WHAT: Driving The Pan American Highway
On July 29, 1937, US politicians met with representatives from South and Central American nations to discuss lengthening roadways in order to expedite overland trade. Thus was born the Pan American Highway – a 24,000 km road stretching the entire length of the Americas. Driving the Pan American Highway is now considered the most jaw-dropping, tire-trashing, gas-guzzling journey on the planet, and the world’s longest road trip.
Driving the Pan American Highway will take you from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in the lower reaches of South America. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, this granddaddy of motoring adventures encompasses fourteen countries and runs through every imaginable ecosystem. These include dense jungle, arid desert, swamp, freezing wasteland, and countless mountain ranges. Along the way, you’ll encounter animals from the Polar bear to the Spider monkey, climates that fluctuate between sub-zero and equatorial, and political environments that range between stable to definitely don’t stop to ask directions.
Truckers driving the Pan American Highway generally don’t diverge from the main route. However, the most memorable and bizarre adventures occur in the most obscure locations. Hardened road trippers view the Pan American Highway as a homing beacon, using it to keep them on general track while detouring on and off of the beaten one.
The Guinness World Records title of the longest “motorable road” is a bit misleading. In fact, driving the Pan American Highway offers a few options. Particularly through Canada and the US where extensive road networks from East to West offer multiple driving choices.
1. Start – Dalton Highway – Deadhorse Alaska. The world’s longest road trip begins on what’s considered one of the world’s most dangerous highways. The 380km Dalton Highway involves icy asphalt, awful visibility, and the constant threat of avalanches. Temperatures can drop to -52C.
2. Fairbanks -Alaska. When you reach Fairbanks Alaska, the Dalton highway links to the Alaska highway. After 1,390 miles, this stops in Dawson Creek, British Colombia. 360 miles later, you’ll hit Edmonton, Alberta.
3. Edmonton. From Edmonton, travelers have multiple options. All point to Interstate 35. 2,600 miles later, Interstate 35 will then land them in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Here begins the official start of the “Autopista Americana”. Consider that all countries south of the US Mexico border speak Spanish. As well as being invaluable in the face of problems, Spanish skills will help you get to know the locals. If you’re looking for the kind of offbeat cultural experiences not mentioned in Lonely Planet, then learn to communicate.
4. Nuevo Laredo to Panama. After passing the US-Mexico border, the Pan American Highway, or “CA-1”, becomes a singular route that cuts through all major Central American cities. This stretch of the road will take you through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
After passing the Costa Rican capital, San Jose, the road hits the Cerro Del Muerte (The mountain of Death). Reaching altitudes of 11,000 feet, this section is riddled with potholes, landslides, flash floods, blind corners, and steep dropoffs, all of which are usually concealed by thick mountain fog. On a clear day, travelers will get to view 360-degree views of lush jungle and both the Pacific coast to the west and the Caribbean coast to the east. Drive carefully and keep your eyes peeled.
5. Panama To Colombia. After crossing the Panama canal, the Pan American Highway stops at the infamous Darien Gap. AKA, the most lawless, dangerous, God-forsaken stretch of terrain in the world.
Although it’s home to indigenous tribes, its most infamous residents are drug runners and Colombian guerillas. Here, you’ll have to ship your vehicle from Panama to Colombia (vice versa if heading south to north) and catch a boat or plane to collect it on the other side.
6. South Bound. Following the sites, sounds, and cultural marvels of Colombia, the highway picks up again. So begins the epic trek along the west coast of South America. Among countless other marvels, travelers will experience the untouched rainforests of Ecuador, the ancient Incan ruins of Peru, the Atacama desert and mountains of Chile, the lakes, fjords, glaciers, and steppes of Argentina, and an infinite number of adventures in between. Finally, you’ll hit Tierra Del Fuego on the Southern tip of Argentina. Congratulations! You just survived the world’s longest road trip.
Driving the Pan American Highway takes you through Canada, the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
The Pan American Highway officially stretches around 24,000 km. However, many road trippers cover double that. If you are pushed for time, plan the route ahead and focus on seeing the main highlights. It’s calculated that if you drove three hours a day it would take approximately three months to get from Alaska to Argentina. Remember you’ll be passing the world’s greatest scenery and an endless menu of mind-blowing cultural pit stops. All things considered, it’s no surprise that the Pan American Highway road trip can take between six months to two years, and sometimes longer.
Way too many to mention. The majority of these (break down, crashing, etc) are par for the course in any long, continental road trip. Parts of Central and South America can be rough. Minimize risk by either avoiding or at least being ultra-careful if passing through violent, poverty-stricken regions where gangs and cartels operate.
Even with a reliable vehicle, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll break down at some point. This is when you’ll realize that taking out an international vehicle insurance policy was a wise move. Likewise, taking out personal and health insurance could be a wise move.
Everything you can imagine, and an infinite amount more that you can’t. Including, memories, bragging rights, and anecdotes to last ten lifetimes. As long as you take the time to smell the roses, then the rewards, like the risks, are too numerous to list.