Can you Drive to South America?

Until recently, you’d need to be either brave or slightly crazy to attempt to drive to South America. Political uncertainty in many of the countries of Central and South America, along with powerful drug cartels, meant it was an extremely dangerous drive to attempt. Fortunately for the people of these countries and intrepid travelers, the situation has improved over recent years.

Post-Covid, an increasing number of people are now attempting to drive to South America, but the question is, can you drive all the way to South America? The simple answer is yes, but there is one huge caveat. The caveat is the Pan-American Highway, which runs the length of North and South America has a 150 km break in it. This break is between Panama and Colombia and is in an area known as the Darién Gap. This break means all vehicle traffic between Panama and Colombia, and vice versa must travel by boat. Therefore, you can drive to South America, but only by shipping your car between Panama and Colombia.  

Driving to South America - The Problem

When traveling from North America to South America, there are good roads for 99% of the way.  These roads collectively form the route for what is known as the Pan-American Highway. This highway allows you to drive almost the entire length of the two continents.

These roads stretch from Alaska in the far north of North America to the southern tip of Chile in South America. Unfortunately, in the region where North America meets South America, there is a 150 km section without roads. This region in the Isthmus of Panama is known as the Darién Gap and is covered in dense jungle. With no roads in the area, the only option is to ship your car from Panama to Colombia. 

The Darién Gap

The Darién Gap is an area of outstanding natural beauty largely made up of primary rainforest. Situated in the Isthmus of Panama, it stretches down to and across the border with Colombia. The area’s significant geographical features include dense rainforests, endless swamps, meandering rivers, and steep mountains. Add persistent rainfall into the mix, and you have an area that is close to impenetrable.

The area is designated as a National Park and is known as the Darién Gap National Park in Panama and Los Katíos National Park in Colombia. Sparsely populated by the indigenous Emberá and Wounaan people, the area has no roads or paths. The only way to get through is by hiking, but significant safety concerns exist here. Illegal migration and drug smuggling are rife in the area, so hiking through comes with significant risks. There is also the small matter of no official border post in the area. This means you can’t get stamped out of Panama and into Colombia. 

A river in the Darien Gap National Park
The Darién Gap is an impenetrable section of rainforest and swamp

Driving to South America - The Solution

The solution to the problem of the Darién Gap is simple: you need to ship your car to Colombia from Panama. Unfortunately, there’s no scheduled ferry service connecting the two countries. Instead, you must ship your car by container ship or RORO service.

RORO stands for roll on and roll off and is cheaper as your car is not put inside a container. The vehicle will instead be driven onto the ship and safely secured in place. Prices for a standard vehicle start at $1,000 for RORO or $2,000 for a container.

Most container ships leave Panama City in Panama and travel down the west coast of Colombia to Buenaventura. RORO services typically leave from the port of Cólon in Panama and arrive in Cartagena a day later. Some services also continue further east to Barranquilla and Santa Marta. There’s typically a service each week, but schedules can vary. We found the IVSS website incredibly helpful, and you can also obtain a quote online.

The Pan-American Highway

So you now know how to circumvent the Darién Gap, but how do you complete the rest of the journey? Well, this is the simple part. North and South America have a series of roads forming the Pan-American Highway. You can use these roads to travel the length of the two continents.

The Pan-American Highway is one of the world’s most extensive and iconic road networks stretching across North, Central, and South America. It spans approximately 19,000 miles across the two continents and charts a course through 14 countries, encompassing the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central and South American nations.

There are several official and unofficial routes. However, the most commonly accepted route is between Prudhoe Bay and Ushuaia. On this route, the highway starts at the icy shores of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the northernmost coast of the United States.  From this remote starting point, the highway embarks on an incredible southward trajectory, passing through a diverse range of nations, cultures, and landscapes.

The final ending point of this continental thoroughfare is Ushuaia, a city located on the island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Known colloquially as the “End of the World,” Ushuaia is the closest city to the continent of Antarctica. The map below shows the vast extent of the highway. 

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