Pan-American Highway

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The Pan-American Highway from Prudhoe Bay, U.S.A. to Quellon, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina, with official and unofficial routes shown in Mexico and Central and South America. A few selected unofficial routes shown through the United States and Canada as they existed in the early 1960s. In 1966 the new U.S. Interstate highway system brought official status to most previously unofficial routes in the lower 48 states. PanAmericanHwy.png
The Pan-American Highway from Prudhoe Bay, U.S.A. to Quellón, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina, with official and unofficial routes shown in Mexico and Central and South America. A few selected unofficial routes shown through the United States and Canada as they existed in the early 1960s. In 1966 the new U.S. Interstate highway system brought official status to most previously unofficial routes in the lower 48 states.

The Pan-American Highway [1] is a network of roads stretching across the American continents and measuring about 30,000 kilometres (19,000 mi) [2] in total length. Except for a rainforest break of approximately 160 km (100 mi), called the Darién Gap, the roads link almost all of the Pacific coastal countries of the Americas in a connected highway system. According to Guinness World Records , the Pan-American Highway is the world's longest "motorable road". However, because of the Darién Gap, it is not possible to cross between South America and Central America with conventional highway vehicles. Without an all-terrain vehicle, it is necessary to circumnavigate this terrestrial stretch by sea.

Road A demarcated land route with a suitable surface between places

A road is a thoroughfare, route, or way on land between two places that has been paved or otherwise improved to allow travel by foot or some form of conveyance, including a motor vehicle, cart, bicycle, or horse.

Americas Landmass comprising North America, Central America and South America

The Americas comprise the totality of the continents of North and South America. Together, they make up most of the land in Earth's western hemisphere and comprise the New World.

Darién Gap break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest

The Darién Gap is a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest within Panama's Darién Province in Central America and the northern portion of Colombia's Chocó Department in South America. The gap begins in Yaviza, Panama and ends in Turbo, Colombia, and is 106 km long. Roadbuilding through this area is expensive and the environmental cost is high. Political consensus in favor of road construction has not emerged.


The Pan-American Highway passes through many diverse climates and ecological types, from dense jungles, to arid deserts, to barren tundra, some of which are passable only during the dry season, and in many regions driving is occasionally hazardous. The Pan-American Highway system is physically mostly complete and extends in de facto terms from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in North America to the lower reaches of South America. Several southern highway termini are claimed to exist, including the cities of Puerto Montt and Quellón in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina. West and north of the Darién Gap, it is also known as the Inter-American Highway through Central America and Mexico where it splits into several spurs leading to the Mexico–US border.

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska CDP in Alaska, United States

Prudhoe Bay or Sagavanirktok is a census-designated place (CDP) located in North Slope Borough in the U.S. state of Alaska. As of the 2010 census, the population of the CDP was 2,174 people, up from just 5 residents in 2000; however, at any given time, several thousand transient workers support the Prudhoe Bay oil field. The airport, lodging, and general store are located at Deadhorse; the rigs and processing facilities are located on scattered gravel pads laid atop the tundra. It is only during winter that the surface is hard enough to support heavy equipment, and new construction happens at that time.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere; it is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Puerto Montt City and Commune in Los Lagos, Chile

Puerto Montt is a port city and commune in southern Chile, located at the northern end of the Reloncaví Sound in the Llanquihue Province, Los Lagos Region, 1,055 km to the south of the capital, Santiago. The commune spans an area of 1,673 km2 (646 sq mi) and has a population of 245,902 in 2017. It is bounded by the communes of Puerto Varas to the north, Cochamó to the east and southeast, Calbuco to the southwest and Maullín and Los Muermos to the west.

Development and construction

The concept of an overland route from one tip of the Americas to the other was originally proposed at the First Pan-American Conference in 1889 as a railroad; however, this proposal was never realized. The idea of building a highway emerged at the Fifth International Conference of American States in 1923. The first conference regarding construction of the highway occurred on October 5, 1925. Finally, on July 29, 1937, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Canada, and the United States signed the Convention on the Pan-American Highway, whereby they agreed to speedy construction, by all adequate means. [3] In 1950, Mexico became the first Latin American country to complete its portion of the highway. [4]

The First International Conference of American States was held in Washington, D.C., United States, from 20 January to 27 April 1890.

The Conferences of American States, commonly referred to as the Pan-American Conferences, were meetings of the Pan-American Union, an international organization for cooperation on trade. James G. Blaine, a United States politician, Secretary of State and presidential contender, first proposed establishment of closer ties between the United States and its southern neighbors and proposed international conference. Blaine hoped that ties between the United States and its southern counterparts would open Latin American markets to US trade.

Argentina Federal republic in South America

Argentina, officially the Argentine Republic, is a country located mostly in the southern half of South America. Sharing the bulk of the Southern Cone with Chile to the west, the country is also bordered by Bolivia and Paraguay to the north, Brazil to the northeast, Uruguay and the South Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Drake Passage to the south. With a mainland area of 2,780,400 km2 (1,073,500 sq mi), Argentina is the eighth-largest country in the world, the fourth largest in the Americas, and the largest Spanish-speaking nation. The sovereign state is subdivided into twenty-three provinces and one autonomous city, Buenos Aires, which is the federal capital of the nation as decided by Congress. The provinces and the capital have their own constitutions, but exist under a federal system. Argentina claims sovereignty over part of Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

In practice the concept of the Pan-American Highway is more publicly embraced in Latin American countries than in North America. Much of the road system in Latin America is explicitly marked as Pan-American (commonly Vía Panam).

Countries served

Map of the Alaska Highway portion (in red) of the Pan-American Highway system. Alaska Highway1.png
Map of the Alaska Highway portion (in red) of the Pan-American Highway system.

The Northern Pan-American Highway travels through 9 countries:

Canada Country in North America

Canada is a country in the northern part of North America. Its ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 9.98 million square kilometres, making it the world's second-largest country by total area. Canada's southern border with the United States, stretching some 8,891 kilometres (5,525 mi), is the world's longest bi-national land border. Its capital is Ottawa, and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. As a whole, Canada is sparsely populated, the majority of its land area being dominated by forest and tundra. Consequently, its population is highly urbanized, with over 80 percent of its inhabitants concentrated in large and medium-sized cities, with 70% of citizens residing within 100 kilometres (62 mi) of the southern border. Canada's climate varies widely across its vast area, ranging from arctic weather in the north, to hot summers in the southern regions, with four distinct seasons.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Mexico Country in the southern portion of North America

Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country in the southern portion of North America. It is bordered to the north by the United States; to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Covering almost 2,000,000 square kilometres (770,000 sq mi), the nation is the fifth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent state in the world. With an estimated population of over 120 million people, the country is the tenth most populous state and the most populous Spanish-speaking state in the world, while being the second most populous nation in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico is a federation comprising 31 states and Mexico City, a special federal entity that is also the capital city and its most populous city. Other metropolises in the state include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Toluca, Tijuana and León.

The Southern Pan-American Highway travels through 8 countries:

Important spurs also lead into 4 countries:

Northern section

Interstate 35 in the U.S. state of Iowa. I-35 is a de facto branch of the Pan-American Highway I-35 nb ia exit 182.jpg
Interstate 35 in the U.S. state of Iowa. I-35 is a de facto branch of the Pan-American Highway

Alaska and Canada

The Alaska Highway through Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia is commonly considered a de facto northerly extension of the Pan-American Highway, as well as the Dalton Highway in Alaska. In Canada, no particular road has been officially designated as the Pan-American Highway. The National Highway System, which includes but is not limited to the Trans-Canada Highway, is the country's only official interprovincial highway system. However, there are several Canadian routes that are a natural extension of several key American highways that reach the Canada–US border. British Columbia Highway 97 and Highway 2 to Alberta both pick up where the southern end of the Alaska highway leaves off. Highway 97 becomes U.S. Route 97 at the Canada–US border. British Columbia Highway 99 provides an alternate route from Highway 97 just north of Cache Creek that runs through Whistler and Vancouver before ending at the Canada–US border at the north end of Interstate 5 in Washington State, the beginning of the official Pan-American route south of British Columbia. Meanwhile, Alberta Highway 2 runs south and east to Alberta Highway 3 leading into Lethbridge, then south on Alberta Highway 4 to the Canada–US border where it becomes Interstate 15 in Montana, the first official stretch of the Pan-American Highway south of the Alberta route.

Alaska Highway Historic highway from British Columbia to Alaska

The Alaska Highway was constructed during World War II to connect the contiguous United States to Alaska across Canada. It begins at the junction with several Canadian highways in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and runs to Delta Junction, Alaska, via Whitehorse, Yukon. When it was completed in 1942 it was about 2,700 kilometres (1,700 mi); but in 2012 it was only 2,232 km (1,387 mi). This is due to constant reconstruction of the highway, which has rerouted and straightened many sections. The highway opened to the public in 1948. Once legendary for being a rough, challenging drive, the highway is now paved over its entire length. Its component highways are British Columbia Highway 97, Yukon Highway 1 and Alaska Route 2.

Yukon Territory of Canada

Yukon is the smallest and westernmost of Canada's three federal territories. It has the smallest population of any province or territory in Canada, with 35,874 people, although it has the largest city in any of the three territories. Whitehorse is the territorial capital and Yukon's only city.

British Columbia Province of Canada

British Columbia is the westernmost province of Canada, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains. With an estimated population of 5.016 million as of 2018, it is Canada's third-most populous province.

Contiguous 48 states of the United States

In 1966, the Federal Highway Administration designated the entire Interstate Highway System part of the Pan-American Highway System, [5] [6] although this has never been reflected in any of the official interstate signage. Of the many freeways that make up this very comprehensive system, there are several that stand out because of their mainly north-south orientation and their links to the main Mexican route and its spurs as well as to key routes in Canada that link to the Alaska Highway. These include the following:

Several North American routes have names that make no direct reference to the Pan-American Highway, in part because some sections follow highways that are not up to full freeway standard


1933 map of the Inter-American Highway portion of the Pan-American Highway. Inter-American Highway map October 1933.jpg
1933 map of the Inter-American Highway portion of the Pan-American Highway.

The official route of the Pan-American Highway through Mexico (where it is known as the Inter-American Highway) starts at Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (opposite Laredo, Texas) and goes south to Mexico City along Mexican Federal Highway 85.[ citation needed ] Later branches were built to the border as follows:

From Mexico City to the border with Guatemala, the highway follows Mexican Federal Highway 190. [11] [12] [13]

Central America

Pan-American Highway in Chimaltenango (Guatemala), 2001. Panamericana-Chimaltenango-080215.jpg
Pan-American Highway in Chimaltenango (Guatemala), 2001.
Pan-American Highway at David, Chiriqui David (Panama) - Route Panamericaine.JPG
Pan-American Highway at David, Chiriquí

The Pan-American (or Inter-American) highway passes through the Central American countries with the highway designation of CA-1 (Central American Highway 1). In Guatemala, it passes through 10 departments, including The Department Of Guatemala, where it passes through Guatemala City. In El Salvador, it passes through the cities of Santa Ana, Santa Tecla, Antiguo Cuscatlán, San Salvador, San Martín, San Miguel, and crosses the border into Honduras at Amatillo. From Honduras, it passes into Nicaragua, passing through the Nicaraguan cities of Somoto, Estelí, Sebaco, Managua, Jinotepe, and Rivas before entering Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas. In Costa Rica, it passes through Liberia, San José, Cartago, Pérez Zeledón, Palmares, Neily, before crossing into Panama at Paso Canoas. In Panama, it crosses the Panama Canal via the Centennial Bridge, and ends at Yaviza, at the edge of the Darién Gap. The road had formerly ended at Cañita, Panama, 180 km (110 mi) north of its current end. United States government funding was particularly significant to complete the high-level Bridge of the Americas over the Panama Canal, during the years when the canal was administered by the United States.

Belize was supposedly included in the route at one time, after it switched to driving on the right. Prior to independence, as British Honduras, it was the only Central American country to drive on the left side of the road.

Darién Gap

Map of the Darien Gap and the break in the Pan-American Highway between Yaviza, Panama and Turbo, Colombia Darien Gap OSM.svg
Map of the Darién Gap and the break in the Pan-American Highway between Yaviza, Panama and Turbo, Colombia

The Pan-American Highway is interrupted between Panama and Colombia by a 100 km (60 mi) stretch of marshland known as the Darién Gap. The highway terminates at Turbo, Colombia and Yaviza, Panama. Because of swamps, marshes, and rivers, construction would be very expensive.

Efforts have been made for decades to eliminate the gap in the Pan-American highway, but have been controversial. Planning began in 1971 with the help of United States funding, but this was halted in 1974 after concerns raised by environmentalists. Another effort to build the road began in 1992, but by 1994 a United Nations agency reported that the road, and the subsequent development, would cause extensive environmental damage. There is evidence that the Darién Gap has prevented the spread of diseased cattle into Central and Northern America, which have not seen foot-and-mouth disease since 1954, and since at least the 1970s this has been a substantial factor in preventing a road link through the Darién Gap. The Embera-Wounaan and Kuna have also expressed concern that the road could bring about the potential erosion of their cultures.

The Darién Gap has challenged adventurers for many years. A 1962 expedition with three Chevrolet Corvair rear-engine cars [and two support trucks] completed the trip south [from Chicago] through to the Columbian border [14] . A 1971-72 British expedition from Alaska to Argentina attempted to transit the Gap with two standard production Range Rovers, supported by a team of Land Rovers. They barely succeeded in thrashing a passage through the extreme terrain. [15] In 1979 a team led by Mark Smith drove standard production CJ7-model Jeeps from South to North, traversing the Gap - with difficulty. [16] In June 1984, Loren and Patty Upton took 741 days slogging, winching, chopping and digging their way through the inhospitable jungles of the Darién Gap.

One proposed option to bridge the gap is a short ferry link from Colombia to a new ferry port in Panama, [17] with an extension of the existing Panama highway that would complete the highway without violating these environmental concerns.

Southern section

A Via PanAm shield sign is sometimes found on routes in South American countries (such as Chile) associated with the Pan-American Highway. Chile Via Panam.svg
A Vía PanAm shield sign is sometimes found on routes in South American countries (such as Chile) associated with the Pan-American Highway.
Sculpture of a native man standing at the entrance of Fusagasuga, Colombia, over the Highway 40. IndigenaFusa.JPG
Sculpture of a native man standing at the entrance of Fusagasugá, Colombia, over the Highway 40.

Colombia and Venezuela

The southern part of the highway begins in northwestern Colombia, from where it follows Colombia Highway 62 to Medellín. At Medellín, Colombia Highway 56 leads to Bogotá, but Colombia Highway 25 turns south for a more direct route. Colombia Highway 72 is routed southwest from Bogotá to join Highway 25 at Murillo. Highway 25 continues all the way to the border with Ecuador.

Another route, known as the Simón Bolívar Highway, runs from Bogotá (Colombia) to Guiria (Venezuela). It begins by using Colombia Highway 71 all the way to the border with Venezuela. From there it uses Venezuela Highway 1 to Caracas and Venezuela Highway 9 to its end at Guiria.

Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay

Monument on the Equator on the highway near Cayambe, Ecuador. TRUE EQUATORIAL MONUMENT ON THE PAN AMERICAN HIGHWAY; CAYAMBE, ECUADOR.jpg
Monument on the Equator on the highway near Cayambe, Ecuador.

Ecuador Highway 35 runs the whole length of that country. Peru Highway 1 carries the Pan-American Highway all the way through Peru to the border with Chile.

In Chile, the highway follows Chile Route 5 south to a point north of Santiago (Llaillay), where the highway splits into two parts, one of which goes through Chilean territory to Puerto Montt, where it splits again, to Quellón on Chiloé Island, and to its continuation as the Carretera Austral . The other part goes east along Chile Route 60, which becomes Argentina National Route 7 at the Argentinian border and continues to Buenos Aires, the end of the main highway. [18] The highway network also continues south of Buenos Aires along Argentina National Route 3 towards the city of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. Another branch, from Buenos Aires to Asunción in Paraguay, heads out of Buenos Aires on Argentina National Route 9. It switches to Argentina National Route 11 at Rosario, which crosses the border with Paraguay right at Asunción. Other branches probably exist across the center of South America.

Almost all Pan-American sections in Gran Buenos Aires are modern and fast main highways Avenida General Paz entre Cabildo y Panamericana.jpg
Almost all Pan-American sections in Gran Buenos Aires are modern and fast main highways
West Access to Buenos Aires Acceso Oeste km 17.jpg
West Access to Buenos Aires

Brazil and Uruguay

A continuation of the Pan-American Highway to the Brazilian cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro uses a ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia in Uruguay and Uruguay Highway 1 to Montevideo. Uruguay Highway 9 and Brazil Highway 471 route to near Pelotas, from where Brazil Highway 116 leads to Brazilian main cities.

Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana

The highway does not have official segments to Belize, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, nor to any of the island nations in the Americas. However, highways from Venezuela link to Brazilian Trans-Amazonian highway that provides a southwest entrance to Guyana, route to the coast, and follow a coastal route through Suriname to French Guiana.

West Indies section

Plans have been discussed for including the West Indies in the Pan American Highway system. According to these, a system of ferries would be established to connect terminal points of the highway. Travelers would then be able to ferry from Key West to Havana, drive to the eastern tip of Cuba, ferry to Haiti, drive through Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and ferry again to Puerto Rico. Included in this system would also be a ferry from the western tip of Cuba to the Yucatán Peninsula. Mexico has already surveyed a route which will run across the Yucatán, Campeche, and Chiapas to San Cristobal de Las Casas, on the Pan American Highway. ("The Pan American Highway System" by Travel Division Pan American Union, Washington D.C. October 1947)

Art and culture

Travel writer Tim Cahill wrote a book, Road Fever, about his record-setting 24-day drive from Ushuaia in the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay in the U.S. state of Alaska with professional long-distance driver Garry Sowerby, much of their route following the Pan-American Highway. [19]

In the British motoring show Top Gear , the presenters drove on a section of the road in their off-road vehicles in the Bolivian Special.

In 2003, Kevin Sanders, a long-distance rider, broke the Guinness World Record for the fastest traversal of the highway by motorcycle in 34 days. [20]

In 2018, a British cyclist named Dean Stott who had planned on riding the length of the Americas in 110 days to set a new Guinness World Record ended up completing the 14,000-mile journey in just under 100 days after learning that he and his wife had been invited to the royal wedding, revealing that he would have missed the event had he stuck to his original schedule. [21]

YouTuber Ben Jamin (and later with his girlfriend Leah Airey) documented their five year journey (2011-2016) while traveling from Chile to Alaska on their YouTube channel Kombi Life. Born and raised in the British Isle of Jersey, Jamin bought and converted a 1992 Volkswagen Kombi in Southern Chile for the trip. Series highlights include mechanical issues, their dog named Alaska, relationships with fellow travelers, and travel vlogs of the various countries. [22] Jamin made international news when he was denied a visa to reenter Alaska to finish their multi-year journey. He was eventually allowed back into the United States on a B visa, and the couple finished their trip. [23]

See also

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