Shipping from Panama to Colombia

Disclaimer: This information is based on our experience gathered when shipping in July / August 2022. Things tend to change, check with authorities and shipping agents on latest changes, guidelines and regulations.

Storage in Manzanillo
The famous sticker
Booking Confirmation
Pick-up in Cartagena

This was our third shipment on our trip and the first one where we had to use agents on both sides. While you might think that this makes things easier, it actually was a complete mess. Of course the shipping industry is still suffering from fallouts from the Corona pandemic and excuses are plenty. But what we thought to be a fairly standard route and process (especially compared to our prior routes) was full of hurdles and surprises. We list them here, hoping that you learn from them and can avoid similar hick-ups.

The description here is based on our route from Manzanillo (port of Colon in Panama) to Cartagena in Colombia using RoRo shipping of a big motorhome with a small motorbike. If you ship via container or flat rack, the process is obviously different. However, some of the potential hick ups are the same ;-).

Shipping Companies: This very short route (sailing is typically about 1 day) is served by two companies. Wallenius Wilhelmsen and Höegh Autoliners. Wallenius is the only one allowing personal effects in your car and going direct, so most probably it is your only choice. We also had good experience with them in the past, so we were happy with this choice. The only change from the past was, that Wallenius doesn't work with individuals anymore, so you need an agent to get booked on any of their voyages.

Agents: As this is a popular route, there are several agents that specifically offer services to overlanders. Many of them are listed on iOverlander and we assume, that this list is going to be quite dynamic in the future. For Panama I only list the ones we talked to or heard of:

  • IVSS (Martin McGowan) in the UK: offered a better price than most but we found him not experienced enough. Obviously he had no experience with handling 2 vehicles on the same name and when we tried to book with him he couldn't get space for us on the voyage we wanted while it was not a problem for others.

  • Tea Kalmbach in Argentina: has long time shipping and logistics experience and was our choice in the end. Obviously she can't help you if you need help in Panama (but she can arrange a helper and also works with Unik, a local logistics company) but if you speak very basic Spanish you don't need anyone and can save that money.

  • Overland Embassy in Panama City: a newcomer in this field. We only learned after we had booked of their offering so we didn't look into it. Obviously not a lot of experience but their location in Panama might be attractive for some.

  • Boris Gabriel Jaramillo Silva in Colon: also relatively new to this field and we never spoke to him. He seems to be the agent on site for IVSS but you can also work directly with him.

In Colombia there seems to be just one option and everyone works with Ana Cortes Rodriguez (Cortes Rodriguez Asesores S.A.S.) and her small team. We talked to some other customs agents but everyone referred us to Ana, so with Ana we went.

The Process: The individual steps are pretty well explained on iOverlander. iOverlander also lists the various locations you have to go to so we just give a high level overview here and emphasise what we found important.

 

For Panama these are:

  • Find a provisional sailing that more or less fits your schedule. BE AWARE, the dates tend to change up to very few days before the actual sailing. Check the Wallenius Wilhelmsen Schedule, it is often (but not always) more accurate than the info provided by your agent.

  • Have your agent book you on the sailing. There is no cost and you may cancel the reservation for free before entering the port.

  • Once the date is confirmed, start the customs process in Panama. This means the early morning DJI-inspection (see iOverlander for details, copies required, etc.) and collection of your DJI-Inspection document on the same day. This document is valid for 8 days to enter the port. If there is a further delay, you may get a new document (without the inspection) from the same office. Make sure all details are perfectly correct (VIN, passport number, etc.) or otherwise you will not enter the port.

  • By now you should receive a draft Bill of Lading (BoL, the holy document) from your agent. This is required to enter the port. A maximum of 5 days before the sailing you may enter the port and leave your vehicle. If you want to enter earlier, additional costs will incur but your agent should tell you, when to go.

  • Once you have this date (and not before) you should book your flights to Cartagena and any accommodation you might need in Panama and / or Colombia. Be aware, things might still change, so flexibility is important.

  • Drop off day! Drive to Colon and make your way to the port of Manzanillo (all well explained on iOverlander). Visit the customs office with all required documents (and tons of copies) and make sure customs stamps your car out of your passport!! Otherwise you will not be able to leave the country. With the cancelled TIP and the draft BoL drop off your vehicle at the RoRo terminal. Wait for drug inspection (dog) and documentation (they will take loads of pictures), pay the port fee and leave. You might want to wait until the barcode label with your sailing is glued on your vehicle, but no absolute need for that. This should all be done in one morning, so if you want to fly the same day, this is certainly possible. We opted for a more relaxed version and had a flight the next day.

  • Check the ship schedule on the Wallenius page and / or any of the popular ship tracking apps such as VesselFinder or MarineTraffic. There still might be surprises!

For Colombia the steps are as follows:

  • Enjoy your stay in Cartagena and around it. It might be longer than you expect, so plan for that. While in best case you will be without your vehicle for a week to 10 days (depending on the ship's arrival - eg weekend, holidays) and the speed of the temporary import process it might take up to a month or as in our case 45 days (more on that later)! So best be prepared to do something without your vehicle.

  • Once the ship arrives, Ana takes over. The process is in good hands even though it might be very intransparent to you. Ana requires a few things, like electronic copies of your documents, the entry stamp from your passport, some technical specs from your vehicle for the insurance, but nothing unusual and you do not need to stay in Cartagena for the process to start.

  • The first step is a physical inspection that is documented with pictures (all from the outside) and mostly used to verify the VIN. If you have 2 vehicles as we do, make sure they know how to find the VIN of them (eg the motorbike) as DIAN will not issue the TIP if they haven't verified the VIN. We received a copy of the report via Ana.

  • Temporary Import: after the inspection, you will receive an email from DIAN for each vehicle with a case number. Send this to Ana, so she can start the import process. Be aware that the system only seems to send one request per email address, so if you have 2 vehicles, you need to provide Ana with 2 email addresses.
    Once the TIP is ready, Ana will tell you to come to the DIAN office near the container port to sign it. The inspector will give an appointment, the process takes 30 seconds. A few hours after signing the TIP (or the next morning), you will receive an email per vehicle to confirm approval to enter the country. Ana needs these to proceed.

  • You might receive additional emails over the next days with insurance policies, payment confirmations for fees, etc. Make sure to inform Ana about each of them and verify the content (VIN, passport number, etc.).

  • BoL: in order to leave the port, you need the final and free BoL. How this is created depends on your arrangement. If it is collect, you (your agent) need to pay on arrival, if it is prepaid the Panamanian side has to pay. It includes the actual shipping costs and several fees which is quickly a few thousand USD. So make sure to sort that out early in the process and think whom you will trust with all that money to end up on the bank account of Wallenius Wilhelmsen.

  • Once all documents are ready, Ana will arrange for an appointment in the port to pick up your vehicle. Via Ana you will also receive a permit to leave the port (Puerto Bahía). You may only enter the port with shoes with metal caps (Ana's team will provide them), long pants and long sleeves - so be prepared for that!

  • Welcome to Colombia!

Our experience and random hints: As mentioned earlier, we used Tea (with the support of Unik) in Panama and obviously Ana on the Colombian side. The guidance given for Panama was excellent, unfortunately, the ship that we were booked on (and for which we received the draft BoL and on which basis we entered the port of Manzanillo) cancelled its stop in Cartagena. As a consequence, we had to wait for the next ship which was scheduled 4 weeks later. Of course it accumulated additional delays so that we had to wait in total 44 days in Colombia for our home. Friends of ours had a similar just a month before us (waited more than 30 days) so we went prepared, had our kite equipment with us and rented a small car. Cartagena is nice but for us it is too boring to stay that long. Overall this wasn't a bad experience but it ads to the cost of shipping.

 

When things go wrong you will see the quality of your agents. Tea for example made sure that Wallenius is paying the storage of our truck in Manzanillo - our friends had to pay several hundred USD storage fee for the wait! Together with Tea we also evaluated a change to flat rack shipping which was about 1000 USD more expensive, involves a change of terminal and responsibility. We would have gained a week or 10 days so we decided against it. Still, these options were not presented to other travellers we met.


As for the payment, we decided to wire the total to Unik and have them handle the payments (with the exception for the harbour fee in Manzanillo that you pay cash on arrival). That way we didn't have to worry to pay Wallenius ahead of time or loose time to clear the BoL once in Cartagena (Unik paid the freight for us once we were on the dock in Cartagena).

On the Colombian side Ana is taking care of everything and you pay her once you have the vehicle in hand against a detailed list of items. Unfortunately we had a small glitch with our BoL as it was issued as "Collect", which means you pay at the port of arrival. As we paid in Panama the BoL had to be changed to "Prepaid" but somehow Wallenius Wilhelmsen in El Salvador didn't make the change in all systems which resulted in many phone calls and emails to receive the free BoL. Many parties are involved (Wallenius has no office in Colombia but works with another company which ads to the complexity). It helps to have a few phone numbers ready to speed up processes if that happens. Have your BoL number at hand and try to understand who does what. Your vehicle is not a top priority for a company like Wallenius and if it stays one more day in port it is no big deal for them, just for you ;-).

 

Another hint is to have pictures of your VIN and plates at hand. We have two vehicles and somehow during the inspection nobody checked the VIN of the motorbike. Luckily we had a picture and everyone was happy - no second inspection or further delays.

Flying to Colombia: You may either fly or sail from Panama to Colombia. We briefly looked into sailing, visiting the Sant Blas islands, but decided against it. The uncertainty with timing, our dogs, everything made it too complicated. As for flying, you have essentially the choice between Copa Airlines and Wingo. Copa has more flights and offers dog transport, Wingo is cheaper and only carries emotional support dogs (for free). We chose Wingo and were pretty happy.

Cost: Costs in the shipping industry are currently high and volatile. Flat rack rates varied by several thousand USD within 2 months, RoRO prices went up constantly over time, as do port fees. You have to pay what it costs, the cost of the agent is a drop in the ocean compared to the freight. Here a short summary from our end:

  • Freight: USD 50.- per CBM

  • Bunker Factor: USD 11.13 per CBM

  • Terminal Handling. USD 150.-

  • THC in port of load: USD 100.-

  • BoL: USD 75.-

  • IMO: USD 150.-

  • Harbour fee Manzanillo (entry): USD 87.-

  • Local shipping fees Cartagena: USD 175.-

  • Local harbour fees Cartagena: USD 275.-

  • Documents: USD 50.-

  • Insurance: USD 80.-

  • Agent: USD 210.-