Can You Drive From North America to South America? Discover the Pan-American Highway Adventure

can you drive to south america from USA

Do you dream of an epic road trip from Alaska to Argentina? Craving a driving adventure crossing jungles, mountains, and borders? But can you drive from North to South America?

It’s possible to drive all the way to the southernmost city in the world with one catch – the legendary Pan-American Highway that traverses the Americas from north to south.

While you can’t actually drive uninterrupted all the way between North America and South America, you can drive 99% of the route by shipping your vehicle around the infamous Darién Gap.

Ready for the road trip of a lifetime? Let’s look at what’s in store on the Pan-American Highway.

Understanding the Route: The Pan-American Highway

What is the Pan-American Highway?

The Pan-American Highway is a network of roads stretching across the American continents from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina. It passes through many countries and is one of the longest roads in the world!

The concept was spawned in 1923 to connect the economies of American countries. Construction began in the 1950s but remains incomplete due to the missing Darién Gap, which we’ll cover soon.

can you drive to south america
Pan-American Highway

Where does the Pan-American Highway start and end?

The northern end is in Deadhorse, Alaska, but most consider Prudhoe Bay the start since there are limited road connections from Deadhorse.

The road ends in Ushuaia, Argentina, which claims the title of the southernmost city in the world! That makes for an epic adventure covering around 19,000 miles (30,000km).

Main countries the Pan-American Highway traverses

The Pan-American Highway cuts through a whopping 15 countries, including:

  • United States
  • Mexico
  • Guatemala
  • El Salvador
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • Costa Rica
  • Panama
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Peru
  • Chile
  • Argentina
  • Paraguay
  • Brazil

Get your passport ready to handle all those border crossings!

Major highlights and landmarks along the Pan-American Highway

With so many miles to cover, there is an incredible diversity of highlights and landmarks along the route. Here are just a few of the standouts:

  • Alaska’s Arctic Circle
  • Volcanoes of Mexico City
  • Ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala
  • Cloud forests in Costa Rica
  • The bustling metropolis of São Paulo
  • Iguazu Falls bordering Brazil and Argentina
  • Wine country in Chile
  • Glaciers and fjords of Patagonia
  • Iguazu Falls in Brazil

Conditions and difficulties of the Pan-American Highway

Don’t expect smooth cruising on nicely paved highways the whole route. You’ll face a range of road conditions depending on the area. Parts of the road are well-maintained, while other areas present challenges like:

  • Narrow, bumpy dirt roads
  • Landslides and washouts
  • High-altitude routes
  • Limited road signage
  • Unexpected closures
  • Safety concerns in some regions
  • Border crossings can be slow

Give yourself plenty of time and prep your vehicle to handle off-roading and long mountainous stretches. This adventure will test you and your vehicle!

The Hitch in the Plan: The Darién Gap

The Darién Gap represents the only missing link in the Pan-American Highway, but it’s a formidable obstacle. Here’s what you need to know about navigating the Darién Gap:

What is the Darién Gap?

The Darién Gap is a 60-mile (100 km) break in the Pan-American Highway located in the Darién Province on the border of Panama and Colombia. It’s a remote, roadless swath of rugged jungle terrain containing marshlands and mountains.

Darien Gap, geographical region in the Isthmus of Panama, political map
Darien Gap, geographical region in the Isthmus of Panama, political map

Why is the Darién Gap a hindrance to road travel?

This challenging landscape has stymied attempts to complete the highway. The gap lacks infrastructure and roads due to:

  • Steep, mountainous terrain
  • Dense jungle vegetation
  • Wide rivers and wetlands
  • The presence of indigenous communities wishing to remain isolated
  • Hazardous wildlife like snakes and drug traffickers!
  • Environmental and social factors have kept the Darién Gap off-limits to vehicles.

Why Can’t You Drive From North America To South America?
You can’t drive ‘uninterrupted’ from North America to South America due to the Darien Gap, a remote, roadless swath of rugged jungle terrain containing marshlands and mountains located between Panama and Colombia. It spans approximately 60 miles, making it virtually impassable for vehicles.

Attempts and failures to cross the Darién Gap

Several efforts have aimed to complete the missing link but failed:

  • In 1971, a team tried bulldozing a path but had to halt due to terrain and illness.
  • In 1992, an expedition ended when FARC guerillas killed a 24-year-old team member.
  • A 1994 journey had to turn back after less than 10 miles.
  • A 1996 initiative got only 7 miles before being forced to stop.

The gap has ultimately resisted all human efforts and remains an impassable obstacle.

Environmental and human challenges in the Darién Gap

Why has it been so hard to traverse the Darién Gap? The challenges include:

  • Dense jungle and swamplands
  • Dangerous wildlife like jaguars, snakes, and scorpions
  • The presence of indigenous Emberá and Kuna peoples
  • Risk of tropical diseases like malaria
  • Security issues with guerrilla groups

Any road faces huge environmental and cultural barriers. Most attempts were halted due to the incredible difficulties of the landscape and respecting indigenous rights.

A sign shows where the Pan American Highway ends in the Fuego del Mondo National Park near Ushuaia, Argentina
A sign shows where the Pan American Highway ends in the Fuego del Mondo National Park near Ushuaia, Argentina

Current solutions to go around the Darién Gap

To continue a southward Pan-American road journey today, you’ll need to bypass the Darién Gap by:

  • Shipping your vehicle from Panama to Colombia
  • Flying over the gap by plane from Panama City to Medellín
  • Sailing around the gap

While not part of the official highway, these options allow you to bridge the missing link and continue a car trip from North to South America.

Where Does The Pan American Highway Start And End?
The Pan-American Highway starts in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and extends all the way down to Ushuaia, Argentina.

How Long Does It Take? Time to Travel the Pan-American Highway

Let’s look at the estimated time frame for driving the length of the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Argentina.

How long does driving from North America to South America take?

Driving the entire Pan-American Highway from Deadhorse, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, takes about 4-6 months in total.

That factors in driving roughly 8-10 hours per day and taking occasional rest stops. You’ll also need to account for the time it takes to arrange shipping your car across the Darien Gap, which can take 1-2 weeks.

Best time to start this epic road trip

The best time to travel the Pan-American Highway is during the dry season in each region. Generally, ideal times are December-February and June-August. Avoid the rainy season since roads can flood.

Speed limits and road rules to consider

Speed limits vary by country but are generally slower than in the US, ranging from 50 to 90 km/hr (30 to 55 mph). Be alert for speed bumps in towns. Documentation is crucial—have your passport, proof of insurance, International Drivers Permit, and vehicle paperwork like import forms ready.

Essential stops along the way

Plan to stop at least every few hundred miles to avoid fatigue on this massive journey. Some top hotel and lodging options include:

Tips for long drives and overnight stays

Endurance will be tested on this trip. Some tips for getting through it:

  • Split driving duties with others
  • Stay hydrated and caffeinated
  • Stock your vehicle with snacks
  • Carry a GPS, maps, and portable chargers
  • Secure valuables and park only in safe areas
  • Research lodging ahead of time for overnight stays
  • Get sufficient rest between long driving days
  • Take precautions, and you’ll be road-tripping like a pro in no time.

Car Travel Logistics: Shipping Your Vehicle at the Darién Gap

To bridge the Darién Gap, you’ll need to make arrangements to transport your vehicle between Panama and Colombia.

Why would I need to ship my vehicle across the Darién Gap?

Since no roads are crossing the Darién Gap, you have to ferry your car between Panama and Colombia by freighter ship or roll on/roll off barge service. This is the only way to continue the road trip with your own vehicle.

How to arrange for vehicle shipping between Panama and Colombia

Several maritime transportation companies offer vehicle shipping:

Make reservations well in advance and arrive at the port with ample time for processing. Expect delays, so build buffer days into your itinerary. Here is a guide on the shipping process.

What are the costs involved in shipping the vehicle?

Depending on your vehicle size, shipping between Panama and Colombia costs $1200-$1500 on average. Luxury or oversized vehicles incur higher fees. Factor this major expense into your budget.

How long do ship travels take

Most RORO transport times are 1-2 weeks between Panama and Colombia. This leg will require patience but allows you to keep progressing on the Pan-American highway!

Tips for ensuring your vehicle reaches safely

To make sure your vehicle arrives intact:

  • Document any pre-existing damage
  • Empty the car of unsecured objects
  • Disconnect the battery
  • Ensure paperwork like title and registration is in order
  • Take out non-essential items and valuables
  • Get copies of all shipping paperwork

Proper preparation prevents problems down the road.

can you drive to south america
Tropic of Capricorn sign, Atacama Desert, Chile

Extra things you need to know about traveling to South America from the United States and Canada

Driving to South America isn’t like a domestic road trip. Be ready with these key considerations:

How much does It cost

In total, expect to budget around $15,000-$20,000+ for the entire journey, including:

  • Fuel
  • Lodging
  • Shipping vehicle
  • Food
  • Border fees
  • Emergency funds

The best vehicle for Pan-American

An SUV, pickup, or van with 4WD provides clearance for rugged terrain. Modified vehicles outfitted with extra fuel tanks have an advantage. A diesel engine offers a range.

Car Insurance

Get proof of international auto insurance that’s valid in every country. Consider supplemental emergency medical/travel insurance, too.

Currency & Credit Cards

Bring a mix of US dollar cash and credit cards like Visa or MasterCard. Confirm cards will function in each country – calling your provider is wise.

What To Bring

Pack camping gear, emergency kits, tools, language translation books, water purification supplies, border paperwork, and spare parts like belts.

Cell Service

Unlock your phone for international use and get a SIM card in each country as needed. Don’t rely on consistent connectivity.

Traveling With Pets

Contact each country’s embassy about pet import rules. Full vaccination records are essential, and you may need to provide health certificates.

Must-Have Phone Apps

Some handy apps include:

  • Google Translate
  • Maps.Me for offline navigation
  • iOverlander for lodging and camping
  • Duolingo for basic language phrases
  • Roadtrippers for highlights along the route

The Ultimate Destination: Far South America by Car

After traversing the Americas from north to south, here’s an overview of reaching the tip of South America.

Driving in South American countries: common rules and guidelines.

Brush up on the local laws:

  • Right turns on red lights are prohibited
  • Yield to buses pulling away from sidewalks
  • Keep cash for toll roads and bridges
  • Avoid driving at night due to conditions
  • Adhere to speed limits, especially in towns

Best scenic routes to take in South America

Some beautiful drives you don’t want to miss:

  • Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires
  • Route 40 through Patagonia
  • The Chilean Ruta Panamericana along the coast
  • Ecuador’s Chiva Express train route
  • Ojos de Salado in Chile for Andean views

Reaching the tip of South America: Ushuaia

Your finish line is Ushuaia, Argentina! Drink a celebratory toast once you reach the southernmost city in the world.

Routes from Argentina to Tierra Del Fuego

From Buenos Aires, head south, taking Route 3 to Route A001. Cross the Strait of Magellan via ferry to reach Tierra del Fuego.

Ending the trip: Where to go after reaching Ushuaia?

Once your epic Pan-American road trip ends in Ushuaia, options include:

  • Flying or cruising to Antarctica
  • Visiting Cape Horn
  • Backtracking up South America
  • Returning home with memories to last a lifetime!

The legendary Pan-American Highway offers the road trip of a lifetime from North America to Central America and the tip of South America. While the route has a gap, it’s still possible to drive from Alaska to Argentina by shipping your vehicle between Panama and Colombia. Ready for the adventure? Load up and hit the open road on the Pan-Am!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you drive to South America from the United States and Canada?

Yes, driving from the United States or Canada to South America along the Pan-American Highway is possible! You can drive directly to Panama and then arrange to ship your vehicle from Panama to Colombia across the Darién Gap. Once in Colombia, the journey south on the highway continues through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina at the tip. This epic road trip takes months but follows one of the longest overland routes in the world through the Americas.

How long does it take to get to South America from the United States and Canada?

Driving from the northern starting points in Alaska, Canada, or the continental US to Ushuaia, Argentina, at the tip of South America, takes approximately 4-6 months. That’s factoring in driving 8-10 hours daily and taking periodic rest stops. You’ll also need 1-2 weeks to ship your vehicle from Panama to Colombia. It’s a long haul, but passing through the landscapes of 15 countries makes it an incredible adventure! Proper planning and preparation allow you to complete the journey.

Is it possible to drive from the USA to Brazil?

Driving from the USA to Brazil along the Pan-American Highway is possible. The route passes through Central America, including Mexico, before reaching Colombia and the northern region of South America. You’ll drive through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay from Colombia before arriving in southern Brazil. Multiple border crossings are involved, so ensure all vehicle paperwork is in order and ready to provide to customs officials. You can drive that entire route by road with the right international documents.

Can you drive from Mexico to South America?

Absolutely, you can drive directly from Mexico into Central America and then on to South America, ultimately reaching Argentina or Chile at the southern tip. The Pan-American Highway facilitates this epic road trip from Mexico through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama before the Darién Gap break in the road. Once your vehicle ships across to Colombia, continuing the drive south through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and further is totally feasible. Just be prepared for primitive road conditions in parts and remote terrain.

Can you drive to Colombia from the US?

It’s very possible to drive from the United States to Colombia along the route of the Pan-American Highway. You would drive overland through Mexico and Central America before reaching the Darién Gap in Panama. Shipping your vehicle from Panama to the Colombian port city of Cartagena or Barranquilla allows you to resume the highway south. Reaching Colombia by car from the US is an adventurous option achievable with the right planning and preparations. Just be ready for the multi-week journey!

Can you drive to Peru from the US?

Absolutely, Peru can be reached overland from Alaska or anywhere in the United States or Canada by driving the Pan-American Highway through Central America and into South America. Crossing the Darién Gap break in the road in Panama requires sea transport to Colombia, but you pick up the highway again there and can drive it continuously down through Ecuador all the way to Peru and beyond. With the time and vehicle resources, driving to Peru through the Americas is an epic way to go.

Can you drive to Argentina from the US?

It’s absolutely possible to drive all the way from the United States to Argentina by embarking on the legendary Pan-American Highway route. You would drive south through Central America, arrange vehicle shipping across the Darién Gap, and then continue through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and finally reach Argentina. The southern city of Ushuaia in Argentina is considered the official end of the highway, making it a prime road trip destination. With proper preparations, driving from the US to Argentina is an incredible overland adventure.

Can you drive from Canada to Argentina?

The Pan-American Highway facilitates driving all the way from Canada to Argentina. Beginning in Alaska, you would drive through Yukon, British Columbia, and the western United States before continuing south past Mexico and through Central America. Vehicle shipping between Panama and Colombia at the Darién Gap is required. Once across, it’s smooth driving through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and finally Argentina. You can drive your own car or motorcycle all that way from Canada to Argentina with advance preparations. What a road trip!

Can you drive to Chile from the US?

It’s totally possible to drive from the United States all the way down to Chile following the route of the Pan-American Highway. The drive passes through Central America and requires the vehicle shipping step across the Darién Gap break in Panama. Back on the road in Colombia, you would continue south through Ecuador and Peru before reaching Chile. With the paperwork, vehicle, and time requirements met, you can definitely accomplish the epic drive to Chile from the US.

Can you drive to Costa Rica?

Absolutely, you can drive directly from the United States to Costa Rica, either along the Pan-American Highway or more direct international routes through Mexico. Costa Rica is one of the easiest Central American countries to drive to, thanks to relatively good road infrastructure and border crossings. Just be sure to have your valid passport, proof of international auto insurance, and any necessary Central American driving permits. With those items secured, driving your own vehicle to Costa Rica is totally achievable.

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