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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving with whale sharks and hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands, rescuing a drowning monkey in the Amazon and being spit on by a shaman in the Andes. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2014, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2014 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 7,074 miles (11,385 km) doing it. Want more road trip numbers? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page.

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2014

Best river trip: First of all, its nickname is the “Liquid Rainbow.” Second of all, it’s in an area of Colombia that’s only recently became FARC-free enough to visit. Third? Who needs a third? In 2014 we made it to this one-of-a-kind river on assignment for BBC Travel with Eco Turismo Macarena. The destination lives up to the hype with flowing water filled with waves of vibrant reds, greens, yellows and blues caused by a water plant unique to this area (check it out, below). We were also impressed with the quality of the local guides, the environmental protections that are in place and the truly community-based tourism that’s going on in the gateway town of La Macarena.

Cano Cristales Colombia

Best adventure destination: 2014 was the year that we got to travel to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador not once but TWICE. During the first visit we spent nine days in the islands including a week on board the M/Y Grace yacht so that we could produce a story about the yacht, once owned and honeymooned on by Grace Kelly, for the Biography channel’s website. A highlight of that trip was the discovery of the best snorkeling site of the year: Punto Vicente Roca off Isabela Island where we bobbed in the water as sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, dozens of species of fish, a shark or two and much more investigated us and went about their watery lives all around us. It was like being in our own interactive aquarium. Our second visit to the Galapagos Islands took an even more adventurous turn with a week on board the very, VERY good value M/Y Eric followed by a week on board her sister ship, the M/V Galapagos Sky live aboard dive boat. That’s when we discovered the best SCUBA diving site of the year: Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the far north of the archipelago, where we spent hours underwater with hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks and, incredibly, even a few whales sharks and manta rays even though it wasn’t prime season for spotting those species. We’d go back in a minute because we’re sure this wonderful place has many, many more adventures in store.

Galapagos Islands Blue footed booby, penguins, marine iguana

Best under-visited national park: Ecuador has more than 30 national parks, ecological preserves and wildlife refuges. In 2012, President Rafael Correa waived the entry fee to all of them (except Galapagos Islands National Park) in an effort to get more Ecuadorans out into their wild spaces. It’s a great idea and we certainly appreciate breezing right through the entry gates to national parks, but many parks in Ecuador are still virtually visitor free. Take El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, for example. Despite containing some of the country’s most gorgeous high-altitude páramo (pictured below), including three of the four species of Seuss-like frailejon plants on the planet, and the world’s only known stand of a certain species of polylepis tree, we saw a grand total of five other people in this stunning park.

Parano El Angel park  Ecuador

Best wild animal rescue: We were motoring slowly along the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, happily observing a large troupe of squirrel monkeys in the trees at the water’s edge, when we heard a small splash followed by frantic screeching. For a moment it seemed as if a child had fallen into the fast-moving, current-filled river. Then we saw a tiny monkey being swept down river. Our guide, Fredy Alvarado, who operates Pangea Expeditions and was working as our guide on the Anakonda Amazon river boat we were traveling on, dipped an oar into the water just as the monkey was pulled underwater once again. When it’s drenched, furry head finally popped up the animal reached for the oar in exactly the way a drowning human would. Safely on our boat, the dripping monkey scrambled to a far corner as we motored to the shore where his troupe was waiting for his return. Fredy had to pry the frightened monkey off the boat in order to release him and he got a bite on the hand for his trouble. However, we are happy to report that both monkey and guide are fine.

Monkey rescue Napo River Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure in alternative healing: Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel, near Otavalo, Ecuador, is a rare example of eco-friendly construction (living roofs, rain water collection, solar panels, tire foundations) and a posh yoga and wellness retreat all in the shadow of massive volcanoes. The innovative owner has also harnessed the power of the local Kichwa community’s holistic healing traditions and guests can sign up for a cleansing by a local female shaman named Rosa.  Karen took off her shoes as Rosa arranged the tools of her trade: volcanic rocks, river rocks, kindling, two huge bunches of local herbs and branches, a pot for burning aromatic wood, a small gourd with liquid in it and two plastic bottles. Rosa spit liquid into Karen’s face and gently whacked her with herbs and branches. Wood was burned and smoke was read to determine the amount of “bad energy” that needed to be cleaned out (apparently, a lot) followed by more spitting before Rosa put some oil on Karen’s scalp and clasped her head while chanting about strong, clean energy. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes and was oddly relaxing despite the smoke and spit.

Andean Clensing Sacha Ji Ecuador

Best reason to get up early: Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge, built, run and managed by members of the local Kichwa Anangu community in the Yasuni region of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, offers many ways to get close to the toucans, giant otters, caimans and monkeys on their vast jungle property. One of the best is their canopy observation platform. A 10 minute canoe paddle and 15 minute jungle walk takes you from the lodge to the foot of a 130 foot (40 meter) tower. Climb the metal stairs to the platform at the top, carefully built around a massive ceiba tree, and you’ve reached the perfect place to look into the tree tops and down into the jungle (below). In the early morning hours we saw ivory billed toucans, a three-toed sloth, blue and yellow macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys, white front capuchin monkeys and more. Bring your binoculars and take advantage of the spotting scopes provided by the guides.

Napo Wildlefe Center Ecolodge canopy platform

Best national park drive: It’s not every day that you get the chance to drive your vehicle to over 15,500 feet (4,724 meters). To put that into perspective, that’s more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) higher than the top of Mount Whitney which is the highest point in the lower 48 in the US. In Los Nevados National Park in Colombia you can drive that high while checking out the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano (one of the most active in the world) and Andean condors (many of whom were transplanted from the San Diego Zoo to repopulate the park) soaring overhead.

PNN Nevados Colombia

Best feeding frenzy: There are a number of clay licks, where birds congregate to greedily eat soil rich in essential minerals, in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. The one that attracts both parrots and macaws requires a short hike inland from the Napo River to a comfortable shelter/blind where we waited silently for two hours while the skittish birds worked up the courage to come to the ground to take in the minerals they need. Eventually hundreds (thousands?) of mealy parrots and some scarlet-shouldered parrotlettes descended. The sound of their wings and calls was deafening and even though the macaws remained safely in the trees above our heads, the spectacle was impressive.

Parrot Salt Lick Nap River Yasuni Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure on rails: Train trips don’t generally fall into the category of adventure unless you’re on a train that somehow navigates its way over a massive stone obstacle ominously called the Devil’s Nose and includes stops that let you meet the last glacial ice collector in the country and watch traditionally dressed women haggle for guinea pigs (aka, dinner) in a local weekly market. Passengers on Ecaudor’s Tren Crucero  (below) get all that and more during the four-day journey from the Andes to the Pacific (or vice versa). More details are in the story we did about our Tren Crucero adventure for the Dallas Morning News.

Tren Crucero Ecuador

Best horseback riding: Hacienda Zuleta, a historic farm-turned luxury hotel dating back to the 1600s in northern Ecuador, should be on every hotel and food lovers’ list. If you’re also a horse lover then make your reservation now. Zuleta’s stable is filled with their own breed, called Zuleteños, which are a mix of thoroughbred, quarter horse and Andalusian carefully crafted over the years to produce smart, gentle and beautiful horses. The tack is all hand made locally, the volcano-filled geography is gorgeous to ride through and the guides are capable and fun to be with whether you’re out for an hour or a week. Bonus: sore muscles are easily soothed by the hot water bottles and bath salts provided in each guest room at Hacienda Zuleta.

Hacienda Zuleta Ecuador Horseback Riding

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Whale Watching – Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

Within the first 25 minutes of our whale watching cruise on board the Tom Cat 1 Catamaran out of Quepos on the southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica we saw a full fluke and a full breach. Over the next three hours we saw at least two dozen humpback whales including mothers, calves and males in equally dramatic displays. We’d seen a few whales while hiking the newly opened Cathedral Point Trail in Manuel Antonio National Park, but nothing compared to the experience of being on the water with these huge animals.

Here are some humpback highlights.

Humpback Whale breach Costa Rica

This full breach of a humpback whale was an awesome way to kick off our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale breach splash Costa Rica

Humpback whales pretty much win every belly flop contest.

Humpback Whales Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

It wasn’t uncommon for us to see groups of humpbacks, not just individual whales, during our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke Costa Rica whale watching

An impressive full fluke.

Humpback Whale watching Costa Rica Manuel Antonio National Park

This humpback cruised past us not far from the catamaran we were on during a whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whales Breach & Fluke Costa Rica Whale watching

Either this is two humpbacks or we’ve got photographic evidence of a humpback version of the Loch Ness monster.

Humpback whale breach - Costa Rica whale watching tour

They make it look so easy and so fun.

Humpback Whale Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A humpback checking us out as we checked it out.

Humpback Whale flippers - whale watching Costa Rica

Spouting and showing off those powerful flippers.

Humpback Whale spout Costa Rica whale watching

A humpback spouting and relaxing in a small cove off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale tail fluke Manuel Antonio whale watching

Yeah, this fluke display got a round of applause from passengers on the boat.

Humpback Whale fin Manuel Antonio whale watching Costa Rica

A tiny bit of a massive humpback breaks the water as it travels by our whale watching boat in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke tail - Costa Rica

Our guide told us that the fluke displays and tail slapping that we saw were probably a way for male humpbacks to communicate and show off for the females.

We could practically see whales right from our room at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos. Built along an undulating ridge line, the 129 rooms at the Parador take advantage of some of the most spectacular coastal vistas in an area known for spectacular coastal vistas.

Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica Manuel Antonio

The Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica has one of the most spectacular views on the Pacific Coast, including parts of Manuel Antonio National Park and passing whales.

Opened in 1995 by the Schans family, the Parador is one of the largest and most resort-like accommodation in Quepos. Set on 12 ares, the Parador includes three pools, a petite but full-service spa, walking trails and beach access. You wouldn’t think a resort of this size could be very green but the Parador is consistently recognized for its eco efforts including composting, water and energy conservation, collection and use of rainwater and support of local reforestation and beach clean up programs.

Pool Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica

One of the three pools at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica.

With 129 rooms there are a lot of categories to choose from but our advice is to go big. The most spectacular rooms at the Parador are the premium plus rooms and the suites which earn every penny with spectacular ocean and coastal views, including portions of Manuel Antonio National Park. Want to do some whale watching right from bed? Book room #5532, which made our Best Hotels of 2012 list as “best bed with a view.”

 

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Surf & Chic – Tamarindo, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Tamarindo, on the Nicoya Peninsula, started out as Costa Rica’s down and dirty surfer travel secret but the ensuing years have brought a remarkable amount of chic to to this surf town as well. The result is a kind of seaside schizophrenia to suit all travel budgets playing out on one of the most gorgeous, sweeping, inviting beaches in Costa Rica.

Tamarindo Beach, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Any way you look at it Tamarindo Beach, on the Nicoya Peninsula, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.

The surf side of Tamarindo

Joe Walsh, owner of Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, still pretty much looks like the 20-year-old Cali surfer that he was when he arrived in Tamarindo in a school bus in 2000. It’s fair to call Joe an early adopter, but Tamarindo wasn’t exactly undiscovered when he arrived. Some of the footage for the 1966 surf classic “The Endless Summer” was shot in Tamarindo.

Joe Walsh Witch's Rock Surf Camp & Volcano Brewing Company

Joe Walsh arrived in Tamarindo 20 years ago in a converted school bus. Now he runs Witch’s Rock Surf Camp and recently started Volcano Brewing Company as well.

Even Witch’s Rock has chiced up over the years. Today, it’s a pretty swank (in a sandy kind of way) 18 room guest house with numerous boats, boards and instructor plus a lively restaurant and bar.

Speaking of the bar…Did we mention the craft brewed beer? In 2011 Joe opened Volcano Brewing Company on the shores of Lake Arenal. The microbrewery makes pale ale and a nut brown ale (both delicious) and he sells every drop between the brewpub and restaurant on Lake Arenal and his bar in Tamarindo (US$3 for 12 ounces/30 ml).

Volcano Brewing Company Witch's Rock Pale Ale Tamarindo Costa Rica

Volcano Brewing Company craft-brewed beer for sale at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Learn more about Volcano Brewing Company and other Central American microbrews in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

The chic side of Tamarindo

LIke in many Costa Rican beach towns, condos and timeshares jockey for space among surfer flop houses, international chain hotels and tour bus traveler crash pads in Tamarindo. To reach the real chic you have to go travel to nearby Langosta Beach. There you will find Cala Luna Hotel.

Pool Cala Luna Hotel, Nicoya Peninsula, Tamarindo, Costa Rica

The pool at the chic Cala Luna Hotel near Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Back in the loving hands of the Pilurzu family which originally built the hotel, a recent renovation has instilled real understated elegance to its 21 rooms and 20 villas (some with private pools). Aesthetics aside, Cala Luna also features a huge new open-air yoga pavilion where free morning classes are offered to guests and an on-site organic garden which gives their new food and beverage manager plenty to work with.

Cala Luna Hotel, Langosta Beach Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Inside the Cala Luna Hotel, one of the chicest offerings near Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Tamarindo town is also dotted with dining options with stylish (and spendy) cafes and rubbing shoulders with cheap falafel stands (don’t miss a tiny spot called Falafel Bar).

We couldn’t leave Tamarindo without meeting (and eating with) Chef Shlomy, a local culinary institution who now heads up Seasons by Shlomy restaurant. Israeli born Shlomy Koren opened Seasons in 2007 and he now turns out what he calls a “mélange of styles” of cuisine. We call it Med Rica.

Ninety percent of his ingredients are sourced locally and Shlomy, a Cordon Bleau trained chef, turns them into inventive dishes like sautéed octopus on tahini with chick peas,shrimp (14 of them!) and spinach over house-milled polenta that’s sweet and rich and nothing like the Cream-of-Wheat-esque packaged stuff, home made ice cream and sorbet and even homemade bread.

Seasons by Shlomy - Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

This is what’s for dinner at Seasons by Shlomy restaurant in Tamarindo, Costa Rica: shrimp and spinach over sweet, rich house-milled polenta.

“Consistency is the name of the game,” says Chef Shlomy who cooks every entree himself (large appetizers from US$9, entrees from US$18, no credit cards). His US$28 prixe fixe including an entree, main and dessert chosen from any item on the menu is a bargain.

Chef Shlomy Koren - Seasons by Shlomy, Tamarindo

Chef Shlomy at his restaurant in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

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Border Crossing 101: Panama to Colombia Shipping our Vehicle around the Darien Gap

So far we’ve made more than 40 overland border crossings with our truck and we’ve gotten pretty good at it, if we do say so ourselves. However, nothing prepared us for the rigors of the most complicated overland border crossing in The Americas: shipping our vehicle around the Darien Gap in order to get from Panama to Colombia.

What is the Darien Gap? Oh, nothing….Just a swath of roadless jungle between Panama and Colombia which creates the only break in the Pan-American Highway. It’s essentially impossible to drive through the Darien Gap, especially since we didn’t splurge for the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang package on our truck (hindsight). So, our only option was to ship our vehicle from Panama to Colombia on a boat. A very, very big boat. A container ship to be exact.

Bill of Lading, shipping documents, authorizations and reciepts shiiping to Colombia

The paperwork necessary for shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia around the roadless Darien Gap nearly covered a double bed – and this is just the red tape from the shipping process on the Colombia side…

In June of 2012 the good folks at Life Remotely put together a comprehensive two-part series of posts that do an excellent job of detailing the vehicle shipping process in Panama and the vehicle retrieval process in Cartagena, Colombia. If you are shipping your vehicle we urge you to study these useful, pleasantly pedantic tomes and even print them out for in-process referral. We did. Just bear in mind that some details, including fees, can and will change.

With that in mind, here are some additional border crossing 101 travel tips, tidbits and up-to-the-minute details based on what we encountered when we shipped our truck from Panama to Colombia as humble updates to the excellent Life Remotely posts.

Date: June 19, 2013 to June 28, 2013

From: Panama City, Panama

To: Cartagena, Colombia

Colon Container Terminal Panama

Our truck lines up with the big boys to enter the busy and grungy Container Terminal in Colon on the Caribbean coast of Panama where it began its complicated journey to Colombia. The Toyota Tacoma in front of our truck belongs to our shipping partners George and Teresa.

Shipping-Containers_Colon-Panama

That green shipping container would be “home” to our truck and the Toyota Tacoma it was sharing the journey from Panama to Colombia with.

Lay of the Land: If you think overland border crossing points are desolate, dirty, labrynth-like wastelands they’ll seem like the Garden of Eden in comparison to the filthy, crumbling, chaotic Colon Container Terminal in Panama (the port in Cartagena where we retrieved our vehicle was much cleaner and more organized, by the way). Not to mention the connect-the-dots of customs and immigration offices you’ll be running around to, knees buckling under a fresh load of red tape and paperwork.

The most mind-boggling experience, however, will likely be the moment when you drive your beloved vehicle inside a steel shipping container. Despite measuring and re-measuring the dimensions of our truck and the dimensions of George and Teresa’s Toyota Tacoma, which we were sharing a 40′ container with, there was a scary moment at the port when we thought the two vehicles might not fit in together.

Don’t miss our time-lapse video at the end of this post to watch our trip into the container in Panama and back out again in Colombia.

Shipping a vehicle across the Darien Gap Panama to Colombia

Will our truck fit inside this shipping container?

Shipping a vehicle across the Darien Gap Panama to Colombia

For a few scary moments we thought our truck was not going to fit into this 40′ shipping container along with the Toyota Tacoma belonging to our shipping partners George and Teresa (pictured above with Karen), but we finally made it work.

Vehicle stuffed in container Panama Colombia shipping

Eric inches our truck inside a 40′ shipping container in the Container Terminal in Colon with mere inches to spare.

Despite manic measuring of both vehicles prior to “stuffing” them into the container we had to wiggle and inch the trucks forward in an intricate ballet to insure that the back door would close.

See what it’s like to “stuff” and then “unsutff” a very large truck into and out of a marginally larger container in our time-lapse video at the end of this post.

Our truck was also a tight squeeze width-wise which meant that once inside the container the truck’s doors would not open. Eric had to squeeze out his open window and slither up onto the top of the truck, then over the cargo box and out the back door of the container.

Stuffing the vehicle into a shipping container

Our truck made it inside this shipping container with just inches to spare which meant Eric had to get creative when it was time to get out of the truck.

Elapsed  time: 10 days (including two days to organize paperwork and inspections in Panama, one day to “stuff” our truck into the container at the port in Colon, two days for the truck to make the journey from Panama to Colombia inside a container on an Evergreen container ship and three days to get the truck released and “unstuffed” in Cartagena)

Sealing container ship across Darien Gap

The doors close on our truck and its journey from Panama to Colombia begins.

Fees: Fees, as we’ve noted, are subject to change and fluctuate based on currency rates.

Our total was US$1,356.34 (US$2,712.67 divided between the two vehicles)

  • US$1,800 for all fees on the Panama side including our shipping agent, port fees, container and shipping charges
  • US$912.67 for all charges, fees and taxes on the Colombia side, including:
    • US$180.15 to Global Shipping, the Evergreen shipping agent in Cartagena
    • US$586.83 to Sociedad Portuaria Regional Cartagena (SPRC) for the majority of port fees in Colombia
    • US$145.69 to Contecar, the container terminal in Cartagena where our container was delivered and where we finally picked up the vehicles
  • Additionally we had taxi/bus costs of about US$28 to get from Colon back to Panama City after stuffing the vehicles, and nearly US$50 in transport costs over  the three days of running around to offices and the port in Cartagena for a total of US$78 which was split between vehicle owners

Number of days they gave us: In Colombia we received a free temporary importation permit for our truck that’s good for 90 days which matches the free 90 day tourist visa we were given. Our visas and the truck’s permit are extendable for an additional 90 days.

Vehicle insurance requirements: We were allowed to drive our truck out of the port in Cartagena to a local parking lot without any local insurance at all. However, to drive any more than that you are required to buy local insurance which is priced based on the size of the engine and the age of the vehicle. We paid US$68 for 90 days of coverage for our eight cylinder truck that was built in 2007. They will only sell you insurance for the duration of your current valid temporary importation permit. Insurance, called SOAT (Seguro Obligatorio de Accidentes de Tránsito), is sold across the country at banks, supermarkets, gas stations and other retailers. SOAT prices are set by the government and are the same everywhere.

SPRC port Cartagena, Colombia

It was sort of freaky to think about our truck being loaded and stacked onto a container ship just like this…

Where to fill up: Fuel is a bit less expensive in Panama. However, you are only allowed to have your fuel tank 1/4 full when it’s loaded into the container. If your fuel tank is more than 1/4 full officials can impose a US$250 dangerous cargo surcharge, though nobody in Colon checked our fuel levels.

Need to know travel tips for shipping your vehicle from Panama to Colombia

  • Remember that you will need proof of accidental death and dismemberment insurance to enter the port in Cartagena. Like many long-term overlanders we’ve given up our US medical insurance since the expense was ridiculous and it provided no coverage in the countries we are traveling through. We got around this little hurdle by jury-rigging a policy and port officials didn’t bat an eye.
Shipping vehicle from Panama to Colombia across Darien Gap

Tie-downs are part of the service your shipping agent in Panama provides, though the tie-downs used on our truck were pretty flimsy.

  • There are many shipping agents in Panama vying for your business. We were originally approached by Boris Jaramilo of Everlogistics but we quickly became annoyed by his approach which seemed to be to contact every overlander in the area and promise that he had a shipping partner for you then fail to provide any details or confirmations.After a couple of weeks of that nonsense we decided to use a shipping agent named Tea Kalmbach (teakalmbach@hotmail (dot) com) to assist with the process in Panama instead of Boris. She was experienced, knowledgeable and responsive to our emails and questions. Her English is good as well. Tea is located in Argentina but her daughter, Amy, is in Panama and Amy accompanied us through the paperwork process in the city.Amy’s English is excellent and she is more than able to negotiate the process but she did play it a bit fast and loose for our taste. For example, she bragged to Eric about distracting a police inspector so he wouldn’t notice a mistake on the paperwork of our shipping partners but that mistake was picked up later at the port and could have caused a catastrophic delayLuckily, Boris, who was working as Tea’s counterpart at the port (it’s a small world), was able to smooth things out and get us on our way so he turned out to be of great service in the end even if we were initially annoyed by him.The moral of the story is that your paperwork must be perfect and officials will make mistakes. It’s your job to double check all documents for accuracy and do not believe anyone who assures you that “it won’t be a problem.”
Unstuffing vehicle shipping to Cartagena, Colombia

Easy, easy…Our truck emerges from the shipping container it spent days in crossing the “land” border between Panama and Colombia around the Darien Gap.

  • We looked into RoRo (roll on/roll off) and LoLo (load on/load off) shipping options as well but both were more expensive than putting the truck into a container so that’s the method we ultimately chose. We’d also heard security concerns from people sending their vehicles RoRo/LoLo since you must leave your keys with ship staff.
  • The containers get boiling hot so don’t leave any electronics, batteries, CDs, food, etc. inside your vehicle. It’s all gonna get cooked.
  • The containers are sealed with an official plastic device that did not look very strong. Though our container arrived untampered with, if you want added security, bring your own pad lock.
Ready to drive in South America

After days of paying fees, filling out paperwork and organizing inspections in Cartagena our truck was finally released to Eric at the port and we were ready to begin our little road trip through South America.

  • Part of the service provided by our shipping agent is to tie down your vehicle inside the container. The tie-down straps used on our truck were new but far too weak for the job. Had the container encountered any serious rocking our truck would have easily snapped the tie downs. If that makes you nervous, bring your own beefier tie downs.
  • Be sure to put your emergency brake once you’re positioned inside the container and turn your alarm off. You don’t want it going off mid-journey and sapping your battery.
  • For some reason there is no additional charge to get a “high cube” which adds a foot (0.3 meters) of height which was necessary to accommodate the cargo box built into the bed of our truck.
  • When measuring the fit of your vehicle be sure you’re working with the entrance/door measurements (door aperture) which are slightly smaller than the interior dimensions.
  • Cartagena officials never stamped anything into Eric’s passport regarding the truck. It’s documentation is totally separate.
Confused by the process shipping from Panama to Colombia

We chose not to pay a shipping agent on the Cartagena side to assist us which mostly worked out fine but we did get lost at the port a few times as Karen and Teresa (our shipping partner) demonstrate, above.

  • We handled everything in Cartagena without an agent and got by just fine. This is obviously easier if you have some Spanish since all of the officials and forms we dealt with were strictly Spanish-speakng except for David of Global Shipping, the Evergreen Shipping agent who received the container in Colombia. If you feel more comfortable engaging an agent on the Cartagena side to assist you we can recommend an agent named Manfred. We met him by chance and he generously gave us valuable advice and insights for free and even offered to help out via telephone if we got stuck at any point along the way. Manfred’s cell phone number in Cartagena is: 311 400 6394.
  • You have three business days after arrival to “unstuff” your vehicle (remove it from the container) and complete the paperwork necessary to drive your vehicle out of the port in Cartagena. The charge for leaving your vehicle at the port beyond those three days is about US$4 per vehicle for the first 7 days once it’s unstuffed which is cheaper than the most affordable parking lot we were able to find in Cartagena which was about US$9 per day. The fee imposed on vehicles left inside containers is much higher.
  • If, like us, you decide to share a container with another vehicle (which you will want to do because it cuts many of your costs in half) note that both drivers must go through the “unstuffing” paperwork process in tandem. However, only one driver is allowed into the Cartagena port to oversee the unstuffing of both vehicles.
Reunited with our vehicles safely parked in Cartagena, Colombia

Teresa and Karen wearily celebrate on the day our two trucks were cleared and returned to us in Cartagena after nearly two weeks of paperwork, inspections, stuffing, unstuffing and an epic boat ride from Panama to Colombia.

Duty free finds: There is no duty free.

Overall border rating:  Crossing the border from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) with a vehicle is, officially, the most complicated and expensive overland border crossing in The Americas.

To live vicariously (sicko) or get a head start on the shipping process, check out our time-lapse video, below, which takes you through the entire process from stuffing in Panama to unstuffing in Cartagena.

 

Thanks to everyone who contributed to our Tip Jar to help cover the cost of shipping our vehicle from Panama to Colombia. You were with us all the way.

We didn’t have to make the journey from Panama to Colombia in a shipping container, but we did have to get on boat. Check out our San Blas Island sailing adventure from Panama to Colombia for details.

And if you know of an even more complicated overland border crossing between two adjoining countries, tell us all about it in the comments section below!

Read more about travel in Panama

Read more about travel in Colombia

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San Blas Islands Sailing – Panama to Colombia

After making the convoluted arrangements for shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia on board a giant container ship we turned our attention to getting ourselves around the Darien Gap, a swath of jungle that creates a 60 mile (96 kilometer) road less break in the Pan-American Highway between Panama and Colombia. Sure we could have flown from Panama City to Cartagena. We even found Copa Airlines flights that were going for 10,000 frequent flier miles (one way, per person). But if our truck had to travel by sea over the most complicated overland border in The Americas then so did we. Plus, we really, really wanted to do some sailing through the San Blas Islands and see the spectacular Kuna Yala.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama to Cartagena MS Independence

The M/S Independence, our home for four days as we sailed through the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama then on to Cartagena, Colombia.

San Blas Islands sailing adventure

Ask a child to draw a deserted island and, odds are, he or she would produce something that looks a lot like one of the 378 islands that make up the San Blas Archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama: crystal clear water in a dozen shades of blue ringing white sand mounds with perfectly angled palm trees jutting out of them like some sort of festive cocktail garnish.

White sand & palm trees San Blas Islands, Panama

Most of the nearly 400 islands in the San Blas Archipelago are deserted like this picture post-card example.

San Blas Kuna Yala fisherman piragua canoe

The San Blas Islands in Panama are also known as the Kuna Yala as they are the homeland of the autonomous Kuna people who often make a living as fishermen.

Welcome to the world of the Kuna people, one of Panama’s seven indigenous groups. The Kuna came to Panama from Colombia and in 1925 they fought for and won autonomy from the Panamanian government. The Kuna currently inhabit nearly 50 of the islands in the San Blas Archipelago, which is also known as Kuna Yala. The rest of the islands–more than 300 of them–are deserted.

Beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

A few of the more than 300 uninhabited islands in the San Blas Archipelago. These one can barely keep their heads above water.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama to Cartagena Colombia

Our first days on the M/S Independence were spent lazily nosing around the San Blas Islands – each one more picturesque than the next.

Our four day sailing trip through the San Blas began as a slow, gentle meander among these islands, each more picturesque than the last. Our days were filled with snorkeling over the reefs that perilously punctuate these waters, swimming around our sailboat and lazing on board listening to music, eating and getting to know the other passengers and our salty Slovakian captain Michel.

Boat in the San Blas Islands Panama

A fishing boat waits patiently in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

Clear water & white sand beaches of San Blas Islands, Panama

Soaking in the gentle surf protected by the reefs that surround the San Blas Islands.

San Blas fisherman selling lobsters & fish

Kuna fishermen sidled up to the M/S Independence selling freshly caught lobster.

San Blas Islands fisherman piragua canoe

A home made Kuna sailboat plies the calm, protected waters around the San Blas Islands.

Snorkeling and sailing are the two big activities of any San Blas Islands trip and for good reason as you can see in our video, below.

We were also able to visit a few of the islands for special shore excursions in a small dingy including a campfire with a Kuna family on Chichime Island one night and a grilled fish dinner prepared on Elefante Island where the Kuna inhabitants have built a beach bar with cold drinks, WiFi and a volleyball court (for some reason the Kuna love volleyball – maybe because none of the islands is big enough for a soccer field).

Fresh fish Elefante Island, San Blas, Panama

We enjoyed a grilled fish beach party on Elefante Islands during our San Blas Islands sailing adventure.

Sailboats San Blas Islands, Panama sunset

Another perfect sunset in the San Blas Islands.

Not so smooth sailing

After three days this lazy rhythm was interrupted and it was time to batten down the hatches, literally and figuratively, for the open water crossing from Coco Bandera island to the port in Cartagena, Colombia. Up until that point it had been smooth sailing as our captain weaved between the islands seeking sheltered water. Now it was time for the inevitable open water crossing to Cartagena.

Depending on weather conditions and the size and speed of your sailboat this trip can be a 50 hour (or more) stomach churning ordeal or a 25 hour relatively even-keeled jaunt. We, thankfully, had the latter, though Karen still put on her Sea-Bands and took some Dramamine just in case.

Raising the sails MS Independence, sailing to Colombia

Putting up the sails on the M/S Independence as we prepare for the open water crossing into Cartagena.

The time-lapse video, below, lets you watch us head into open ocean aboard the M/S Independence in footage shot with a GoPro attached to the mast (thanks, Cous Cous). Don’t miss the pod of dolphins that escorted us part of the way. Pop a Dramamine and enjoy!

We sailed into the Cartagena port around 9 pm and we were greeted by the twinkling lights and impressive skyline of Cartagena. In the morning we left the sailboat and took the dingy to shore and caught a taxi to the nearby immigration office where our passports were stamped with our free 90 day tourist visa for Colombia.

Our San Blas Islands sailing adventure was officially over and our South America adventure had just begun.

Cartagena, Colombia skyline of Boca Grande

The skyline of Cartagena twinkled hello as we arrived in the harbor at the end of our San Blas sailing adventure and the beginning of our South American adventure.

Sunrise Cartagena Colombia. Our first South America sunrise.

Our first South American sunrise as day breaks over Cartagena, as seen from the deck of the M/S Independence in the harbor.

Our advice to you is go now! Global warming and rising sea levels are threatening to submerge many of the San Blas Islands. The problem is so real that the autonomous Kuna Congress has started a program that would give island-dwelling Kuna families plots of land on higher ground on the mainland.

How to choose a San Blas sailboat

There are literally dozens of sailboats offering to take passengers on the 3-5 day trip from Panama’s Caribbean coast to Cartagena in Colombia (or vice versa) or simply on a multi-day trip through the San Blas and back to mainland Panama. However, these services are totally unregulated and not all sailboats are created equally. Stories of insane captains, insufficient safety equipment, starvation rations and even sinking ships abound.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

We chose the M/S Independence, pictured above, for our San Blas sailing adventure because it’s a large, fast, stable boat and because the sailing dates worked with our schedule. But there are other factors you should consider too.

We chose to make the trip on the M/S Independence for the following reasons:

Sailing dates – The Independence (US$550 per person including the sailing and three meals a day) was scheduled to arrive in Cartagena on the same day that our truck arrived on its container ship which was crucial for us.

Size – At 85 feet (25 meters) long the Independence is the largest sailboat doing regularly scheduled weekly trips and it’s twice the size of some of the smaller sailboats. That provides ample space and shaded areas on deck and means that the boat weathers the sometimes-high seas in the final open water stretch to Cartagena better than smaller boats.

Speed – The Independence is a faster boat than many which means it can make the open water crossing from the San Blas Islands into Cartagena in 25-36 hours (depending on conditions) vs. up to 50 hours on slower boats.

Showers – The Independence advertises one fresh-water shower per day so passengers can get the salt water off their skin. Sadly, this turned out to be an exaggeration (more on that below).

Departure point – Sailboats to the San Blas Islands leave from the Caribbean coast of Panama from either Portobello (or very nearby) or from Porvenir. The Independence leaves from the latter. The benefit of this is that departing from Porvenir cuts 10 hours of open water sailing off the trip and lets you start your trip in the San Blas Archipelago. The downside is that it’s much cheaper to reach the embarkation points in or near Portobello. Our trip out to the Independence in Porvenir cost US$57 per person for a shared vehicle from Panama City to Carti, Kuna community taxes along the way and the final small boat ride to the Independence docked in Porvenir.

Safety – Whatever other criteria you’re looking for, be sure to confirm that your
sailboat has enough life jackets and enough properly inspected and certified life boats for all passengers. The reefs around the San Blas Islands are littered with the carcasses of sailboats that ran aground. An experienced captain is a must as well.

Captain Jack, who operates his own sailboat and, therefore, is not a totally impartial resource, has, nevertheless, put together a good sailboat vetting checklist that should be applied before you make a final decision.

San-Blas-shipwreck

Choose your San Blas sailboat wisely. Wrecks, like the one above, dot the reefs around these islands.

What to bring on board

Desalinated water is, technically, drinkable but the “drinking” water on the Independence was foul. Drinking water quality on other boats may be better, but to be safe bring enough bottled drinking water with you. Buy what you think you’ll need then double it. It’s hot out there.

Most boats let passengers bring snacks and beverages including water, sodas and booze on board and provide a guest refrigerator to keep them cold. Once on the boat you will probably need to keep close tabs on any other beverages or snacks you’ve brought on board. Most of the beer we put in to the shared cooler on board the Independence disappeared down other people’s throats early in the trip. We recommend leaving your food and drinks in bags labeled with your name.

You will also probably need to bring your own towel but bedding should be provided on the boat. Double check. And speaking of bedding, you will probably want to sleep up on deck where it’s cooler and fresher than down below so if you have a sleeping mat bring it along.

If you have your own snorkeling gear bring that too. Most boats offer snorkel gear but there may be a rental charge and the gear may not be in such great shape.

If you’re prone to seasickness come prepared. Eric is generally unaffected but Karen wore her Sea-Band pressure point wrist bands and took Dramamine. Note that we could not find Scopolamine patches for sale in Panama City. Scopolamine has been used by criminals to drug victims, including tourists, and we figure that’s at least part of the reason why it’s not for sale.

Flying Dutchman - San Blas Islands, Panama

The boys on board the M/S Independence took up the challenge to dive drawer-less, including this “Flying Dutchman.”

Should you sail on the Independence?

We were generally happy with the Independence. We felt completely safe during the entire journey. There was more than enough safety equipment (life vests and life boats) and Captain Michel is an experienced and knowledgeable sailor with nearly half a century and 240,000 miles of ocean under his belt.

Trained in the pre-GPS and LORAN era of sextants, he impressively had all of the coordinates for sailing safely through the reefs and onto Cartagena in his head. Just don’t get him started about red-haired illuminate giants and conspiracy theories…

We truly appreciated the space on board, including shaded areas though our crossing was only about half full and a full capacity boat would have felt much  more cramped. We also appreciated the speed of our open water crossing which we completed in around 24 hours.

We were disappointed, however, by the daily fresh water “shower” which amounted to a minuscule trickle of beige water which required you to fill up a plastic cup, douse, and repeat. Frustrating and unsatisfying to say the least but better than staying salty for four days.

If you have any kind of special dietary needs be sure to ask a lot of questions about what you’re eating and bring snacks. The vegetarian and the two kosher folks on our boat ate a LOT of peanut butter and jelly…

It also has to be said that as of this writing the Independence is a pretty filthy boat with general scum and grime everywhere and a very healthy population of cockroaches. Cleanliness is a common issue on sailboats offering trips through the San Blas (these are hard working vessels not yachts, after all) so be prepared for it (bring hand sanitizer for starters).

One of the more affordable options (around US$350 per person) that comes highly recommended is the Darien Gapster. We considered taking the Darien Gapster but the sailing dates did not coincide with the arrival of our truck in Cartagena, this service drops you off far from the city because the Gapster is a very small open boat that is not up to the challenges of an open water crossing.

We also hear good things about the Stahlratte which is another large and fast sailboat and overlanding friends who took the Jacqueline (a 56′ catamaran) had great things to say about the size, speed and cleanliness of that boat as well, though we have been advised by more than one sailor not to make the trip on a catamaran because in open water they essentially impact the waves twice – once on each hull.

Starfish San Blas Islands, Panama

A San Blas Island starfish.

Cartagena travel tip

There are a lot of hotels in all price points in Cartagena. There are also a lot of
travelers and things book up. You will be tired and dirty when you arrive in Cartagena so we recommend making a reservation even if that’s not normally your style. Hotel Villa Colonial, in the fabulous Getsemani neighborhood right next to the Colonial centro historico, is a mid-range budget option that we can highly recommend.

Villa Colonial does not have dorm rooms, but its prices for private rooms (doubles or  triples) is the same or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. The famous Viajero Hostel, for example, wanted to charge us 52,000 COP (about US$27 per person per night) in a private room for three people with a fan and a shared bath. At Hotel Villa Colonial three of us got a spotless room with A/C and private bath for 120,000 COP (40,000 COP or US$20 per person per night). Martha, the hotel manager, is a living ray of sunshine and not just because she has a voice like Glenda the Good Witch.

Thanks for the tip about Hotel Villa Colonial, David Lee of Medellin Living!

So that’s how we made the “overland” border crossing from Panama to Colombia. If you know of an even more complicated overland border crossing between two adjoining countries, tell us all about it in the comments section below!

San Blas sailing trip MS Independence. Sailing Colombia to Panama

The motley crew of the M/S Independence (that’s us in the far left).

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Ocean to Ocean in One Day – Panama Canal, Panama

There’s only one place in the world where can you travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa) in one day and that’s Panama and you can thank the Panama Canal for that.

The amazing Panama Canal

This engineering wonder enables more than 14,000 vessels a year to cut 8,000 miles and millions of dollars off their transport costs by short-cutting through the isthmus of Panama. The 48 mile long original Panama Canal is also open to day trippers for half day or full day transits through the canal’s famous locks. Only the full day tour takes you from ocean to ocean so, of course, that’s the one we chose and thanks to Adventure Life, we found ourselves on board the Pacific Queen for a full day transit of the Panama Canal.

Traveling ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal

Here’s the ocean to ocean time-lapse video we shot as we, along with massive cargo ships and beautiful sail boats, rose 85 feet from the Pacific Ocean through the first three locks, then floated across Lake Gatun before going down 85 feet through the last three locks to reach the Atlantic Ocean and sea level once again.

Still want more? Check out our travel tips about all of the ways to explore the Panama Canal from which observation facility is best to the most dramatic spot to drive over the canal).

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