The Darien Gap Revisited

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Trusting that DC3 was in good hands and would make her way without incident to Panama, we were able to take full advantage of our final day in Cartagena. The old walled city truly is like a fairy-tale, especially in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve when the hustle and bustle of life has not yet reached its peak. Here, one can get away from the incessant pandemonium of road construction in the rest of the city, from the hubbub of vendors offering that perfect last-minute Christmas gift, and from the myriad of early Christmas revellers - all with their boom-boxes cranked up to the maximum level! Later that evening, we and the other hotel guests were invited to join Martha, Eduardo and Daniela on the upper terrace of their hotel for a special Christmas celebration - what a treat!

Hopes for a turkey dinner on board our flight from Cartagena to Panama City the following day was indeed "pie in the sky" - the soggy chicken empanada was barely edible. But we did in fact receive an amazing Christmas gift - an e-mail from Gustavo Castaneda, Manager of Naves Shipping Agency, informing us that the "MV Silkeborg" was leaving a day early, and would arrive in Colón, Panama later on Christmas Day. Best of all, he attached a photo of DC3, all happily strapped down on board the ship. Thanks so much for that special thought Gustavo!

By all accounts, the retrieval of DC3 from Manzanillo port could supposedly be completed within a few hours. Thus, after checking out of our hotel in Panama City early on December 26th, we wrestled our luggage into a taxi to the bus station and then found the express bus to Colón, and a couple of hours later were ready to initiate the process. Imagine our dismay upon arrival at the port office to be told that in spite of having four copies of the Bill of Lading - with the original stamped for release by the Barwil Shipping Agency - we lacked the "official" customs stamp from Aduana Head Office. We had no choice but to return to Panama City! After a few more hours of struggling with our luggage, we located the requisite Customs Agent and sat around while more forms were filled out, stamped and signed. Yes, by day's end we had all the necessary documentation, but not before we forked out the obligatory US $75!

In spite of repeated assurances that the following day we would be reunited with DC3 after just a few minor formalities, we decided to leave our luggage behind in Panama City. For the third time we travelled the largely uninteresting 70 km to the reputedly very dangerous and run-down slum of Colón, seriously hoping that this would be the last trip - at least until we were driving back in our own van. Handing the papers over to a customs official at the first window, we wondered why he spent such a long time puzzling over the documents, checking on the computer, and finally conferring with a colleague. Our hearts sank as we heard him mutter "I'm afraid you have a problem - your van hasn't arrived yet". Gently coercing our way into his office to find out what might have happened to the ship, we were even more shocked when he said "Actually, it seems that your van has been shipped to Costa Rica"!

Lest you think that we were having more than our share of bad luck, the following is a quote from Chris and Sheila Page (writing as 'pagesturning' on TravelPod) - a Vancouver couple who have experienced similar shipping frustrations: " It seems amazing that you can drive your car across a border in less than an hour of paperwork but put it on a ship and it takes more than a day of sweaty waiting, wrangling and eye popping inefficiency.....Almost without fail when you put a piece of official paper in front of someone they look at it with a slightly perplexed air as if they had never seen it before, so you go rapidly from soporific boredom to an adrenalin rush every time a different person grabs your precious papers".

After much more shuffling of documents and interminable consultations it eventually turned out that there was no problem at all, and that DC3 was actually being held in a storage area just half a km away. However, before we could see her we had to convince three more sets of officials that we were actually her owners - each requesting their own fee for service, and requiring endless photocopies - all in triplicate of course. Surely all of these checks and balances must mean that nothing untoward could possibly happen to a vehicle being safeguarded by such an intricate system?! Yes, eventually we reached the holding area for Ro-Ro vehicles and were extremely pleased to see DC3 quietly parked inside a secure area. Imagine our surprise then at finding the key in the door, and our chagrin as we realized that in fact all the doors were unlocked, and our stomachs churned as we started to check inside. Although theft is maybe too strong a term, pilfering aptly describes the loss of various items - the special notepad accessory attached to the dash, the clipboard with all of our gas records, our umbrella, vehicle cleaning supplies....and the list goes on.

It wasn't so much the filching of our personal belongings as much as the obvious deficiencies of the system and the smirking attitude of the security guard that really got Gerry a bit hot under the collar. When the guard openly laughed at our predicament, some rather heated exchanges ensued! Ah, but this was just a sign to the officials to have "more fun with the foreigners", and we were sent away for yet another half dozen photocopies. In the meantime the port security officials were summoned, resulting in Gerry being deemed a threat to security and being banned from subsequently re-entering the compound. Not only that, but when I presented the requested photocopies for the final release of DC3, I was told that it couldn't be done since the designated signing officer was unfortunately absent. Happily the port security officials were very sympathetic to our situation and ordered the papers to be signed immediately. Whew - what a relief to finally make our way out of that port after two full days of exhausting frustration!

But just a final note. We have received dozens of e-mails over the past two years, some of them asking us how we managed to ship our van across the Panama Canal in order to get to South America! Crossing the Canal is actually as simple as driving across the Bridge of the Americas, which we intend to do tomorrow. However, the actual problem is a little further south. There is no road connection between Panama and Colombia, but rather a rain-forest wilderness known as the Darien Gap. Extending for approximately 200 km, this area is basically inaccessible to vehicles, and is also prohibitively dangerous due to guerilla and drug-running activities - and thus the necessity to make the crossing by sea or air.

We're ecstatic to be reunited with DC3 and back on the road again, looking forward to the next four or five months of adventure as we make our way north up through Central America on the home stretch!
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Comments

frankandrita
frankandrita on

Welcome to Panama
Gerry & Sharon, just got to wondering this morning if you made it to Panama and decided to go have a look at your Travelog. Well, what a story ! Unbelievable ! Anyways, good to know you have regained possession of DC3 and will now make your way north. If you meet up with Mike say hello. And, I hope you have picked up the fuel injector without more problems. Have a safe and happy New Years !

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