The Pan-American Highway is a network of roads that connects North and South America, from Alaska to Argentina, with a total length of about 30,000 km (19,000 miles). It is the world’s longest “motorable road”, according to Guinness World Records. But it is also one of the most challenging and diverse routes in the world, passing through 14 countries and various climates and landscapes, such as arctic tundra, boreal forest, mountains, prairies, arid deserts and tropical jungles.
One of the most fascinating and dangerous parts of the Pan-American Highway is the Darién Gap, a 100 km (60 mile) break between Panama and Colombia that consists of dense rainforest, mountains, and swamps. There is no road in this area, only a treacherous trail that is used by migrants, smugglers, and adventurers. The Darién Gap is one of the most popular and perilous migration routes in the world, as migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, and elsewhere risk their lives to cross it in search of work and safety in the United States.
The Darién Gap is also home to Indigenous communities whose lands and cultures are affected by the influx of migrants and smugglers. The region is crawling with paramilitary groups and criminal gangs who are ready to pick off migrants along the way. Violence, extortion and rape are common threats for the migrants. So is death from snake bites, exposure and drowning.
“The route ahead of them will be arduous and life-threatening. But many are naïve to what lies ahead. They’ve been told that the days of trekking are few and easy, and they can pack light,” reported CNN in a recent article. The article also described some of the horrors that migrants face in the Darién Gap, such as masked robbers who take their money and belongings, rapists who target women and children, and corpses that litter the trail.
But not all migrants are deterred by these dangers. Some see the Darién Gap as a challenge and an opportunity to achieve their American dream. They are willing to endure hardship and pain for a chance to start a new life in a new country. They also encounter moments of beauty and kindness along the way, such as the stunning scenery of the rainforest, the generosity of some locals who offer them food and shelter, and the solidarity of fellow travelers who help each other survive.
“The notion that there could and should be an inter-American highway, linking the nations of North, Central, and South America, is an idea originating from the United States,” wrote Wikipedia in an article about the history of the Pan-American Highway. The idea was born in 1923 as a way to promote trade and cooperation among the American countries. But it was never fully realized due to political, economic, and environmental obstacles.
The Darién Gap remains one of those obstacles. It is a gap not only in the road but also in the vision of a united continent. It is a gap that separates dreams from reality for many migrants who cross it. It is a gap that reveals the perils and wonders of the world’s longest road.
– The Pan American Highway: The Longest Road In The World, Brilliant Maps, March 3, 2023
– Crossing the Darién Gap: Migrants Risk Death on the Journey to the U.S., CNN, April 17, 2023
– Darién Gap migration: On one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes, a cartel makes millions off the American dream, CNN, April 15, 2023
– Crossing the Darién Gap, a Lawless Jungle Dividing the Pan American Highway, HowStuffWorks, October 28, 2021