Have you ever wondered how long can a highway be? While some only last hundreds of miles, others cross countries and continents. In the Americas, the Pan-American Highway stretches for approximately 19,000 miles (30,000 kilometers). It crosses 15 countries and two continents. No other highway in the world comes close to the Pan-American.
Keep reading to discover more about the world’s longest highway.
What Is the Pan-American Highway?
The Pan-American Highway is better described as a network of highways throughout North and South America. The Pan-American Highway is the world’s longest “motorable road,” according to Guinness World Records. This highway aims to promote intercontinental connectivity and facilitate trade, tourism, and cultural exchange throughout the Americas.
But How Did this Highway Come to Life?
The idea of a highway linking the nations of North, Central, and South America came from the United States. It was initially proposed as a railroad in 1884 and discussed at the First Pan-American Conference in 1889. However, construction never started, and the project was abandoned with Panama’s independence in 1903 and the construction of the Panama Canal.
Twenty years later, the idea of building a highway instead of a railroad was discussed at the Fifth International Conference of American States in 1923. This happened in a transition period from railroad transportation to automobile transportation of goods and passengers. In 1925, the first conference regarding the highway’s construction occurred.
It was only 12 years later, on July 29, 1937, that the countries came to an agreement. The United States, Latin America, Central America, South America, and Canada signed the Convention on the Pan-American Highway. They all agreed to achieve speedy construction. Mexico was the first Latin American country to complete its portion of the highway 13 years later.
The entire highway was built in stages. One is still ongoing (and might never be completed) and is supposed to continue the road from Ushuaia, the southern terminus, into the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Where Does the Pan-American Highway Start?
The official start of the highway is in the United States in Prudhoe Bay (near Deadhorse), a village with just over 1,000 inhabitants in northern Alaska. The highway then journeys southward all the way to South America.
Where Does the Pan-American Highway End?
The final stop for the Pan-American highway is in Ushuaia, Argentina. Located on the island of Tierra del Fuego, it is the southernmost city in the world. Its location at the southern extremity of the South American continent earned the city the nickname “The End of the World.” The city of Ushuaia is a getaway to many Antarctica excursions.
What Are the Different Routes?
As said previously, the Pan-American highway is a network of roads throughout continents. Built throughout the 20th century, the highway was built on different stages. The official route goes from Prudhoe Bay, AK, to Ushuaia, Argentina.
The original route (before the rest was completed) stretches from Monterey, Mexico. It then extends to Mexico City, San Salvador, Panama City, Cali, Quito, Lima, Antofagasta, Valparaiso, and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Now, the road continues southward along the Atlantic Ocean to Ushuaia in Argentina. However, Quellon in Chile (south of Valparaiso) also claims to be the end of the official route.
In North America, there are two options. Both start at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska and continue southward to Fairbanks, Whitehorse, and Edmonton. There, the highway splits into a western and eastern road. The western option goes to Calgary, Billings, Denver, and Albuquerque. The eastern highway travels through Winnipeg, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Both meet again in San Antonia before continuing southward.
If you decide to travel the Pan-American Highway, there is no good or wrong option to take; it is a matter of preference!
When driving on the highway in Alaska, you might see signs about the U.S. portion of the Pan-American Highway. The I-25 is labeled as the Pan-American freeway in Colorado and New Mexico. Most of the highway in Latin America wears the name Pan-American (Vía Panam or Vía Panamericana).
What About the Darién Gap?
If the Pan-American Highway is a network of highways connecting countries throughout the Americas, it has a gap where the road splits. The area is called the Darién Gap, one of the planet’s most dangerous and inhospitable areas. It is not that the road is dangerous, just that none exists.
Located between Panama and Colombia, the Darién Gap is a dense and challenging region separating North and South America. Over 100 to 160 miles (160-260 kilometers) of untamed wilderness, the Gap comprises dense rainforests, swamps, rivers, and rugged mountains.
Visitors have various options to cross this area. These include flying in small planes or traveling by boats or ferries. It is also possible to hike between Colombia’s last town and Panama’s first outpost. However, on average, this 4-day long hike is extremely challenging and dangerous. Plus, it is impossible to cross the area without a guide or the knowledge of someone local.
The fast-flowing rivers and unpredictable rivers can make the crossing very dangerous. Additionally, the region is home to some of the deadliest wildlife on the planet. And there have been reports of hazardous militia groups operating in the area.
Despite the dangers, the Darién Gap is frequently used by populations trying to reach North America. Between 2014 and 2021, 253 migrants died or went missing in the area.
Recently, there have been discussions about building a highway through the gap separating both continents. However, this area is a protected region, thanks to its importance biologically and ecologically. It is also home to many unique and endangered species and is a vital link for migratory birds. Columbia and Panama are vehemently opposed to any construction.
What Climates Does the Pan-American Highway Experience?
While driving from Alaska, United States, to Ushuaia, Argentina, the Pan-American Highway not only crosses countries but also climates, ecosystems, landscapes, and terrains.
- Arctic and Sub-Arctic Climates: As the highway begins in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions are characterized by frigid temperatures. Additionally, snow and ice are characteristic in the winter months.
- Temperate Climates: In Canada and the United States, climates are more temperate with a mix of four seasons, including cold winters and warm summers.
- Tropical Climates: The highway encounters tropical climates with hot and humid conditions year-round through Central America and northern South America.
- Arid and Desert Climates: In parts of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, most of the regions are more arid and desertic, with low rainfall and high temperatures.
- Andean Highlands: In Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, the highway winds through the stunning Andes Mountains. These high-altitude areas have colder temperatures and also diverse microclimates.
- Patagonian and Subpolar Climates: In southern Chile and Argentina, the Pan-American Highway travels to reach Patagonia. The area is known for its subpolar climates with cold winters and strong winds. It also includes diverse landscapes, like glaciers and fjords.
- Mediterranean Climates: Some coastal areas in South America experience Mediterranean climates with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers.
- Antarctic Climates: Its southern terminus, Ushuaia, is located near the Antarctic region and can experience cold, sub-Antarctic conditions.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Leonid Andronov/iStock via Getty Images
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