The PanAm Shipping Process Part 1 – Panama

We rose early on Monday morning and met the guys from Adventure the Americas downstairs in the hotel lobby for our gratis gourmet breakfast of a cup of coffee and piece of bread. We confirmed everything was a GO with Seaboard Marine, our chosen shipping company, and mapped out a plan for the day.

Today mission was to get the initial inspection of our trucks to confirm the VINs matched our import permits and to confirm we had no outstanding warrants/traffic tickets. With this clearance we would be able to move onto the next step of the process.

Keith from Adv the Americas had already loaded up the GPS with the coords of the inspection yard. We jumped in the trucks and hit the crazy streets of Panama City.

After battling our way a few miles through heavy morning rush hour traffic we pulled into a dirt lot in the middle of one of the roughest neighborhoods we have had the pleasure of entering thus-far. I would have thought we were lost if our buddies Brad and Sheena from DriveNachoDrive and 10 other trucks weren’t already queued up waiting in the lot for inspections of their own.

View from the inspection lot.

Nacho sighting

Talking to Brad we learned that he has spent 3 days at this lot now. Apparently the inspection offices were closed the past 2 days for “meetings” of some sort. Of course in standard Central America practice no one bothered to inform the large number of people/cars waiting around outside…

When we arrived we met a long line of trucks hoping to finally make some progress. Lots of fellow overlanders from all over the world. Canadians, Swiss, Germans, Mexicans, and a few American gringos like ourselves. A regular United Nations of automobile travelers.

We were all waiting around in this sketchy parking lot confused and stressed, wondering if the inspector would actually show today.

Eventually a man in a white shirt with a clipboard came out of the inspection office. We all ran to our trucks, gathered our paperwork, and stood tall and straight trying our hardest to impress. After all, clipboard dude was the critical first step of the shipping process and if we managed to screw this up who knows how long it would be before we got another shot.

He went from truck to truck, inspecting paperwork, making notes and giving the royal thumbs up or thumbs down to the owners.

Brad passed his inspection, Adventure the Americas passed. I was up next. I was nervous as hell as “Clipboard” came my way. I locked eyes with the inspector who all of the sudden did a 180 and started marching back to the inspection office. WAIT! What about me!?

I ran around asking random people questions, Is he done for the day!? Is it lunch time!? Did I piss him off somehow!? How do I look?? No one had any answers.

30 stressful minutes passed waiting around in the parking lot, shady characters prowling the fence eyeballing our trucks like hyenas. I was just about to give up in defeat when the office door swings open and out trots Clipboard once again… 10AM coffee break I guess?

He comes over chatting on his cellphone and seems bothered by my presence. Maybe he thought I would disappear if he went away for a bit? He takes a quick cursory glance at my paperwork, makes a few grunts, and says everything looks good. We passed!

On to the next step. We need to wait for Clipboard to process the paperwork and send it across the street to the “Secretaria General” office. This complicated process of walking the papers across the street is estimated to take all morning/afternoon and we are all told to come back around 3PM.

We head back to the hotel to kill some time. Around 2:30 we head back to the inspection lot, park the trucks and then play a high-speed game of frogger across the 6-lane highway.

We receive little badges that say “Secretaria General” and enter a large office full of people waiting around. We ask the bubble-gum snappin’-cellphone chattin’-front desk girl where can find the Secretaria General. She instructs us to take a seat, so we do.

30 minutes pass, No one has moved. We start to get restless. We ask the lady what is going on. She just smiles and tells us to wait.

An hour passes. OK what the hell is going on! Its 4PM now. We assume the office closes at 5. There are 8 of us in here waiting for the same paperwork and we have made no progress past this initial waiting room.

We ask the gatekeeper again, What is going on? She laughs and tells us to wait with no further explanation. Seemingly perturbed that we were interrupting her game of “Angry Birds”

A fellow overlander emerges from behind the gatekeepers magic door. He explains that he was just with the Secretaria General, there is no one in there and he just walked by the front desk lady without saying anything to her about an hour ago.

Damnit! That’s what we get for asking for permission…

We hatch a plan, Brad and Keith are going to cause a distraction and I am going to army-crawl past the desk, through the magic door, and into the office of the Secretaria General. We are just about to put the plan into action when our eyes catch the Camo-clad security officer fingering his pistol and licking his lips. He can sense the gringos are up to something. We put the plan on pause.

Finally the gatekeeper takes a break from texting her loverboy and says 2 of us can enter. Instantly, all 8 of us rise up and rush the door. She starts yelling at us. Only 2! Only 2!

“DON’T LOOK BACK!” I yell to Keith and Brad.

We all keep pushing past the door. We soon find ourselves running blindly through the hallways of the government building desperately seeking refuge. We find the door marked “Sec. Gen.” We fall in and slam the door behind us fully expecting some crazed rifle-wielding Military dude to come kick our asses at any second.

We find the Secretary General pleasantly sitting all alone at her desk. She sweetly asks “Why were you guys waiting outside?…

Brad’s paperwork is processed without a hitch. Everything matches up and he is given his clearance paper. His shipping partner was not so lucky and had to make a last minute mad-dash out of the building for copies.

Keith’s turn came up. The SecGen got 90% through the process when she hit a snag. His import permit listed the truck as an “ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE” but “Clipboard” had marked it down as a “CAMIONETA”. This inconsistency was all that was needed to flunk the entire inspection process. Keith would be unable to get his clearance until we had the import permit changed at the customs office across town. FAIL.

My shot. I get up with my paperwork, 90% through. Snag. My VIN number was fine but where it asked for Motor VIN the import permit listed N/A. This would not do. DOUBLE FAIL.

We slunked out of the SecGen office defeated.

Next morning we were up early, headed to customs and got the proper changes to our paperwork. Drove back to SecGen office, bum rushed past the frontdesk airhead and went straight to the SecGen. Everything matched up perfectly this time. We received our clearance forms!

With our clearance forms in hand we headed to Panama City customs office to cancel our Vehicle Import permits so we could fly out of Panama without our cars.

Unfortunately no one at the Panama City customs office had any clue what in the hell we were trying to accomplish. They just couldn’t understand why we would want to cancel our vehicle import permit.

We spent about 3 hours going from office to office explaining in vain what we were trying to do. We finally thought we were making some progress when they brought us to the main jefe (boss man) of the entire customs office. However, it turned out he was pissed off to be interrupted by a bunch of gringos and still did not understand what we wanted.

Oh well. Looks like we will have to cancel the permit in the port town of Colon where the customs office did this stuff daily. That’s what we get for trying to be efficient!

Next morning we woke early. We took a few essentials out of the truck and packed our backpacks with some clothes. If everything went according to plan, by the end of the day, we would be loading the trucks into a container bound for Colombia.

We hit the road towards Colon, Panama. In Colon our mission was to cancel our import permit, find Seaboard Marine office, and load our trucks into the container.

Keith had loaded the GPS with the Port of Colons coords. We soon arrived in the gritty city and made our way to the port. Once we arrived there we found the customs office at the port entrance and explained what we were trying to do. They, of course, had no idea how to help us…

This in turn lead us on a wild goose chase all over the entire port of Colon. For about 2 hours we went from office to office explaining our situation to anyone who would listen. Everyone wanted to help but no one really knew what to do. We were sent off in a million different directions. At one point we went on a 30-minute joy-ride inside of one of the ports official vans which was actually pretty cool although completely unnecessary.

We eventually found ourselves at a building which everyone told us was Seaboard Marine office, but we could not find Seaboard Marine. We asked around for 30 minutes and finally someone told us the damn office is on the 2nd floor of the building we are in! DOH!

We walked upstairs and found Seaboard representatives smiling friendly from behind their counters…

We explained our situation to them. They in turn gave us directions to the REAL customs office who COULD actually cancel our import permits.

We jumped back in the trucks, drove all the way back across the city of Colon to find the Aduana agency we had been searching for all along.

Once inside we found the lovely Maria. She knew exactly what we were trying to do! We instantly gave her a huge hug. She told us she was really surprised to see a bunch of white people in her office, explaining that most folks hire a guide to help them through this process. Ahhh Guias? We don’t need no stinkin’ guias!

Maria is flyin’ through the process almost done when *ZAP* all the computers go out. System is offline. No idea when it is coming back up again. Of course, Maria needs the system online to give us a print out of our newly canceled import permit.

Oh well, When in Rome… We went outside and joined the rest of the crew eating some questionable meat outta the streetside food carts. 2 hours later, systems came back online and we finally had the canceled permits we have been chasing for the past 2 days!

With permits in hand we knew we were closing in on the prize. We jetted back to Seaboard Marine, showed them the canceled permits, they gave us some more paperwork and sent us downstairs to the port office. Port office processed even more paperwork and sent us outside to “look for the guys in orange jackets” for inspection.

We got outside and realized everyone had a damn orange jacket on. Eventually I spot 2 guys hiding out in a little shack. I had to beg and plead for them to come out of the shack and do our inspection. They didn’t want to get wet!

Once that was done we headed back into the office, paid some port fees and were finally ready to enter the actual port with our trucks. A final paperwork inspection and we were lead through the gates.

We wound around through the mile-high stacks of containers and eventually reached a large building. We drove up the ramp and parked our trucks inside.

Happy to finally be at the last step!

We searched around for the bossman, told him we were here to load. They gave us some BS about just leaving them the keys and they would do it for us. We pushed back and they agreed to let us drive the trucks into the containers ourselves.

Tight fit!

Adv the Americas loaded up their 4Runner and the port boys lashed em down. We were a bit nervous about the whole process.

Eventually we had to say “Adios”. Our babies were in the hands of the port now. See ya on the other side!

Conveniently located right next the port was the Panama City Railway. We hopped a train back to Panama City. It was my real first train ride ever. Cross it off the bucket list!

Many $2 beers were drank in celebration. Part 1 of the shipping process was complete!

Next day we got our butts on a plane and flew to Cartagena, Colombia. Of course the process wouldn’t be complete without another hiccup. I accidentally booked our flights on the wrong damn day. The lady took pity on us and squeezed us onto the right plane at the last minute. Thanks Avianca!

Stay tuned for Part 2. Getting our trucks backs!

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