SHIPPING THE VAN AND THE DOG FROM PANAMA TO COLOMBIA
So for those who donít know,there is no road between Panama and Colombia. This region is known as the Darien Gap and is about 100 miles long. The Colombians say they donít want diseases coming from North America and Panama says they donít want the drugs coming in from Colombia. I donít believe either of these stories. I think they are making too much money making people go the long way round that it wouldnít make sense to build a road. Whatever the case is, we had no choice but to ship our vehicle to South America in order to keep travelling.
I started researching other peopleís blogs a year ago about their experiences and it seemed Evelyn Batistaís name kept popping up everywhere. I did find another shipping company that emailed me back but their quote was the exact same as Evelynís. Because of everybody elseís positive feedback about Evelyn, we decided to go with her company when we got to Panama. It was the worst decision we ever made. Yes she appears friendly and nice but she is also incompetent and neglected to give us important information that could have made things a lot easier and cheaper for us. What she promised to be a one day voyage turned into a week. And as soon as our van left Panama she didnít want to help us in anyway. We went through the whole shipping process with a French family and a German couple, both with motor homes, and we all had the same horrible experience. So here it is, step by step, what happened.
Evelyn's Office on Balboa Ave.
December 29th, 2008 Ė We drove to Evelynís office on Balboa Avenue. If you are going west on Balboa Avenue, it is on the left hand side about 200m after the Hotel Intercontinental. The building is white and on the corner of a street. On the top of the building ďHealth and Beauty ClinicĒ is written in blue letters.Here are all her details.
Evelyn N. Batista E. Sales & Marketing Supervisor Wilhelmsen Ships Service
Avenida Balboa Galerias Balboa Building Second Floor, Suite 35
We spent about three hours talking with Evelyn. There was a sailing on December 31st but because of the holidays she said we would not get the appropriate paperwork done in time. So we opted for the sailing on January 7th. She said we needed to go to the police station to have the van inspected and receive a document to allow us to leave the country. We had to pay her in cash but she said we could get a cash advance on our credit cards from HSBC behind her building. Then she said the van would arrive in Barranquilla in one day and the customs would be a lot cheaper and quicker there than in Cartagena. She made four copies of our vehicle title and passports and gave them to us with a Bill of Landing form she had filled out. We agreed to meet her back at the office the following Monday to receive the remaining paperwork and pay. She gave us a map to the police station also and explained that we would probably spend the day there waiting to have the inspection.
Police Station Parking Lot
December 30th, 2008 Ė We were at the police station at 7.30am. It is in a really dodgy neighborhood and even the cops told us not to trust anyone, even kids, who came near the van. There are high rise flats right beside the station with no fence or wall blocking people from walking in to the parking lot. So we had to be watchful at all times. When we arrived there were about 15 other cars and trucks waiting with their bonnets opened. We gave the guy in the office our paperwork and basically spent the day waiting. There was one guy outside checking that the VIN number on the van matched the paperwork and thatís all the inspection entailed. We were told that everything would be ready at 1pm but it was 2pm before the guy brought the documents back to us. Then we had to go to the police station across the street and wait another hour for a woman to fill out one piece of paper with only about 10 lines of information. Finally by about 3.30pm we were finished. We are not even sure what this step is all about as I still have the original document and we were only asked once for it at the port! Eight hours waiting for nothing.
December 31st Ė January 4th Ė Apart from ringing in the New Year we were really busy for the week. We stayed the first few nights at the Bennigans parking lot beside the Flamenco Marina because they had internet and water. We were asked to leave though and moved to the parking lot near the Balboa YachtClub and Comfort Inn. After you cross the Puente de Los Americas, take the exit for Amador, go left at the end of the ramp and then take the first right. Itís a huge parking lot but no facilities. There are no campgrounds in Panama City so this seems to be the only place that everyone parks at while waiting to ship.
We needed to get our Yellow Fever vaccination. In the States it was $150 each for the vaccination so we decided to hold off and get it done in Panama. There are 2 locations. One is downtown, off Balboa Avenue, apparently where the old US Embassy used to be. We went to the other location in Los Rios/Corozal. From Balboa Yacht Club it was closer and less hassle than driving downtown. Follow the road to Miraflores Locks, about 4km after the Rey supermarket, take a right at the IDAAN sign. There is also a sign for the Health Department but the IDAAN sign is easier to spot. Straight down that road on the right hand side is the clinic. In 30 minutes we had received the vaccination for $5, $145 less than the States!
Also, at the end of the same street as the Health Clinic, is a Vet Clinic. In order to fly with our dog we needed to get a Health Certificate from a vet in Panama. It can only be got within 24 hours before the flight. Because we were going to be in Colon the day before our flight this was very difficult to do. However, the vet there was really nice and agreed to post date the health certificate. She said we also needed the Rabies Certificate and his Vaccination Certificate listing all his other vaccinations. It was $20 for the cert. We also had to buy a crate to bring the dog on the plane. There is a pet shop at Albrook Mall. It was $145 for the crate because we had to buy the largest.
We needed to get our brakes repaired and get a new house battery. We found a great mechanic in Diablo. On the road to Miraflores Locks, turn left at the Rey supermarket and continue straight to Diablo. You will end up at the marina; ask for Davitt the mechanic. He was really good and reasonably cheap.
We went to several hardware stores looking for plywood. There is nothing dividing the driving area from the living area in our van so we needed to block it all off before shipping. We have heard it is the safest thing to do to ensure nothing is stolen. We ended up finding a hardware store on the main street of Panama Viejo. It was $6 for a sheet of plywood and 2 bags of screws. They even cut the plywood into the sections we needed.
Parking Lot at Balboa Yacht Club
Taking the van apart
Boarding up the van
January 5th, 2009 Ė We drove to Evelynís office again. She told us that the ship was actually leaving on the night of the 6th from Colon so it would be arriving in Barranquilla on the 7th. She gave us the number of her office there and a broker that we could use to help with the paperwork. She said there was a good chance we would be able to get the van on the 7th but if not, definitely on the 8th. She booked our flights online. From Panama to Barranquilla direct one way was $418 for both of us (Evelyn told us previously it would only be $100 each). Then we needed to pay. Evelyn does not ask for the weight of the vehicle, only the height, width and length. The price is rated at $65/m3. For our van it worked out at $1,996 total. If your van can fit in a container it would be cheaper, approximately $1,400. Even better, we met two groups at the office with Volkswagens buses who were sharing a container and the cost. Unfortunately our van is too high to go in a container. Evelyn had told us we could go to the HSBC beside her building and get cash advances on our credit card for whatever amount we neededÖNOT TRUE. We were only allowed $1,000 maximum on one credit card. Luckily we had 2 credit cards we could use but it was a problem for the French family as their costs were double. So I would recommend withdrawing the money bit by bit over a few days. We wasted three hours just going from bank to bank trying to get the cash on one credit card. Then Evelyn gave us a receipt and some other paperwork we needed and we left.
That evening we removed the storage box and spare wheel from the outside and managed to get them inside the van. Just doing that saved us $300. So whatever you can remove from the van to decrease length or width, do it. Jimmy finished installing all the plywood so the only access the port handlers had is to the driver and passenger seat. With the van all boarded up we headed to Gavinís house for the night.
Loading area in Colon
January 6th, 2009 Ė We were up at 5.30am and left Francie at Gavinís house for the day. We met Stephan at 6am and drove to Colon. The road is pretty bad in spots and there was lots of traffic and construction so it was nearly 8.30am before we got there. We also missed the turn for the port and ended up near the city centre. There is no sign so when you get to the first bridge in Colon, donít cross it, stay in the lane on the right and make the first right. There is a big shopping mall on the left hand side just beside the bridge. We couldnít find the Barwil Agency office but a guy helped us out and brought us to the building. We waited there for about 45 minutes and then a young guy showed us the way to the customs office. We waited there for two hours while they did some paperwork and stamped our passports with an exit stamp. I guess itís necessary to finalize the Panama vehicle permit before leaving the country. Then we returned to Barwilís office and waited for another 45 minutes. In the meantime the German couple and American guys had arrived. It was a like an episode of Amazing Race. We then went to a few other customs office for various stamps and paid the port fees. We were charged $7, the Germans told us later they paid $5 so who knows what it really is. We finally drove to the loading area. We parked up and an official inspected the van with a sniffer dog. More waiting and more stamps on the paperwork. By 2.30pm we were finished and handed over the keys to the van. We really wanted to stay and see the van been loaded but apparently the ship hadnít docked yet.
Evelyn told us the bus back to Panama was really dangerous. Seemingly only a few weeks earlier, the bus had been hijacked and everything stolen from the passengers. She also said the taxi drivers could not be trusted either. So we decided to rent a car and shared the cost with Stephan. We got a taxi from the port to a Hertz office for $5 (Barwil called the taxi for us). The car cost $93 for the day and we would be able to drop it off at the airport in Panama. The drive back took about 2 hours and thankfully we stayed at Gavinís house again. We were really lucky to have met him as hotels were expensive. The French family paid $145 for just one night.
January 7th, 2009 Ė We drove to the airport and got there for 8.30am to drop the car off at Hertz. A taxi alone to the airport would have cost $35 so the rental car worked out good for us. We werenít sure of the procedure with a dog as this was the first time for Francie to fly! The girls at the desk were really nice. We put Francie in the crate and they weighed everything together. It was $1.58/kg so it worked out at $77 for us. They took his paperwork and made copies (Panama Health Cert, USDA Cert, Rabies Cert and Vaccination Cert).The flight wasnít until 11am so they let us wait outside until 10.30am before taking Francie. The poor thing was really frightened as they put the crate up on the conveyor belt and off he went. The flight was only an hour though and he was fine once we landed. When we came through Colombian immigration, he was circling the conveyor belt with the rest of the luggage! The quarantine official at the airport just checked his paperwork and kept copies of everything. He handwrote a license for the dog and charged $17. We called Evelynís office but there was no answer. Then we called Diane, the contact she gave us for Barranquilla. She said the boat would not be arriving until that night so we needed to call her back the following morning. We got a map of the town and got a taxi to an area that seemed to have cheap hotels. We ended up at Hotel San Francisco (Calle 43 No. 43-128, Tel: 3515532). It was $32 per night with air-conditioning and they had no problem with the dog. Although they did think he was sleeping in the crate. The neighborhood wasnít great but it was the cheapest so we didnít mind.
January 8th, 2009 - We called Evelyn and no answer again. Then we called Diane again. She said the ship had still not arrived due to bad weather. She said we should go to her office the next day to begin the paperwork and we would be able to pick up the van on Saturday the 10th. She assured us everything would be open on Saturday and there would no problems. We called Evelyn again and finally talked to her. She informed us the ship was docked at another port in Santa Marta! I donít think any of them knew where the ship was but there is a Latin America habit where they wonít just say if they donít know. They all feel like they have make up some sort of story to tell you. Either way there was nothing we could do except wait.
January 9th, 2009 Ė We got a taxi to Dianeís office and were there at 9.30am. She wasnít there so another woman called Alexandra talked to us. In the four hours we were there she told us first that the ship left a day late, then it had mechanical problems, then there was bad weather and then it had to make other stops before Barranquilla. There was no-one calling her with these updates, she just came up with a new excuse every half hour! On top of that she didnít even know who Evelyn was! We were given the impression by Evelyn that this was Barwilís office in Barranquilla. Apparently, Evelyn works for an agency called Barwil, who contracts TransCanal Agency and who then contracts King Ocean Services. Alexandra was confused and said we could have just gone to King Ocean Services directly and it would have been a lot cheaper. I am not sure how true this is but here are the details if anyone would like to contact them directly:
Caribbean American Shipping Agency/ King Ocean Services
Alexandra Cogollo or Diane Donado Cr 53 #70-86, Edificio San Remo, Local 109, Barranquilla, Colombia Office: (57)3605395 or (57) 3684371 Fax: (57-3)3568871 Alexandra Cell: (57) 3176367289(speaks only Spanish) Diane Cell: (57) 3174406056(speaks English) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org@king-ocean.com
So we waited in Alexandraís office until 1.45pm. She said we needed to pay them for their services! We thought all fees were included in the $2,000 we already paid. But Evelyn had not told us this so we paid $77 for I donít know what. Then I noticed that they had the VIN# down as Jimmyís passport number. This took nearly two hours to correct. Then she said we needed to employ a broker to do all the customs paperwork. She called a guy called Robinson and agreed on $35 each for us, the French and the Germans. She assured us he would do the necessary paperwork and we would have the van the next day. She organized a taxi to the port for us which was amazingly double the price it should have been. Then we waited until 2.30pm for this Robinson guy to show up. He brought us into an office and filled out a form for each of us. He needed copies of the passports; vehicle title and Panama exit permit which we all had. Then he needed a copy of our entry stamp into Colombia which we didnít have. We had to go to another building as apparently there was only one photocopier in the entire port. We waited an hour just for the copies! By now it was 3.45pm. Robinson said he would call us at our hotel on Tuesday about picking up the vans. We all exploded, we had been told the next day not another four days waiting. He said everything was closed at 4pm so there wasnít time to get the paperwork done. I couldnít believe it. We sat in Alexandraís office for four hours and not once did she mention we were on a tight time schedule. We could have got everything done that morning. So we called her and screamed at her for a bit. Then she told Robinson that everything would be fine and that we would be able to get the paperwork done. He didnít look too sure though. We left extremely pissed off. January 10th, 2009 Ė We called Alexandra at 10am. She said the ship had arrived at 9.30am. However, our paperwork was not back from Bogota and their office was closed until Tuesday the 13th so we would not able to get the vans until then. This was the first f**king time we heard anything about paperwork coming from Bogota and she assured us she told us. I canít describe how mad we were. Evelyn told us nothing about the procedure in Barranquilla and hadnít called us back once since we arrived. Diane said nothing on Thursday about the paperwork and said we could get it all done on Friday. Yet all of a sudden they give us this vital information on a Saturday when everything is closed. Plus Monday was a holiday so nothing more could be done until Tuesday, exactly a week from when we dropped our van off in Colon! We arrived in Colombia on Wednesday with three days to get this done if only some-one had told us. They are all very quick to take our money but thatís all that they are quick about. So instead of paying for a hotel for one night, we were stuck paying for seven nights. It was ridiculous. We really wanted to do the sailing trip around the San Blas Islands but because it was a five day trip and $370 each we decided it was better to fly. If Evelyn had informed us correctly we still could have done it and not waste money on a hotel we didnít even want to be in. Barranquilla is a rough place too and not the nicest to hang out in for a week. We got the bus to Cartagena for a day and it is beautiful. So anyone reading this and planning on doing the same, I would recommend shipping to Cartagena and prepare yourself for the worst. At least Cartagena is a much nicer place to be stranded in for a week.
January 13th, 2009 - Jimmy, Stefan the French man and Thomas and Antonella the German couple met at 7.30am and got a taxi to the port. I stayed at the hotel with Francie and Lydie and the kids as we knew it would probably be a full day of waiting around. We were right. When the guys got there they waited for 45 minutes and some other guy, not Robinson, showed up. He left them waiting another hour and then said he got a phone call for everyone to go down to the dock. As they were walking down they met Robinson and he kept going. Apparently he was taking care of the paperwork which not surprisingly had not arrived back from Bogota. We had got a phone call over the weekend from Alexandria saying that the keys of the van were not lost but they couldnít find them! Apparently ours and Stefanís had been locked into the van. Luckily we all had spare keys. They were told to wait for a van to pick them up and bring them down to where our vans were. An hour and a half later they started walking and the van eventually came ten minutes later to bring them the rest of the way. The two vans were parked together and Jimmy and Stefan handed over the keys to two workers. They were allowed in the van while the workers drove it to a secure area. The guy didnít even know how to drive the van! He kept his foot on the emergency brake and couldnít change gears. Jimmy had to show him how to do it. Then they were shuttled back to the main building for more waiting. Stefan tried to take a nap and he was told he wasnít allowed sleep in the building! Thomas and Antonella arrived back then in an awful state. At first they thought their clutch and batteries had been stolen as the van wouldnít start. Then they discovered their van wasnít lifted onto a flatbed as they had been promised. Instead it was lifted with straps directly on the ship which had broken their hydraulics. Their van came from Germany so they werenít sure if they could even get the parts here. The guys at the port did try to help them to repair it. They all were brought to the bank then to pay the port fees. Itís rated at $5/ton so for us it was $25. Apparently thatís what Evelyn had put down even though she had never asked us the weight. It worked out OK for us as it is well more than 5 tons. They also charged $4 late charge for the vans been left in the port for a day! The day that everything was bloody closed anyway and was entirely out of our hands. Jimmy and Stefan paid it just to try and get the hell out of there but Antonella went berserk and starting giving Robinson serious abuse. Right after that, ours and Stefanís paperwork had come back from Bogota but coincidentally the Germans paperwork wasnít ready yet. Robinson said then that they needed to wait for an inspection and disappeared for another hour. He arrived back and said everything was fine even though there was no paperwork or anything to back up that there actually had been an inspection. He disappeared again for another hour. He came back and said they were ready to go get the vans. As they were walking to get the vans one of the port officials said that they werenít allowed through because they were wearing shorts. It was 80F outside! I had read on someone elseís blog that they were stopped because of flip-flops so the lads made sure to wear runners. The fact that all our clothes were in the van didnít seem to faze them. Who knows, if you turned up in a tux they probably still would have a problem. Then after all the time they had to fill out the paperwork there was still something filled in wrong. They all returned to the main building and waited some more to get it corrected. When they returned to retrieve the vans, the official forgot about the shorts rule! They waited some more for a shuttle bus to bring them to the vans and finally at 9pm that night Jimmy and Stefan drove out of the port in the vans. Luckily everything with our vans was fine and nothing stolen. The Germans did not get their van that night and we actually havenít talked to them since so I hope everything went OK for them. They also had their loud speakers stolen. So that was the entire experience. We never got one phone call or email from Evelyn since to find out if we even got our vans back. After handing over $2,000 I think itís the least she could have done. I recently received an email from the English and Peruvian couple we met outside Evelynís office. They were shipping their car to Guayaquil, Ecuador and it took over 3 weeks from beginning to end. They also were promised a quick voyage but it didnít happen. I think everyone thinks Evelynís office is the only option and because of all the original positive feedback, she has got lazy and neglectful. There are two other companies who had emailed me back that could also have organized the shipping so maybe thereís need to be a bit more competition between them. Here are the details for the other companies: