September 14th 2003
We spent today travelling to Guayaquil, in full anticipation of getting the landy out by Wednesday. It was a long journey, at just over eight hours, but the bus was comfortable and a lot cheaper than the airfare. It also gave us the opportunity of seeing the roads we might later be driving. The first hour or so was spent listening to people selling their wares: first a man stood up and started selling Ginseng tablets, giving a twenty minute spiel on its virtues. He even had a flip chart that went into graphic detail of how it would boost your sexual drive. The nuns on the bus after studying the blurb on the packet didn't buy any, thankfully. This was then followed shortly afterwards by a woman selling leather purses, wallets etc, and then a chap selling perfume. During the trip a whole host of people jumped on at various points selling food, ice-creams or drinks, then jumping off further down the road.
The journey itself took us via Santo Domingo de Los Colorados, a scenic but tortuous mountain road with steep drops either side and no crash barrriers. By the time we reached Santo Domingo, about three hours after having left Quito, we were in the tropical lowlands and already you could feel the heat and humidity. From then on all you could see were miles upon miles of banana plantations and other tropical crops all the way to Guayaquil.
Guayaquil itself was a big change from Quito. The streets were a lot cleaner and well-maintained and there were a lot more people walking around the streets at night than we were used to in Quito (in the central business district). Unfortunately the city is also a lot more expensive, our hotel being double what we were paying in Quito. Hopefully we won't be here too long.
September 15th - 19th 2003
With the Carnet and other necessary documents having been safely delivered to the shipping agent first thing on Monday morning, we spent a restful day and caught up on emails. The shipping agent had assured us that we would have our vehicle out by Wednesday, immediately after the customs inspection, so we were confident we would soon be on our way.
The promised phone call from the shipping agent with an update on Tuesday morning never happened and by 4pm we began to suspect that yet again things were not going to run in accordance with what we had been told. This suspicion was confirmed when we contacted the shipping agent and she informed us that the customs inspection would not take place now until Thursday morning. She gave us the details of the customs agent with whom we were to meet at the port and again assured us that we would definitely have our car straight after the inspection, which should last between two to three hours.
Thursday morning arrived and we checked out of the hotel before dutifully setting off for the port to arrive at the agreed time of 9:30am. On the way to the port our taxi driver needed to fill up with "gas" and it was just that. LPG conversions are available in the UK but they normally have a gas tank specially made for automobiles. This taxi just had a couple of calor gas bottles in the boot and he swapped the empty one for a full one.
On entering the port we met our first "corrupt" official, a very pleasant, smiling man in uniform who stopped the taxi and requested to see our "permiso" to enter the port. We knew we didn't need one, but in lieu of the "permiso" he was more than happy to take a dollar "for a cola" and waived us through ( he would not shut the door until we did). Our taxi driver was not too impressed with the guard..
We were directed to the main customs office where we waited over half an hour for the customs agent. A phonecall to the shipping agent made us realise we had been directed to the wrong place and the customs agent had to come and find us - not a good start. We soon found out that he couldn't speak a word of English, even though the shipping agent had assured us that he could, so we had to struggle through with what little Spanish we knew. Half an hour later we drove out to our container for the customs inspection.
First good sign - the seal matched the one put on the container in Felixstowe, so the container had not been opened. Everything was in order and nothing appeared to have been damaged in transit. The first part of the inspection involved checking the chassis and engine numbers against those recorded on the Carnet and Bill of Lading. No easy task as the vehicle was still in the container with the roof tent strapped to the bonnet. Having got the tent off, it then transpired that none of the customs officials had a torch and it was pretty dark down the back of the 20ft container. Ed rooted a torch out of the landy and it was agreed that everything was present and correct. They then turned to the personal effects.
We were confident we would not be charged import duty for the vehicle as we had the Carnet, which should have made us exempt. We were however a little concerned that they might sting us for duty on the personal effects. This part of the inspection was by no means an orderly affair and there were far too many people around for our liking. A small crowd of dock workers had gradually gathered around us - an opportunity for them to earn "something for a cola" I guess! We were not allowed to remove anything ourselves. Instead the men standing around removed about five or six of our boxes whilst the uniformed customs official got inside the back to look through the rest. Our customs agent and another non-uniformed man, who appeared to be the "hefe", went through each of the boxes in turn. Surprisingly, the whole inspection only lasted about 30 - 45 minutes and they didn't check every single box - I imagine they got bored and/or realised there was nothing untoward. The very detailed inventory we had supplied the week prior to the inspection may have helped. (It was only later that we discovered the more likely reason for the inspection finishing so quickly). Everything was then put back in the vehicle.
Despite being told by the shipping agent that we would be able to take the vehicle as soon as the customs inspection had taken place, this was not the case. To our frustration the container was sealed again and we were escorted away from the area. We were informed by the customs agent that we had to wait until 3:00pm before we would be able to take the vehicle. Not what we wanted to hear. That was three hours away, it was unbearably hot and all we could do was sit on a wall and wait. It also meant that it would be too late to drive anywhere that day and we would have to rebook into a hotel and spend another expensive night in Guayaquil.
We decided to catch a taxi back into town and check into the hotel again.
Returning to the port at 3:00pm we trawled after the customs agent while he gathered various bits of paperwork. Finally we were going to get the landy out. But no. Twenty minutes later he informed us that we could not take the vehicle today and would have to come back on Friday. He tried to explain why but our Spanish did not stretch that far. Our Spanish did however manage to get across how annoyed we were and that we would not stand for any delays the following day. A phonecall to the shipping agent revealed that the delay was down to the fact that the boss had not signed the paperwork to release the container and the port closed at 4:00pm, hence the need to come back the next day. Ed, on the other hand, was told a different story by someone else - the crane used to lift the containers was broken so our container could not be moved. Who to believe?
So Friday morning we checked out of our hotel again and made our way to the port. At 10:30am we were informed that we would need to wait for an hour before we could take the vehicle. We were then abandoned again, not knowing what was happening and why there was a further delay. An hour and a half later we were met and taken to a different part of the port where our container would arrive on a lorry. It arrived and was manouvered up to a recovery vehicle, onto which the Landy would be driven before being lowered to the ground.
Ed drove the vehicle out of the container amidst a gathering crowd, whilst I was very closely "guarded" by a man who had come down from the shipping agency to assist us (our customs agent was nowhere to be seen). He was getting increasingly nervous by the crowd gathering around us and showing too much interest. The landy was barely out of the container before he insisted I get in the vehicle immediately and instructed Ed to drive off back to the port area.. So the roof tent was quickly strapped on the bonnet and Ed drove back to the port area barely able to see where he was driving.
All we needed now were Ed's documents and we would be on our way. If only it were that easy. We were then informed that the documents, which were only a few hundred yards away in the customs office, could not be returned for another hour or so as there were not many people in the office and they could not spare anyone for the five minutes to walk over to us. It was then 3:00pm and the port would be closing at 4:00. By this time we had had enough. I know people keep telling us you have to go softly softly over here, but it was obvious the softly softly approach was getting us nowhere and there was no way we were staying in Guayaquil until Monday. So we refused to leave the port until all the necessary documents were returned. Surprisingly enough, kicking up a fuss worked - the customs agent was with us within five minutes with the documents and we were on our way back to Guayaquil. It was too late to drive to Quito so yet again we had to rebook into our hotel.
All in all this was a very laborious and frustrating process that should not have taken five whole days. Moral of the story: don't hire an agent. We paid for an agent mainly because of our lack of spanish and we thought they would know the customs officials, would be familiar with the procedures and paperwork, and would therefore facilitate and speed up the process. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect and we were convinced our customs agent appointed by our shipper made no effort to chase things on our behalf. If you speak Spanish you should be able to get things done yourself - it would be hard work but you would be in the position to chase things.
It is possible to drive the vehicle out of the port, instead of having it delivered outside the port on a lorry. You need something like "LCL"( Local container load?) specified on the bill of lading. We enquired about this with our shippers but they informed us it was impossible. But other people we have spoken to have managed it.
On the positive side, though, we did not have to pay any customs duty at all, which was a huge relief, as we had heard various horror stories. However, we soon found out why the customs inspection possibly ended as swiftly as it did. It appeared that the nice, friendly customs official had been very busy indeed when he was inspecting the inside of the vehicle. When Ed drove the landy out of the container he found a torn up box on the floor which had once housed our car stereo speakers, yet to be fitted. We are not sure quite how he managed it, but there was no doubt in our minds that it was the customs official who had taken them, probably a past master at it. We imagine he slipped the box under the vehicle amidst all the confusion of various people taking things in and out, returning later to remove the speakers, leaving the empty box behind. Luckily they were only worth about £15, but it was annoying nonetheless.