We’ve been lying to you all along. The truth is we can’t drive from the US to Argentina. No one can. The Pan American “highway” is a network of roads linking the majority of nations in the Americas and totaling nearly 30,000 miles. It stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the farthest reaches of South America, ending arguably in Ushuaia, Argentina. That is, with one exception: The Darien Gap.
The road ends abruptly in Yaviza, Panama and doesn’t pick up again until Turbo, Colombia, leaving a 99 mi stretch (or 62 mile straight-line separation) of wild and remote jungle that has been coined the Darien Gap. Despite the obvious obstacles that come with traversing an untamed jungle landscape by vehicle, the Gap has also been subject to activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and drug smugglers. Though difficult and dangerous, it is not impossible and various travelers before us have attempted the route via foot, motorbike or vehicle. Let’s not get carried away though. Our sense of adventure does have some limits.
For those not willing to risk their lives traversing the Gap and who still want to get themselves and their vehicles to South America, there is another option. You can load your vehicle onto one of the many cargo ships that frequent the busy port city of Colon and trust that it will make it across the open sea to the city of Cartagena, Colombia.
All Pan-American roadtrippers, save perhaps those who take pleasure in pain, dread this part of the journey and our experience has proven to be just as frustrating, time-consuming, bureaucratic and completely out of our control as promised.
Months ago, once realizing our timetable closely resembled that of our friends from Seventeen by Six, we decided to share a 40 ft container (it is cheaper this way) that would store both of our vehicles for the journey. We made plans to meet them in Panama City about a week before our hopeful shipping date.
After reuniting with our friends and celebrating Zach’s 30th birthday in the city, we got down to business sorting out the headache that is the shipping process. Normally, four business days should be enough time to complete the process (assuming you’ve made contact with a shipping agent prior to your arrival in the city), but we had the added complication of both our vehicles needing a mechanic before loading. Paula and Jeremy could not schedule their mechanical work sooner than Monday and Tuesday of our loading week, which left only Wednesday to get the mandatory DIJ vehicle inspection (vehicles load on Thursday). This would be perfectly doable if not for the fact that the officers will only do inspections between 10 and 11 am and we’d heard they absolutely would not do it if there was a hint of rain, which as it turns out is likely during rainy season. If we missed this opportunity, we’d have to get the inspection on Thursday which would make loading our vehicles that same day impossible. All of this occurring is assuming that things go flawlessly with the mechanic and he finishes on schedule. Those with experience dealing with Central American mechanics know this is a major assumption.
Given these circumstances, we all secretly felt that the chances of our cars leaving that week were slim, though no one dared speak these words out loud. Still, we went through the motions, checking off each box as it was completed and welcoming the next challenge. To our surprise, everything did go smoothly. Perfectly actually. Mechanical work was sound and finished on time. No new major issues came to light with the cars. We received our DIJ inspection despite a bit of rain. DIJ paperwork and bill of lading were secured and we were set to load the next day.
Once the process was nearly finished, I remember saying out loud to the group, “What is everyone else talking about? This is easy.” That was a mistake.
As it turns out, we did not ship that week for reasons completely out of our control. The day we arrived in Panama City was the same day protests erupted in the nearby port city of Colon over the government’s passing of legislation that would allow the sale of public lands in the Zona Libre to private corporations. Second largest in the world, Colon’s Free Zone is home to 2,500 companies and 28,000 workers and sees more than $16 billion each year in imports and exports. Colon is an extremely impoverished city, perhaps the worst we’ve seen in our travels. Currently, the residents see some of the commercial-rent money that results from the Free Zone, though clearly not enough. Protesters argued the deal would result not only in the loss of this revenue but also in the loss of jobs in a region that desperately needs them. They demanded instead that the government raise commercial rents in the duty-free zone and reinvest the money in Colon. In a city plagued with ever-worsening crime and poverty rates, this seemed a worthy cause.
As the week went on the protests spread throughout the country, with some turning violent. In the end, 11 people were injured and three killed, including a nine year old boy. In a rare act of solidarity, trade unions and the Chamber of Commerce together organized a 48 hour strike that essentially shut down the ports. Protesters blocked the port entrance and we heard rumors of entire Panamax-sized ships leaving the port with no cargo. They demanded a repeal of the law before they would even enter talks with the government. The President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, who was not even in the country at the time, was forced to organize an emergency session and repeal the law.
We were once again reminded of how essential it is to remain flexible during this type of travel. Despite our rare stroke of luck with the mechanics and our carefully researched plan, we were stuck in Panama for an extra week. We made our way to the calm beach town of Santa Catalina to watch the events transpire before us. While we’d have rather been sailing through the San Blas islands on our way to Colombia, we at least had good company with whom to pass the days. And hey, when your back up plan involves drinking cervezas and watching the sun set over the Pacific, one can hardly complain.