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Pan American Highway

a system of highways that extends from the United States-Mexico border to southern Chile, connects the east and west coasts of South America, and links the capitals of seventeen Latin American countries


The Pan American Highway has four major terminals in the United States -- Nogales, Arizona and Eagle Pass, El Paso, and Laredo, Texas. These four terminals connect via different individual routes to Mexico City, and from there the Highway runs through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and into Panama. The Darién Gap, a 250-mile stretch of jungle, blocks the Highway at Chepo, Panama. To continue to South America, vehicles must be ferried from Panama to La Guaira, Venezuela, or Buenaventura, Colombia. South of this area, the Highway follows the western coastline of South America to Puerto Montt, Chile.

At Santiago, Chile, a major branch of the Highway cuts eastward across the Andes Mountains to Buenos Aires, Argentina. From Buenos Aires, it follows the east coast north to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and then turns inland to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Other branches lead to the capitals of Bolivia (La Paz and Sucre), Paraguay (Asunción), and Venezuela (Caracas). The Highway is sometimes said to extend through the United States and Canada into Alaska, but neither country has officially named any highway as part of the Pan American Highway system.

map of the Pan American Highway network


In the late-1800's there was talk of building a railway to connect most of Latin America, but no serious effort to build such a railway was ever undertaken. The first serious discussion of building a highway through Latin America began in 1923, at the Fifth International Conference of American States. That discussion led to the First Pan American Highway Congress at Buenos Aires in 1925.

Organization of the system began in the late-1920's, and by 1940 over 60 per cent of the Highway between the United States and Panama had been completed. By the early-1950's, most of the project was open to travel in South America. One of the most important links in the system, the Thatcher Ferry Bridge over the Panama Canal at Balboa, was completed in 1962.


Each country on the Highway has jurisdiction to build, designate, and maintain its part of the system. The chief coordinating body is the Pan American Highway Congress, which meets once every four years. International agreements concerning the Highway have dealt mainly with international connecting points, the financing of bridge construction at borders, and reciprocity of drivers' licenses and vehicle registration.

World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978.

El Salvador
Costa Rica
Panama Canal

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This page was last updated on July 20, 2018.