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ADV NewsGetting You And Your Motorcycle Across The Infamous Darien Gap

Getting You And Your Motorcycle Across The Infamous Darien Gap

Practical options for those not longing to play Indiana Jones.

Published on 05.06.2022

I first ventured into the Darién on a trip to Panama in 2004, but it would take me another 15 years to finally cross the gap on the Stahlratte, in 2019. 

Sailing through the tropical San Blas islands on the steel-hulled Dutch sailboat under Captain Ludwig was a rite of passage for years for world travelers, and every bit part of the Adventure of Riding the Pan-American Highway. Departing from Carti, Panama, and no longer allowed to disembark at the traditional port of Cartagena, we were forced instead to navigate to the oft-maligned Colombian port city of Turbo. Unfortunately our cargo of 20+ motorcycles was not received warmly by the Colombian Coast Guard, and Captain Ludwig was forced to activate “Plan C.”

Shipping a motorcycle across the Darien Gap

Denied access within swimming distance of the dock, we collectively hoisted said motorcycles from the deck of the century-old ship onto a cattle barge. From there, another voyage up a tidal river took us to a rural farm just outside of town. Disembarking from the barge, our crew collectively laid tread on South American soil for the first time, in a horse corral. You can’t make this sh*t up… 


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Three years later, I had all but forgotten about my little adventure onboard the Stahlratte, until the internet became aflutter with talk of a ‘round the world’ rider named Noraly, and her haphazard crossing of the Darién Gap. Better known as Itchy Boots, Noraly’s YouTube channel has over 1 million subscribers, and her videos detailing her preparation and crossing of The Gap close to 2 million views collectively. 

Her voyage was both applauded and criticized online, with many asking, if not simply for engaging content, “why?”. While some would argue that Itchy Boots is setting the new trend for crossing “The Gap,” the consensus is the carefree days of simply floating your moto across the Caribbean like bootleg rum, have come to an end. With increasing regulations in a post-COVID world, options for crossing The Gap are dwindling, along with our options for true adventure. So before you roll the dice and strap your moto to the bow of a Panga, read on…

Shipping a motorcycle across the Darien Gap

A Bit of History

The Darién Gap is a 66-mile perilous strip of jungle connecting the North and South American continents between Panama, to the North and Colombia, to the South. Widely considered one of the most dangerous places on the planet, this “no-man’s land” has served as a backdrop for triumph and failure, kidnappings and murder, and numerous stories of drug-runners and head-hunters.

The first recorded attempt to cross the “The Gap” on a motorcycle is attributed to Danny Liska in 1960. He was forced to abandon his bike and escape the jungle on foot. The first successful motorcycle crossing is credited to Robert L. Webb in 1975 — an expedition reported to have taken several months after many failed attempts. 

WATCH: “Where the Road Ends” Team pushes through the unforgiving Darien jungle.

This infamous void in the 19,000 mile Pan-American Highway still poses a formidable challenge to overlanders hoping to complete the journey. And while a few hardy souls may still attempt an overland crossing, those of us without sponsorship backing or a longing to play Indiana Jones, are advised to look for other options.

By Sail

From island hopping to eating fresh lobster, from lazing away the humid days in a hammock to swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, sailing across the gap is an experience in and of itself. And while not the quickest or the cheapest way to travel, it is undeniably the most scenic way to cross one of the most “dangerous places on earth.”

Crossing the Darien Gap on a motorcycle

Unfortunately, the Stahlratte’s run came to an end in 2021, another casualty of COVID. The ship’s website has been repurposed, and its social media accounts deleted, however Captain Ludwig began organizing much smaller transports starting March of 2022, that involve transferring vessels in Sapzurro, Colombia, just over the Panamanian border. 

However, after their maiden voyage, reviews were mixed (to put it politely) and it’s questionable whether this will remain an option. But, if by some chance you are hankering for an Itchy Boot’s style adventure, courteous of the one-and-only Captain Ludwig, as of March 2022 he was offering his “experimental” (my words, not his…) voyage for approximately $1,000 USD (not including certain port fees and potential bike damage). 

Another popular option for sailing your moto across The Gap was ‘The Wild Card.’ In the game as long as anyone,The Wild Card has been sailing the San Blas since 2010. Unfortunately, despite having moto shipping information on their website, I was informed by the staff after a recent inquiry that they “are not permitted to transport motorcycles to or from Colombia due to changes to the regulations.”

Another casualty in our quest to bridge the gap… 

That said, Wild Card is still operating their passenger service starting at $575.00 per person, which gives you an opportunity to experience the San Blas while making other arrangements for the bike.

By Container

Sea freight is the only real option for overlanders with larger rigs, and many are happy to help offset  costs by sharing a container with a motorcycle or two. While container shipping is more common for Transatlantic crossings, some prefer the security of ensuring their rig is secured and the contents don’t mysteriously vanish enroute.

Overlanding forums and Facebook groups are a good place to start if you’re hoping to make arrangements privately, which can be the most economic way to go, but can also be the most time consuming. Shipping costs vary based upon container size, time of year, and (if you’re making arrangements privately) your negotiating tactics. However most report paying anywhere from $500.00 – $800.00 per moto in a shared container. 

Crossing the Darien Gap on a motorcycle
Photo by Dan Lunberg

But beware, that undisclosed fees could significantly drive the cost of retrieving your motorcycle once in port. So if you don’t want to be caught with your riding pants down, keep reading…

If you’re not into spending countless hours looking for a potential container buddy on the internet, you can contact a broker / agent directly. Many shipping companies provide the option to share a container, but this may require a bit of flexibility with your dates, and of course, the broker’s fees… 

At time of print, containers were quoted at 20’ – $1,640.00 USD and 40’ – $1,950.00 USD, each including 1 vehicle + $150.00 each additional vehicle. The quotes include local agents at each port to assist with custom clearance (ergo the additional cost per vehicle), however DID NOT include certain “landing fees” that are not incidental…

It will take reading the fine print, and in my experience, more than a few emails to get to the bottom of these mystery fees. As it turns out “customs clearance and port fees” typically increase the quoted container cost by upwards of 60%, so buyer beware!

Additional options for insurance also exist, and those costs vary based upon coverage. 

If you’re riding in a large group, splitting a private container with a few riding buddies can be the most economical way to go, however the devil is in the details, so be sure to cross your T’s and dot your I’s.

RORO

RORO (roll-on roll-off) shipping is another sea freight option. Picture a ferry ride, where your moto is strapped down to the driving deck of the vessel – except this time, you don’t get to come along for the ride!

While sharing a container is often the most economical option, RORO generally entails a lot less hassle than dealing with the logistics of a container. Be that as it may, the inspection, shipping and retrieval process will still take upwards of a week to complete, so patience is definitely a virtue.

Crossing the Darien Gap on a motorcycle

RORO is not a popular option for many overlanders due to security concerns, motorcyclists however are generally able to pack the entirety of their belongings in a backpack, which makes petty theft much less of a threat. 

At time of print, RORO between Manzanillo, Panama and Cartagena, Colombia was quoted at $1,068.00 USD The quotes include local agents at each port to assist with custom clearance, however DID NOT include the aforementioned “customs clearance and port fees,” of an additional  $708.00 per bike, which makes shipping RORO likely the most expensive option to get your wheels from point-A to point-B…

Additional options for insurance exist, and those costs vary based upon coverage. 

By Air

In our ever-changing environment, air freight has increasingly become the most popular option for transporting motos across The Gap. It’s the quickest and, as of print, the most economical way to go!

And, once you factor incidentals such as food and accommodations, it can be significantly less expensive and time-consuming than waiting a week to clear customs at port!

Air freight is also purported by many to be the least hassle, since getting both your moto and your body across the gap will take place within vicinity of the airport and doesn’t require wandering confusing and often seedy seaside ports. 

Unless of course, you’re into that sort of thing…

Shipping your motorcycle across the Darien Gap
Photo by LATAM

Like most freight forwarders, your agent will handle the required paperwork upon departure and arrival at the airport. And while you may get lucky and be able to ride into the sunset the day you land, count on spending at least half of your day dealing with customs.

Most air freight forwarders will tackle the duty of crating and securing your moto and luggage, however it will typically be on you to disconnect the battery, drain the gas (or run it close to dry) and potentially remove the mirrors or windscreen prior to doing so. So keep your tools handy and be sure you know where your battery is hiding!

While Air Cargo Pack has long been touted as the “go to” freight forwarder, requests for quotes sent to the email addresses for their various Colombian and Panamanian offices, were either bounced-back as undeliverable, or not responded to at time of print…

That said, there is no shortage of air freight forwarders at your disposal, and you might already know one! Many major airlines have a freight division, and if you’re already a member of an airline’s “elite club,” discounts and concierge service may be one of the benefits.

LATAM, my airline of choice when traveling throughout Latin America, has a freight division operating between Panama City and Bogota, and while prices fluctuate just like passenger fares, current air freight rates seem to be hovering around the $1,000 – $1,200.00 USD neighborhood, including crating, agent and customs fees!

An Ever-Changing Situation

The old rules of travel are becoming increasingly obsolete. What worked last year, will likely not work today, and what works today may not next week. This can make planning ahead more important and more difficult than ever…

Our recommendation, regardless of what you decide, is to get current references from those who have crossed the Darién Gap as close to your intended crossing as possible. In researching this article, many of the companies and contacts that were “tried and true” just a year or two ago are no longer in the game. 

Shipping your motorcycle across the Darien Gap

Unless you strap your bike down to the bow of a Panga and skirt the coast, an agent or broker will be necessary to ensure compliance and assist with customs, inspections, bills of lading and other necessary paperwork. Prior to booking, ensure exactly what services your agent or broker will provide and what costs may be excluded. Read the fine print and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Many motorcyclists have been stuck with unexpected “port fees” or have found themselves unable to access their motorcycle for days and even weeks after landing. For my money, flying the bike over The Gap while sailing through the San Blas Islands yourself is the way to go! By the time you factor in the cost of your airfare, a night or two (or more if you plan on shipping your bike) worth of accommodations, food, etc… the cost of an all-inclusive trip with a company like Wild Card, exploring deserted islands and swimming in the warm water of the Caribbean, is an amazing way to cross this remote, and seldom visited part of the planet.

Author: Chad Horton

Originally from Los Angeles, Chad threw a leg over a motorcycle for the first time at the ripe old age of 30. Instantly hooked, he competed in his first District-37 NHHA race less than a year later. Whether racing in the Mojave, riding mopeds through Thailand, Route-66 on a Harley, surviving “Mad Sunday” during the Isle of Man TT races, or riding his Honda Africa Twin solo from California to Patagonia, Chad lives and breathes all things two wheels. When not behind bars, Chad is an active SCUBA Diver, skydiver, avid snowboarder, world traveler and below-average surfer.

Author: Chad Horton
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9 thoughts on “Getting You And Your Motorcycle Across The Infamous Darien Gap

  1. Seems to me one would be much better off if “gear” was restricted to the bare minimum and a motorcycle purchased in Colombia and abandoned for whatever one could get upon departing. I have trouble understanding the “love affair” so many seem to have with one particular motorcycle.

    • Hey Vic! That’s actually a great point and probably worthy of an article in and of itself…

      One of the gentlemen I crossed on the Stahlratte with actually flew in from Germany, purchased a local 150cc motorcycle in Mexico, and was planning on donating the bike at the end of his trip. He traveled just like a lot of the locals do, no fancy gear, no panniers, just a pile of backpacks and shopping bags bungeed to the rear rack.

      It was a sight to behold!

      Purchasing and reselling bikes abroad is a popular topic, but can be wrought with its own perils. And, depending on where you’re planning to start or end your journey, it can be downright impossible.

      Do you have any personal experience buying or selling motos in Latam?

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Not in LATA although i have read where Colombia is a good place to start and their bike licence is good for most, if not all, of South America. I have had some experience buying and selling in Malaysia, Thailand and believe it or not, as an alien in the USA. All much cheaper and easier than shipping bikes between countries together with the associated paperwork hassles. I know of a fellow New Zealander who shipped his Moto Guzzi to Australia and back. He later figured the cost was greater than any loss he would have made from purchasing a like machine in Australia and reselling it. Cheers

    • Colombia is indeed one of the easier countries to buy or sell a moto as a foreigner.

      With a flexible schedule (or a fixer) buying abroad is a good option. I’ve rented motos in both Europe and Asia for shorter trips, and while expensive (to rent) it’s a lot cheaper than shipping your own wheels overseas…

      I lived on my moto for 6 months riding from California to Patagonia, and my wife and I will be living on the bike for 18-24 months on our way back north, so for us it makes sense keeping the same wheels.

      By the way – love New Zealand! Spent a month touring the south island in a caravan back in 2005. Still dreaming about going back!

      Cheers – Chad

  3. RORO is not an available option since 2018. The easy way to cross the gap is shipping the motorcycle by airline (aprox USD1,000). Cheers from Panama City, and welcome to everybody.

    • Hi Mariano!

      We received quotes from two established brokers for RORO in late April of 2022. The service is still available, but has not been a VIABLE (affordable) option since 2018-19.

      Prior, custom officials viewed RORO vs. containers much in the same way airlines viewed carry-ons vs. checked baggage. Since that time, Colombian customs starting assigning the same port and clearance fees to RORO bikes as they do a container (just like airlines charging for carry-ons).

      We wanted to provide updates on all the standard go-to options, much in the same way we updated the status of the Stahlratte and Wild Card, to highlight that things have changed, and unfortunately, continue to do so…

      Thank you for your comments!!

      Cheers!

  4. Check out Dylan Samarawickrama”s book To the End of the Road he turned his BMW into a raft and sailed to Columbia from Panama

  5. Seems.like an oversight to talk about the Darien Gap and not mention the Norwegian Helge Pedersen who became the first person to ride the entirety of the Pan American highway without skipping out The Gap.

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