Regular readers of this blog already know that by far the most demanding challenge of Harry’s and my trip thus far haven’t been the campgrounds, the traffic, personal safety, or our budget — it’s been the task of getting our truck (la bestia) from North America to South America. Driving there is impossible because of the Darien Gap, a 100-mile (160km) interruption of the Panamericana between Panama and Colombia that requires all vehicles to be shipped. There used to be a car ferry connecting Colon in Panama with Cartagena in Colombia, but it was taken out of service last year. Containerized shipment is the only option left.
Following a failed attempt to send la bestia from either Oakland, CA or Los Angeles due to steep costs (>USD3,500 for a 20′ container), excessive transit times (almost one month between drop-off and pick-up) and potential customs-related hassles (U.S. Customs are generously charging shippers for additional inspections), we decided to continue across Mexico and then Guatemala, and try our luck from here.
I recently spent a week–on and off–reaching out to shipping companies offering direct routes from Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala to either the Colombian Pacific coast or to Ecuador. When I found out that Hamburg Sud offers service to Guayaquil, I was elated. The company enjoys a solid reputation, and of course I was also encouraged further by the fact that, well… they’re German. Within two days I received an acceptable quote for the container and was ready to move ahead. But Hamburg Sud would only accept payment from, and work with, a local freight forwarder. So I called and e-mail over a dozen of them, and yet for some reason they all either declined right away or backed out when I explained that la bestia did not require customs assistance since the truck isn’t registered in Guatemala (while I cannot prove it, my sense is that this rendered the job too straightforward, and thus unsuitable to levying hefty additional charges).
I eventually decided to visit the Hamburg Sud office in Guatemala City in person. Two of the company’s employees met me at the front desk and, after some friendly haggling and pleading, they agreed to put me in touch with two local freight forwarders that would be willing and able to complete the job. Taking advantage of the fact that the German Embassy is located in the very same building, I also stopped by there and asked for advice. I was delighted to learn that all German diplomats used the same Guatemalan agency for their container shipments: Cropa Panalpina.
The next day, I received an e-mail from a supervisor at Cropa. He assured me that his agency would be happy to work with Hamburg Sud and offered me to visit him in his office. Since I was still in Guatemala City, I did not hesitate. I hired a local cab driver to guide me, and we were on our way.
[The white unmarked car is the taxi I hired; right in front of it is a pick-up truck with two masked and heavily armed special police officers. Those I didn’t hire…]
We arrived at Cropa’s office half an hour later and were greeted with ice cold Coca-Cola (my first sip in fifteen years — it still tastes horrible…) and warm smiles. I felt that I had finally found a professional counterpart. I signed several forms after the supervisor had walked me through the process and made copies of my immigration documents. He also followed up with Hamburg Sud to let them know that Cropa would act as la bestia‘s freight forwarder. On December 2, I was told, Hamburg Sud would deliver the container to Cropa’s offices, and on December 3 I would need to be back early in the morning so that la bestia could be loaded and secured. I was thrilled.
It is December 2 today, and an hour ago I heard back from Cropa. Hamburg Sud has not yet forwarded an updated quote to Cropa and has also yet to confirm the container delivery on the following day (tomorrow). Considering that the ship is scheduled to leave from Puerto Quetzal on December 8, this coming Friday is the last day for containers to be loaded and cleared by customs. If there’s any further delay, we will need to wait until the next ship departs a week later. However, that ship will arrive in Guayaquil on December 24: Christmas Eve. There’s no way anyone will be at work on that day — or, for that matter, during the entire week that follows.
Cropa is currently looking into alternative routes. Meanwhile, Harry and I have set up base in Antigua, Guatemala’s earliest capital. Harry can roam around freely here, and I am drinking coffee and answering long-overdue personal e-mails. Whether or not we will eventually get to ship la bestia from Puerto Quetzal, one thing is certain:
Life is a journey to train one’s mind to let go.