The Pan-American Highway is a collaborative system of highways that measures approximately 16,000 miles (25,750 km) in length. It is the spiritual descendent of the Inca Empire's Inca Roads, having been first established in its present incarnation in 1923, at the Fifth International Conference of American States. The system is an effort to link the whole of the Western Hemisphere in a unified highway system.
The Pan-American Highway system, known as the "Panamericana" in the Spanish-speaking countries through which it passes, is mostly complete. From the north, the highway begins as the Alaska Highway in Circle, Alaska and officially becomes the Pan-American Highway in Fairbanks, Alaska. The highway continues down the western coast of Canada and the United States to Mexico City and Oaxaca. From here, it joins the Inter-American Highway, a system which links five nations in Central America. In Panama, the highway is cut short at the Darién Gap, a 57-mile stretch of jungle home to FARC guerrillas, drug traffickers, and indigenous peoples living in relative isolation. There has been significant debate about the completion of the route, as the closing the gap could potentially have the negative effects of:
- Facilitating the movements of guerrillas and narcotraffickers
- Destroying a significant area of rainforest
- Allow the spread of tropical diseases harmful to humans
- Allow foot-and-mouth disease to enter North America
Whatever the reasons for the delay in the completion of the highway, the Lonely Planet travel guide nicely sums up the message to travelers:
Don't even think about entering Colombia from Panama via the Darién Gap. The trek through the jungle is extermely dangerous due to guerrilla activity.
There is currently a ferry service allowing cars and foot passengers to cross the Gulf of Uraba by sea, leaving from Colón in Panama and arriving in Cartagena, Colombia, from which point drivers can rejoin the Pan-American Highway.
The Highway can be dangerous in certain places due to poor road conditions or banditry, especially in Colombia, where the highway crosses through jungle areas patrolled by rebel paramilitary groups.
The Pan-American Highway travels through 13 countries: