The sky is gloriously grey today, providing us with a false sense of relief from the unrelenting heat and humidity of the highly regarded Colonial sweatbox that is known as Cartagena de Indias. I’ve just received word from the kind, shapely receptionist that the anti-narcotic inspector who was to meet me here at Puerto Bahia, just shy of an hour south of the city center, has unfortunately retired for the day (blown us off) and will not be available until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. I should be so lucky that in the final hour of my seventh day working to ship Savvlinvan north to Panama, I now have the pleasure of extending this fine process at least one more day, aaaaand get to find a way to return to this lovely port at 8 a.m. tomorrow. This pisses me off to a level that I’ve rarely reached on this entire trip, not quite losing-my-shit-because-we-forgot-the-sausage-and-cheese-on-a-four-day-trip pissed, but silently-biting-my-lip staring-at-the-floor,-face-buried-in-hands type of pissed, with a few strong jaw clenches and hushed fuck-fuck-fucks to ease the stress. This has by far been the longest week of bureaucratic wrangling I’ve experienced in my life and it isn’t helping that I just pounded two cups of strong, tepid Colombian coffee; which after pounding water all day compound into me desperately having to pee, yet in this sterile white, secure, ants crawling on the walls waiting room, yet one requires a “level 1 restricted ID badge,” to access said Baño.
There are many online resources readily accessible outlining the process of shipping a vehicle from Central America to South America, even more on the most popular route from Colon Panama to Cartagena Colombia, our intended voyage, except in reverse*. These blogs, FAQ pages and forums generally cover the roughly 7 basic steps, mainly requirements for securing a spot onboard, loading the vehicle and then retrieving the vehicle on the other side. Generally prepared folks seem to take a few days on either side, walking through the formalities, filing paperwork, proving ownership, competency and in turn receiving big dated stamps and signatures, then continuing on their merry Pan-American way. We have indeed seen exactly two sets of these jolly folks, as they are easy to spot, the Waldo’s of an otherwise all Colombian facility. One days as we were rushing to fill it paperwork before the mandatory daily 2 hour siesta we had a chance to speak with one group, they said they’d been in town one day, had spent more time and had more difficulty than they forsaw but we’re almost done. Coincidently we ran into that same afternoon as they were laughing and skipping their way out of the compound having completed their importation paperwork, seemingly have totally breezed through the process. We too have smiled, laughed, skipped over these past 5 days but these people definitely had their shit in a pie, neatly laced in the proper basket. We are not those people.
This eight day stint in the fluorescent doldrums of Colombian customs offices, shipping agencies and banks, is our atonement for the grave, and nearly mortal sin of leaving the van unattended in Bogota for 2 months, whilst working in Norte Americana. I personally take sole responsibility for my illegal action of ‘abandoning’ the van, and apologize to Marlie for my cockamamie plan of intending to dupe the Colombian authorities. This plan was of little substance, essentially I was betting all in, hoping that the customs office in bogota was as lax as the office we encountered at the border crossing between Ecuador and Southern Columbia. I envisioned them blindly entering in our documents in a rush to clear their desk already stacked high with impossibly large amounts of documents, even possibly not checking my passport thereby not discovering my absence when applying for a three month temporary vehicle import permit extension. I was really, really, off on this scheme, a very astute clerical agent at the customs office in Bogota immediately saw through my ill thought out ploy, happily taking our application straight to the boss. After ratting us out, ‘El Jefe’ (the supervisor) swiftly stuck it to us gringos, appearing to personally enjoy denying our extension with grand arm waving gestures and crazy talk of possible confiscation. Not to be dismayed, we stuck through to plan B, eventually being informed that it was not a big problem (the initial threat here was our van was to be confiscated). Simply enough they said, to resolve the issue we only needed to apply to pay a 200 USD per month fine to the customs here in Cartagena a week or so before the planned shipping date.
On October 18th 2016, our temporary vehicle import permit quietly expired. We were too busy enjoying Paragliding school to put much thought or effort into worrying about the consequences of being caught with an expired visa. After all, Bogota said it was just the formality of paying a fine and off to Panama we go. As the paragliding course wound down, and we began our preparations to continue on our journey North, conveniently enough our fellow flight student Markus had mentioned in passing that he was in graphic design and could take a look for us. We informed him of what we exactly we needed doctored on the original document, and voila, the day before our graduation he presented us with a crisp new import permit, complete with corrected dates and time stamps, thereby securing our safe, legal* passage throughout Colombia, as occasionally (once or twice a day on long drives) police demand to see this import document. Having this counterfeit document allowed us everlasting shipping procrastination and the ability to continue on North up the coast unmolested. Worry free, we looked forward to enjoying two weeks of exploring with Brother Bear before having to return here to Cartagena for our atonement.
The day of Brother Bears arrival we had our first opportunity to enjoy the local office building scene. On that day we were baptized by fire into the Colombian bureaucratic ring-around-the-rosey, the Colombian version of one of my favorite movies Office Space, except our TPS reports were in Spanish and Milton didn’t speak English. From desk to desk we were shuffled as we tried in vain to explain our extension denial debacle in Bogota a month prior. Eventually we ended up at the Fisculization desk, where a nice lady explained to us that she thought it was very likely that we would be able to reverse the decision in Bogota and get the extension after all, the downstairs peons were working hard at it and we should be patient. If her team couldn’t help us then simply return to her desk, pay the fine and continue on with the exportation process. Five hours slowly passed and as the office peons began to shuffle out for the evening, we were informed that we needed to come back early the next morning, surely by then they’d have an answer they said.
Luckily for us the biggest holiday of the year in Cartagena, Carnival, celebrating the cities independence from the Spanish in 1811, was on tap for the weekend, this also meant that the office closed early on Friday and didn’t reopen until Tuesday. We hadn’t the opportunity to attend Carnival in Brazil, so we were stoked, and it was a great excuse to stay a few nights in Cartagena, thus creating a story all on its own. The next morning (Friday) we made our way to office anticipating a decision on whether or not we would have our first extension granted or a notification that we would have to pay the $400.00 fine, either way, we would have a resolution. Enabling us to continue on with the exportation documentation necessary for our intended ship date of November 25th. Bear in mind, this was only the 12th, leaving us with thirteen full days to work out the simple process of shipment, surely enough time for the simple process, they said. After a painful morning of fluorescent lights, desk shuffling, discussion of not having a document officially denying our extension in Bogota and vague answers, we were told to return just before closing at 4 p.m. Return we did, and we were offered up the promise of an email the following Tuesday informing us of the final decision, based on someone from the Bogota returning our initial denial documentation. Satisfied, barely, with the hope of having a decision by Tuesday we left to enjoy the Carnival weekend.
Jungle tranquility framed by glacier capped peaks
Sunday morning we made a swift but very hungover escape from Cartagena and the crazy nightlife of the Carnival weekend, in search of tranquil Caribbean waters. Tuesday came and went without an email, without an email of the man who promised this, we were left to hope that a decision was in the works and would be resolved by our return the following Monday. We found tranquility, enjoyed it, we found cool highland jungles, and enjoyed them too. We spent the week enjoying the coast and the Sierra Nevadas, our biggest worry was enduring the many mosquito, ant and seemingly invisible flying insect bites that accumulated. We didn’t think of the shipment and enjoyed the bliss of shipping ignorance.
Tranquil Caribbean Sunrise
We returned to Cartagena on Sunday November 20th, intending to complete our importation documentation, begin our exportation documentation and meet with our shipping agency. From Monday morning until Sunday at noon (as I sit here and type this), it’s been around 89 degrees with 80 percent humidity, and we’ve been in or running between offices, ports, banks, etc…, from 8 am until 5 pm, unless otherwise noted. We had four options to reach Panama, three were disqualified slowly as setbacks poured down. In brief this is how our week went.
Monday, Day 3: Customs (DIAN) told us to come back Tuesday at 4pm. Nothing completed in the previous week, hence no email. Naves (Shipping agent) informed us the boat on the 25th was now leaving the 24th, that we needed to have the van in the port 48 hours before the ship arrived and since we didn’t have a resolution from customs, we wouldn’t make the ship date. Saw my first 3D movie that I can remember Dr. Strange. Sailboat option to Panama eliminated by uncertainty of new shipping date.
Tuesday, Day 4: At Naves we completed and filed as much documentation as possible without import and export paperwork being complete. Started the process of getting our Van on the next ship, leaving Monday the 28th. Customs officially denied our first extension request and happily informed us that although the vehicle needed to be impounded wuntil the 1,200,000.00 COP fine was assessed, paid for and processed, likely a three day process; the van would not be confiscated. Brian leaves back to California, and our last night sleeping in the van, after cleaning organizing and preparing for shipment. Land/speedboat/short flight option to Panama crossing eliminated by calling small airline company and finding its booked until the 6th of December.
Wednesday, Day 5: AM drove van into the compound at 8. Van finally inspected at 11 AM. Bank invoice received after entire morning of the Fiscalization staff bouncing our paperwork back and fourth, 14 days after our first enquiry at the office. At the bank, we were informed that the document was missing key details, and we must return to the office (which was on siesta until 2), we refused, bank figured out how to make it work. Returned with payment receipt. Told to return early the next day at 2 pm to receive finalized importation documentation and finalize export documentation. Received mid Friday afternoon deadline to have van to port for Monday shipment. Found a cheap air-conditioned room in a house with two locking gates, and two locking doors for protection. First air conditioned spot in Colombia. Stoked.
Thursday, Day 6: Thanksgiving! After a roast chicken and potato thanksgiving lunch we celebrated by getting the Customs office early, only to wait for our Paperwork until 5 pm at which point the person in charge of making copies and securing signatures had retired for the day. Told to return at 8 am to finish import documents and finalize export documents. Nothing complete today, morale at an all time low. Beers with locals watching soccer at the corner market after dinner, by far the week highlight. Speedboat option eliminated as the 28th departure date fills up.
Keeping my cool while writing
Friday, Day 7: Port Day. After waiting on the coy guy from eight until nine am, a nice employee does this, directs me to the signature gal, 15 minutes later and our importation fiasco is complete, 16 days after our inquiry and 44 days after our initial extension denial we have the go ahead to complete the export documentation. 15 minutes later our exportation documentation is stamped and a meeting with the Customs official at the port at 2 pm is confirmed. Drive van to port. Check van into port. Await inspector. Inspector never arrives. 5 pm, port official starts making calls, informs us that we have to return Saturday morning for inspection. I walk out exasperated, port official yells for me to return after 20 steps. “Where is your antinarcotics letter?” He enquirers, it’s the first I’ve heard of this step and I slightly lose it explaining that I dint know that it was necessary of what it was or what it should look like or who to show it to. He takes pity seeing that I’m about to completely unravel and offers to email me the document and gives me three tasks to complete by 7:40 am Sunday morning, which also happens to be the time that the inspection has been rescheduled to. later that evening we received a scanned and poorly photoshopped document from the the port official, asking for my signature and its immediate return to allow the van to officially be entered into the port computer system.
Saturday, Day 8: After taxiing across town, printing, signing, scanning and sending two documents (one surely forged), we crossed the street to receive the stamp of approval from the Anti-narcotics police. As the port official has already arraigned for our inspection, today’s goal is to receive a signature and stamp on our Carta de Responsabilidad, our letter of responsibility denying that we are trafficking illegal goods. The guard at the gate denied us entry and explains that the paperwork needs to be done at Puerto Sociadad next door. We argue until he eventually lets us into the large office compound, devoid of people except the secretary, who explains that they don’t stamp the document here but rather at the port, where we’ll need shoes (of course our shoes are packed away in the van, as we were planning on sailing through the tropical paradise of the San Blas islands by this point). We walked five minutes to the port, where we were directed from one building to the next and then window to window, until finally a young English speaking worker recognized our paperwork, getting real pissed off that the Police sent us here, and explained that in fact we needed to receive the stamp from the police building that we were just at. Finally after making some calls she disappears and another employee gives us back our paperwork and directs us to another port, Puerto Contecar. We hail a taxi, and after three hours of running around, finally at this third port they agree to stamp the document. We then happily head to the bank to pay our $200.00 port fees. Complete by 1 PM, we celebrate by napping.
Elusive Narcotic Stamp
Sunday, Day 9: At 6:40 a.m. after stopping several buses and being told to move to another intersection, stopping several buses there, asking for the one that would take us the one hour south to Puerto Bahia, where our van awaited us and the anti-narcotics search, we hailed a cab and arrived at 720 AM. And we waited. Another Panamerican driver, Yuki, who we first met in Bolivia, then saw at paragliding school in Bucaramanga, also was there waiting with a shipping agent to sort out his paperwork. This lady greased the wheels of the gate guards by explaining the situation and we were let in to the very waiting room that inspired the writing this story, only to wait more. Eventually the young anti-narcotic officer arrived, sans drug dog, and together we all proceeded to enter the port. After a very brief ten minute inspection of the interior of the van, the documents were signed by the officer, and I was allowed the van drive the to the loading area, in disbelief that maybe, just maybe, the process was complete and the Savvlinvan had wrapped up its nearly two year trip around the continent. I personally vowed to never go through this again and if so, to fill our next vehicle the with finest contraband Colombia has to offer to make this nine day process worthwhile.
Last Drive of South America
*for every 10 blogs on the north to south route there is maybe one for the northbounders like us.