Pan-American Highway road trip: Live the magic of Latin America

Does your heart cry out for adventure? Then grab your passport, car keys, and a camera and head south for a Pan-American Highway road trip

Close your eyes and imagine nothing but you and a long, open road full of possibility. Let the feeling of excitement course through you as your mind travels to all the adventures that are waiting to unfold. A road trip is no small undertaking, be it along the Spanish coastline or the Americana fuelled route 66. Yet, there is one road trip that will make even the most seasoned traveler stop in their tracks. The Pan-American Highway road trip. Constructed in 1936, this 19,000-mile highway stretches from Mexico to Buenos Aires, uniting the Americas. But it is not the length of this trip that makes people fear the open road, it is the high-risk factor. You may come across extreme weather, landslides, and road blockages caused by grazing livestock. But don’t let this put you off. Grab your belongings and get planning your PAH road trip. 

The history of the Pan-American Highway

The idea for the Pan-American Highway originates from the First International Conference of American States in 1889 when a railroad uniting all American nations was proposed. The idea was met with a lukewarm response and was eventually shelved in 1903 when work on the Panama Canal began. Next, the idea of a highway was proposed at the fifth conference in 1923 thanks to the rise in automobile ownership. It wasn’t until the sixth conference in Cuba in 1928 that the idea was approved. But, in 1929, the Great Depression hit the US and delayed the project further. In 1937, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Canada, and the United States all signed the Convention on the Pan-American Highway agreeing to achieve speedy construction. In 1950, Mexico became the first Latin American country to finish its part of the highway. 

Where does the Pan American highway begin and end?

The Pan-American Highway start and finish points are debatable. This is because there is no single route to take. The official and original section of the highway traces the spine of Latin America from Nuevo Laredo in northern Mexico to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Yet, many tangents make it possible to explore from the Arctic to almost the Antarctic. This makes for a gas-guzzling 30,000-mile-long journey that will put even the most extreme traveler to the test. 

Did you know?: The AAA predicted that road trips will account for 80% of American travel for the fall of 2020

But whether you decide to go the whole hog or just travel through select regions, the following destinations are a must-see on your travels. Just make sure to plan and prepare before you set off on your travels as many areas of this route are a far cry from modern life.

The Pan Am Highway is the longest road in the world and starts in Mexico

Begin your Pan-American Highway road trip in Mexico

There is no better place to begin your Pan-American Highway trip than the original starting point, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico just south of San Antonio, Texas. From here you will be able to dive deep into Mexican culture and witness firsthand the local way of life. Take the Mexican federal highway 85 and pass through the picturesque Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range where you can marvel at the majestic pine forests. Monterrey is a must-visit destination as it is one of Mexico’s top cultural hubs bursting with arts, science, and sporting events to enjoy. Continue your travels towards Mexico City, stopping to rest your head in Ciudad Victoria, a small city located in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. Here you can explore eye-opening wildlife, and try delicious local delicacies. Once rested, jump into the driver’s seat and head south to Querétaro.

Continue the Pan-Am Highway in Mexico

Traveling the Trans American highway is no small feat and you will soon realize this once your Pan-American Highway road trip is underway. The highway travels vast distances which forces you to take pitstops in various cities along the way. Querétaro is a fabulous destination for a break as it is famous for its well-preserved colonial architecture. Continue to Mexico City to spend a few days soaking up the fast-paced city. For art lovers, a trip to the Frida Kahlo museum is a must and for foodies, the iconic Mercado de la Merced is unmissable. Take the federal highway 190, stopping off to explore the famous pottery of Puebla. Before reaching the border with Guatemala, be sure to visit Oaxaca and discover the vibrant food and art scenes. Then, venture to Tangolunda and stay in one of the beachfront hotels before reaching San Cristóbal de las Casas, the last Mexican stop before crossing the border. 

Beachfront hotel in Tangolunda

The Pan-American Highway map continues to Guatemala

Leave behind the romantic city of San Cristobal de las Casas and continue south towards Guatemala City. You will notice the landscapes change as the built-up Mexican cities melt away and your surroundings resemble something from an Indiana Jones movie. Take time to experience life in a Guatemala town and spend a few days exploring Quetzaltenango. Surrounded by volcanoes and embellished with neoclassical architecture, this city is a feast for the eyes. 

Did You Know? 60+ miles of the Pan-American Highway road trip remain incomplete. This is called the Darién Gap

Continue your travels, making sure to take in the magnificent Mayan ruins along the way. Make a beeline for the capital. While some consider Guatemala City a no-go zone, others see it as an exciting city undergoing a cultural revival. Either way, it is a fascinating place to explore before continuing your Pan-American Highway route toward El Salvador.

Traveling the Pan-American Highway in El Salvador

As you get deeper into the Mayan kingdom, the more jungle-like the landscape becomes. This is one of the Pan-American Highway dangers, but as long as you don’t bother residents and animals, all is ok. Leave behind the dazzling lights of the city and break your drive with a trip to the Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site. It is considered to be one of the most important archeological sites in the country and was believed to be a village inhabited by the Mayans in the 1st century. 1,400 years ago, this site was covered in ash thanks to the eruption of the Laguna Caldera volcano, turning it into a Pompeii of the Americas and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Travel onto the city of San Salvador where the downtown market is a feast for the eyes and the emblematic cathedral, along with the tomb of the archbishop Arnulfo Romero, the “Bishop of the Poor,” is a must-see for your Pan-American Highway road trip. 

Driving the Pan-American Highway between El Salvador and Nicaragua

For those not ready to leave El Salvador behind there are plenty of incredible sights to see before you reach El Amatillo, the border crossing between El Salvador and Honduras. Head towards Santa Rosa de Lima and marvel at the majestic Río Lempa. Or, if you are feeling like you want to stretch your legs, a visit to the Salvadorian Resistance Museum combined with a hike to Mount Perquín is a perfect choice. At the top of the mountain, take in the awe-inspiring views of El Salvador before jumping behind the wheel again to reach El Amatillo. Check your Pan-American highway travel time and continue on your route in Honduras before you reach El Guasaule, the border crossing between Honduras and Nicaragua. Take advantage of your Pan-American Highway road trip to explore the Momotombo volcano which is responsible for the eruption that nearly destroyed the nearby city of León - a fantastic place to explore.

El Salvador’s nature is a highlight of the Pan American Highway road trip

Travel the pan highway to Nicaragua

Now that you have made it across the border, head to León. You will notice that culture is palpable. Everywhere you look, you will find references to art, history, and literature. This city even has the largest cathedral in colonial America, which also happens to be a UNESCO site. Continue your journey towards Costa Rica, stopping off at Montelimar to enjoy some days on the beach. Enjoy the fabulous sunsets and relax in the splendid natural surroundings before traveling onwards toward Peñas Blancas, on the border with Costa Rica. Here you can bathe in nature and enjoy the towering mountain ranges and spectacular waterfalls. It is no surprise that this destination is a top choice for anyone making a Pan-American Highway documentary.

Costa Rica Pan-American Highway tours

The final destination on our road trip is Costa Rica. From here, the Pan-American Highway road trip route extends through Panama, Colombia, all the way to Argentina on the Pan-American Highway South America. Live the Pura Vida and enjoy everything that this vast jungle nation has to offer. Head to the coast to enjoy some well-deserved relaxation. Tamarindo or Playa Hermosa are top locations for a luxurious stay. Once road-ready, head to the Arenal National Park where you can escape from the hustle and bustle of the world and lose yourself in the volcanic landscapes. The last eruption was in 1992 and ash can still be seen on the floor as you follow the nature trails. And, to round the trip off with a bang, head to the capital, San José to enjoy the hedonistic delights of the numerous cultural highlights that bars and nightclubs have to offer.