Photo credits: Alejandro Huerta Franco
The Darién Gap crossing between Panama and Colombia is many overlanders’ first exposure to the red tape of transcontinental vehicle shipping. Some travelers are so overwhelmed by the paperwork and costs involved they turn around and return the way they came. Others take a deep breath and plunge in, embracing the seemingly complicated transport of their wheeled home to a new continent. When they returned from their Panama to Alaska overland journey in late 2020, Alejandro Huerta Franco and Ana Victoria Viera sensed a need and decided to provide a solution. Today their company, The Overland Embassy, facilitates the shipping process across the Darién Gap and offers other services to travelers passing through Panama City.
The genius of The Overland Embassy is Alex and Ana’s personal experience as overlanders. No market research necessary; they already understand the challenges of driving through a foreign country. “In cities, we found ourselves trying to sneak behind supermarkets or office buildings to stay overnight. Sometimes we needed to work on the truck or organize stuff, and we couldn’t find a safe place to do it. So we designed The Overland Embassy to fulfill what we needed when we were on the road: a big warehouse with indoor space to work on the car, WiFi, showers, restrooms, a coworking space to sit and get projects done without being inside of the car, a place where we could leave our car and explore the city, or even just a place where we could ask a bunch of questions and get help of any kind. Technically a base camp hidden in plain sight in the heart of a city.”
Since the business’ inception in 2021, its list of services has grown along with its notoriety. The Overland Embassy is best known for providing shipping logistics from Panama via private or shared container, roll-on/roll-off (RORO), or air freight, depending on the vehicle size. Alex and Ana also offer short- and long-term vehicle storage in their warehouse, overnight parking with WiFi and showers, rent of garage space and tools, vehicle repair, custom vehicle builds, route planning, and even vehicle sale for travelers who are concluding their journey in Panama City. Whatever the need, they tap into their network and experience to address it.
The name chosen for the company gets to the heart of what Alex and Ana want to accomplish. “If you have a problem or situation while traveling, you can always go to your embassy and ask for help. This is the mission of The Overland Embassy—you can come here, and we will do our best to support your travel plans.”
The Darién Gap
For overlanders hesitating over the Darién Gap crossing, The Overland Embassy simplifies the process. Alex and Ana organize shared containers and RORO departures weekly, manage the paperwork, and prepare the ground with their agents before drivers arrive in Colombia to reunite with vehicles. Rather than fly between Panama and Colombia, some overlanders choose the more interesting option of transiting by water with a sailboat charter. The Overland Embassy can help organize that, too.
Alex and Ana kindly shared July 2022 shipping costs for the Darién Gap, but it’s important to note these figures are subject to change as international freight rates fluctuate. Working with several brokers from the most reputable shipping companies in the industry, The Overland Embassy strives to find the most competitive rate at any given time. As of this writing, a shared 40-foot-high cube container costs about $2,000 USD per vehicle. This rate includes Panama and Colombia expenses, including customs, loading/unloading, pick up/delivery, freight, documents, and agent fees. The average shipping time is currently 10-14 days, but the initiated know this number is often subject to delays.
Larger vehicles that cannot fit inside a container frame (2.585 meters high x 2.340 meters wide) can be shipped via RORO service. These rates are calculated by the volume and weight of the vehicle. Some routes go directly to Cartagena (2-5 days transit), while others go north from Panama and loop through the Caribbean before heading to Cartagena (15-25 days transit). Ford F-250 or F-350 trucks with camper tops currently cost an average of $3,500 USD to ship via RORO. This is not a fixed price, but the figure serves as a helpful example for overlanders who may be considering a Darién Gap crossing with a full-sized truck.
Motorcycles can be shipped to Cartagena via shared container for about $900 USD. There is also the option of air freight to Bogotá, Colombia, which is quicker at only 2-3 days of transit. This is slightly more expensive at approximately $1,250 USD, but that figure includes airport shuttle service from an Overland Embassy representative and support through the process of retrieving the motorcycle after shipment. These estimates are based on 650cc to 1250cc motorcycles with equipment included, so the rate could be lower with something smaller (Lois Pryce’s 250cc trail bike, anyone?).
For overlanders who decide not to continue to South America for whatever reason, The Overland Embassy can prepare vehicles mechanically for the return trip, ship vehicles back to their home country (to Galveston, Texas, for example), or even facilitate selling the vehicle in Panama.
When the pandemic hit, Alex and Ana were in the middle of their overland journey from Panama to Alaska. On the west coast of the United States, campgrounds and Airbnbs were closing down, and the couple struggled toward their travel goal. Fortunately, the long-term impact of COVID has been positive for their business. “During and after the pandemic, we’ve seen how people started enjoying being outdoors and exploring nature, as well as traveling abroad and overlanding in general.” Negative COVID tests were necessary for border crossings in early 2021 when The Overland Embassy opened–and complicated to obtain. But requirements along the Pan-American Highway have lessened since then, making ground travel much more manageable. On June 16, 2022, Nicaragua became the last country in Central America to drop the testing requirement for vaccinated overlanders.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting Alex and Ana in person, so it comes as no surprise to me that their dreams for the future are big. “We would love to get our own shipping vessel for our customers, getting them a direct service to Colombia,” they shared. “And we are looking to get a bigger property to build a proper campground in Panama City. In general, we want to build an international community that could carry on with our mission of providing solutions to travelers anywhere in the world. With our headquarters in Panama City, we aim to have at least one office per continent in the future.” When they say per continent, they don’t mean only North and South America. This vision extends globally to Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
These two are capable beyond their years, effused with infectious positivity and practical problem-solving skills. My husband and I plan to ship our Jeep Gladiator across the Darién Gap to South America in December 2022, and I look forward to experiencing The Overland Embassy’s services for myself.
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