In December 2014, a group of eleven motorcyclists from all over the world arrived at the Ferry Xpress office in Panama City, hoping to make its next sailing between Panama and Colombia. Taking the Ferry Xpress is certainly one of the fastest and least expensive ways to get around the notorious Darien Gap, but it can be a frustrating experience.
My riding partner and I arrived at the tiny Ferry Xpress office, situated on the corner of two of the busiest roads in Panama City. Getting there was a nightmare, but we burst through the doors expecting to emerge in a few minutes with two freshly printed ferry tickets and time to see the city. Instead, it would take us two full days to navigate the federal bureaucracy.
The office was crammed with people. A rider from Spain and another from Israel recognized us and asked if we’d been to the police station yet. They said we needed to get our VIN numbers officially checked before the Ferry Xpress personnel would consider issuing tickets, so off we went, following their vague instructions.
Arriving in a ghetto was unexpected, and our BMWs gave the residents reason to stare. I asked the lone policeman where the inspection station might be, and he pointed to a gravel impound yard surrounded by a tall chain link fence and topped by barbed wire. Once inside the gate, another officer promised to be “right out,” but that translated into several hours of waiting under the hot sun. Two other motorcyclists joined us in the waiting game until at last, our VINs were checked and paperwork was meticulously completed.
But, instead of handing us the documents we needed, we were told to return five hours later at the Dirección de Investigación Judicial (DIJ) office directly across the street, where we’d be given our official paperwork. So we returned to the Ferry Xpress office where we were able to purchase tickets for the next day; however, they wouldn’t issue boarding passes until they received the DIJ documents.
Meanwhile at the DIJ, international motorcyclists were lining up to await their paperwork. There weren’t enough seats and several travelers sat on the floor. This casual approach didn’t bode well with the officials; they were told to stand up, and anyone wearing shorts or tank tops was promptly removed. Nearly three hours passed before the first person received their official documentation, while a copy machine located at a nearby trailer did a brisk business making the requisite copies.
Paperwork in hand, we raced back to the Ferry Xpress office—the desperate pleas of our new comrades begging us to somehow keep the Ferry Xpress office open for them still ringing in our ears. Finally, we received our official boarding passes along with instructions to arrive at the ferry terminal in Colón the following morning at 0800.
Colón is a run-down city, so once behind the ferry terminal gates, no one was anxious to leave. After the previous day’s turmoil, I was looking forward to exploring the duty-free mall, but that wasn’t to be. An authoritative woman sitting at a folding table took note of all of us and began demanding two copies of some documents and three copies of others. Copies could be made at the nearby window for 50¢ each. A French motorcyclist balked at the price and the window was permanently shut to him. Lesson learned, the rest of us “smiled” as we handed over our dollars.
Chaos ensued in the attempt to keep the paperwork straight, a random system that continued to change as the day wore on. Some of my documents had my partner’s name on them because they assumed I was riding solo, resulting in even more explanations and apologies. The woman at the table then said we either made too many or too few copies of each document, sigh…. In the meantime, ferry officials were affixing shipping labels to our bikes, and of course we were required to make copies of these, too. Just over seven hours was wasted under the blazing sun, comparing numbers of copies, only to be turned away by the officials for more seemingly worthless copies of such ordinary papers.
We got excited when the ship arrived—was this actually going to happen?! By midafternoon we were given the all-clear to line our bikes up in front of the terminal, surrounded by police and ferry workers. We were then instructed to remove every single item from our motorcycles and panniers, and to line them up in straight lines for their dogs to search before being allowed to put everything back.
Next, we were instructed to remove all external luggage and place each bag through an x-ray scanner that led to the inside of the ferry terminal. Each of us leaned into the hole that swallowed our duffle bags, futilely trying to keep an eye on our gear. Bags and belongings got mixed up when returned to us; some were scanned twice and some were never scanned at all.
Once again, we were instructed to put everything back on the bikes. Meanwhile, another officer told us to remove anything we intended to take to our cabins and to place the bags against the outside wall of the terminal, leaving them there before bringing the bikes aboard. A scrawny security guard was assigned to watch our stuff, but no one liked that arrangement so I volunteered. The security guard wasn’t happy about that and kept repositioning the bags as I sat there unmoving.
All the while, the group of motorcyclists were enduring other troubles. For one, the dock workers began measuring pannier width and made unhappy sounds as they realized some of the bikes might not fit on the gangplank or through the passenger door. So, panniers were removed and each motorcyclist traversed the narrow planks into the bowels of the ferry where they were securely strapped down.
In the confusion after my bike was loaded, I thought I’d left my passport in my pannier during the systematized chaos. That set off a chain reaction where customs officials, security guards, port police, terminal workers, and Ferry Xpress employees all scrambled around in panic, trying to figure out how to allow my riding partner on board to access the bike he’d just loaded. Fortunately, I found my passport resting safely in my jacket pocket… oops!
Once inside the terminal we found an extremely long line of walk-on passengers waiting for Customs to stamp passports. That line was followed by another long one with an airport-style security checkpoint and x-ray scanner.
Finally aboard the MS SNAV Adriatico, everything relaxed. It was a beautiful ship and obviously brand new, built somewhat like a cruise ship. The food was expensive and presented in a fancy cafeteria-like buffet, and the rooms were small but good. The ship rocked peacefully throughout the night and we docked in Cartagena, Colombia, around 2:00 the following afternoon. Everyone waited for Customs and Quarantine to board and clear the ship for unloading, before the okay to ride our bikes off the ship around 3:00. In contrast to Panama, Customs in Colombia was extremely orderly and straightforward, as were bike importation requirements. We each got motorcycle insurance and were on our way with little delay.
Ferry Xpress tickets were quite reasonable in comparison with other methods of crossing the Darien Gap; the base passenger fare was $118 per person, with an additional $57 for a two-bed cabin. Each motorcycle cost $125, plus taxes. Port fees at Cartagena were fairly steep at $25 per motorcycle, but Colombian motorcycle insurance was included in the ferry fee at $10.69 per bike.
Time spent for 11 motorcyclists to go through Panama’s customs procedures: 18 hours.
1. Make sure the vehicle entry paperwork into Panama is perfect and without errors, especially on bike VIN numbers.
2. Ask as many people as you can in Panama City if the ferry will be running that week.
3. Visit an inspection station to get bike VIN numbers checked by a police officer.
4. Get a certificate from the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública (Dirección de Investigación Judicial).
5. Purchase ferry tickets from Ferry Xpress with copies of the aforementioned certificate.
6. Arrive at the Ferry Xpress terminal in Colón first thing in the morning.
7. Prepare to load and unload your bike multiple times for various inspections.
8. Go through passenger customs (and watch your money belt!).
9. Board the ferry and relax!
10. Go through customs in Colombia.