The Forgotten Highway

Why you still can't drive from the top of the Americas to the bottom

Illustration by Gregory Manchess

Panama's image abroad is defined by the Panama Canal, which the United States formally handed over to Panama at the end of 1999. But the Isthmus of Panama is also a land bridge, linking North and South America. Oddly, the foreign powers that dominated the country—first Spain, then France, and then the United States—neglected to build a route that would open this land bridge to traffic. Today Panama has no highway or railroad running its entire length. The so-called Pan-American Highway, a hemispheric network of roads that includes our national highway system and those of other countries, has only one missing link from end to end—in Panama's unruly 6,400-square-mile eastern border province of Darién.

By the early 1960s it was possible to drive on a continuous road from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to the southern part of Central America, and then from the northernmost fingers of the Andes to Tierra del Fuego. Darién remained untouched, its swampy terrain hardly mapped. By the end of the decade, however, reconnaissance teams and engineers anticipated that the construction of a road could be finished in ten years. Work on the Darién highway began.

Then planners in the U.S. government, which was providing most of the funding for the highway, became concerned about an ugly issue that had somehow gotten little attention. Opening the Panama-Colombia border would mean exposing Panama, and eventually the countries to the north, to foot-and-mouth disease, the scourge of the South American cattle industry. North and Central America had eradicated foot-and-mouth at great cost. Darién constituted a self-sustaining and highly effective barrier against a new outbreak. In 1975, when about half of the highway was finished, a U.S. judge blocked completion of the project, citing the foot-and-mouth problem, among other concerns. Three years later Washington let the project die.

In the years since the United States withdrew support, political obstacles to completing the highway have increased, especially in Panama. Most Panamanians are mestizo, and harbor mixed feelings about Darién, the majority of whose residents are black or Indian and retain strong cultural ties with Colombia. Thinly populated and nearly impenetrable, because of its steep coastal mountains and exuberant rain forest, Darién is an attractive refuge for drug traffickers and guerrillas. The discovery of a cocaine laboratory in Darién in 1984 became a key part of the case the United States later built against Panama's military leader, Manuel Noriega, because of his connections to the Medellín cartel. In 1993 three American missionaries were kidnapped from a remote Indian village in the province, reportedly by Colombian rebels; to date no one knows what has become of them. Four years ago, and then again last October, Darién was swept by Colombian death squads hunting for rebel sympathizers. Panama's police force is reluctant to enter some areas of the province.

Isolation and a wretched infrastructure may be contributing to Darién's lawlessness, but they have also been keeping Colombia's chronic violence at a safe distance from the western part of Panama, where 95 percent of Panamanians live. The difficulty of traversing the province works against another intrusion: immigration from the south. Isolation has also helped to preserve Darién's old-growth rain forest to some extent and has allowed Indian tribes who do not want to be integrated with the outside world to remain separate. Panamanians like to say that Darién is abandonado, and although they express concern about its social problems, most of them prefer that the province remain essentially as it is: a buffer zone.

The northern half of the Pan-American Highway ends at a small inland village called Yaviza, on a high riverbank just fifty-one miles from Colombia. The distance from Yaviza to Panama City is only 165 miles, yet it feels much farther by car. The stretch of highway that crawls through Darién is not at all like the part that comes into Panama City from the north. Most of it is unpaved, and near Yaviza, it is little more than a mud slick.

Yaviza, though a prominent dot on maps of Panama, is not much bigger than a football field. Indians and black descendants of colonial-era slaves crowd into the few narrow streets; their shacks rise on stilts above the soggy, trash-covered ground. The village holds a crumbling Spanish fort but otherwise reveals little of its age. In this climate, where an inch of rain can fall in an hour, visual distinctions between old and new are blurred. Houses start rotting as soon as they are built.

The look of tropical decay conceals a tenacity that has kept Yaviza alive for almost 400 years, through a series of mini-booms separated by epochs of stagnation. In Spanish times Yaviza was a trading town, a place where two heavily traveled rivers intersected and people came to cash in on a harvest of plantains, some recently panned gold, or a felled mahogany tree. Today, despite its connection to the outside world, Yaviza is still only a trading post. If there has been any change in the twenty or so years since the highway arrived, it is a slight rise in cocaine and weapons dealing with Colombians.

Still, if Yaviza has not been transformed by the highway, other parts of Darién have. Since the late 1970s an epic migration of peasants from the western parts of Panama has broken the landscape open. Cattle ranching and high-yield agriculture have arrived, bringing drab, parched fields and the omnipresent haze of brush-clearing fires. The rain forest, which used to cover an area nearly twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, has retreated mainly to mountainsides and private reserves. The only remaining large chunk of lowland jungle stands in the corridor between Yaviza and Colombia, which is exactly where the highway has yet to go.

Finishing the highway may not be what Panama wants, but the highway may, in a sense, finish itself. Open land has started to run out in western Darién, so peasants—along with their cattle—are migrating toward Colombia, where foot-and-mouth disease remains a problem. Meanwhile, modern communities are taking shape along the highway. The government, under pressure from the peasants, has announced that it will begin paving the road to Yaviza. And a network of pioneer roads has already begun to snake from Yaviza toward the border.

Frontiers do not, except in a rhetorical sense, disappear overnight. They break apart slowly, season by season, harvest by harvest, generation by generation. For twenty years it has been abundantly clear that Darién's forest was breaking up. Perhaps the only constant in Darién is a sense of historical irony—all the wasted effort to finish the highway, and now the futility of trying to hold it back.