The Pan-American Highway is a network of roads stretching across the American continents and measuring about 30,000 kilometres (19,000 mi) 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.
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.
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. In 1950, Mexico became the first Latin American country to complete its portion of the highway.
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).
The Northern Pan-American Highway travels through 9 countries:
The Southern Pan-American Highway travels through 5 countries:
Important spurs also lead into 4 countries:
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.
In 1966, the Federal Highway Administration designated the entire Interstate Highway System part of the Pan-American Highway System, 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
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. Later branches were built to the border as follows:
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.
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. 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 Colombian border. 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. In 1979 a team led by Mark Smith drove standard production CJ7-model Jeeps from South to North, traversing the Gap - with difficulty. 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, with an extension of the existing Panama highway that would complete the highway without violating these environmental concerns.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 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.
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. 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.
The northern end of the Pan-American Highway at Deadhorse, Alaska
Pan-American Highway in El Salvador between Lourdes and Santa Ana; this flat 1.5 km long straight section can be used as an airstrip and it was used during El Salvador Civil War.
Panamericana in the Atacama Desert northern Chile