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June 16, 2013

Crossing the Darien Gap


Since the Darien gap is probably the most difficult part of travelling
the Americas, I wrote this up for other travellers....



Between Panama and Colombia, the Darien gap is a stretch of about 80
miles where there is no road. To cross it involves a sharp machete, a
strong arm, good mosquito repellent, malaria prophylactic, food, and
lots of patience. Also, timing must be in the dry season. I've only
heard of three successful vehicle crossings. All of whom have written
books about their many week ordeal. Since the early '90s, crossing the
Darien on foot is considered by most locals as dangerous since it has
recently become a channel for drug smugglers from Colombia.

For most normal people, including those only slightly abnormal, this
leaves three options. Fly, take a boat, or turn around.

Flying across the Darien

Flying is certainly the easiest. It's an option for motorcyclists, but
not for cars or trucks which must take a boat.

There are several air cargo freighters that will ship a motorcycle. In
both Bogota and Panama city, the best place to research this yourself
in Bogota is at the main airport, or in Panama City at the old
airport now called the cargo airport.

Of the air cargo freighter that would transport a motorcycle to Bogota,
I went with Girag Air Cargo and found procedures to be easy and straight
forward. I heard good things about Servi Carga from two independent

Girag Air Cargo (Cargo Three, Inc.) Phone in city: 26-5775, 26-3173,
26-5477, Fax 26-5477
Phone at Tocumen: 238-4326, 238-4289, 238-4397, 238-4091,
Fax 238-4417
In Bogota: 571-414-7010,571-414-7011,571-414-7012
413-5349, 413-5358, 413-5093, 413-5087,
Fax: 413-5104,
E-mail: adolfog@colomsat.net.co
Cost was $250 cash or TC per motorcycle
In Bogota they are located at the main airport.
In Panama City, they are located at the cargo airport
(old Tocumen airport)

Servi Carga. phone: 223-1144, 238-4165, 238-4162, 238-4286, 238-4250
cost is $250 per motorcycle + $33 handling.

Pacific Airlines. located at the old cargo Tocumen airport. They quoted
me $500 cash per motorcycle.

Continental Airlines will ship a motorcycle to Ecuador, either Guayaquil
or Quito. However motorcycle must be delivered crated.
free of oil, gas, battery and tire pressure.
Guess of price by clerk was $400 per motorcycle.

We dropped our motorcycles off in the afternoon at Girag dock at the old
airport in Panama city, We drained the gas tank and left. It showed up
the next day in the Girag warehouse near the Bogota airport just as we had
left them. See Customs at the bottom...

In Colombia, and maybe also in Panama, gas station sell plastic gas bags
for carrying gas. For approximately, $.50 one can buy a plastic bag at
Texaco for carrying up to two gallons of gas, which you'll likely need
on arrival with a dry tank. There is a gas station less than 1km from
the airport, so not much gas is needed.

For you, not your vehicle, there are several flights from Panama to
Bogota per day on Copa, Avianca and Aces. We flew on Aces and would
recommend it. Flight time is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes and
all seats are business class at economy prices. Cost was $168 for all
the airlines above mentioned, one way. No problem booking flight at
the last minute.

WGS84 GPS coordinates for Panama.
Tocumen Airport N9d04.006, W79d23.291
Cargo Airport N9d05.232, W79d22.314

By Sea around the Darien Gap

The Crucero express is a ferry service that operated for 6-18 months
depending on who one talks to. However, it has stopped running almost 2
years ago. Rumor has it that the boat now runs from Cancun to Miami.
There are no current plans for a replacement ferry service.

There are a number of options of how to cross by boat, but no yet well
established method, and so all options require a lot of foot work. I
would recommend allowing 1-2 weeks to arrange, plus 3-4 days in
crossing. However, I've heard costs as low as $200* for motorcycle and
passenger, (BIG asterisk here... see below)

One way to cross is by container ship. One rents a 10x20x10 foot
container which is large enough for two cars/trucks, or four
motorcycles. These typically go for $1000 plus $100 to load, and $100
to unload for a total of $1200. Great if you can pair up vehicles with
someone else. The alternative to renting a container would be to find a
ship that takes open cargo. These are more difficult to find.

This type of travel is arranged through a port agency, who acts as cargo
schedulers for a couple of boats. Port agencies are usually centrally
located, so one can walk around to the various ones, and ask about
various boats. Most boats in Panama load in Colon, and so I'm told it's
best to go there despite the reputation of the city. My information was
gathered in Panama City.

In Panama city, there are several port agencies grouped together at
WGS84 coordinates N8d57.534, W79d33.647. OTC is a port agent at these
coordinates. OTC themselves only had a 20 foot container as their
smallest which was $950 to Cartagena plus $100 handling. Perfect if I
had a Winebego. Some other contacts:

Gemini Shipping Co. Tel: 441-6269, 441-6959. They would except open
cargo cars or motorcycle. However they sailed every 1-2

Fast Cargo Inc. Tel: 263-2008, 263-7826, 264-5792, 441-7037, Fax: 269-8447,
They handle arrangements by air or boat.

There are quite a few small boats that cross from Panama to Colombia,
and will take a open cargo such as a motorcycle and their passengers.
This is by far the best way to go if one is interested in gathering
adventure stories to be told afterwards.

Of the three travellers I met who travelled on one of these smaller

One was on a coconut boat where their motorcycle sat in a pile of
coconuts for 3.5 days. When they arrived at night, the canoes came from
shore, and all of the smuggled merchandise such as refrigerators, TVs,
etc were unloaded in the dark from hidden places on the boat. The next
morning when only the coconuts and motorcycle remained, the motorcycle
was off loaded into a canoe for an additional $20. They were put ashore
on a sand beach far from any road. Later when they arrived at customs,
they were told that they had had an illegal entry, and would have to go
back the way they came and come in legally. This being impossible, they
ended up driving the rest of the way through Colombia without proper
documents. Fortunately they were not stopped by a police check. The
total cost for them was $220. It was not a pleasant experience,
however when they tell it, it makes a great story.

A British couple we met had a similar experience for $250. However
their boat was smuggling in arms and ammunition likely for one of the
two Colombian guerrilla factions. Of course, they didn't know this when
they embarked.

We met a swiss motorcycle traveller who booked passage on the boat named
"Alejandra" sailed by captain Eduardo Barrios sailing from Puerto Coco
Solo in Venezuela to Colon, Panama. He paid $200 for the three day
passage of himself and his motorcycle. However, he slept on the floor
in a cramp area shared by others, and managed to lose all of his riding
gear during the voyage.


While arrival by land in Colombia is straight forward and easy. Arrival
by boat or air involves a lot of paperwork. 2-5 days by air or boat
has been my personal experience and experience from talking with other
travellers. Our paper work began on a Thursday night, and we were done
by Tuesday morning. No work was done Saturday afternoon or Sunday.
However, we had two problems arise that lengthened our paperwork by
about a day and a half. One was that the vehicle identification number
on one of our bikes is a sticker that is no longer legible. Due to some
quick thinking and trickery by our hired custom agent we were able to
get this by the customs officer. The other problem we had was that in
Panama, the customs officer had written the same air bill number for one
of our motorcycles into both of our passports. This discrepancy took a
lot of foot and paper work to remedy in Colombia. The customs officers
in Bogota are very strict, officious and by the book. They are
reluctant to take responsibility for saying that any discrepancy is o.k.
A bribe at this custom office will likely get one thrown in jail, so I
have been warned, and such is the general feel of the clerks.

Solutions to problems we encountered: I went to an engraver, and had a
little aluminum plate with the vehicle identification numbers engraved
on it which I then epoxied to the frame. This number identically
matched that of my paperwork, and replaced the factory sticker that was
now no longer legible.

Regarding the incorrect air bill number in my passport. Fixing this
personally with a pen, I was warned would get me thrown in jail.
Colombian officials said, "no problem, just go back to Panama and get it
fixed". With two notes from the shippers, and approval from the top
customs officer, the clerks were able to overlook this discrepancy.

It is necessary to hire a custom agent. The custom agent works for you,
not the government, and is hired to get you through Colombian customs.
They do the leg work, and type of the 80+ question form. A typical fee
might be $80 per motorcycle to possibly $75 per day, and is well worth
it. We heard of two Israelis who didn't hire an agent, and it took them
2.5 weeks of agony to get their vehicles through customs.

Finding a custom agent may not be easy. Customs officers who work for
the government are not allowed to help you locate a customs agent since
this would be potentially considered favoritism, and possibly a loss of
their job. We were secretly directed to Cesar, a customs agent who
hangs out in the cargo warehouse. He has been doing this paper work for
15 years. He's short, overweight, and wears street clothes and can
likely be found by asking around the cargo warehouses just outside the
Bogota airport entrance. He has a crew of four others that can get a
motorcycle through in a little over a day.

With all of your paperwork in order, and lots of patience, Colombian
customs is only a little inconvenient :-)

Dave Thompson


Net-Tamer V 1.09 Palm Top - Registered

Posted by Rob Kiser on June 16, 2013 at 9:10 AM


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