The Dream of the Pan-American Highway

Many a wannabe globetrotter, perhaps stuck in a drab office cubicle or dismal college lecture hall, has had one fundamental dream. A blurry vision appears as the subject endures another day at the office or marathon class on organic chemistry and hints at the possibility of untold adventure. The dream often comes in the form of a question.

And the question is this: Can I drive from the South Pole to the North Pole?

The short answer is no, of course not. But – and this is a big but – you can, in theory and with the proper vehicle, drive from the southern tip of Argentina to Alaska, and the edge of the Arctic Circle. All on a stretch of road known as the Pan-American Highway.

Pan-Am Highway sign in Argentina

The longest navigable road in the world is actually a series of highway systems that if followed correctly, will take you through most mainland nations in the Americas. That includes South America, Central America and North America. It should be noted however, that the Pan-American Highway is not so much an official passage through the continents, as it is an ideal – albeit a very real one. You can actually traverse the 48,000 km route. There are however, some concerns.

The first is a little geographical snafu known as the Dari?n Gap. The 160 km long, 50 km wide swath of wild, murky rainforest that links Panama with Colombia, and this one continent with another, has become the veritable missing link of the Pan-American Highway. High costs for one, and environmental concerns for another, have always impeded efforts to complete the last piece of the highway puzzle. It’s not as simple as cutting down precious rainforest either – not that it would be a favorable option mind you.

The problem is that the Gap’s foundation is primarily marshland from the Atrato River delta. Not exactly easy to build a highway over that kind of swampy, soupy mess. The logistics are one obstacle, with the distinct possibility that environmental protection and cultural conservation groups will be up in arms over the construction project as the more formidable second.

So, in theory, if you could find a rugged, hearty vehicle and possibly a dugout canoe to muddle through the Gap and the massive UNESCO World Heritage Dari?n National Park in Panama, you can pursue your Argentina to Alaska dream (or vice versa).

Here are some stops likely to draw your attention on the way. Some of them are accessible along different branches of the Pan-American Highway, as there are some unofficial extensions of the continental road system.

Ushuaia is the capital of the province of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. As the southernmost city in the world, it’s also the southernmost point on the Pan-American Highway. With 65,000 people, Ushuaia’s geography is spectacular, with glacier formations from Antarctica and the Martial mountains in close range.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Antofagasta is a port city on the Pacific Ocean in Chile, with more than 285,000 people. In the spectacular Atacama Desert, the attractive little city receives less than 4 mm of annual rainfall on average.

La Portada de Antofagasta rock formation, Chile

Cali is a vast city in Colombia with a metro population that tops 5 million. The city is nestled in a lush valley, completely surrounded by verdant mountains. With a booming economy and bustling nightlife, Cali’s a great place to hang out for a few days before heading back on your Pan-American Journey.

Cali cathedral, Colombia

San Salvador is the capital of El Salvador and has a resplendent cultural heritage, with many unique landmarks to take in.

San Salvador, El Salvador

The modern Mexican metropolis of Monterrey provides Pan-American Highway adventurers with a wonderful city for sightseeing and culinary delights.

Monterrey, Mexico

Billings, Montana may not register with most but the town of 102,000 people along the unofficial U.S. span of the Pan-American Highway offers up some great Big Sky scenery and ideal spots for a little rest and relaxation.

Billings, Montana

The Yukon territory in Canada is home to some of the most spectacular wilderness in the country. The capital of Whitehorse is a small town, with only 23,000 people, but the perfect destination for weary road trippers on the long Pan-American route.

Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

Prudhoe Bay is the northernmost point on the Pan-American Highway. When you reach this area of Alaska, you know it’s the end of the line. Only five people are registered as residents at last count, although a oil fields in the region make it a busy place. With polar night and the midnight sun, you’re truly on top of the world here.

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

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