The Pan-American Highway

At a whopping 15,000 miles, the Pan-American Highway is the world's longest thoroughfare. And as Simon Calder discovers when he undertakes the ultimate road trip, it really goes the distance

For Salvador Dali, Perpignan railway station, in southern France, was "le centre du monde". Cuzco, in Peru, home of the Incas, goes one better; its name translates from Quechua as "centre of the universe". Both claims are wrong: the real hub of the cosmos can be found just outside Panama City.

My source for this revelation is an ice-cream vendor who plies his trade on Via España, the main street of the Panamanian capital. His barrow is decorated with a painting of a bridge that stretches across a waterway and fades into the sunset. It depicts the point, a few miles west from here, at which the Pan-American Highway crosses the Panama Canal: where the world's longest road meets the planet's greatest short cut.

The accompanying slogan explains the significance of the location. This is, the passer-by is informed, the "Puente del Mundo - Corazon del Universo": Bridge of the World - Heart of the Universe. And to experience the ultimate road trip, there is no better destination. So, if your trip ends at the most alluring capital in the Americas, where should you begin? For balance, perhaps in the ugliest capital city in Christendom.

A walk through Managua sometimes feels like trespassing on grief. To understand this sorry state of a city, you need to understand the catastrophes that have befallen it. Nicaragua's capital was carelessly built upon a maze of geological faults. During the 20th century, it was hit by two severe earthquakes, then felt the seismic aftershocks of dictatorship, treachery and revolution.

The first time I came here, you could become a millionaire by changing a single dollar. Inflation was running at 30,000 per cent, which made life confusing for the tourist and uncomfortable for the people. The capital comprised a random selection of derelict buildings separated by patches of wasteland. (Even now, do not expect formal street addresses; directions are given relative to a landmark that may have been erased many years ago.) Things have improved a little, but Managua still resembles 100 suburbs in search of escape. Time to run away. Happily, buses queue up to take escapees south along the Pan-American Highway.

The first rule of bus travel in Latin America: always choose the best class of vehicle you can afford. There's usually a wide range, from comfortable to condemned. In Nicaragua, however, one size fits all. Just. The standard joke among backpackers on the Pan-American Highway: How many people can you get on to a Nicaraguan bus? Answer: Two more.

I boarded the next Bluebird bus running south along the highway. This wheezing yellow monster was built 20 years ago, near Washington, DC. After years of ferrying American children to school, it reached the end of its natural life. That's when it was shipped down the Pan-American to Nicaragua.

The highway itself is the world's longest thoroughfare, at 15,000 miles, but has an identity crisis. You know where you are with, say, the M6 or Highway One along the Californian coast. These impressive pieces of transport infrastructure are clearly defined, and are difficult to muddle with one another, or other, lesser roads. The Pan-American Highway is different. For much of its length, it is an anonymous string of freeways and main streets.

Few people in Edmonton in Canada, Laredo in Texas or Mexico City are even aware that their city sits astride the artery of the Western Hemisphere. Once the Pan-American snakes south from Mexico into Guatemala, though, it acquires a proper identity. Threading through the volcanic scars on the waist of the Americas, the highway adopts the name Carretera Panamericana, and serves as Central America's main street.

The bus ride costs barely £1, and takes barely an hour to reach the antithesis of Managua. Masaya is a real town, and, by presidential decree, officially the "folkloric capital of Nicaragua". El Presidente had in mind the Mercado Viejo, the old market, where a mix of exquisite crafts and inept tat is hawked to the few visitors who stray in. But just five miles from the middle of town, as the lava flows, you can make a journey to the centre of the earth. Miss it, and you'll be fuming.

Rarely do you find an active volcano with its own car park - but then, Nicaragua has to make what it can of its limited tourism repertoire. The early Spanish arrivals thought that Apoyo, as the smouldering cone is known, was the gateway to hell. She hasn't had a serious eruption for several centuries, but she's still smoking - and in 2001, she burped out some lava and set fire to three tourist coaches, fortunately without injury.

On any trip in Latin America, the most valuable thing to bring with you is patience. In the Spanish-English dictionary, ahora translates as "now", and ahorita as "right now". In reality, the bus along the highway will leave when the driver and conductor are satisfied that the crush of humanity squeezed into their vehicle constitutes a commercially viable payload.

Also, you will have to exchange concepts such as haste and comfort for the surprises of the road. Just south of Masaya, we stopped in the middle of nowhere for people to hop on and off. This is by no means uncommon. Suddenly, a cheer erupted from the front that not even the dampening effect of a hundred or so passengers could mute. Led by a pageboy in a dazzling white bow tie, a wedding party climbed aboard. The bride, who looked not a day older than 17, wore a fabulous white dress that had somehow eluded the grime of daily life, and the yellow school bus became her stretch limo.

During your trip down the Pan-American Highway, you should take a turn along some of the ribs that project from the spine of Central America. The most enticing side-trip is to Lake Nicaragua, which rivals entire Central American countries for size. Roll off the highway at the turn to San Jorge, and you can roll on to a ferry and cross the lake to the largest of its 300 islands: Ometepe. In the language of the original inhabitants, ome means two and tepe means hills. You can imagine the terrain. The pair of unmatching volcanoes, known as Concepcion and Maderas, were joined two centuries ago by the lava flow. In the mornings, both peaks tend to be hidden beneath a blanket of cloud, but by afternoon, the view should be clear.

For a throwback to the years of the Sandinistas, stay at Finca Magdalena. It is a workers' cooperative and one of the last remnants of socialism: a land of milk, honey and organic coffee. The main hacienda was built in 1888. During the Sandinista years, it was handed over to the workers. It may look rustic, but it has a satellite internet link and a deal to supply the coffee shops on the Pacific coast of North America. The finca also takes in guests; £25 will buy you a night in a wooden cabin that sleeps four - for the same amount, you can hang up your own hammock and stay for a month.

Nicaragua caters for more than backpackers. Down the highway, and close to the resort of San Juan del Sur, you'll find the most exclusive hotel on Nicaragua's Pacific coast. Morgan's Rock is a British-designed, French-owned honeymoon hideaway, where a night for two costs around £200 - including meals, drinks and a view so magnificent in scale, complexion and drama that it will be etched on your memory forever.

A few miles on, you face the biggest aggravation of the Pan-American Highway: crossing a border. Now, you might think that a frontier is simply somewhere to cross a line between nations. But in Central America, it constitutes an almost limitless job-creation scheme. Between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, for example, first you pay $1 for the benefit of the local mayor. Next, the officials in the Nicaraguan immigration building demand $2 for your exit stamp. The Nicaragua frontier post and the entrance to Costa Rica are so far apart that most pedestrians pay another couple of dollars for a handcart to take their luggage halfway, and then - in more affluent Costa Rica - a transfer to a golf buggy that goes the rest of the way.

As soon as you're over the border, everything seems neater. But, thankfully, the same flexibility of public transport as the rest of Central America is undiminished. The driver of a 4x4 offered me a lift to the capital in return for $10; he had delivered some tourists to the border and was happy to earn something on his way home. And I was happy to be a Pan-American passenger as the highway swayed and swerved towards San Jose.

An extra dimension was provided by the driver's views on the state of his nation: while the* * relative tranquillity of Costa Rica in the Eighties and Nineties had helped to fuel a tourism boom, Norteamericanos were now switching their spend to low-cost Nicaragua. British Airways, too, had abandoned the country. And, once the diversion of the Pan-American Highway along Costa Rica's Pacific coast is complete (due by 2007), San Jose would be bypassed and people would spend even less time and money in the country.

In Costa Rica's capital, the present Pan-American Highway wriggles through a chicane of homes, factories and once-grand public buildings. Its identity for this stretch of the journey is Avenida 0 - Avenue Zero, which was about as long as I planned to stay in San Jose. To avoid the queues at Costa Rica's bus stations, and to make the most of the most dramatic section of the entire Highway, I chose to rent a car that would lead me to Everest, Siberia, and Scotland.

The road leaving San Jose is a fast dual carriageway, but about 30 miles out of town it collides with the mountains. To clear the barrier, it zigs and zags and spirals its way to the summit of Cerro de la Muerte, the "hill of death". When you see how some of the locals drive, you will not be surprised by the name; both vehicles and people function less well at nearly 13,000 feet. You pass a café called Soda Everest and a settlement called Siberia, but the terrain shares the corrugated look of the Scottish highlands.

Derrumbes en la via reads a road sign. Uneven road surface, indeed. Yet the signs could be placed anywhere in Costa Rica, or the whole region: Central America is one big collection of derrumbes en la via. You could protract this drive for days, stopping off at every mirador (look-out) perched on the most dramatic bends. Or head down to the coast, which has a "best before" date of perhaps 18 months from now; after that, the coast road will become the official Pan-American Highway, slicing several hours off the journey through Costa Rica, but bringing the constant growl of traffic to the beautiful beaches along the shore.

Sleeping alongside the present Pan-American Highway can prove tricky; as well as the noise, the average motel is devoid of class, cleanliness or charm. Thankfully, Costa Rica saves its best until the frontier. The hills near the Panamanian border are alive with the sound of Austrian cash pouring in, to fund the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, a hotel that, for once, deserves the prefix "eco-". The cabins are built from fallen trees, the roofs are thatched with palm and there's no air-conditioning. The water for the swimming pool comes from a spring in the rainforest, while food is grown around the lodge or bought locally. Workers from the nearby village of La Gamba are employed, with preference given to those with children. And any profits that the lodge makes are given to the community.

Esquinas is not just very moral, it is also very expensive by Costa Rican standards: £70 per person per night. But that includes all your meals - and the pleasure of waking to a cacophony of creatures sounding more like a chorus of mobile-phone ringtones, before heading to the frontier.

Stretch a country the size of Scotland into an S-shape, and you get Panama. You also get long distances to cover, but these can be devoured by Central America's finest fleet of buses. They stop every three or four hours at a roadhouse, where you get a decent feed and an insight into the lives of the Panamanians. This is the region's most multicultural country: the terrain and rainforest helped to protect the indigenous Indians, who have been joined by Asians and Africans, many of them brought in to work on the Big Ditch.

They, and the rest of the world, have converged on Panama City. Your ride through Central America reaches its penultimate cadence where the Bridge of the Americas straddles the Pacific mouth of the Panama Canal, then plunges into the capital. Panama City itself bombards your emotions with a blaze of colour, scattered fragments of the past and a location that teeters on the brink of the world's biggest ocean. The Panamanian capital is a grand menagerie, where you need to stop and look and listen: a city that belongs to the world. The aforementioned ice-cream vendor's customers cover the human spectrum of skin colour, and gossip in a Babel of tongues.

Soon after leaving Panama City, the Pan-American Highway runs into difficulty. Anyone hoping for the fast lane to Tierra del Fuego, at the far end of South America, is on a road to nowhere. East of the Panamanian capital, the highway deteriorates. The Pan-American finally dissolves into the dust at the forlorn town of Yaviza, giving up the struggle against the choking jungle.

No through road, indeed: this is the Darien Gap, one of the last wildernesses in the Western world: a tangle of vegetation draped over hills and laced with rivers. If the terrain sounds daunting, just wait until you meet the residents. The mosquitoes alone carry a medical encyclopaedia's worth of unpleasant diseases, while the jungle is infiltrated by an unholy mix of narco-traffickers and Colombian paramilitaries, who do not take kindly to intruders. Best stay in Panama City, have another ice-cream, rest your body and invigorate your soul.

Simon Calder is the author of 'The Panamericana: On the Road through Mexico and Central America' (Vacation Work, £12.95). A television report on his recent journey along the Pan-American Highway begins on BBC1's 'Holiday' programme on Monday at 7pm

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The best way to tackle a stretch of the Pan-American Highway is to fly into one capital city and out of another. Airlines such as American, Continental and Iberia can offer this option. It is well worth booking through a specialist agent such as Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) or South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk). These firms can also arrange accommodation and transfers along the Pan-American Highway.

GETTING AROUND

Buses are frequent and cheap almost everywhere along the highway, though they get a bit sparse in (relatively) affluent Costa Rica, where car ownership is higher and demand for buses lower. The concept of a schedule has not occured to the average Nicaraguan bus crew, but in Costa Rica and Panama timetables are available and sometimes prove reliable. Car rental is easy and reasonably cheap, but driving standards throughout Central America range from poor to dreadful.

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