Shipping motorcycles (and ourselves) from Colombia to Panama on a shoestring
As easy as it is to cross borders of all the countries in South America, a border between Colombia and Panama is quite a task because of the infamous Darien Gap - around a 100 kilometer stretch of jungle in the eastern part of Panama which is not easily navigable by simple mortals as us (or should I say, hardly navigable at all...).
Of course, there are simple (but pricy) methods to get your motorcycle and yourself to the other side of Darien Gap:
You can fly a motorcycle from Bogota or Medellin to Panama City. That would cost about a $1000 for up to a 1000cc bike and about $1300 for a bigger one with, for example Air Cargo-pack. It's a fastest way to do it and you get to avoid riding all the way to Cartagena (it's a benefit, unless you really wanted to visit the North of Colombia).
If you prefer, you can ship your bike in a container by sea with help of Enlace Caribe - their quote for our two motorcycles of 800cc was $1550 (not including the unpredictable fees and taxes of the port in Panama). But doing it with them should be smooth and fast since they have a lot of experience in it (that's a presumption - we haven't used their service, but their email communication was very fast and informative).
A more complicated, but less pricy option is to arrange your own container and go through all the process almost independently. We had an estimate of $1300 for a 20' container (again, not including port fees at the destination) and we could ship as many bikes in it as we could possibly fit inside (I would assume we could stuff it with 5 or 6 motorcycles of the similar size as ours). Sharing these costs really reduce the price per motorcycle. The only problem we had was the fact that we only gathered this information when we were already in Bogota and had too little time to find other riders which would join us for this project. If we would have thought about it earlier, it would have been possible to cooperate with other travelers and arrive to Cartagena at the same time.
A fun way of shipping your bike over Darien Gap is going for a sailing trip through the amazing San Blas islands together with your bike on a sailboat or a catamaran. Unfortunately, this option seems to be still available while going south, from Panama to Colombia, but not the other way around. Authorities in Cartagena have banned such type of motorcycle export so even the sailboats which accept motorcycles on board in Portobelo, Panama, will not do it in Cartagena, Colombia.
Even though we knew that this option is somewhere between difficult and impossible, it took us four days, during which we managed to find an Italian captain of an 51' long sailboat who agreed to take us and the bikes from Cartagena to Portobelo, manually load the bikes (the boat didn't have the pulley) on board, spend a night on the ship, get stuck with the exportation documents for the bikes, decide that we can export them from Colombia "illegally" (even the lady at the customs said that she can't help us with the documentation, but assured us that nothing will happen if we just leave with the bikes without exporting them on paper), then finally get stuck with our own documents in the migration department and have no other choice but to unload the bikes, to finally understand that we are not going to be sailing with them and have to look for another option.
By the way, the price for sailing from Cartagena is USD 450-600 per person and about the same price for a motorcycle. It covers 5 days of sailing with full-board and stops in very beautiful San Blas islands. All (or at least the most) sailboats and catamarans which offer this service from and to Cartagena are managed by the same agency - Blue Sailing, therefore the prices are very similar and it's difficult to negotiate them down.
So here we were - back to square one - with our bikes again on the ground, still in Cartagena... But! Some other captain told us that there's a girl, who is shipping her car in a container and we could maybe fit out bikes into the same container with her. So we hooked up with Joaquin from Chile, who went through the same process of loading the bikes on a boat and unloading them two days later together with us (he travels South and Central America on a scooter with a sidecar together with his Golden Retriever dog called Balu), and met with Pamela from Argentina (the girl, which we heard about) and Sebastian and Juan from Chile (who were already sharing a container with Pamela).
After some rough estimations we decided that a 40' container can fit two Volkswagen Combi vans (the lovely "hippy-vans"), two BMW bikes (ours) and an LML Star 200cc scooter with a sidecar and went through a process of loading a container independently. The fun-fact is that the shipping agency (the one that quoted $1300 for a container) told us at that time that it is not possible to load the container into a ship which leaves the same week and we have to wait for at least a week for the next ship... Meanwhile a super-motivated group of South American travelers (and us with them) managed to successfully load a container full of vehicles to the ship in 3 days without waiting for next week.
1. We purchased an insurance for ourselves to be able to enter the port and load the bikes to a container (don't ask me why, I still don't understand some parts of the process completely, but I'll be forever grateful to the guys who guided us through the process and made it all not only go smoothly, but also with a lot of fun). The insurance in our case cost about $30 per person.
2. We made 3 copies of each of our document: passports, bike ownership document, temporary import permission from Colombian customs (received when entering the country) and a special declaration to the anti-drug police.
3. In customs we got the permission to export the motorcycles (and cars) and received an additional stamped paper.
4. In the seafreight company we reserved a 40' container and agreed on the price for it. Their price was $990.
5. In the port we agreed on the time and date when the container will be out on the ground and open for us to load the vehicles (time and date was "tomorrow") and paid the container movement costs of $130.
6. We had our bikes and vans inspected by the customs officer, who checked that the information on our papers matches the reality.
7. We presented the declarations that we are not "exporting" any drugs to anti-drug police (Colombia has this special requirement since it was one of the largest drug-exporter in the world and is trying to fight this status).
8. We paid additional costs and taxes of the port of Cartagena. They were about $500.
9. Finally we received the permission to enter the port and were able to load all the vehicles to a container which was luckily just about the right size to fit everything we wanted to put in it. We used almost every square centimeter of the container's floor.
10. After the container was closed, we presented the final documents to the customs and the police and got the final stamps on our papers.
This way the container was ready to leave next day on a cargo ship to Panama. And it successfully did! Here I want to bow low to our new friends, who led the process in amazingly fast and smart manner! We, without a fluent Spanish would have never been able to do it so quickly without them.
"SHIPPING" OURSELVES TO PANAMA
The ship left on Friday and should have reached port in Panama on Saturday. We were told that the container is stored in the port for three days without charging us for storage. So we had time until about next Tuesday to "ship ourselves to Panama".
There were several options:
1. Take a direct flight with Wingo for about USD 170 per person (if we have booked it earlier, it might have been cheaper...)
2. Take an indirect flight through Medellin with Vivo Colombia (prices are about the same, but the connection in Medellin is overnight, so it's not so convenient.
3. Find a sailboat and take a 5 days tour through the islands for USD 550 per person. That didn't work out for us since our schedule didn't match with the schedule of any sailboat in Cartagena. Only option was to take a catamaran to one of the San Blas islands and from there search for a small motorboat to continue the trip to Portobelo since the catamaran wasn't going all the way. But they wanted to charge us USD 550 for half of the trip and refused to lower the price if we participate in only half of their tour, skipping the 3 days with them in the islands. So that didn't work as well.
4. Get closer to the physical border between Colombia and Panama and go island-hopping in small boats. That's what we did.
THE WAY TO PANAMA
1. We took a bus from Cartagena to Necocli. Around $25 per person. A 7 hour bus ride with a few stops for lunch, snacks and bathroom in a standard air-conditioned South American-style bus where they turn air conditioner to the level when it actually gets really cold inside (can anyone explain me why on earth are they doing it???)
2. Spent a night in Necocli and took a speedboat next morning at 11 o'clock to Capurgana. I was hoping that this speedboat with about 60 passengers, going regularly from Necocli to Capurgana would be similar to a public transport ride, but it appeared to be more like a crazy 2 hours rollercoaster ride certainly not for the faint hearted! The boat was crazy fast, the waves were rather big and we all spent quite a lot of time flying in the air or violently crashing back into the water. That was certainly a fun two hour experience for about $25 per person.
3. In Capurgana (which is a nice touristic village) we found a young captain Joel, who agreed to take us all the way to Portobelo for $100 each. The initial price was $160, but stubborn bargaining can make wonders in South America... We all honestly thought that 300 kilometers trip in the water should definitely be done on something like a yacht (at least a small one) and when seated into a small motorboat we went out of the little port and into the Caribbean Sea, we got a little lost... Apparently what we agreed on was a small boat with two engines, 40 hp each, jumping over the waves with us, total of 11 passengers, a dog Balu, captain and his brother as an assistant, all wet with salty water from the waves, hiding from the blazing sun under a light tent roof, covering the boat. But it was definitely an unforgettable experience - we traveled that way for 3 days, stopping to sleep in amazing San Blas islands (passing through the islands, everyone must pay $20 to the indigenous Kuna Yala indian community who live in those islands) and were even invited to stay in the captain's house for one night after arriving in Portobelo, which we did with pleasure :)
4. Took the bus from Portobelo to Colon for $2 each at 6 AM next morning to begin the process of retrieving our container from the port.
RETRIEVING THE VEHICLES IN PANAMA
The company we shipped our container with did some minor mistake in selecting the type of shipment, and therefore was willing to charge us more than a $1000 for retrieving our vehicles from the container. Luckily Pamela had a friend in Colon, which helped us arrange the truck and we were able to get our vans and bikes without having to pay such crazy amount.
1. We bought the obligatory insurance for one month. Initial price was $25. The bargaining worked its magic again and the price we paid was $15.
2. We took our documents to the customs (three copies of each document, including the insurance papers, are needed) and got temporary import permit for each vehicle. That part required a bit of waiting for the papers to be done…
3. We paid $95 for container movement in the port (they loaded the container on a trailer truck) and took the container to freedom!
4. In the nearest big parking lot we unloaded the vehicles straight from the truck (with the help of special small ramp-truck) and paid $220 for the truck and $70 for each van and $20 for unloading.
So here we are, finally riding our bikes and vans in PANAMA!
The whole project (excluding the part where we loaded the bikes onto a sailboat and then unloaded them) took us 9 days.
A total price of shipping a motorcycle is $348.
A total price or getting ourselves from Cartagena to Colon, including the San Blas islands was $155.
It wasn't flawless, it wasn't hassle-free, it certainly wasn't the easiest way to do it and we wouldn't have succeeded without our South American friends, but it was definitely worth it! We spent only half of what we would have spent if we went for an easy solution, had wonderful time in the sea and the islands, made new friends and were rewarded with memories of certainly an amazing adventure :)