Daniel Susco
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Interesting Highway History: The Almost Pan-American Highway and the Darién Gap

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So I have just learned two things that I think are fascinating. The first thing is the existence of Pan-American Highway, a crazy-long stretch of highways that runs the full length of both North and South America, from a gravel lot in Tierra Del Fuego National Park, Argentina, almost 14,000 miles north to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the Arctic Ocean. The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the world’s longest “motorable” road.

The second is that this hugely long stretch of road is actually bisected by a comparatively tiny stretch of jungle right where Panama meets Columbia: the Darién Gap.

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So, why is this one little expanse keeping this multinational pole-to-pole road from meeting? It turns out there are a handful of reasons.

The first is the land itself—the Darién Province of Panama from which the gap gets its name is just extremely hostile to roadbuilding. The area is home to dense rainforest, a vast swamp, and huge mountains, none of which would have engineers saying “Oh, piece of cake.” This area is also home to plenty of dangerous wildlife, from poisonous frogs to jaguars and venomous snakes, and the area frequently floods in the rain. On the beneficial side, this makes the area also a barrier to the spread of disease like foot-and-mouth disease.

Darien Gap pacific coast

Notice that this photo of the area is from off-shore
Photo: David Broad via Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the people. There are several indigenous cultures living in the jungle, who aren’t too happy about the idea of a bunch of travelers road-tripping their way through and upsetting their way of life. Meanwhile, the area is rife with drug smuggling, leading to clashes between paramilitary groups from Colombia with Panama’s border-control force to control the area.

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Given all that, it seems just fine that the route generally has travelers take a boat or plane to go past the region entirely, and that we only have an almost Pan-American Highway.

Fun fact: a few expeditions have crossed the gaps in cars, though with extreme difficulty. One quote from Colonel John Blashford-Snell seems to sum it up nicely, describing when the rain came early and their vehicles were trapped in mud: “Something had to go and it was the back axles. They exploded like shells with shrapnel coming through the floor.”

News Sources: Condé Nast Traveler, CBS News, BBC

Daniel Susco is a native of the Dayton-Cincinnati area, and has written on a multitude of subjects. He can discuss Shakespeare, expound on Classical Mythology, and even make witty jokes about Pliny the Elder (More like “Pliny the Rounder,” right?). In his free time, Daniel enjoys reading, cooking, woodworking, and long walks on the beach (just kidding – sunburn is no joke). See more articles by Daniel.