How to get a vehicle out of a container and through customs in Cartagena, Colombia.
We had read numerous blogs about how this should work. And we made it, but with a few twists that added quite a few hours to our process. First surprise: in several blogs we have read that it is possible to get the temporary vehicle permit and the insurance before the customs inspection. This was not so. There could have been a change in procedures, or it could be that our port (there are a couple of them) had different routines. However, when you get to Cartagena and your ship has left port in Colon, you can get the original Bill of Lading. The Bill of Lading you get from the shipping agents office. In our case (Seaboard) this office was located at the port Muelle el Bosque (main entrance is inside the port area and requires entry passes, but there is also a window about 100 meters to the left of the port entrance).
Main entrance inside the port area.
The Bill of Lading, with copies of your vehicle title and registration, your passport and the entry stamp, you can go to the DIAN (customs) office in Manga to register for a customs inspection. This basically means to hand in your copies.
DIAN (customs) main office. Located in the Manga area. Entrance through the doors in the center of the pic.
When this is done, go back to Cartagena and enjoy the city until the ship is has arrived, and you have confirmed with the shipping agent that your vehicle is unloaded (call, don’t bother to go back to the office at the port).
It is no use going back to the port before you are absolutely sure that the vehicle is off the ship. And from there things can be quite fast. Can be…. First, find out exactly where your vehicle/container is. This information is available at the Operations Office at the port. You have to register at the entrance, and you leave your passport there in exchange for a key card.
Muelle El Bosque entrance. First door to the right of the big gate (left in pic).
We heard about other ports in Cartagena that needed proof on personal insurance before letting people into the port, but not so at Muelle el Bosque. However, the port has two different “safety levels”, and you need to ask for permission to the Operations Office which is in the “inner zone”. We first asked to see the Documentation Office which is in the first zone, and we had to go back to change the key card.
The port entrance is to the right of the big white building in the center of the pic. This building is the Documentation Office (Centro de Documentacion). The Operations Office is behind me to the right (it is just past a truck entrance with scales). And the Seaboard office is the first white building to the right in the picture. The container terminal and the port is to the left where the truck is on its way out.
Operations Office (Centro de Operacion)
The Operations office gave us the name of the person in charge in the area where our container would be, and we walked over and found the guy and our container. Here we were actually asked if we wanted to open the container immediately before we had found the customs inspector, but we refused this offer. We are not sure if that would have been a problem, but we wanted to have the inspector there in case something was wrong or happened. When we knew our container was there and looked unharmed, we went to the Documentation Office and got a “Factura de Venta” which is the port fee including inspections. We paid about 215 000 pesos per vehicle. Keep the receipt for the Exit documents later in the process.
Anyway! The key to this whole process is to get hold of the Customs (DIAN) Inspector. We were told that this guy (and at Muelle El Bosque it is only one guy) would be at a certain office in the port at 0800 and at 1400 hours every day. This was not so. Fortunately we were able to locate the guy after 3 hours of asking around at the port (The port’s Document Office was helpful). He even had our papers from the DIAN office in Manga. You have to take the inspector to your vehicle/container, and as soon as the inspector had had a look at the opening of the container, he told us to show up at the DIAN office in Manga to pick up the final vehicle permit (he went back there to process our papers). There was no “real” inspection of the vehicle.
With the vehicles out of the container, we drove over and parked them next to the Seaboard office (inside the port area). This was just before lunch, and we would have to wait until 1400 as all official offices are closed between 1200 and 1400. At 1400 we went to the DIAN office to pick up the permit, and we had the name of the person that held them. But this person was nowhere to be found… After waiting for 45 minutes, we demanded to speak with someone else that could help us with the vehicle permit. A woman took us over to the first person’s desk and gave us the permits laying there waiting for us.
Before going back to the port, we took a taxi back to the city center, and to the HBL Seguros office in Pasaje de la Moneda. You find it on the second floor.
Here we bought the mandatory insurance for Colombia (this insurance was not necessary for leaving the port, though…). The shortest period of time you are allowed to purchase is three months. Later we have heard rumors about someone that bought only one month of insurance, but have not been able to confirm this. But it could be worth asking (or even bargaining). Three months is about 60-70 USD. It cost more for more cylinders, and it is also slightly more expensive if your vehicle is older than 9 years.
With our Colombian insurance we went back to the port. This time we needed the port exit permit, and this you get at the Documentation Office. Remember to bring the receipt of paid port fees (or just pay this when you get here for the exit permit). Here they said something about a missing release document from DIAN, but we told them that going back to DIAN was out of the question. They gave us the exit permit.
Last stop at the port is a second visit to the Operations Office. While we were at the DIAN office in Manga and the HBL Seguros office in town, someone in the port company had had a visual inspection of the vehicles. It is basically the equivalent of the visual inspection from the port company in Colon, Panama, to check if there are any damages to the car. They write everything into the computer (takes at least 10 minutes per car), and you sign the papers saying the car is in the same condition as when you drove into the container. A stamp in the exit form, and you are good to go. A security officer at the gate checked the VIN number, and we drove out.
We're out! To cars from a container and one from a flat-rack.
Before leaving the port, remember to go back to the entrance (park the car at the exit gate, and walk back along a one way street for about 100 meters) and get your passport. And if you have done your homework, you should have updated maps on your GPS (which you took out of the car and brought with you to find the different offices..?) of Cartagena and Colombia. The traffic here is significantly more chaotic than in any of the Central American countries. We parked the vehicles at a parking lot in town around seven o’clock and went straight for a beer!
Paperwork in Cartagena:
1. Bill of Lading
2. Register (hand in copies of Bill of Lading, passport, passport page with entry stamp, vehicle title and registration) at the DIAN office in Manga. If you can book an appointment with a customs inspector at this time, do it!
3. Go to the Operations Office at the port and find out where your container is.
4. Find/schedule a Port DIAN Customs Inspector at the port and take him to your container to open it (container may have been opened for visual inspection already. Our seal was broken and replaced with a new one. According to Seabord this was normal?). This inspector should have your papers, which he/she will take back to DIAN in Manga to finish. You could ask if you could do this yourself, but probably not..
5. Get Vehicle Import Permit from DIAN in Manga.
6. Get the mandatory liability insurance from HBO Seguros located in Pasaje de la Moneda (Calle de la Moneda). The office is on the second floor in the shopping center.
7. Go back to the Document Office in Muelle El Bosque, pay the port fees, and get the Port Exit Permit. Here we were told that we missed a release form from DIAN (Manga), but we were able to talk us out of this (we’d been hanging around for the better part of two days…).
8. Go to the Operations Office with the exit permit, and they perform a visual inspection of the vehicle, and stamp your exit permit. Drive out (remember your passport at the entrance).
GPS Coordinates for the offices:
Seabord Office and Muelle El Bosque (port entrance): N10 23.799 W75 31.396
DIAN in Manga: N10 24.555 W75 32.022
HBL Seguros (SOAT) in thre old town: N10 25’30.6” W75 32’52.8”Safe parking in the old town : N10 25.400 W75 32.691
Arranging for the shipping isn’t really that complicated. The total cost was about 1250 USD per vehicle in a 40 ft container (two standard size cars: a Nissan Patrol and a Land Rover Defender 110. Plenty of space, could probably have fitted a bike in there as well), and all port fees in BOTH ends are included. I’ve also heard about cheaper options, but I wanted to ship with a company and an agent that I knew had a good reputation. We got a quote directly from Seaboard Marine Panama via Mr. Eric Hansen (email@example.com), and we had English speaking representatives at both sides, and at the port in Colon. You are allowed into the port, to drive your vehicle into the container, to keep your keys, and to drive your vehicle out of the container in Cartagena. I would definitely recommend this option for shipping. The booking is done via email, and you then need a couple of days to sort papers out in Panama City and Colon, and to load the container. Our ship left three (they said two..) days later, and the container was on the ground in Cartagena two days after that. With some patience you can easily do the all necessary steps yourself. There will probably be some frustrating moments, but this is part of the experience of overlanding. And it will probably also happen if you use helpers... And don’t stress getting to Cartagena, you do have time to go island hopping in San Blas!
In the next post we are on the road in Colombia!!