We’re in Cartagena, Colombia and are in the process of shipping our van from Panama City. There’s no way to drive from Panama to Colombia as the Pan American Highway ends at the edge of an impassable jungle region called the Darian Gap. It’s a nasty, largely untouched rainforest used by smugglers, inhabited by native tribes and all sorts of dangerous animals. The only way to get a a vehicle larger than a motorbike to South America is to put it on a container ship and send it to Cartagena in Colombia. Which is what we’re doing now. It involves a whole bunch of paperwork and fluffing around but fortunately in Panama there’s a friendly bunch of people at Overland Embassy (http://overlandembassy.com/) who’ve created a service to manage the whole process. So, last week we spent a few days parked outside their office in Panama City, readying the van to be loaded into a container. Alongside with us there were six other vans heading to Colombia and they all were squeezed in three 40’ containers.
Once the van was loaded into a container and sent off down the Panama Canal we made the crossing to South America onboard a yacht. There’s a company called BlueSailing that takes passengers on a 5 day trip from Panama to Cartagena through the San Blas Islands and across the Caribbean. It certainly wasn’t cheaper than flying but figured it isn’t every day that you get the chance to sail from one continent to another. The date of our travel meant that we sailed on the Ti Vaou, a 48’ catamaran that has bed space for 14 passengers and 3 crew. Our little cabin fit 4 of those passengers, on two double beds. Each day we were given 3 surprisingly excellent meals. Beers and other drinks were consumed throughout the passage. For the first three days the yacht travelled through the San Blas Islands, a collection of 370 tiny tropical islands inhabited by the Kuna Yalu people. Most islands had only one family living on them and we generally reached an island by swimming from the boat. Around the islands were some coral reefs that made for excellent snorkelling and exploring. I must admit that the weather wasn’t the best for those first 3 days but everyone had a good time enjoying such a remote tropical paradise. Once we’d finished the fun part of the trip the captain steered the yacht for open waters and we headed for Colombia. Here the ocean got choppy and we spent a good 72 hours out of sight of land and coming to terms with our various abilities to deal with sea sickness. Understandably everyone of board quietened down a little and I don’t think anyone really enjoyed that phase of the journey. Finally, on the afternoon of the fifth day we saw the skyscrapers of Cartagena in the distance. It was a very welcome sight.
I had worried that the cargo ship with the van would beat us to Cartagena and we’d hold up our container buddies. But it wasn’t to be. The container arrived a few days late and we’ve ended up spending a week waiting for it. There’s a bit of a process involved with having it clear customs, but the Overland Embassy organise all this stuff and kept as simple as possible for us. All that we have to do is be on standby in Cartagena to sign papers and other administrative release procedures. It’s a little frustrating because we can’t really do anything during this time.
When we do finally leave Cartegena we’ll have to promptly start the drive south. It’s a good 9,000km to Santiago and we have 10 weeks to get there. Not a lot of time for sight seeing unfortunately. Even so, IT’S BRILLIANT TO FINALLY HAVE MADE IT TO SOUTH AMERICA!