Have you ever watched the Amazing Race? “Operation Get Glenda” felt a lot like one one of the challenges on the show, navigating our way through the (seemingly) endless Colombian red tape required to receive our vehicle. Fortunately, we found an article from a US couple that had done the same thing a year ago, which served as an excellent guide.
There are two main ways to ship a vehicle overseas: roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) and container. There is plenty written on the pros and cons, so we will spare you the details, but the conclusion from our research was that for cars filled with expensive gear, sealing it in a container is a much more secure option.
Container sizes: containers come in three basic lengths: 10’, 20’ and 40’. We learned that for Caribbean shipping, the 40’ containers also come in a tall “high cube” configuration. Bottom line: the bigger your container, the more expensive the shipment. Glenda’s about 15’ long so we thought the 20’ container would be an easy fit. Given her 7’6” height, however, we had to let a couple inches of air out of the rear tires for the roof tent to clear.
Freight forwarder: shipping lines want little to nothing to do with individual customers shipping individual containers, so we worked with a freight forwarder to arrange the packing, export paperwork, and shipment of the vehicle. We found Houston-based Horizon Auto Shipping to be incredibly knowledgable on the ins and outs of shipping to South America and would happily work with them again. Their rates were also extremely competitive, coming in 25-30% higher than RoRo and significantly less than their container competition.
Choosing a shipping line: From what we learned, shipping lines deliver a container in one of two ways: a direct shipment where a single ship carries the vehicle from initial to final destination, and transshipment where a container is moved between multiple vessels during its journey. To minimize delays, we identified a shipping line (Seaboard Marine), that had direct service to Cartagena.
How it went: We arrived in Houston on Black Friday and met with the packing facility. Export paperwork was completed on time, and Glenda set sail with no issues! Huge thanks to Alexis for all the advice and the team at Seaboard Marine for guiding us through the process.
While we stayed in Cartagena learning Spanish, we tracked our ship nightly and agonized over whether we should hire an agent to handle importing the vehicle into Colombia, or to do it ourselves. After consulting with fellow overlanders and requesting quotes from agents ($1600-$2000!!!), we decided to take it on without help.
10 steps: In our preparation to receive Glenda, we referenced the article we had found, which outlined the “do it yourself” process. We were able to accomplish the first five steps in an afternoon while Glenda was still en route. Armed with specific instructions about where to go and what to do, we found the shipping line office (Seaboard Marine), prepared customs (aka DIAN) paperwork with an agent, and met the port operations company, COMPAS to confirm when we could return to port to meet our vehicle.
Glenda arrives: If we learned anything from this experience, it is to be patient. 10 days and one tropical storm after leaving Houston, Glenda arrived in Cartagena two days later than planned. Given the delay, Seaboard Marine messaged us and assured us they would offload our container first so we could receive our vehicle as quickly as possible. The next day, our host parents eagerly drove us to the port and waited for us in the car as we entered the COMPAS office to complete steps 6-10. When we walked in, an ornery clerk took one look at our paperwork and told us to come back tomorrow - our container was not available yet. Armed with the information from Seaboard Marine, we dug in and insisted that it had been offloaded. After four hours of phone calls to Seaboard Marine, COMPAS tech support, and customer service, it became apparent that while Glenda was offloaded early, as promised, COMPAS could not spare any dock workers or forklifts to transport and open the container until the Seaboard vessel was fully offloaded later that night.
We were frustrated by the setback as we returned to our host parents' car and felt guilty about making them wait for so long. We explained what happened in basic Spanish and Juan, our host father, gave an unsurprised shrug and said "es Colombia."
We did, however, gain one key contact in the process: Daniel, a new college grad working in the COMPAS customer service department. His English is great and quite frankly, he was young enough to not yet be jaded by the bureaucracy of the shipping industry. We cancelled our classes for the next morning and agreed to meet him at 8am sharp.
Glenda arrives (round II): The next morning we returned to the port to find the port already buzzing with activity. Carrying tools to reconnect the battery and compressors to reinflate the tires, Juan and Jeremy headed into the port to find the container while Elise paid the import duties.
We were making progress. Elise successfully paid the fees after catching errors in the paperwork and insisting that the clerk change it. Jeremy and Juan had found the container and dockworkers craftily broke the seal with the blade of a forklift after bolt cutters proved to be inadequate. We opened the doors and there Glenda was - completely secure and unscathed! Juan, always the proud parent, led the charge in pushing Glenda out of the container and reconnecting her battery. He then taught the dock workers how Diesel engines and air compressors worked while we waited for the tires to inflate.
A few phone calls later and the DIAN agent had inspected our vehicle. We hurried back to the customs office and found a manager to sign our final papers. With some poking and prodding, we did it! Step 10! All that was left was to return to the port and drive the vehicle away. Timing was perfect, because it was now 11:30AM and the port offices shut down between noon and 2:00PM.
Jeremy returned alone to the shipyard to collect the vehicle but was stopped by a COMPAS agent who explained there was, in fact, one additional inspection required by COMPAS itself. The inspector would be available in an hour so, including the lunch break, we would be free to go at 3:00PM.
We were too fed up with the waiting to postpone any longer. After fifteen minutes of raised voices and arm waving, the final inspector had magically rearranged his schedule and was quickly checking us out of the port. Jeremy conscripted an English-speaking COMPAS employee to sit in Glenda until we were out of the port to avoid any additional headaches. Ten minutes and one weigh station later, we had her!
- Be patient…
- When that doesn't work, be insistent
- Our host parents are incredible
- High school Spanish is sufficient to receive an international container shipment in Colombia
- You can save A LOT of money by not using an agent and instead doing it yourself
We have logged about 10 days on the road so far, navigating from Cartagena to Bogota by way of Refugio la Roca, a gorgeous rock climbing camp in the Colombian Highlands. After arriving in Bogota, we took off for a couple weeks to Calcutta (yes, India) to celebrate the marriage of two close friends. Now we're en route back to Bogota and are heading into the coffee triangle!