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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
8. Go through passenger customs (and watch your money
9. Board the ferry and relax!
10. Go through customs in Colombia.