Shipping Our Van To South America: Miami To Cartagena
When we decided to get our van from North America to South America, one of the first questions we asked ourselves was "how?"
The two options were A.) We drive through Central America until we hit the Darien Gap and then ship the van from Panama to Colombia (this is how most people do it), and B.) Bypass Central America for now and ship the van straight from the USA to Colombia. After talking with other people who had done the journey and hearing their recommendations we decided to go with option B. It would get us there faster and would supposedly be cheaper. Also, after spending a few weeks on the Gulf Coast with no A/C in July, the thought of driving through Central America was harrowing. In the end the shipping was actually more expensive than from Panama, but if you factor in the cost of gas, food, etc. to drive to Panama then yeah, it's still cheaper. No matter where you ship from it can be a pretty daunting task if handling it by yourself, so we wanted to make this post a resource for other people thinking of going the same route. That being said, every person's experience will be different so keep that in mind when reading through our experience.
The Stateside process was relatively easy, though there were some miscommunications and surprises. We used Horizon Auto Shipping to take our precious cargo to Colombia after reading reviews/blogs of other travelers who had done the same. One of the main benefits of using Horizon is that they ship with Seaboard Marine, which uses the smaller port (COMPAS) in Cartagena. How much of a benefit that really is, we're not really sure, but it worked out. Another benefit of using Horizon is that they were actually responsive (via e-mail and phone) while the other two companies we contacted for quotes never got back to us. In hindsight, we wish we had been able to shop around more to compare prices, but we didn't. Next time!
We contacted Horizon to start organizing the shipping process and get on the schedule. You basically have to give them a two week heads up and fill out the shipping instructions form on their website. Once we did that, we received a message from Gloria and also spoke with Obed a few times towards the end of the process. Ships leave every Friday and you have to load your vehicle into the container on the Friday BEFORE the sail date (aka, one week prior).
Originally we had planned to ship from Houston, since that's where Horizon is located and where travelers before us had set off from. However, the more we looked into it, the more we realized how horrible all of the flights from Houston to Cartagena were. They were all fairly expensive, and none of them were direct. We really didn't want to have a 20+ hour journey with multiple layovers, so we started looking at other options. We knew Miami was another possible option so we contacted Horizon for an updated quote from Miami to Cartagena. In July 2017, the quote came out to $2500 USD for a single 20' container from Miami to Cartagena, not including port fees on the Colombian side. That was about $275 USD more than from Houston and included a recent $100 USD increase on all shipments to Colombia. That was pretty steep, but the fact that our own airfare would be much less AND direct to Cartagena made it worth it.
Since Horizon doesn't have offices in Miami, they used a third party to get the van loaded into the container and onto the ship. We were instructed to be at a warehouse in Miami at 8:00 AM on the Friday before the sail date. This is where some of the miscommunication/misunderstanding started (on part of the offices in Houston).
Surprise #1: We get there at the time given to us by Obed (from the Houston office) and guess what? They're not open yet. So we wait...and wait. Finally everyone shows up and we start the process.
The paperwork is pretty straightforward: you hand over your original title, sign a Power of Attorney, and then inspect the vehicle.
Surprise #2: After all that came another misunderstanding: contrary to what we had read in this blog post, we were not allowed to load the van into the container ourselves. On top of that, the van wasn't actually getting loaded into the container that day as Obed had informed us would happen. We were merely dropping it off.
Surprise #3: We had to leave the keys with them. This was uncomfortable, but we had also just driven days to get there, booked flights, etc., so it was now or never. We drove the van into the warehouse, left the spare key in the ignition, and said a prayer. Contrary to what we had read elsewhere, they didn't check the fuel level in the van, or fuss about it having a propane tank (not even sure if they knew it had one).
Surprise #4: We read that Horizon would overnight the original title back to us after processing the shipment. That may be true, but that doesn't mean they overnight it back to you the day after you give it to them, as we so gullibly thought. Oh no, no, it can't be that easy. No, they overnight it back to you after the van has cleared customs, which isn't until the next week. This stressed us out a bit because we had booked our flights to leave on the following Tuesday, thinking Saturday, Sunday, and Monday would be enough time to get the title back to us at our AirBnB in Miami. We talked with Obed at Horizon about it and he said he could Fedex it to us wherever we were staying in Cartagena. This somewhat calmed our fears, but we were still concerned that something would happen and we wouldn't get it. In the end we did get it in Cartagena, but a week and a half after we gave it to them in Miami and only one day before the van actually arrived in Cartagena.
The ship from Miami left on time the Friday (one week) after dropping off the van. Turns out, you don't actually pay Horizon until the ship leaves port, at which time Seaboard Marine e-mails you a digital copy of the Bill of Lading. You can also obtain a digital copy on Seaboard Marine's website. On this document you'll find the name of the ship, which you can use to track its real-time progress on any number of vessel tracking websites. We watched as our precious little van went to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and even Jamaica for a little party stop.
When we saw it starting to get close we started to get really nervous about the process of getting it back. What are we gonna do? We can't even speak basic Spanish! How will we even be able to communicate during an already complicated process? Well at this point we decided to contact one of the shipping agents in Cartagena to see if they could help and how much it would cost. This is where another myth we read online got debunked. We had read somewhere that getting an agent to help you in Cartagena would cost $1,000-$2,000 USD. That's an insane amount! That's the reason we never even looked into it previously - it was just too expensive. But we decided to email a place called Enlace Caribe and they quoted us $170 USD. It's still not cheap but it was a cost we could swallow. In the end we didn't use them because of timing, but the guy there assured us that we'd be fine and gave us his cell number to call in case we ran into any roadblocks. Nice guy!
So, back to the van: it took 5 days for it to reach Cartagena from Miami. If you're curious about how we passed the time, check out this post. The ship docked early in the afternoon on Wednesday and we got a phone call and email from the Seaboard office in Cartagena that it had arrived. You have 3 days to get your vehicle out of the port before having to pay warehouse fees, so we thought we had plenty of time until some other overlanders told us that Thursday was a national holiday. That's when the next "oh crap" moment set in: everything will be closed! We emailed the Seaboard representative in Cartagena who said we had until Sunday to get it without being charged (this wasn't true, as we found out later). At this point it was late in the afternoon on Wednesday and Thursday was a holiday, so we had Friday and a half day on Saturday to get the van back.
It was already late afternoon on Wednesday but we decided to go to the Seaboard office at COMPAS to see if there was anything we could get done before they closed at 5:00 PM. We got to the tiny Seaboard office around 4:30 PM and got ready to utilize our crappy Spanish to the fullest extent. We gave the lady at the counter our documents expecting to get our Bill of Lading so we could get the customs process rolling. Well of course, it wouldn't be that easy - there was a hold on the BOL because they didn't have proof that Horizon had paid for the shipping. What?! The woman instructed us to contact Horizon, relay the message, and get it worked out. She gave us a copy of the BOL, which we could use in lieu of the original for the time being, and an invoice for $50 to cover Seaboard's documentation costs. We needed to pay this invoice at a Citibank and return with the receipt.
Getting back to the hotel that evening was an adventure on its own because it was rush hour and we couldn't find an empty cab to save our lives! COMPAS isn't in a nice area of town but we decided to start walking back and see if we could hail a cab on the way. After a couple of miles, drenched in sweat, we finally found a cab to bring us the rest of the way back. As soon as we got to the hotel (hot and frustrated) we contacted Obed at Horizon about the BOL issue. According to him it was a simple documentation error which he promptly took care of and assured us that everything was good to go. Since we lost a day due to the national holiday on Thursday we decided to get to the DIAN (customs) office as early as possible.
Below, is the detailed version of the retrieval process. We've also included lessons learned + the short form version at the end of this post to help you make more sense of everything. We know that this can be a confusing process to navigate, trust us.
The DIAN website says they open at 7:00 AM so we were there bright and early only to have the guard at the gate tell us that office doesn't open until 8:00 AM. Moral of the story: don't trust Google. We used our extra hour to go to one of the copy shops nearby to make a copy of Peter's passport page with the Colombia entry stamp on it and grab breakfast. At soon as 8:00 AM rolled around we went through the security gate and found the office to get our temporary import permit (TIP) for the van. The woman there was very nice and helpful, and the overall process was very simple. You need copies of your passport front page, page with your Colombia entry stamp, vehicle title, vehicle registration, and the BOL. Once we filled it out she told us to go to SPRC (the main port) and talk to Ivan or Gabriel to get an inspection. We were confused by this because our van was not at SPRC, but at COMPAS. We told her this but she insisted we needed to go to SPRC. We thought this was weird but figured she must know what she's talking about, right?
Well, not exactly. We arrived at SPRC and as soon as I told the inspector our van was at COMPAS he said the woman at DIAN was wrong and we needed to go to COMPAS. Ok, we thought, well at least we can pay our Seaboard bill at the Citibank near DIAN and feel like we accomplished something, right? Nope! Remember when we said don't trust Google? Well also don't trust Citibank themselves because despite the hours listed on their website, the office near DIAN doesn't open until 2pm. The only branch we could find that appeared to be open was all the way back in El Centro, so we took a cab there, paid the invoice for $50 USD, and went over to the Seaboard office at COMPAS.
At the Seaboard office we were pleasantly surprised to hear that the hold on the BOL was lifted and that we could get the original. We gave them the receipt for the payment at Citibank and told them about the port mixup at DIAN. They said we could go to the Document Center there at COMPAS to do a few things but would ultimately have to go back to DIAN to get things squared away. Not exactly what we wanted to hear.
The main entrance to the port is a few doors down from the Seaboard office. You have to go to the window, tell them what you're there for, and give them your passport in return for a visitors badge. You MUST have on pants and closed-toe shoes to enter the port. You DON'T have to have health/life insurance to enter this port, as you do at the main port in Cartagena. With your badge you go through the turnstile and they wave you over with a metal detector. As soon as you're done with that the document center is on your right. We went in and had no idea where to go. There was a place to take a ticket, which we did, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to those so we eventually just went up to a window and asked in our miserable Spanish where to go. They directed us to the window closest to the bank line, where the woman took our documents, filled out some forms, and sent us to window 1 for the facturas (invoices).
When we got to window 1, a miracle happened: the heavens opened, a white dove flew by, and when the woman at the window opened her mouth, she spoke perfect English! She ended up being super helpful through the whole process, even the parts that didn't involve her. She gave us two invoices for port fees that we brought to the bank window (there in the same room) and returned to her with the receipts. It was then that we learned that the 3 day grace period for retrieving our van from the port ended that day, so if we didn't finish the process by the end of the day we would have to pay a warehouse fee. So keep that in mind if shipping your vehicle: the 3 days includes the day it arrives at the port (no matter what time it arrives) and even days the port is closed (weekends, holidays, etc.)
At this point we had to go back to DIAN in Manga to get the inspection situation figured out. When we got there it was around lunchtime and we were told the woman we had dealt with earlier wouldn't be back until 2:00 PM. Right as we let out an anxious sigh, turn around to sit down and wait, we see her running down the hallway hands waving and shouting at us. Guess we didn't have to wait after all! She apologized for her mistake and as an apology got her colleague at COMPAS to fill out and sign the inspection form without even seeing the van. We were so surprised by that that we had to double check with her a few times.
"You mean the TIP is all finished?"
"The inspection is taken care of and we're good to go?"
We left there incredibly relieved at the outcome. Not only did we not need to get an inspection, but we also wouldn't have to pay the fee for an inspection either.
Light as a feather we made our way back to the Document Center at COMPAS to pay one last port invoice. After returning with the receipt she sends us to window 5 to get our exit form. Unfortunately, the woman at window 5 says she can't give me an exit form until I unload the van and inspect it for any damage, so she sends me to the Seaboard office inside the port (different than the one we previously went to) to have someone bring me to the container. At the Seaboard office they give me a hard hat and vest and lead me over to Bodega 5 where the container is located. Inside the warehouse there's another small office where a woman had to do more paperwork and then lead me over to the container to unload it.
At the container itself, the crew took pictures of the container and the seal numbers and we verified they matched the numbers on my BOL. With that, they took the bolt cutters to the seals, swung the doors wide open, and there she was in all her glory. We were so happy to see the van, now we just wanted to leave! Unfortunately there were still a few steps to complete. We drove the van out of the container and over to a little tent where they did the physical inspection (different than the DIAN inspection we were able to skip). Everything was good there so we walked back to window 5 at the Document Center to get our exit form and then returned to Bodega 5.
We were naive enough to think that with the exit form we were good to drive out, but no. Again, the document needed more signatures so we waited in the office at Bodega 5 while someone finished the paperwork. At this point in the day it was almost 5pm and we hadn't eaten or drank anything nearly all day. We were so tired, hungry, and stressed that we could see our vision flicker every time our hearts beat. It didn't help that it was insanely hot outside and we were wearing pants...
Finally, the paperwork is finished and the woman says we're free to leave. We are so happy we just want to hug everyone but we settle for high fives instead and then go out to the van to start her up. As soon as we start up the van one of the guys nearby starts flipping out. We show him the signed exit form, which he takes back into the office and starts yelling at people. We couldn't tell exactly what was going on but it sounded like either a signature was missing or they cut some corners somewhere. Either way, this guy was not having it. We were getting pretty nervous and asked if we were still going to be able to leave with the van that day. He assured us that it wasn't anything that was our fault and we would be able to leave. This went on for another 20 minutes or so until someone talked him down and he allowed us to leave. We were finally going to jailbreak this van!
We were escorted by a security car over to the exit where we drove up onto the scale and handed the attendant our paperwork. They stamped it and we drove off the scales to our last inspection. Someone from the port was there to verify all of our documents, while a police officer inspected the van. The inspection was pretty minimal and they pretty much just peeked inside the van. With the green light from the cops we were free at last! We ran the hard hat and vest back into the Seaboard office, picked up our passport from the check in, and drove off into rush hour in Cartagena. What a day!
Minus the 30 minutes we spent attempting to get our BOL on Wednesday afternoon, we completed the entire process in one very long, very tiring day. We started at 7:00 AM and drove the van out of the port at 5:30 PM. It's definitely a long and complicated process, but much of it was easier than anticipated and just took time. Don't get us wrong, it still sucked, but it's completely doable, even if your Spanish skills are garbage (like ours).
The next step in the process was getting mandatory insurance (SOAT). The following day was Saturday and the insurance offices that were open wouldn't sell to foreigners. Figures. We had to stick around Cartagena until Monday morning so that we could go to an agency that would sell us short-term coverage. In the end it was a pretty simple process and we got 2 months of coverage for a little under $50 USD. Now were were finally free to go explore Colombia!
Things we wish we would have known beforehand:
1. Getting an agent to help you at the port isn't that expensive. It's still not cheap, but if your Spanish is poor it could potentially save you some trouble. We've heard the process itself isn't much faster, but it's potentially less stressful.
2. Your 3 day pickup grace period includes the day the ship arrives and the following two days, even if they are holidays or weekends.
So the takeaways from our experience are:
1. Obviously, DON'T trust what you read on the internet, ask the shipping company a million questions and be 110% sure on everything.
2. You're not going to be able to load the vehicle yourself (at least, not in Miami), and you're going to have to leave your keys.
3. Either don't book your flight from the States until you have your title back or make sure you have somewhere in Colombia you can receive it.
Go to Seaboard Marine at COMPAS to get original Bill Of Lading. There's a hold on the Bill Of Lading, so they can only give me a copy, along with an invoice for a documentation fee of $50. The fee must be paid at a Citibank.
1. Go to DIAN at 7:00 AM. They don't open until 8:00 AM, so we make copies of documents (passport stamp into Colombia) and wait.
2. Go into DIAN at 8:00 AM and fill out the paperwork for the Temporary Import Permit. She says to go to SPRC and talk to Gabriel or Ivan for the inspection. We tell her that our van is at COMPAS, not SPRC, but she says to go there anyway.
3. We go to SPRC, talk to the inspector, who then says no, she's wrong, we have to go to COMPAS.
4. We try to go to Citibank by DIAN and SPRC, but they apparently don't open until 2:00 PM (the website says otherwise). We take a taxi to the main branch in El Centro and pay there.
5. Take taxi to Seaboard office show them the paid invoice, and get the original BOL. They tell us to go to the document center first, but that we may have to go back to DIAN for the inspector part.
6. We go to the document center, no idea who to go to, go to the window closest to the bank. The woman at the window fills out some paperwork, then sends us over to window 1 for facturas (invoices).
7. The woman there gives us two invoices for port fees. Peter goes to the bank window, pays, and returns with the receipts. She informs us that if we don't pick it up that day, our 3 day grace period to get the van out of the port are up and we will have to start paying storage fees. Then she says go back to DIAN for an inspector.
8. Taxi back to DIAN to talk with the woman who helped with our paperwork. It's lunch break but she sees us as she's leaving and flags us down. She realized her mistake and got her colleague at COMPAS to fill out the TIP and approve everything without doing the actual inspection.
9. Go back to the document center at COMPAS and go to the factura window. She gives one final invoice to pay, we go to the bank window, pay, and return with the receipt. She now sends us to window 5 for the exit form.
10. Lady at window 5 says she can't give us the exit form until we unload and inspect the vehicle. So we go to the Seaboard office (inside COMPAS) to get someone to bring us to the container and unload it.
11. They give Peter a hard hat, vest, and an escort to Bodega 5 where the van is located. We go into the office there and a woman helps with more paperwork.
12. Peter goes outside to the container, takes pictures, checks the seal numbers, and then the nice port worker cuts the bolts, opens the doors, and unties the tie-downs.
13. Peter unloads the van from the container and we do the physical inspection. Everything is good.
14. Go back to window 5 at the document office and get exit form, then return to Bodega 5.
15. The woman at Bodega 5 does more paperwork. Her and the inspector sign it and then say we can go.
16. Peter goes to leave and another port worker flips out and takes our exit form. He wants more signatures or something. Eventually, the other workers manage to get him to calm TF down.
17. After that Peter gets escorted to the exit, they weigh the van, and he drives up to the final inspection.
18. The police inspect the van, a port employee verifies the VIN on the document and we’re good to go!!!
19. Peter returns the hat/vest/visitor badge, and we’re FREE!
…to drive into rush hour traffic through Cartagena. YAY.
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