head back to the Secretary General for final police clearance we have to be there at 1430. We get the all clear no traffic violations or accidents registered against the trucks.
Julio phones to say we are booked to load the trucks on Tuesday and will be heading to the Colon Port located on the Atlantic side of Panama.
Step 7; Prepare the trucks and camper to fit into a shipping container. Recently Panama Ports decided that owners cannot drive their vehicles into the container. We have to hand over the truck keys to port workers. So we move everything from the truck cab into the camper. We remove the roof rack, dismantle it to fit into the camper. It takes a day to organize this
Step 8; We all drive to Colon, following Julio. Once we arrive at the port, we learn there are actually 3 separate ports in Colon, each privately owned with their own rules and regulations. We park our trucks at the port all climb into Julio’s car and head off to do the paperwork and documentation.
Step 9; Documentation is taken care of by Julio, we get our permits to load and obtain our container seal, we get permission to go to customs , get our permits to drive the trucks in Panama cancelled in our passports.
Step 10; Final preparation of truck we remove the fuel carrier from the Nissan truck and place it in the cab. We had to wait to do this as we could not drive far with the fuel carrier in the cab. Oops we have problem, the jacks to support the camper had been removed for shipping and we needed them back on to remove the fuel carrier. Logan and Tom make a stout effort to quickly reconnect the jacks, remove the fuel carrier and then remove the jacks. We are ready!
Step 11; We drive to customs. It is now lunch time and so we wait in the sweltering sticky heat of Colon. Finally the customs officials arrive, they clear us and now the final step before handing over the keys. The drug dog arrives to sniff for illegal substances. The best part of the day I get to pat a lovely German Shepherd dog.
Step 12; We hand over the keys and leave the port with Julio head back to Panama for a celebration supper.
NOW THE GLITCH
We go out for supper with other Overlanders from Panama Passage and while waiting for our orders to arrive we get the phone call to say the port workers are refusing to drive our trucks into the containers and no we cannot drive our trucks into the containers (port rules). The reason given is they feel it is too tight a squeeze and are afraid of damaging the vehicles. Our trucks are stuck in “no mans land” in the port and we will miss the loading onto the ship.
Step 13. We review our options with Julio. We can try to load at another port and book onto another ship, but wait a minute we no longer have permits to drive the trucks in Panama and we would have to retrieve our trucks from Manzanillo port and drive to another port. There is no guarantee the other port would allow us to try drive the trucks into the container ourselves, however Julio can hire his own team to drive the trucks into the container. Other option is to go RORO.
Step 14 Decision made we will try to go to another port and get onto a ship scheduled to leave on the 16th if that does not work we will go RORO on a ship scheduled to leave on the 20th. Julio agrees to undo and redo paperwork and books us onto both ships. We will cancel the RORO if we manage to get our trucks onto the ship on the 16th.
Step 15 We wait to hear from Julio when we will be allowed to move our trucks to other port and try reload.
Step 16 Drink beers, eat, sleep, watch movies and wait: will we or will we not get onto the ship leaving on the 16th?
Our trucks were being held hostage by the Manzanillo port workers in Panama who refused to load our trucks as they were afraid they would damage the trucks. They also refused to allow us to personally drive the trucks into a container and our trucks were stuck in no man’s land, officially stamped out of Panama yet unable to be loaded onto a ship to leave Panama. Serious negotiations had to be done by our shipping agent Julio. Julio came through like a trooper and after several days of tense negotiations we were heading back to the port to try drive the trucks into the container ourselves.
Shaun from Panama Passage drove Tom and Logon to Colón while Brianna and I waited back in Panama City. It was a complicated process between the different ports, different customs, and port officials but finally they had our trucks out of no man’s land at the Manzanillo Port and headed to another Panama Port to load our trucks into a container. Once they arrive at the container and it is opened they too wondered, will they fit the trucks in. The team discusses their options as it is such a tight fit they had to devise a plan of how the driver will get out once he has driven the truck into the container. It was decided that the best person to drive both trucks into the container would be Logan as he is fit, healthy, flexible and slim all a requirement as he was going to have to climb out of the truck windows and pull himself up and over the roof of the campers.
Finally they were ready. Tom guided Logan into the truck, it would take 4 attempts to get the Nissan lined up exactly right. There was only inches to spare on each side and no room for error.
The Nissan inched into the container, driving it slowly Logan put it into low range so that the truck could slowly get up and into the container without bouncing. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, the truck made it into the container.
Then everyone waited to see if Logan would make it out of the container. Logan climbed up and out to everyones relief.
Finally both trucks are in the container. They are lashed in and the doors locked. Time for the team to relax and celebrate the joys of travel. Once back in Panama City flights were booked to Colombia and tomorrow night we will celebrate our arrival in Cartegena Colombia.
Colombia and South America here we come!!
The only way anyone can truly appreciate the loading however it to watch the video below and ask yourself the question, could I do this? Enjoy
Overlander Friends; websites
Logan and Brianna USA heading south to Argentina (Toyota)
Espen and Malin Norwegian driving from Alaska to Argentina (Nissan)
George and Andrea Germans driving south to Argentina (Toyota)
Peter UK Driving south on motorbike to Argentina
Vince USA Heading back north on Motorbike, spent nearly 2 yrs in South America
Blog South on Two Wheels