Bridging the Darién Gap, the Final Piece of the Pan-American Highway
In 2015, I was speaking at a Quebec Transportation Authority event in Montreal on the future of transportation. The attendees included transportation experts from around the world, including Colombia Transportation Minister Natalia Abello Vives, whom I happened to sit next to at lunch.
Meeting her was a unique opportunity for me to discuss one of my favorite topics – the Darién Gap, a 60-mile-long, nearly impassible stretch of jungle, mountains, and rivers between the nations of Colombia and Panama that stands in the way of land vehicles traveling between South America to North America. About half of the Darién Gap lies in each country.
In 1937, the Pan-American Highway agreement was signed by 14 countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Canada, and the United States. These nations agreed to build a highway that would extend from the southern tip of South America to the northern tip of Alaska – a 19,000-mile-long continuous highway.
Eventually, all the sections were built – except through the Darién Gap.
The Historical Obstacles
Back in 2015, Minister Abello explained that the Darién Gap was an environmentally sensitive piece of land, and it would be impossible to build a highway through it. She has a point. Much of the land along the completed highway segments on either end of the Gap has been stripped of trees and other vegetation to allow for cattle farming.
The last major effort to build a continuous road through the Darién Gap was in the 1970s when the U.S. proposed to put up two-thirds of the cost. Environmentalists concerned with deforestation and health experts concerned about the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease raised their respective objections, and the issue was dropped.
The More Recent Obstacles
The Darién Gap, connecting Yaviza Panama on the north end and Turbo Colombia on the south side, can be traversed on foot in a four-to-six-day, very arduous, dangerous trek. The once-desolate jungle is no longer a no-man’s land. A steady stream of migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, and other countries make their way through it as they try to reach the southern border of the U.S.
Along the way, they’re preyed upon by drug smugglers, exploited by both right- and left-wing guerilla groups, and threatened by deadly insects and snakes. Bad people and bad things seem to be attracted to the lawless nooks and crannies of the Darién Gap.
But while the Colombian government may have been (and maybe still is) open to the idea of a road or other means of transit through this stretch, apparently, the Panamanian government and the people of Panama are less excited about it. They see the Darién Gap as a fortunate buffer that keeps the criminals on the Colombian side, even if it’s increasingly porous.
It would be interesting to know the U.S. government’s current position on the completion of the Pan-American Highway, given how it could make migration from South America easier.
Bridging Around the Gap?
I asked Minister Abello if all the options had been explored for spanning the Darién Gap. As we discussed some engineering concepts, she suggested that building a series of bridges over the ocean waters off the coast was a possibility.
Of course! If you can’t go through it, go around it! We could call it the Darién Gap Bypass.
Currently, the longest bridge-tunnel system in the world is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, which is 34 miles long. The bridge around the Darien Gap would need to be roughly twice that long.
Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge
I have no doubt engineers could figure out how to construct this massive series of bridges, and yes, the cost would be astronomical. The bigger issue would be the political pros and cons of making it easier for illegal aliens and drug trafficking problems to make their way through Central and South America as well as the southern borders of the U.S.
Costs and Benefits
Is there a good reason to span the Darién Gap or bypass it with a bridge system?
Would a completed Pan-American Highway promote commerce between North and South America, for example? Perhaps, but the vast majority of intercontinental trade with South America happens by ship, and it’s doubtful that it would be economically feasible to replace that with truck traffic to reach North America.
However, there may be many other ways of looking at this. A single truck from Central America could make dozens of stops along the way into South America, replenishing supplies at all the businesses along the way. From a micro-economic viewpoint, truckloads of goods traveling 100-200 miles could cause local economies to grow in ways we may not understand.
And what about the psychic pleasure of being able to take that uninterrupted 19,000-mile road trip? Is that reason enough to make this kind of expenditure? That kind of expedition would quickly make its way to my bucket list, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
But there are bigger and better reasons for taking this on.
We seem to have grown beyond the idea of doing big things “because we can.” Taking moonshots for the sake of simply achieving moonshots just doesn’t seem right these days for many of the pragmatists among us.
Just over 60 years ago, President Kennedy inspiringly justified the nascent NASA mission to the moon, saying, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” How long ago and far away that seems today.
But doing the hard things is only part of the reason for building the Darién Gap Bypass. Some incredible advances in science, manufacturing, and engineering have been tertiary results of seemingly unrelated major endeavors, including the space program.
The Darién Gap Bypass wouldn’t be just a long, expensive bridge. It could lead to major breakthroughs in bridge design, metallurgy, off-shore platform design, and many other less-apparent areas that could make a huge difference over the coming decades.
At the moment, though, we have a lot of immediacy on our plates, and we’re not willing to invest in seemingly impossible tasks and moonshots. We seem obsessed with solving the problems of the day, paying scant attention to advancing civilization as a whole.
But let’s hope we get back to a time and mindset where we stop living solely for the day and do a few hard things that have the potential to vastly improve our future.
While I do agree that we should aim to achieve also difficult things, I don’t think we can talk about “advancing civilization” by building a road, no matter where that happens. Highways are outdated infrastructures from the 20th century, which also harm the climate and our planet. Japan will complete by 2027 a 300km long high speed train track (90% of which runs in tunnels!) which will operate with up to 500km/h. Trains are the future. They are fast, comfortable and environmental friendly. Cargo should be transported only on trains too apart from the last miles. It will take a lot of time to built a high speed rail network in Central and South America, but it can and should be achieved. Luckily there are finally also high speed train project in the USA on the way.
Over my 84 years, I return from time to time to the dream of driving the Pan American highway. The idea alone symbolizes uniting and appreciating all the different and rich cultures of people and nature of our hemisphere. There is a oneness, a sense of wholeness. This is different from my sense of relations with people and nature on other sides of the oceans.
How about a short rail line similar the the White Pass and Yukon Route?