After 8 and a half months and driving over 30,000kms we left North and Central America and took the one hour flight from Panama City to Cartagena. After having spent much of my working life in airports and on planes it seemed strange to be back in one after nearly 9 months. I can’t say I have missed it.
It felt great to be in South America but we were to learn that it would be awhile longer before we were reunited with our truck due to further shipping delays. In the meantime we set out to enjoy the beautiful city of Cartagena.
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish and it became one of the most important cities in Spanish Latin America. The Spanish shipped a lot of their gold through the port of Cartgaena and due to this it was subject to many attacks by pirates including Sir Francis Drake, who I learnt is regarded as pirate to the Spanish but was knighted by the English. Because of these attacks a series of forts were built and the city was fully surrounded by stone walls. The old town is now a Unesco world heritage site and is a lovely place to wonder around.
As it was very hot in Cartagena we would spend our days by going out for a walk around the town early. Then holing up in our hostel during the day when the girls would do their schooling and watch movies. We would then go out for another walk in the evening before going out for dinner with friends at one of the many restaurants nearby. We also discovered that the best place for a cold beer was right on the street or in the square. Here you would find most of the local community out on the street enjoying the cool of the evening with everyone buying drinks from the corner shop.
The centre of Cartagena was very beautiful with lovely colonial houses with their balconies.
After a few pleasurable days we were ready to leave but the truck was still at sea. As it was nearing port we decided to start the process of importing the truck and the first step was to buy local insurance for the truck. We were just starting to buy insurance when we were asked to evacuate the building. We filed downstairs with all the employees to find police and fire trucks outside. We later learnt that a bank truck carrying cash had been robbed and the robbers said they had planted 10kg of dynamite in the building. After an hour everything calmed down and we went back in the building to get the insurance. Then it was off to the copy shop for the mountain of photocopies we would need.
The next day the truck still had not docked but we decided to set off and try and move the process forward anyway. There were a group of 5 of us who were doing this without using an agent. 2 from the original group had decided to use an agent. Things initially started well, we got our original bill of lading and the shipping company helped explain the steps we would have to go through. We then walked to customs and filled in the forms and were given an appointment for our inspection at the port at 6.30 the next day. As there was then the normal 12 to 2 lunch break we could not do anything but at 2 sharp we were at the port authority for the next steps. They checked our documents to ensure we could enter the port including that we had valid life insurance. However although the ship was now in port it was not moored which meant they could not give us permission to enter the port. We also learnt that as it was Santa Semana (Easter) the last inspection by customs before closing for Easter was at 6.30 the next morning. If we missed this we would not be able to get our vehicles out for 5 more days. As much as we liked Cartagena we were ready to hit the road so were really keen to make the 6.30 inspection the next morning. Unfortunately when the port office closed at 6 the ship still had not docked so we could not be issued documentation to enter the port the next day. As the office did not open until 8 the next day we looked likely to miss the inspection. We spoke with the very helpful lady at the port and she said there was a remote chance we could still get the inspection done. On the walk back to the hotel we debated what to do. We were pretty down as we really wanted to get going after a week in Cartagena. In the end we agreed we would go to the port the next morning to give it a try.
So early the next morning we set off to go out to the port. When we got there we were not allowed to enter as we did not have the paperwork authorising us to enter. We explained we had an appointment with customs and she agreed to call them to get them to come over. After about half an hour a customs officer came over. He explained that he had the paperwork for our vehicles, that the ship had docked but that the vehicles had not been unloaded. One of our group said they had been unloaded as he had seen them on his drive to the port in the yard (thanks Brian). The customs officer agreed to come and look and we could see them in the distance. With that he said “ok I will go and do the inspection, you go and grab breakfast in the canteen”. Half an hour later he came back and said “all done, you need to go back to customs to pick up the paperwork”. We were very relieved. Back at customs the same officer was there and he quickly typed up the paperwork we needed. This meant we had all the documentation from customs before they closed for Easter. The port was working over Easter so we would now be able to get the vehicles out. The previous night we had said we needed a miracle and one had been delivered by the customs officer, whose name was, you won’t believe this but yes, Easter was in a few days, and his name was Jesus!
With the customs paperwork we returned to the port authority to get our document allowing us to take the vehicle out and to pay our port fees. When we got there the system still showed the cars as been on the ship so they could not issue the paperwork. Lunch came and went and we continued to wait. Just before 5 ( we had now spent more than 8 hours sat waiting at the port authority over 2 days) the final piece of paperwork came through. Happy we jumped in a taxi to the port to be reunited with our vehicles. Just before 7 we drove them out of the port to secure parking near our hotel. Whilst we had jobs to do they could wait. We were so happy so we celebrated with beers and a take away curry on the terrace of our hostel together with Betti and John and some of our group, Brian and Roddy ( a fluent Spanish speaker, many thanks for the great work) and his girlfriend Jordan.
We certainly had something to celebrate. We had been told (including by an agent) we had no chance of getting our vehicles by Easter and we had done it. It goes to show it is possible. The whole process is a complicated mess involving trips to lots of different offices, masses of paperwork and taxis between the different ports. However everywhere we went the Colombian people were very friendly and helpful. This process can definitely be done without an agent, especially if you can speak Spanish fluently. You need to be patient, polite and keep up gentle pressure and you will be rewarded in the end.
It’s time to get back on the road.