Crossing the Darien Gap With a Vehicle | Instructions & Tips

By now, chances are you’ve realized that driving between Panama and Colombia is practically impossible. For whatever reasons, whether they are geographical or political (or both?), a road has never been built between the two countries.  This roadless region of the world is called the “Darien Gap,” and this post will discuss everything you need to know to cross the Darien Gap with your vehicle.

This post will also contain many helpful tips and useful pieces of information to make your Darien Gap crossing as smooth and error-free as possible.

Note: The information in this post will be most relevant for those crossing from Panama to Colombia by ‘roll on roll off’ (RORO). But if you are going in the reverse direction or shipping in a container, this post can also be useful for you.

Does a Road Connect Panama and Colombia?

Unfortunately, no road exists that connects Panama and Colombia. No highways or countryside roads. And as of this writing, there is no plan to build any infrastructure to connect the two countries.

Map view showing the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia
No roads connecting Panama and Colombia

Why? It’s anyone’s best guess. But here are my three theories:

  1. Political History: Panama was part of “The Great Colombia” but declared independence in 1903. This independence severed the relationship between the two, and both countries preferred to be separated without roads.
  2. Cost: Building a road through the thick rainforest of the Darien National Park is too costly and isn’t worth the economic benefit.
  3. Pressure From Shipping Lobbies: The one industry that stands to benefit the most from NOT building a road through the Darien is the shipping industry. Due to the lack of roads, all goods must be placed on a boat for transport between North and South America. That’s good money for shipping lines.

So without any roads, any vehicles larger than a motorcycle MUST be transported by boat to cross the Darien Gap.

If you have a motorcycle (or bicycle), you might be able to find a sailboat or local speedboat to take you along the coast to your destination.

Recommended Shipping Agents for Crossing the Darien Gap

Though you can find instructions on how to do the shipping process by yourself, we recommend finding a shipping agent to handle most of the work for you. This is for three reasons:

  1. Better Shipping Rates – Agents can negotiate better rates with the shipping lines than if you were to walk into the shipping office directly.
  2. Saves You Time – Instead of spending extra days (and money) in Panama or Colombia trying to organize the shipment of your vehicle, an agent can help you do all the work before you even arrive at your city of departure.
  3. Saves Your Sanity – Unless you get satisfaction from doing everything yourself, a shipping agent takes all the frustration out of the shipping process. You just need to show up.

We recommend the following two shipping agents:

  1. IVSSUK – We used this agent to ship our vehicle from Panama to Colombia. Extremely professional, communicative, and trustworthy. They are the leader when it comes to helping overlanders ship their vehicles all across the world.
  2. Overlander Embassy is a new shop dedicated to shipping, vehicle maintenance, and repairs. Based in Panama City, Alejandro works tirelessly to serve overlanders. For more budget-conscious travelers, the Overlander Embassy is a fantastic option, and if you take their service, they let you camp at their shop free of charge.

Required Documents To Cross the Darien Gap by Boat

If you’re traveling from Panama to Colombia, you’ll need the following documents (original & copies):

  • Passport
  • Vehicle Registration
  • Panama TIP
  • Panama Vehicle Insurance
  • DIJ Inspection Authorization (more below)

How To Obtain a DIJ Inspection Authorization

  1. The steps below must be done at least one business day before the ship’s cut-off date.
  2. Drive your vehicle to the DIJ Vehicle Inspection location. You must arrive between 6 and 7:30 am.
  3. Once you arrive, go inside the building and take a number. That is your place in line.
  4. Inspection of all vehicles begins at 8 am. The lower your ticket number, the earlier your vehicle gets inspected.
  5. Present the original and one copy of each of your passports, vehicle registrations, and TIPs to the inspector.
  6. Afterward, the inspector will tell you to return at 2 pm to a nearby building to collect your authorization form.
  7. At 2 pm, head over to the DIJ Main Building.
  8. Skip the line outside the building and speak to the person behind the desk in the lobby. Present another copy of each of your passport, registration, and TIP.
  9. Wait 15 minutes, and they will give you your DIJ Inspection Authorization paper.

Tip When Visiting: In the morning, if you have a bigger vehicle, don’t park in the parking lot of the DIJ inspection building. Park under the highway overpass just across the street. If you’re a bigger vehicle, you’ll likely get boxed in and won’t be able to leave until the other vehicles are inspected.

Tips for Preparing Your Vehicle for Shipping Across the Darien

Two camper vans parked at a shipping port with shipping containers in the background
Dropping off the van at the port in Panama

Before delivering your vehicle at the port, we recommend preparing your vehicle in the following ways:

  1. Ensure the outside of the vehicle is clean. Go to a car wash if necessary.
  2. Leave no more than a ¼ tank of gas/diesel.
  3. Make sure all propane tanks are empty.
  4. All food (perishable & non-perishable) must be removed from the vehicle.
  5. Any valuable items (electronics, watches, money) should be removed from the vehicle. All items left inside are done so at your own risk.
  6. Absolutely no illegal drugs.

Once you enter the port to drop off your vehicle, an inspector checks your vehicle with a dog to ensure you are not transporting drugs.

Propane tank reality: You may not need to empty your propane tanks or remove all your food. However, the intensity of the customs check will depend on the individual inspector.

Is It Safe To Ship a Vehicle Across the Darien Gap?

Theft of interior belongings is usually the first thing that comes to mind when considering shipping safety.

And if you are shipping RORO (roll on, roll off), you’ll need to give your vehicle’s keys to a port agent, and they will load the vehicle onto the boat. So the entire time your vehicle is in transit from Panama to Colombia, theft of inside belongings is possible.

That is why, if a vehicle fits, many choose to ship in a container.

But if your vehicle is too tall and RORO is your only option, you can minimize the occurrence of theft in the following two ways.

  1. Make sure all valuable items are removed from the inside of your vehicle.
  2. Read this valuable post from the Overlanding South & Central America Facebook group.

Luckily, shipping between Panama and Colombia is relatively safer than shipping trans-Atlantic. But be sure to take the extra precaution to reduce your chances of theft further.

Crossing the Darien Gap With a Pet

Cat on camper van kitchen counter
Maya chilling out on our kitchen counter

Traveling with a pet from Panama to Colombia (or in reverse) isn’t as difficult as you might think. Here are the steps you’ll need to take care of for a safe and successful trip.

  1. Visit a vet to prepare the health certificate within ten days of your flight. We recommend visiting Andy’s Pets in Panama City. Andrea speaks perfect English and is incredibly nice and professional.
  2. The vet will submit your pet’s application to the appropriate government department (MIDA).
  3. If successful, you should be approved on the same day and receive a confirmation email.
  4. Visit the MIDA office and bring $10 for the fee. They will give you the final export certificate for your pet.
  5. Whether you are flying to Cartagena or Panama City, we recommend going with Copa Airlines. As of this writing, they are the only carrier with direct flight service between the two cities.
  6. If you are in Panama City, it’s easiest to find a Copa Airlines office to make a booking directly with the agent. A service fee is associated with this, but they can help you make a reservation for your pet. Only three pets are allowed per flight, and only on flights from Mondays to Fridays. So purchasing from a Copa Airlines representative is helpful.
  7. Read Copa’s Pet Rules to ensure you don’t get into last-minute trouble.

Recommended Places To Sleep in Panama City

Camper van parked outside Nomada Container Hotel in Panama City
Plenty of parking when staying at Nomada Container Hotel

If you are in Panama City, we recommend the following two places to sleep.

Overlander Embassy (OE) – You’ll be camping in the parking lot just outside the shop. It isn’t the fanciest place, but camping is free if you take any of OE’s services, such as vehicle maintenance or shipping to Cartagena. Otherwise, it’s $20 per night.

Nomada Container Hotel – This is where we stayed. Rooms include a kitchen. It’s quiet and in the center of the city. Best of all, they have a large parking lot for your vehicle. The maximum height restriction to enter the lot is ~2.9 meters. So, we fit with our Ford Transit high-roof.

Importing Your Vehicle in Cartagena, Colombia

If you are shipping your vehicle from Panama, you will likely be picking up your vehicle in Cartagena, Colombia.

Just as in Panama, it is considerably easier to hire the services of an import agent to take care of all the paperwork for you. Not only that, but these agents also have valuable relationships with customs and port employees to expedite the release of your vehicle from the port.

Locating an Agent in Cartagena

If you hire a shipping agent in Panama, they will likely introduce you to their contact in Cartagena to help you import your vehicle.

If not, we recommend using Ana Rodriguez. Ana was our import agent and was professional, friendly, and knowledgeable about the import process. You can contact Ana by:

  • Email: cortesrodriguez.asesores@gmail.com
  • Whatsapp: +57-301-4146464

Conclusion – Do Your Homework, Shipping Across the Darien Isn’t So Hard

Before getting to Panama City, we had been fretting about this moment for months. With theft concerns and endless logistics to take care of, we were weary just thinking about all we had to take care of.

But if you follow our guide and hire a shipping agent to care for the most complicated parts, shipping your vehicle across the Darien Gap should be streamlined and doable.

Please let us know in the comments section below if you have any questions regarding this process.

Happy shipping!

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