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Shipping From Panama to Cartagena Part 1: Panama

April 26, 2012

The process of shipping the Beast to South America had been hanging over us for a while now. Its an expensive and time consuming process that should be quick and easy but just isn’t. Ironically it looks like we may be some of the last overlanders to have to ship their vehicle as it looks like a new ferry service is going to start in May 2012. But of course this is Latin America so I’ll believe it when I see it – waiting for it would be crazy.

The necessity for shipping is driven by the Darien Gap which is a 100km hole in the Pan-American highway through inhospitable jungle stuffed full of drug gangs and paramilitary revolutionaries. The last successful motorised crossing of the Gap was in 1985 in a Jeep and took them 741 days.  Obviously its not going to happen for us !

Over the last few weeks I had contacted Seaboard, Barwil and Marfret by email. The only reply I had was from Marfret who told me that they would contact me with a quote and then didn’t.

So on arriving at XS Memories (a real RV park around 100km short of Panama City)  in Panama we hadn’t really made any progress with our shipping at all. Fortunately Sheila and Denis who run XS Memories were exceptionally helpful. Sheila got on the phone to Barwil Agencies (the agent for Wallenius Willhelmsen) and after about 5 calls we finally got through to someone who could help us.

Most people seem to deal with Evelyn Batista at Barwil but we didn’t speak to her at all and instead worked with Pamela Basurto who speaks good English and was very helpful.  After speaking to her on the phone it became clear that we needed to go to the office to see her.

On our second day in Panama City we got Alex to take us out to Panama Pacifico (an out of town industrial estate) which is 4km West of the Bridge of the Americas to visit the office of Barwil (They have moved in the last couple of years so the old office in the city is not their location anymore). The office is very modern and could be anywhere in the world – unlike most other offices that we’ve seen in Central America.

On talking to Pamela we were offered the choice of two ships both leaving the following week on consecutive days. One was RORO (Roll On/Roll Off) and one was LOLO (Lift On/Lift Off) but the price for both would be the same.  In both cases we would have to hand over the keys to the cab of the truck. LOLO involves your vehicle being lifted onto the ship by a crane while sitting on a palette (Very Scary). On this basis we chose RORO as this reduced the chance of damage during the loading process.

Pamela wanted copies of my passport (including the vehicle stamp) and the Registration document for the truck. She used these to create a draft bill of lading for us. She also gave us a quote for the trip ($60 per cubic Metre + 25% for bunkers (fuel)).  Pretty expensive but we were a bit stuck. There is much more flexibility if your vehicle can fit in a container.

She also explained the processes we would have to go to get permission to leave the country. After getting the clearance from the police we would have to return to Barwil and pay for the shipping (cash only !).

After leaving Barwil we got Alex to drive us to the police HQ where we would have to go with the truck to get our export clearance. I’m glad we did this because I’m not sure we wouldn’t have stopped in the right place as it looked like a builders lot ! Its in a pretty dodgy part of town so not somewhere you want to hang out !

This was all on Thursday and it was Easter weekend so we couldn’t do the inspection until Monday, then we’d have to deliver to the port on Tuesday for a Wednesday shipping. If all went well we would have the truck back in Colombia on Friday (as it turns out a vain hope !).

On Sunday night we drove the Beast into Panama City – a very slow and laborious journey as most of the city seemed to be returning from their Easter Weekend away.  We spent the night in a big car park on the Amador Causeway and had a peaceful  if hot night.

First thing on Monday morning we drove to the Policia Tecnica Judicial or DIJ. You need to arrive for 9am in order to register and get in the queue for inspections. It was pretty quiet though and there were only 2 others trying to get inspections.  For this process you have to wear long trousers and shoes (not sandals) – in fact we saw one guy be told to change when he arrived in flip-flops ! You need to give them a pack of photocopies including your passport, registration document, vehicle stamp in your passport and draft Bill of Lading (BOL).

The inspections start at 10am but in fact we were done shortly before then. The inspector checked the registration and VIN number. We noticed on another van he checked the number of the engine too but ours is listed as unknown on our V5 (registration document).

We were then told we could pick up the papers we need at 2pm from the Secretaria General which is across the main road from the DIJ.


Instead of sitting in the hot, slightly dangerous car park we decided to head to Allbrook mall for a few hours and indulge our long dormant shopping urges.

We got back to the DIJ car park just before 2pm and headed across the road to the main government building. You need to surrender a piece of ID to get in (not your passport) and then register at the front desk with your passport.  The Secretaria General office is down a corridor to the left of the reception desk and is around the corner, first door on the left.  It is clearly marked with a sign.

Once in this office you have to fill out a form and then you should be handed your clearance to export your vehicle. This is of course that you don’t have any outstanding issues with the police.

So we had to hot-tail it back to Barwil with a big bag of money to give to Pamela. She gave us a receipt for payment and then explained the port process.  We would have to be at the Manzanillo port in Colon first thing in the morning.

We spent another night in the car park by the Causeway and spent the evening re-arranging the truck for shipping. Everything had to come out of the cab and we had to secure the access hatch from cab to back. Everything came off the roof and we had to empty our jerry cans into the tank. RORO shipping has a reputation for leading to petty thefts so we wanted to make everything as difficult as possible for any thief.

The road from Panama City to Colon is a big highway – although a toll road (tolls cost us $8.80) – and it only takes about an hour to drive across the country. Just before reaching the free trade zone in Colon you turn right towards the Manzanillo port. Just inside the main entrance to the port is a car park which is in front of the Barwil offices at the port.

We had been told to meet  Alfredo who would be our fixer for the day. Alfredo spoke some English but was fairly economical with words, to say the least. First thing we had to do was visit the customs office where they would stamp the exit documents and also cancel the stamp in my passport. This was a five minute drive from the port and in a fairly shabby pre-fab office round the back of the entrance gate. Most of Colon seems pretty shabby though !

It only took about 10 minutes to get the clearance we needed though.

Next step was to go back to the Barwil office and visit the Aduana here to pay a fee of $54 and get permission to enter the port.

The last thing we had to do was drive the Beast to the main customs area of the port for an inspection. Sarah needed to get out and walk in, surrendering her passport for access, while I just drove the Beast in.

This was the most time consuming part of the process as we waited around for about an hour until the customs inspector was ready. He had a good look round the truck and then his drug dog arrived for a good sniff. Quite why they check for people smuggling drugs TO Colombia I don’t know !

Once we were cleared through customs we were done and had to leave the ignition key behind and the driver’s door unlocked. The Beast would be loaded onto the Pegasus Leader the next day (Wednesday) and was due to arrive on Thursday in Cartagena. This should mean that we would get her back on Friday. – but this is Latin America !

A short cab ride took us to the bus terminal and we were on a bus back to Panama City. Colon is not the nicest area and we’d been advised not to hang around, particularly as we were carrying bags of our things for the next few days.

Other Shipping agents:

Using Marfret:

Seaboard: (didn’t get a response from this one though).


Barwil Agencies/Transcanal
Panama Pacific
International Business Park
Building A
Suite 401

Phone:  +507 263 7755

Fax: +507 223 0698

Office GPS is: N8 55.662 W79 35.561
Turn Off from Panam at: N8 57.142 W79 35.309
Secretaria General: N8 57.947 W79 32.719
DIJ Car Park and Inspection: N8 57.970 W79 32.690
Customs outside Manzanillo: N9 20.781 W79 52.731
Parking outide Barwill office at Manzanillo: N9 21.931 W79 52.849
Customs Inspection Lot at Manzanillo: N9 22.018 W79 52.748
15 Comments leave one →
  1. Lance permalink
    April 26, 2012 7:46 pm

    Thank you. Great info.


    • April 26, 2012 7:53 pm

      Hope it helps. I should get the Cartagena bit up in a couple of days.

  2. April 26, 2012 9:11 pm

    Thanks for the info guys, Were getting there around June and this will be handy. This whole new ferry deal is falling apart already, doesnt sound like its really going to happen so you did the right thing not waiting around.

  3. Ali permalink
    April 27, 2012 2:34 am

    Wow, are you guys flying or still driving? 🙂 We saw you a while ago in Mexico and just entered Guatemala, but you guys are fast. Already shipping to Columbia. You must be on a tight schedule.
    Thanks for the post. Even we are shipping with a container it probably is going to help us too.

    • April 28, 2012 10:23 pm


      We’re still driving but we’ve only got 2 years for the whole trip. We’ve spent 11 months in North America and now will spend 11 months in South America. We’ve still spent 5 months in Mexico and Central America and we wanted to avoid the rainy season !

      We wish we had the money to have a longer trip but we’ll need to go home and get some jobs !


  4. mervcolton permalink
    April 28, 2012 2:02 pm

    Great detail, much appreciated. We will be shipping the opposite way in a few years.

    • April 28, 2012 10:50 pm

      Hi Merv,

      Much harder the other way because they really worry about drugs – I’ve heard that you’ve got to take everything out during the customs inspection. Worry about getting to SA first though 😉


  5. March 28, 2013 11:04 pm

    Just curious, how much did the RORO service cost with all the fees?

    • April 2, 2013 12:08 pm


      We paid $60 per cubic Metre + 25% for bunkers (fuel)

      In Cartagena we had port fees of $175 and paid another $175 to our agents.

  6. July 11, 2013 12:59 pm

    Great post! Rich in details! This Ferry service that you heard of seems to be an on and off thing. When my family drove North in 1996, there was a nice Ferry from Cartagena to Colon. It was a 16 hour crossing if I remember well, with disco, restaurant and all the amenities. Then on the drive South in 1997 there was no more ferry service and the truck had to be shipped by container to Venezuela. It was a 15 day process…

  7. September 15, 2013 12:04 pm

    Hi Mark, where you able to leave all your gear in the truck on the Panama to Columbia route? What about heading to Antwerp – any problems with locking your gear in the cabin?



    • October 9, 2013 7:30 pm

      Hi Gary,

      All the gear was locked in the back of the truck on both Panama to Colombia and across the Atlantic to Antwerp.

      We had no customs inspection at all on the Montevideo to Antwerp shipping.


      • October 11, 2013 1:25 am

        A belated thank you Mark!


  8. Michelle permalink
    May 23, 2016 9:31 pm

    I realize this is a late comment but just wondering if you had any trouble with theft? We have a Mercedes Sprinter van high-top. It won’t fit in a high cube shipping container and apparently RORO is our only other option. So just looking for some encouraging insight. Thanks! Michelle

    • May 27, 2016 1:11 pm

      hi – we didn’t have any problems with theft on RORO. We did lock up the back and made sure there was nothing in the cab.

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