I find myself answering dozens of repetitive questions each day – the majority (99%) are all the same three, with an occasional fourth added in by those who know their geography more than most. Not quite the variety one would hope for. The first three are, in this order; What size is your engine? How much did your bike cost? Where are you from? That last one doesn’t get asked as often as you might think. Locals are usually too busy staring at my massive machine to care about me. Can I blame them? No, I spend a lot of time drooling over the diesel Toyotas down here and rarely notice who is driving either! That fourth question is the subject of this article however; How did you get across the Darien?
You have only a few options in this, as there are no roads and no ferry. Option one: disassemble your bike into backpackable sized pieces, hire a bunch of porters and start hiking. You then need to hire someone to walk ahead of you with a wad of cash to pay off the smugglers who “own” that stretch of land not to kill you and pray they don’t just take the money and kill you anyway… Option two: wait until dark, load your bike onto a smuggler’s boat, hope the Panamanian or Colombian military doesn’t catch you, unload in Cartagena, sneak past Colombian customs (you came on a smuggler’s boat…remember?) and hope you never get stopped until you reach Ecuador. If either of those are your cup-o-tea, my hat is off to you and should you return the beer is on me!
Thankfully for the rest of us, there are a few more options that are a bit simpler, kinda…Supposedly the most enjoyable option is to load the bike onto one of the many sailboats going between Cartagena and Portobelo. You can sail along with the bike, and if you get the right boat you get to spend a few days in the San Blas Islands (aka, paradise). However, while there are many boats doing this trip, the only one that consistently gets good reviews is the Stahlratte. The rest of them tend to pack way too many people aboard, have a serious lack of safety features, and many are known to only take passengers as a way to legally cover their illegal smuggling in the hold. If the boat gets busted with drugs or other contraband, everyone on board is in trouble, not just the captain…keep that in mind. Even so, this was my first choice, but none of the boats had a schedule that would work for me, so after trying every boat I could, that option was out. If you do go this way, remember to spray your bike with WD40 to prevent rust from the salt water, and be sure to make sure it’s properly cleaned in Colombia. In total, shipping via boat will cost you about $850USD, making it the cheapest option. Major down side? Average time in customs in Cartagena is THREE DAYS! Apparently the Colombians don’t like you bringing your bike in that way, however it’s not illegal, so they just make it very painful.
Another option is to follow along with our caged brethren and put the bikes in a container in Colon, Panama, and have it shipped to Cartagena, Colombia. This is a good option if you have a group, or if you arrange to meet up with a couple other people, since you can all split the cost of the container. All said and done though, split four ways that comes out to almost the same price as air freight, which is much simpler and faster. In addition, you still need to get yourself to Colombia, as riding in a dark container isn’t a desirable place to be, even if you were allowed.
There are a few companies that deal in air freight between Panama City and Bogota, but Girag Air Cargo seems to have the most experience with handling motorcycles, so I went with them. They are a little hard to find in the cargo section of Tocumen International in Panama (they have no signs that say Girag when I was there), but when you ride up on a moto loaded with gear everyone knows who you are looking for and points you there, even without asking. I pulled in, found parking which was kind of confusing, as no one seemed to know where to put the motorcycle even though they all go in the same spot, (straight through the gate up to the wall.) After figuring that out, we got down to business. There are a few forms you need to fill out, and provide copies of your title, drivers license, and exiting papers from the Aduana (I’d wait to make sure you are leaving your bike that day before going to the Aduana). The cost for me was $902USD. They want your gas tank fairly empty (they never checked mine, just trusted my word that it was about two gallons) and want to know that you have no other hazardous materials aboard. After that, you simply walk away. I’d recommend leaving your keys, I forgot to do this, they didn’t ask, and it didn’t seem to be an issue. They will most likely tell you that the bike will be in Bogota 8am the next morning, but this is bogus. My experience, and that of everyone else I talked to or read about online, is more like noon on the third day. I dropped the bike off 9am Monday, it arrived 3pm on Wednesday. Apparently they had mechanical problems Tuesday and weather Wednesday morning… There is always a delay, don’t expect it the next day! My flight for myself cost $420USD, so grand total was $1322USD.
Once the bike arrives in Bogota, customs is slow since they don’t have any computers, but it’s a pretty simple process. Be glad you are now in South America, because other then sometimes needing to pay for copies, you are done with expensive, utterly moronic border crossings (unless you continue to other parts the world!) After you spend a couple hours with the (honestly) friendly customs guy, you ride your bike down a rather interesting ramp and off on the rest of your adventure. While you are waiting, I would recommend the wonderful Hostel Fatima, in Bogota’s Centro Historico, but I know there are many other (and probably closer) places to stay in Bogota.
You may have noticed I didn’t give any directions to finding Girag Air in Bogota? That was for a reason. I don’t really know how to explain how to find them, nor do I know that it will remain the same for long, many things are under construction there. They have multiple Girag offices, but at least when I was there you wanted the one co-located under the name Martin Air, in Officina 500. If it is not in Officina 500, you are probably in the wrong place even though it may say Girag. Also, when you are leaving customs, you need copies of both the big forms you will fill out, not just the one. If you only get the one, leaving Colombia may or may not be a mini-adventure by itself, depending on how friendly and understanding your customs agent is!