Colon to Cartagena: The Logistics
Oh boy… let’s just say this post is only necessary if you need a play-by-play of a pretty complicated process. As is the case with any border crossing or multi-day paperwork fiasco, stay positive and be patient.
We were lucky enough to have incredible shipping partners but even if you don’t, these steps should help a little bit and you can always ship alone ;)
Just a warning, these processes seem to change often so don’t expect your experience to look exactly like ours (hopefully the below guide HELPS you rather than confuses you).
FIRST AND FOREMOST, we used an agent to help us with the process. The documents she gave us were not perfectly correct, but we still believe she is by far the best agent you could find for this process:
Tea Kalmach: email@example.com
We may have been later than most, but we didn't email her until about 2-3 weeks prior to shipping our car.
DAY 1 at 7am (Panama City Inspection): Show up between 7 and 7:30am to get a ticket because they max it out at 25. Inspections begin at 8am. (Tea will forward you the exact coordinates to this destination and will tell you when to arrive based on your ship date).
We were number 16. We waited with a lot of locals and at least 5 other overlanders. The locals seemed to be there for more thorough inspections, but no car took over 10 minutes. The overlanders were just there to have the engine number checked and to hand over copies of their paperwork. Once our number was called, we were finished in under 3 minutes.
PAPERWORK NEEDED: copy of border form (import permit – the one you always get when crossing), copy of the driver’s passport, copy of the title and copy of the insurance you purchased at the border.
Tea will email you will all of this info as your ship date gets closer. Her reminders and emails will help you stay organized so try not to stress now. It’s basically a just multi-day border crossing except that you have to drive through a big city with very confusing roads and a lot of traffic (I think this was the most complicated part of the whole process).
DAY 1 at 9:15am: Our booking agent sent a lovely lady to collect payment from us. We were connected via email and she drove to our hotel after we finished with inspection. Payment of $850 is made in cash and she will give you a receipt.
DAY 1 between 2-4:30pm: Pick up your receipt from the inspection office where you went earlier that morning.
DAY 2 at 8am (Colon): You have two days to load the car after inspection. We chose to get it over with. So we woke up at 7am, left our hotel by 8am and made the 2-hour drive to Colon. If you want to be there right at 8am when the first office opens, we suggest leaving Panama City around 6am (just a tad too early for us).
IMPORTANT: Only Panamanians with Pan Pass are allowed to drive on the toll road. We thought, “surely that can’t be true… what are they going to do? Kick you off the highway?” YES! We didn't attempt it ourselves but our shipping partners were asked to exit the highway after sneaking past the first tollbooth ;) And despite the online reviews that made us believe the “old highway” was practically an unsafe dirt road, we found it to be perfectly fine. It did have much more traffic and was an hour longer, but what can you do?
Somehow we still got lucky and missed almost all of the lines in Colon.
Our booking agent gave us detailed instructions for each building we had to visit, along with the coordinates for finding each location.
- Visit the Seaboard Office, have your bill of lading stamped: 5 minutes (but finding parking and then finding the office took about 10).
- Get back in your car and drive to “Customs” to have your passport stamped. You’ll exit the large, modern buildings and head back out the way you came in. Careful, you could very easily miss customs. There’s a little booth and what looks like some older warehouses. After you park, you’ll walk past the book and look for a portable building off to the right.
- We parked up on the main road. It won’t look right because the building you need is out of sight until you round the corner past the guard booth. You need the door at the VERY end of the portable buildings, on the far right.
- Here, they will ask for your passports and the all of the copies your agent had you prepare: title, TIP from the border, driver’s passport, bill of lading.
- Drive BACK to the original fancy buildings and visit Aduana (pictured below).
- At the next window (to the left of Aduana), pay the $71 stuffing fee to the blacked out window with no visible human being. She was speaking almost inaudible Spanish. Just wait... we promise she will EVENTUALLY return with a receipt showing you paid the fee (pictured below).
- Drive the car to the loading port (you passed it on the way in but it was BEFORE the location of all the other freight trucks - you'll see 1 guard and what looks like two large fumigation gates - DON'T drive through until you speak to the guard at the metal rotating, also gate pictured below)
- Once you have clearance, ONE person is allowed through with the car where they will inspect it (or if you're like us, they may just decide they don't feel like searching another car in the heat of the day and they'll let you load it un-inspected).
- Taxi back to Panama City (you can take a bus for a lot less money or the train if you finish in the evening (it only runs twice I think) – we hear the train is an awesome way to see the canals).
FINISHED BY 12pm (woot woot!)
DAY 3: RELAX, YOU DID IT!
We were supposed to leave on a sailboat today… but you can read more about that below.
DAY 4: Board Sailboat to San Blas Islands (or hop on a flight if you want accurate arrival times):
Out anticipated arrival to Cartagena: Tuesday morning around 7 or 8am.
Our actual arrival to Cartagena: Wednesday morning around 9am.
If you decide to take a sailboat (RATHER THAN A PLANE) to Cartagena, check out these posts for more info:
The CAR itself set sail on DAY 6 (we started paperwork on a Monday, it sailed on a Saturday and arrived in Cartagena on Monday).
DAY 1 at 9am (but you can start as early as 8am): dock, and get cash at the closest ATM in the neighborhood of Manga.
- Hail a taxi to the other side of the bay and pick up your original bill of lading at the Seaboard Office located at Barrio Bosque Avenida Pedro Velez #48-14 (assuming you use our agent Tea, who works with Seaboard) Tea will give you the coordinates.
- Taxi back to the DIAN office in Manga. Fill out your import permit and schedule an inspection (this is where we found out we didn't have car, life or health insurance, oops!).
CAR INSURANCE: We didn’t realize until after we docked that we’d forgotten to purchase car insurance for Colombia but we had no problem doing it once we arrived.
LIFE/HEALTH INSURANCE: We were also late to realize that VERY SPECIFIC life/health insurance is required to pick up the car. If you want to worry with the requirements in advance, you can. You need a policy with the following:
Accidental Death for $20,000 USD / 50 million Colombian Pesos
Disability for $20,000 USD / 50 million Colombian Pesos
Medical Coverage for $10,000 USD / 25 million Colombian Pesos
HOWEVER, we recommend getting EXACTLY what they require AFTER you arrive in Cartagena so that you’re not delayed or out any money if you purchase the wrong thing. Plus, we’re pretty sure they’d make you buy THEIR insurance no matter what. We found an insurance office in the neighborhood of Manga, you’ll need to ask around to find a provider for both in Manga.
3. Have lunch and purchase all of these items so you don’t have to deal with it tomorrow (we paid $43.97 for car + health/life).
4. You’ll be tempted to give up and finish the rest the next day but we decided to persevere. So we skipped a few steps and went straight to the port where you pick up the car. We met with an agent JUST before he was headed home at 5pm to confirm the time of our inspection and get the payment out of the way (this is where we did NOT follow our agent's sequential list of to-dos).
5. The bank is in the same building as this agent. We made the $174.35 payment (our partners paid the other half).
6. We were given a receipt and VERY NICELY asked the guy to call our inspector directly and ask for an earlier inspection the following morning… it worked!!!
FINISHED BY 5:45pm
(but this includes checking into our hotel, eating lunch and finding another ATM)
DAY 2 at 8am (which was supposed to be at 12pm, never hurts to ask for a hook up!):
7. We showed up at the port where we paid the invoice and we waited (this is when it's really awesome to have shipping partners you enjoy chatting with).
8. They called the men back for the car inspection at 9am (an hour late) where they unloaded the car ($50 fee).
9. The cars were then supposed to be inspected but really no one ever did this… the guys just had to wait with the cars. And wait. And wait…
10. They got in line to exit the port, showed their paperwork and viola!!
At 12:20pm it was TIME TO CELEBRATE!!
As mentioned before, if you hire an agent you will be directed to the right place at the right time (at least for the Panama side). You will also be given a step-by-step list of instructions and locations for the Colombia side. Plus you’ll have other overlanders and shipping partners to learn things from as you go along.
Total cost to SAHRE a container: $1,188.32 EACH (includes insurance)
Paperwork: 5 days
Minimum time needed for total process: 8 days
Don't hesitate to reach out if you have additional questions, or comment below with your experience and extra tips for other overlanders.
See you down the road!
Meg (+ Tyler)