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.

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