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The planet has more water than land so even overlanders need to find alternative means of travelling between continents. If Graham and I were to reach the distant shores of South America from Europe with our camper van, Baloo had to sail. But where do we start arranging it?
It’s not like Expedia offer comparative online quotes and an easy to use checkout facility. We had so many questions. How do we book freight shipping for a vehicle and can we travel with it?
Do we arrange container shipping and would the van fit inside? How long does it take to sail to South America from Europe? Is the vehicle secure during the passage?
And what about the formalities at the ports?
How to ship a vehicle from Europe to South America
If you’re planning to ship a vehicle from Europe to South America and reading this post, then you have the same questions.
This article will help you in your preparations by taking you through the whole rigmarole. It’s a lengthy post. We’ve tried to give you all the information we have so you can decide how to ship your own vehicle from Europe to South America.
It’s split into 3 main sections:
- Types of vehicle shipping – basic information on available options
- RoRo shipping from Europe to South America – detailed process for booking, boarding and disembarking a RoRo ship, specific for Europe to South America
- Practical advice for passengers onboard a cargo ship – tips for surviving a month at sea
Types of vehicle shipping
There are 2 ways to ship a vehicle overseas: container shipping and Roll on Roll off (RoRo).
Our experience to date is limited to shipping Baloo by RoRo. We’ve included basic details on container shipping for completeness.
Container shipping means transporting a vehicle inside a locked metal container. Standard containers are 20ft or 40ft long. Although most cars fit into the smaller size, many overland travellers try to share a 40ft container to save on overall costs.
Larger overland vehicles maybe too tall or wide for standard containers. They could be loaded into:
High top containers – the same dimensions as a 40ft container only a couple of feet taller
Open top containers – the same dimensions as a 20ft container but without a roof
Tracks – suitable for vehicles too wide for a container and open all round.
The freight ships used to transport containers are huge. We saw several at sea and there was at least 2800 40ft containers on the decks alone. With storage capacity below deck too, they probably carry about 5000 containers.
Advantages & disadvantages of container shipping
A sealed container provides some protection from your vehicle being broken into. This increased security is the reason many people choose container shipping over RoRo.
Container shipping is more expensive than RoRo and you need to clear customs yourself at the port of destination or pay a local agent to do it for you.
This isn’t so much a problem for South America and there’s loads of information available on the internet on the process for all the main ports.
Ask your shipping agent for a detailed run down of what you need to do and costs you can expect to incur.
We’ve seen how containers are handled around the port. The stevedores move at break neck speeds, flying around the dockside as though in a scene from a Mad Max movie.
Containers are knocked against the side of ships, lowered unevenly into position and thudded on the ground during unloading.
Watching port operations in several ports of call, we’re glad Baloo wasn’t inside one of them. Container shipping doesn’t protect the vehicle as much as we thought.
If you plan to use container shipping, make certain your vehicle is securely fastened to the container so when it’s knocked around, it won’t move anywhere. And make sure you take out the appropriate level of insurance too.
RoRo shipping (roll on roll off)
This is where either you, an agent or the ship’s crew drives your vehicle onto the ship. It’s much like a car ferry but with limited space onboard for anything other than cars and a few containers.
The vehicle can travel as cargo or as an accompanied vehicle.
Your vehicle is treated as cargo if you’re not sailing with it. In this case, you’ll leave the keys with the shipping company because they may need to move it at some ports of call.
We thought we’d need to handover our keys too, even though we were sailing with her but nobody asked for them.
The RoRo ships are smaller then the huge freight liners. The ship we sailed on, the Grande Amburgo, carries a maximum of 3600 cars. On our passage, she was carrying 2300 cars and 360 containers. Still a hefty amount.
Advantages & disadvantages of RoRo shipping
The 2 main reasons overlanders use RoRo rather than container shipping: they want to save on costs and/or their vehicle is too big for a container.
In our case, Baloo wouldn’t fit into a container so we had to ship by RoRo.
One of the greatest drawbacks overlanders worry about with RoRo is the security of the vehicle. Because owners have to leave the keys in the ignition, the vehicle remains unlocked.
Add to this several ports of call before the ship reaches its final destination, each port adding ever more worry. We understand this.
It was the ultimate reason we decided to sail with Baloo. We thought at least when we arrived in ports of call, we could watch the vehicle all the time if we needed to.
The reality for us was different. We locked Baloo up when we drove her on and kept the keys. Maybe this is normal for an accompanied vehicle or maybe it was because the ship wasn’t fully loaded so we could park without any risk of being moved during the voyage.
Either way, we were delighted to have her locked up. And anyway, access to the cargo decks is restricted, especially during cargo operations because it’s downright dangerous, so we couldn’t have watched her as we had hoped.
After we booked, the schedule and ports of call changed. Originally, our voyage was to go via Dakar – the port we worried about security most.
The route changed a few weeks before we travelled and we didn’t call at any African ports en route. We understand Grimaldi are now offering a route direct from Europe to South America without any African stopovers.
So is RoRo or container shipping best?
Your own personal circumstances and appetite for risk will play a huge part in deciding which route to take. Based on our experience of a month at sea on RoRo, watching containers bashed about and stevedores driving like nutters, we’d choose RoRo again.
We disembarked a few days ago and already we think we’d travel with her again. Maybe we’ll wait a while yet though!
RoRo shipping from Europe to South America
Most travellers who want to ship a vehicle from Europe to South America by RoRo use the Italian shipping company, Grimaldi.
You can either load your vehicle as cargo and fly to the destination to meet the ship or accompany your vehicle on the voyage.
The following sections are based on our experience sailing with Baloo from Antwerp to Montevideo. It’s helpful for anyone planning to travel as a passenger to accompany their vehicle on any RoRo service.
Choosing an agent
Grimaldi only takes bookings from agents. Well that’s what they say anyway, although we’ve heard some travellers have managed to book direct.
Martin explained the process and it all sounded pretty straightforward. No dramas, no fuss, give him about 3 months notice and he’d get it all booked!
IVSS deals with loads of overlanders. Martin and his wife Nicole have travelled extensively in their own vehicle too so understand how important our trucks (and homes) are to us all.
So we were decided. We didn’t need anymore convincing and didn’t even speak to any other agents.
Martin emailed the sailing schedule and booking options so we could decide what we wanted to reserve.
Choosing a route from Europe to South America
We had a choice of 2 ports in South America to sail to: Cartagena, Colombia or Montevideo, Uruguay. April and May is a great time of year to start our South American foray in Colombia so we looked into this first.
The challenge (for Graham at least) is the Europe to Cartagena route doesn’t accommodate passengers so Baloo would need to sail alone. It’s not a problem as such, but deckhand Admiral Graham really wanted to sail with her.
A month is a long time to be at sea. Believe us! When choosing your route, make sure you read the scheduled ports of call.
Aim to minimise the number of ports because each one is an additional security risk and adds a few days to the total journey time.
Cost of RoRo shipping from Europe to South America
For shipping Baloo as cargo on the RoRo service from the UK to Cartagena would have cost around £2700 including all clearance, export and port fees.
For the same to Montevideo would cost around £3300. After including flights, accommodation and living costs for the month Baloo was at sea, it would cost closer to £6k.
Sailing with Baloo as an accompanied vehicle cost a little more than £6k but not a lot. It’s made Graham a happier man, and it’s been a complete adventure so all in, we think it was well worth the extra few pound.
Choosing a cabin
Grimaldi have a limited number of passenger cabins onboard – about 6 or 7. There’s 3 cabin types:
- an interior cabin, with a bunk bed, ensuite and no window,
- an ensuite outside cabin with 2 single beds side by side and opening window and
- a suite with a lounge, ensuite and double bed.
Grimaldi quote prices per person. An interior cabin is €1000 per person cheaper than the exterior cabin. That window would cost us €2000 for a month and we just couldn’t justify the extra price.
So we booked the interior cabin, resigning ourselves to spending most of our waking hours in the ship’s communal areas with natural daylight rather than the cupboard we’d just booked.
Then things took a little turn for the better. A month after we booked, Grimaldi decided the ship would no longer call at Tilbury so instructed us to join the ship in Antwerp, 5 days earlier than planned.
The message was a matter of fact but by way of recompense for the inconvenience, our cabin was upgraded to one with a window.
It was the first real sign this voyage was more about the business of shipping cargo than customer service and passenger comfort but we were chuffed with the upgrade. Pushing for the suite proved fruitless though!
We’ve now seen all 3 cabins and lived in one. There’s loads more room in the suite but everything else is about the same and not worth the extra €1600 per person.
The interior cabins are small and without any natural light, dark and dingy. The exterior cabin is by far the better option although at the full price, we’d have to consider if it’s still good value.
As part of the booking process, shipping insurance is offered. Prices are quoted as a percentage of the vehicle value so make sure you value it correctly and choose the cover you need to suit your risk appetite.
As an accompanied vehicle, we opted for the lowest cover, total loss only at a cost of 0.5% of the vehicle value. The insurance certificate is issued a day or 2 before sailing.
If you’re in any doubt as to whether shipping insurance is worthwhile, read this news article. It’s another Grimaldi ship similar to the vessel we sailed on.
It’s now almost 5km below seal level at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. We believe there’s at least 3 overland vehicles on it.
Booking your voyage on a RoRo ship
Once we’d decided on cabin, insurance and route, we called Martin at IVSS and asked him to go ahead with the booking.
We opted for Montevideo and we’d set sail on or around the 30th April from Tilbury Dock, London (until Grimaldi changed the schedule a few weeks later anyway).
We sent Martin a copy of our passports and vehicle registration documents and by return received a copy of the invoice.
And with that and a flex of the flexible friend, a 25% deposit was paid and it all became real. Best get the camper van conversion finished, quick smart!
To drive the vehicle out of the port in Montevideo we needed valid insurance cover for Baloo.
If we took a flight into Uruguay, we could have arranged the insurance cover in Montevideo before the ship arrived. Because we planned to sail with the vehicle, we didn’t have this luxury.
Rather than disembark in Uruguay and need to arrange insurance before we could take Baloo out, we arranged our insurance before we left.
Martin at IVSS arranged this for us and because the Argentinian insurance agent wouldn’t issue the certificate until it was valid we had to take the policy out early, giving us time to print the certificate before we boarded the ship.
We lost out on a little over 1 month of cover this way but the hassle avoided on arrival was worth the £27.
Confirmation of departure date (ish)
About 6 weeks before the scheduled departure, it’s time to settle the final invoice. We sent Martin a copy of our travel insurance and yellow fever certificates with our final payment, in return for a pdf copy of our ticket.
Ok so paying is always the most painful part but once the coffers were bled dry, excitement kicked in.
We had a ticket! And a link to a Grimaldi spreadsheet.
It’s kind of the cargo shipping version of a departure board, only less reliable. Because shipping dates can change without notice, it’s down to us to monitor the spreadsheet for updates and not miss the ship.
We also had the telephone number of the Grimaldi port agent in Antwerp who we must call about 6 days before the scheduled departure date for further instruction.
We monitored the (almost) exact location of the Grande Amburgo on marinetraffic.com for a few weeks, on its voyage towards Antwerp.
There’s no rhyme nor reason for checking so often but we did it anyway. By the time we were driving around Holland in mid April, we were checking twice a day!
It didn’t speed her progress up and the ship continued to slowly plod towards Antwerp docks. Row faster!
6 days before our scheduled departure, we called Philip, the Antwerp port chap. He sounded as though he was expecting our call!
“Hello Graham! Come along on Friday morning, your cabin will be ready” he said. “You sail on Friday night.”
Fantastic! A few days early too.
Preparing the truck to sail (and ourselves too)
Completely excited we made our way from the Netherlands, arriving in Antwerp on Thursday. We spent the day preparing Baloo and ourselves for a month at sea.
We’d already been running our fuel tanks low so weren’t carrying too much. We topped up the water tanks so we didn’t have to run around looking for fresh water the moment we landed in Uruguay.
Then we had a full deep clean of Baloo. We’d only been living in her for 10 days but you know how it is. We did the laundry, ate or gave away any perishables and gave Baloo a jet wash until she sparkled!
Friday morning and we set off in the direction of port immigration like excited school kids on a field trip.
Antwerp immigration office and port
Antwerp port, the 2nd busiest in Europe after Rotterdam, is an enormous, sprawling site. To board the ship, first we needed permission from the immigration office.
Armed with our passports and ticket, we strolled into the immigration office and handed our paperwork over to a rather glum looking chap. Clearly the excitement we were exuding over our impending sea voyage wasn’t rubbing off on him.
Mr MoodyBum asked us to take a seat while he dealt with the formalities. Eventually he returned with our paperwork. Our ship wasn’t expected to arrive until 4am on Saturday so we should leave the port and return tomorrow.
A quick call to Philip and he confirmed all is well and we can return on Saturday and our cabin will be ready (again). At this point, we have no idea when we might actually leave Antwerp but so long as we boarded, we didn’t mind.
We spent the rest of the day trying not to make any mess in a completely clean and tidy Baloo and half unpacking our bags to find our toothbrushes and clean underwear! Oh and we checked on the ship’s progress too many times than was healthy.
The next morning, we set off again. Driving to the port gate, we showed the pass Mr MoodyBum had given us to the security guard. He told us to drive to the dockside until we found our ship.
He might have warned us how dangerous a task he had set us! It was like driving through a city street only the buildings were built from 40ft shipping containers stacked 6 or 7 high.
Fellow road users were stevedores racing huge machines lifting 20ft and 40ft containers high in the air. Or cars that would have looked at home in a stock car race, pushing other cars around, bumper to bumper. Completely manic.
Boarding the Grande Amburgo
Eventually we found the Grande Amburgo. Parking Baloo in what we hoped was a safe spot, we walked up the loading ramp to find someone who could tell us what to do next and hoped it didn’t include anymore dangerous sports.
Claudio, the 3rd mate and chief gofer met us at the top of the ramp and asked us to drive Baloo onboard. We parked, picked up our luggage, locked her up and Claudio led us to our exterior cabin.
Then we waited. And waited. And waited. 3 days later, we set sail from Antwerp towards Hamburg; in completely the opposite direction to South America. Another sign this voyage is all about the cargo and not fare paying passengers.
What happens at the ports of call en route?
Before the ship arrives in each port, a pilot joins the crew on the bridge to help navigate the local waterways. This is always interesting, mainly because we watched the pilot climb onboard the moving vessel, a welcome break from the daily routine of the past few days at sea.
Once docked, the ship’s crew get to work lifting and shifting cargo. Watching from the deck is fascinating and we never got bored of the crazy stevedores at work.
Passengers can request permission to go ashore. The captain would agree (or not I guess), and we’d make our way to the top of the loading ramp through the cargo deck.
Here, one of the officers would tell us what time to be back onboard and arrange for port security to drive us to the port gates. Aaaah – the sweet aroma of freedom!
After staggering around the local town (accustomed sea legs struggle for a few hours on dry land), picking up wifi, getting a decent coffee, maybe a beer and replenishing our snack supply, it’s time to get back onboard.
But don’t worry, there’s the evening meal to look forward to!
We stopped at Hamburg, Vigo, Rio de Janeiro and Argentina’s Zárate before finally arriving in Montevideo, Uruguay. While we had a cracking day in Hamburg, there’s not much to do in Vigo but it was pleasant enough and worth getting off the ship for a few hours.
We had high hopes for Rio, excited to finally take our first steps on the South American continent. Those hopes were dashed with a 3 hour stopover from midnight and we didn’t even get off the ship!
We stopped over in Zárate for 2 nights too. Just enough time to explore the run down port town, pick up some wifi and have a fine steak and bottle of Malbec.
Disembarking at Montevideo
Well what an introduction to Uruguay! Border crossings are inherently stressful but not this one! We’ve never met more laid back, relaxed and happy immigration and customs officials – Mr MoodyBum take note.
The process couldn’t have been any easier for us.
- Claudio returned our yellow fever certificates in exchange for our passenger badges. He asked us to disembark, but wait at the bottom of the ramp for the Grimaldi agent.
- When the agent arrived, our passports in hand and all smiles, she took photos of us and Baloo for her blog!
- We drove across to the customs office – Administración Nacional de Aduanas.
- An immigration officer and customs official met us at the door and prompty greeted us with smiles and a firm handshake.
- We escorted them back to Baloo and they asked to look inside. After a cursory glance – they didn’t even go inside – they said gracias.
- Back inside, we took a seat next to the immigration officer as he filled in the necessary forms. He asked which border we plan to leave Uruguay from. While it isn’t mandatory to leave from the border post given, they must put something on the form. We selected Rivera.
- We showed a copy of our insurance certificate, driving licence of the registered keeper and a copy of the vehicle’s registration documents.
- And with another shake of the hand, they issued a 12 month TIP.
We know there were some challenges for overlanders who had left their vehicles in Uruguay in 2016. After customs impounded many cars and trucks, a lengthy legal battle ensued, fortunately settled in favour of the overlanders. It’s unclear to us what the rules now are, but we were told by the officials we couldn’t leave the vehicle in Uruguay without us.
Read more: Overlanding travel documents
Practical advice for passengers on a cargo ship
Being a passenger on a cargo ship is nothing like being on a passenger ferry. Throw away any thoughts of customer service, helpful signposts, overpriced cocktail lounges and evening entertainment.
This is a working cargo ship and it won’t take long to know where you are in the pecking order.
We’ve written an article about our daily life at sea. Take a read off it here for a humorous yet honest reflection on our voyage and to help give you an idea of what to expect.
To help you prepare for your time onboard a cargo ship, here’s some practical advice.
Avoiding parking on the decks
When you book a RoRo, make sure at the time of booking your vehicle will be parked indoors and not on the outside decks. Sea water is corrosive and any vehicle parked outside will arrive covered in a thick layer of salt.
Check which ports you can board at
When we booked our voyage, we planned to board at Tilbury Docks. If the schedule moved forward, so long as we were packed and ready, it would only take us a few hours to reach the port.
Then we were told we had to board in Antwerp 5 days earlier than planned. That’s more than a few hours drive from the UK.
To avoid unnecessary pressure, we decided to spend a week in the Netherlands before we were due to sail, never more than a few hours drive from Antwerp.
We boarded the ship on 28th April in Antwerp, sailed to Hamburg before arriving in Vigo in the north of Spain on 7th May.
If we could have boarded in Vigo instead of Antwerp, we’d have reduced our passage by 9 days. It’s not possible to board at every port of call so it’s worth checking with your agent first.
Meal times and dietary requirements
Meal times are strict. Breakfast is served from 07:30 to 08:15, lunch from 11:00 to 11:45 and dinner from 18:00 to 18:45. If you don’t arrive at the table within 60 seconds of the start time, expect Roger the cabin boy to give your cabin door a gentle tap.
The diet is made up mostly of white carbs: pasta, bread, rice & sometimes potatoes. This is often accompanied by meat, cheese or fish.
Sometimes meat, cheese and fish. Vegetables are scarce or boiled beyond any nutritional value but fresh fruit is served at lunch and dinner.
The cook shan’t win any culinary awards. Food is often bland, sometimes cold, almost always funny – at least during the first couple of weeks until is wears a bit thin – but edible.
Nobody will go hungry on a cargo ship, but all will look forward to some home cooked food when they disembark. If you have any dietary requirements make your agent aware of them before you book and make sure they can be met.
We have no idea how the cook would cope with a vegetarian to feed.
What to pack to take onboard
Clothes, toothbrush and toiletries are enough to survive onboard for a month. A few little extras will make your time more comfortable though. Here’s our advice:
- Pack for the changing climate; layers are best
- Suncream (you’ll need it)
- Decent coffee & a travel kettle
- A couple of 2 round pin adaptors if your electronics have 3 pin plugs
- Plenty of reading material
- Maps and guide books for trip planning
- We took our own pillows onboard too and were glad of them
- We bought nibbles at the ports we stopped off at too
- Rubber soled deck shoes for walking around on an often wet deck
- Binoculars for spotting wildlife
You can’t take onboard more than 200 cigarettes or alcohol and any kind of drugs are obviously a complete no-no. The environment is quite disciplined so we wouldn’t have wanted to get caught breaking these rules. And we didn’t.
Facilities onboard a cargo ship
There’s a passenger laundry, well stocked with washing powder and fabric conditioner. The communal rest room is shared with the officers and cadets and filled with board games, books and table football to keep you entertained during the day.
The gym is basic but functional and the table tennis could keep you occupied for hours in a calm sea.
There’s no cocktail lounge or internet café though so best get used to living off grid for a while.
Even so, we managed to get wifi at each port of call and the longest stretch without a connection was between the Canary Islands (where we joined the whole crew on the starboard deck to get the last bit of a European signal) and Zárate; about 17 days in all.
There’s a few deck chairs onboard but if you can’t find them, just ask one of the crew. They’ll be happy to fetch you some if they’re not busy.
When we sailed to Montevideo, there was only 1 other passenger on the ship so there was enough chairs to go around. If there’s not enough though, you can always arrange with the 1st mate to access your vehicle and fetch your own camping chairs.
There’s a medical room and at least one of the crew is a trained first aider. We wouldn’t have wanted to be in need of medical attention onboard though and it’s a long way to the nearest hospital from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!
So how do you survive as a passenger onboard a cargo ship?
Our advice is to be patient, relax and enjoy the voyage. Expect the unexpected, especially at mealtimes. Don’t be shy in asking the crew for help, directions or advice or even for a tour of the engine room and bridge.
The crew will always help you out if they can. They’re quite rubbish at sharing information with passengers proactively (or at least the crew on our ship was) so if you’d like a regular update on the planned schedule, you need to ask for it.
A month is a long time at sea and by the time we arrived in Montevideo we felt stir crazy but detoxed from the hectic lifestyle we left behind. Embrace it. This is a journey few travellers get to experience and is a completely unique adventure.