The Journal  

11 January 2006

The Guzzi Gets Sweet Air

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


The Guzzi Gets Sweet Air: Shipping a Motorcycle Across Continents

December 23-30

One hundred miles beyond Panama City the Pan-American Highway ends abruptly in a little frontier town called Yaviza in the infamous Darién Province . The no-man's land between Yaviza and where the Pan-American picks back up in Turbo , Colombia is known as the Darien Gap. Although there is no formal road through the Gap, crossing by motorcycle is possible and has been done. But the contemporary mix of drug smugglers, highway thieves and Colombian guerillas that inhabit the area keep even the Panamanian military away. If you try and cross the Darién and the jungle doesn't get you, there's a good chance that something else will.

Our journey on the Pan-American ended just east of Panama City at the Tocumen International Airport , where we took the Guzzi to be shipped by plane to Bogotá. The Darién Gap had fascinated me as long as the Pan-American had, but attempting to cross it was not within the scope of this trip. Maybe next time…

Without a road, the only ways to get from the northern to southern American continents were by plane or boat. With a boat journey taking several days and captains scarce over the holidays, we chose to ship both the bikes and ourselves by air. Motorcycle travel Web sites listed several companies, most of which charged around $500 to ship a motorcycle from Panama to Colombia . As I began to call around the news was grim. Most of the carriers would not have cargo flights to Colombia until after the first of the year. Then I talked with Oscar, a Copa Cargo employee who spoke English and told me his company had a flight leaving for Bogotá the following Wednesday (December 28). Shipping costs would total $350 dollars.

At our hostel, we kept out the essentials we would need for a week and stored them in our soft luggage. The rest of our gear was packed into the Guzzi's hard bags and secured to the bike. On Friday, December 23 I rode the bike to the Copa warehouse at the airport. Preparing to ship the bike took about three hours. Like the Panamanian border crossing, about 30 minutes was devoted to tasks of shipping and the other two and a half hours were devoted to waiting.

I was asked if I had gas in the bike. “Just a little,” I lied. The fuel was shrugged off and a warning sticker applied to the tank. Then I was told that I would have to remove the battery. “How I am supposed to take a battery with me on a plane to Colombia ?” I asked. Another shrug and the battery was also ignored. The dimensions of the bike were measured and I rolled it on the scales. The traveling Guzzi weighs 661 pounds (330 kilos) without both riders and about one third of our gear. I'd guess the whole package is about a thousand pounds rolling.

The only thing I had done to prep the bike for shipping was remove the mirrors and duct tape the hard bags closed. My receipt bore the ominous warning that Copa Cargo was not responsible for any damages that may occur during shipping. After my offer to help strap the bike to the shipping pallet was refused, I took one final glance across the warehouse at the parked Guzzi to prepare myself for our first separation in three months and hailed a taxi back to Panama City .

Oscar had promised me the bike would ship Wednesday night and be available for pick-up first thing Thursday morning. In Bogotá, I called Copa bright and early Thursday morning but no one could tell me if the bike had arrived. Checking my tracking number on the Copa Web site only noted that the bike had been received from me in Panama City on December 23. Later in the day, the site noted a receiving date of December 29. Another call to the airport got me instructions to call back later that afternoon.

We had planned to get the bike Thursday morning and ride to Calí on Friday, but the chances of keeping our schedule were looking slim. At 1 p.m. Copa's Web site said that the bike had been manifested on a flight and at two, noted that the Guzzi was in the air, somewhere between Panama and Colombia . The person we spoke with at the airport when we called back in the afternoon said the bike was there, but that we could not pick it up until the next day. At 8 p.m. that night, Copa's Web site revealed that the Guzzi had arrived at 4 a.m. that morning, but had not cleared customs until 7 p.m. that night. There would be no Friday ride to Calí.

At our hostel in Bogotá we met Glenn and Sheila, a Canadian couple who were making the journey south from Vancouver on a pair of KLRs. We had passed the pair, without meeting, in Granada , Nicaragua . In a conversation over breakfast in our hostel's dining room we discovered that their Kawasaki 's were being sent to Bogotá on the same Copa flight as ours. We decided to split a cab to Bogotá's El Dorado International Airport the next morning.


The day begins with a hike to the cargo airport since our taxi driver took us to the passenger airport. We traveled with the Canadians to pick up our bike.

We arrived at the Copa office soon after it opened. Across the warehouse I could see the Guzzi still strapped to its shipping pallet, half the bike concealed in a sea of boxes. We paid a $28 processing fee for our importation paperwork, and then walked across the airport access road to the customs office. An hour's worth of waiting and paperwork later, we returned with a customs inspector and I saw the Guzzi up close for the first time. The bike had been secured surprisingly well and hadn't sustained any visible damage. I reattached the mirrors while waiting for the inspector to look at the bike in anticipation of leaving shortly.


Jeremiah checks over the bike to make sure no damages had incurred during shipping.


They strapped the bike to a pallet that was loaded onto the plane. The bike had arrived at the airport at 4 a.m. Thursday morning.

After the inspector left, Copa employees informed us that he had left his signature off of one sheet of our importation papers. Back across the road at the customs office we waited for our inspector to return from his lunch break to grant us the final, needed signature. When we returned to the warehouse, the Copa employees were on their lunch break. We swapped travel stories while waiting, finding out that Glenn and Sheila had been stopped, probably by the same cop, on the road to Panama City .


Jeremiah and Glenn looked over the Lonely Planet guide while waiting for paperwork to be processed at the airport.

Once Copa reopened for business we had four copies made of all of our paperwork so that permit's could be made for the motorcycles to pass through the gate from the cargo area. Then more waiting. We lounged at the warehouse entrance, watching customs agents go through incoming shipments box by box, piece by piece. Finally, a Copa employee informed us that our bikes were being brought to the gate.

A freight tractor brought the two pallets through the fence by the access road. We stacked wooden pallets as ramps to get the bikes to the ground. Five hours after arriving at the airport, Holly and I were on the Guzzi and heading towards Bogotá, our first ride in over a week.


After five hours of waiting our bikes were brought to an outside gate to be unloaded.


The Guzzi rolls for the first time in a week.



All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus