Can you drive from North America to South America?
The short answer: no. The longer and more accurate answer is: yes, but not all the way.
Thanks to the Pan-American Highway, driving from North to South America is a much easier prospect than it was in the past. You can drive from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the tip of South America, almost 25,000 miles using the Pan-American Highway. However, the Highway ends at the Darien Gap, a 90-mile roadless region of rainforests and swamps that basically renders it impossible to drive the whole distance to South America.
Keeping that in mind, however, it is entirely possible to plan a road trip that includes shipping your car to Columbia from Panama, and then flying there to pick it up before driving further south.
Given the fact that political stability has steadily been improving in Latin American regions, driving to the south is much safer than it has ever been. Factor in the road building efforts in many countries in Latin America, and you’ll find that your car should be up to the challenge as well! What you need to do is to plan your trip in advance so your entire journey is as free of stress as it could possibly be. Here are some of the things you’ll need to keep in mind for your trip.
Flying over the Darien Gap
If you have a motorcycle, you’ll find that there are air cargo freight options available. This would be the easier and fastest way to go across the Darien Gap. However, cars and any other larger vehicles can only be transported by boat.
Shipping your car across the Darien Gap
The shipping part is a bit of a hassle, thanks to the paperwork and logistics involved in the process. It takes a minimum of a week to organize the shipping, and at least a couple of days to fill out the forms and load and unload on either end. That’s why it’s so important that you get a head start on this and organize the shipping a couple of weeks before you leave.
Generally, there are two methods for shipping your vehicle when using a boat: placing the vehicle inside a cargo container or “roll-on, roll-off” (RORO).
1. Shipping the car using a cargo container
Container shipping is the safest method as the car is loaded into a freight container for the whole duration of the trip. If you choose this method, you should be present at some key points of the process such as loading and unloading so that you can make sure that nothing goes wrong.
One of the disadvantages of this method is that the inside of the containers can get incredibly hot. So make sure to remove any food, electronics, batteries, and other objects susceptible to heat. To avoid the risk of potential thefts, it’s best to remove anything that you typically leave in your vehicle.
Barwil agencies ship vehicles from Colon, Panama in 20 or 40-foot shipping containers. The ships for Guayaquil, Ecuador leave in 15-day intervals, while the ships for Cartagena, Colombia leave on a weekly basis. The vast majority of vehicles shipped from Panama go to the Colombian port, rather than the port in Ecuador. The vehicle reception process in Colombia is much more efficient and could potentially be more cost-effective than the process for Ecuador.
Rozo/Marfret is another container shipping company that has an office in Panama City. Rozo/Marfret ships from Colon, Panama to Cartegena, Colombia as well.
Please note, that because of container dimension limits, RORO will be required for any vehicles that have a height exceeding 2.7 meters.
2. The RORO option
In the case of RORO, your vehicle will be driven inside of the ship, rather than being placed inside of a storage container. The RORO method will save you some money but requires you to hand over your keys to members of the shipping company.
RORO services are available from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. And as it costs around $55 USD per weight measure (cubic foot), this method is the most efficient and cost-effective method for sizable vehicles that won’t be able to fit inside of shipping containers.
Using a RORO service is a less frustrating process as there is no need to pack your vehicle into a container and then transport the container from one port to another. As previously mentioned, RORO can be a security concern, since those employed by the shipping company have access to your vehicle.
Prepare your documents in advance
Passing through maritime borders is an intense bureaucratic process that can often be quite aggravating. Minimize your frustration by having all of the documents and paperwork you need ready. This includes your passport, driver’s license (both an International Driver’s License and one from your home country), vehicle title, vehicle registration, proof of registration and your visa if required. It is also wise to travel with your marriage and birth certificates, WHO Yellow Vaccination Card and proof of finances.
Make sure to make a ton of photocopies of all your required documents, and have an electronic scan of these as well.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of the documents that you’re likely to need:
Bill of Lading: a shipping document containing shipment information, such as information about the vehicle and its owner, the ports of discharge and of loading, and other information. To create the Bill of Lading, you’ll need the following information:
• Vehicle Make
• Vehicle Model
• Vehicle VIN
• Manufacture Year
• Vehicle Color
• Passport Number
• Vehicle Owner’s Full Name
DIJ Police Inspection: Police from the National Directorate of Judicial Investigation (DIJ) will inspect your documents. The inspection documents needed for the DIJ check include the originals and 3 copies of the following documents:
• Bill of Lading
• Vehicle Title
• Vehicle Registration
• Booking Confirmation (sent to you by the shipping agent)
• Insurance (received at the border)
• Temporary Importation Permit (received at the border from customs)
• Driver’s License (sometimes requested)
Customs Office: the documentation process will be completed at the Customs Office. For this part, 5 copies will be necessary in the following order:
• Temporary Importation Permit
• Inspection Document from the DIJ
• Vehicle Title
• Vehicle Insurance
The cost of shipping your vehicle between Panama and Colombia can vary quite a lot depending on factors such as the shipping company, the shipping method, your vehicle’s dimension etc. Here are some rough estimates so that you can get an idea of the potential costs involved in this:
- Motorcycle/Motorbike: $800–$1,000
- Car/Sedan: $950–$1,200
- 4×4 off-road vehicle and/or SUV: $1,200–$1,350
- Mobile Caravan/Camper/Motorhome: $1,300–$2,100
- Large Mobile Caravan/Truck: $1,500–$2,900
It should be noted that vehicles with gas remaining in the tank could be charged $150 extra. Check with your carrier, since there are some who will not permit any gas to be present in the vehicle during its shipping across the Darien Gap. Another important note is that every RORO shipper states that they will not accept responsibility for any damage or loss of personal items or of spare parts of vehicles, so it might be a good idea to get your vehicle ensured especially for this trip.
Transportation times can vary widely. The fastest transit time is a “fast ship,” which can take just a single day, while the slowest can take up to 14 days. It really depends on which carrier you use, so do comprehensive research and pick the transportation option that works best for your travel plans.
One typical trip could take roughly 10 days:
• Two days to coordinate Panama paperwork and inspections
• One day to load the vehicle into a container at the port in Colon, Panama
• Two days for the container ship with your vehicle to reach Colombia from Panama
• Three days for the vehicle to be released and for you to unload it in Cartagena
Tips for Shipping Across the Darien Gap
• Some shipping agents offer to tie down your vehicle once it’s inside the container. The condition and strength of these tie downs can differ, so it might be best to bring your own high-quality tie downs.
• Ensure that your emergency brake is applied once the vehicle is situated inside of the container and shut off your vehicle’s alarm. Otherwise, you may risk having your alarm going off during the transport, draining battery power.
• Ensure that your bill of lading has the following information: “Type of Model” should have “FCL/LCL.” The other selection, “FCL/FCL,” means that you will take the container from the port before unloading your vehicle from it. The “Notes” section should mention that the container should not be opened until you are actually present. Lastly, keep track of the container number and seal number.
• Look over available flight options before deciding which country to ship your vehicle to. It wouldn’t be a good idea to pick a flight that arrives the same day that you are supposed to check in your vehicle with your chosen shipping agency. Ships sometimes run late, so give yourself an extra day or two between the day that the ship transporting your vehicle leaves and the day that your flight leaves to avoid possible reschedules or other delays.
Questions for shipping companies
Before deciding a book a shipment, make sure you know the answers to these questions:
1. What is the cost of container shipping or RORO?
2. Available shipping dates?
3. Number of transit days?
4. Port of departure?
5. Port of arrival?
6. Any additional fees for processing paperwork?
7. Additional loading fees? (expect a fee of around $100–$150.)
8. Is there a person to contact at the port of arrival?
9. Can you be present when the vehicle is placed inside of the container and to take possession of the vehicle and container keys once the loading process is complete?
10. Can personal locks be installed on the company’s containers?
Bridging the gap?
There have been several attempts at building a highway across the Darien Gap. The most important of these were in the ’70s and then in the ’90s. Both times the plans came to a standstill due to different reasons such as the negative effects on the environment and the potential of disease spread after the gap no longer acts as a natural barrier. The idea of an uninterrupted Pan American highway is still alive, some proposing solutions such as tunnels as not to disturb the local ecosystems, but as of now there is nothing done in the direction of bridging the gap.
Although driving from North America to South America is not currently possible to do all the way, this is still an epic trip which is on the bucket list of many adventurers. The Darien Gap can indeed be a great logistical challenge, but it’s definitely doable and worth the effort if you’re on a long trip across the Americas.
In terms of the type of vehicle, a regular car should serve you just fine across the journey since most of the main roads in Latin America will be in good condition. If you’re planning on driving off the beaten track, or on making good use of secondary roads, you’ll probably want to look into getting a four-wheel drive.
For such a trip, ideally, your car should have comfortable seats, good ground clearance, cruise control, enough leg room for you to stretch out, as well as good tires. It should also have good braking and suspension, and excellent gas mileage, since the price of gasoline in most Latin American countries is higher than it is in the US.