Encompassing some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes and almost 30,000 miles of open road across North, Central and South America, the legendary Pan-American Highway is the ultimate road trip.
Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest motorable road in the world, the highway officially takes in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Although it does not officially include routes through the United States and Canada, many people begin in Alaska and drive or cycle all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost point of South America.
There is just one point that is impassable by road: the 100-mile Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, which consists of undeveloped swampland and impenetrable rainforest inhabited by indigenous tribes, Colombian guerrillas and an array of exotic wildlife. This portion of the journey must be bypassed by air or sea, with ferries available to ship vehicles from Panama to Colombia and vice versa (more information available here).
While one of the most popular driving routes in the world, the Pan-American Highway is not just for those who move on four wheels. Every year many determined enthusiasts complete the journey by bike, while some people even travel the entire route by bus. Trains, however, are not a viable option because most Latin American countries to not have extensive passenger rail routes.
Leave Normal Life Behind
If it’s escapism you’re after then what could be better than spending months on the open road with only a digitalized record collection, a copy of Jack Kerouac’s seminal beat novel On the Road and thousands of miles of amazing scenery for entertainment? From the snow-covered Alaskan tundra and the rugged peaks of the Rockies to the sun-baked deserts of northern Mexico and the tropical beachside jungles of Central America, the road just keeps on winding south through the towering Andes and Chile’s surrealist Atacama desert toward the penguin colonies of Patagonia. Aside from admiring natural beauty, a big part of traveling involves meeting new people and learning about foreign cultures, and there is an almost endless stream of stop-off points along the highway that allow for all kinds of interactions and new experiences with the diverse inhabitants of the Americas.
There are many different routes than you can choose to take through Canada and the United States but once you reach Mexico if you’re happy to diverge from the official route then we recommend avoiding the more lawless parts of the north by descending through the cactus-lined highways of Baja California and then catching the ferry from the charming seaside town of La Paz to the Pacific port of Mazatlan. From there you can stop off at big cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City before moving southeast to the culturally rich states of Oaxaca and Chiapas which are home to dozens of Mayan archaeological sites such as the stunning Palenque.
There are fewer route options in Central America where there are not as many roads going north to south, but upon reaching Panama’s Darien Gap we recommend chartering a boat to the colonial city of Cartagena where you can enjoy the best of Colombia’s lush Caribbean coastline. Moving down into Peru, few would pass up the opportunity to hike the legendary Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Further south, you can stop off at Lake Titicaca before taking in the unmissable salt flats that straddle Chile and Bolivia. If you have time for a detour then refuel with the continent’s finest steak and red wine in Buenos Aires before continuing south to the immense glaciers in the Tierra del Fuego region.
Planning Your Journey
Driving an average of eight hours a day, it would take approximately three months to get from Alaska to Argentina, although most travelers take much longer (anywhere from six to 18 months) in order to make regular detours and stop-offs. Costs vary dramatically depending on your choices of accommodation, extra activities and how long you take to complete the journey, but one solo driver spent 22 months on the road for US$27,300 (see his budgeting info here), while another three-person team completed the journey in 20 months for a total of US$88,000 (see their breakdowns per country here).
When planning and executing your journey we recommend you heed the following advice:
- Don’t forget to bring any important travel documents, including your passport and driving license, and – depending on your nationality – make any necessary visa arrangements in advance.
- Consider any vaccinations you might need depending on your route. These may include shots or pills to prevent malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis A & B, typhoid fever, rabies, tetanus and diphtheria.
- Pack clothes for all climates as any trip across the Americas will mean braving both summer and winter and traveling from the icy extremes of Alaska to Patagonia via the sticky heat of the equator.
- Avoid driving at night and always seek out the U.S. State Department’s most recent travel advisories (available here) before entering a country in order to avoid any areas that are threatened by criminal elements or political unrest.
- For more recommendations on travel gear, vehicle modifications, medications, theft prevention, specific border crossing procedures, information on each country, and a full list of online resources, check out The Essential Guide to Driving North, Central and South America, available here.