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Geography and culture have made highways important in Latin America since the earliest civilizations. Vast spaces and lack of navigable rivers put a premium on good roads in much of Latin America, yet until the twentieth century highway networks expanded very little. Throughout most of their history, many Latin American highways could hardly be called roads—they were defined more by the traffic that used them than by any physical features. Yet highways have always served as vital links between otherwise isolated and distinct regions, connecting centers of power with the periphery and producers with their markets, communicating information and ideas, acting as axes of change and growth, and, in the twentieth century especially, promoting the development of previously unexploited areas.

Both the Aztec and the Inca empires expanded along roads necessary for the movement of their armies. Rugged mountain territories made such passage difficult, however, and each state devised appropriate strategies for moving its forces. In Aztec Mexico, cross-country roads were merely unsurfaced trails, wide enough only for single-file traffic. Heavy tameme traffic linked principal towns in the Valley of Mexico with the tributary towns outside it via many complementary routes that ran both north-south and east-west. A primary east-west route linked the gulf coastal trading villages with the Valley of Mexico—the route followed by Cortés—and then down the western slopes of the sierra to the Pacific at the village of Huatalco near Acapulco. North-south routes went in many directions from the valley, funneling tribute into the center and Aztec armies outward on marches of conquest. In Mexico's rough terrain the armies were limited to established roads, but because of their size they often had to use more than one route to deliver their forces efficiently. Control of roads was critical and proved one of the first objectives of conquest and warfare. At the height of Aztec power their highways reached as far south as Central America and north into the lands of the Chichimecs, and were to be used by the Spaniards during their own marches.

Cuzco was the center of the Inca empire and hub of its sophisticated highway network, described in glowing terms by the Spanish chronicler Pedro de Cieza de León:

This road which passes over deep valleys and lofty mountains, by snowy heights and waterfalls, through living rock and along the edges of torturous currents. In all these places, the road is well constructed, on the inclining mountains well terraced,… in the snowy heights well built with steps and resting places, and along its entire length swept cleanly and kept clear of debris—with post stations and storehouses and Temples of the Sun at appointed intervals along its length.

Inca administration of their roads was strict and efficient, enforcing local maintenance of road beds as well as tambos, or rest houses. In the Andes, importantly, roads were traveled by packs of llamas hauling goods.

The Inca network consisted of four primary trunks radiating from Cuzco. The northern route, the Camino de Chinchasuyu, ran into what is today Ecuador, linking the towns of Vilcas, Cajamarca, Quito, and, at the far north, Huaca. The main southern route, the Camino de Collasuyu, ran to Lake Titicaca and into modern Bolivia. Two branches took the Camino de Collasuyu farther south; one went down out of the Andes into modern Argentina, and the other continued south from Bolivia into Chile as far south as Santiago. The Camino de Cuntisuyu led west from Cuzco, providing access to Pacific coastal regions, and a fourth, less significant route, the Camino de Antisuyu, led east from Cuzco.

During the colonial period, indigenous highway networks changed little or fell into disrepair. Roads were still defined more by the traffic that used them than by actual tracks that marked their route. Lyle N. McAlister notes that while Spaniards may have extended and supplemented some existing roads, efforts concentrated on easing access to new mining areas. Most colonial roads were nothing more than trails, especially in the highlands, and were vulnerable to slides, erosion, and flooding. The development of livestock breeding, however, began to change the face of highways. Beasts replaced human bearers in Mexico and augmented llamas in the Andes. A carting industry developed on Iberian tradition developed in suitable regions such as northern Mexico and in Argentina.

In colonial Mexico, the main routes included the Veracruz-Mexico City-Acapulco road, linking the Atlantic with the Pacific and Europe with Asia. Another main trade route led north from Mexico City to Santa Fe de Nuevo México, passing through the mining towns of Querétaro, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Durango, and Chihuahua to Santa Fe and Taos. A similar southern route to Guatemala, through Oaxaca, linked the cities of Puebla, Tepeaca, and Tuxtla with Guatemala City and passed through many distinct ethnic regions. Secondary routes, still of some significance, linked Mexico City with San Luis Potosí and Monterrey, with Toluca and Valladolid (Morelia), and with León and Guadalajara. These roads not only served the silver economies and regional trade of New Spain, but they also brought Iberian culture to the farthest and most isolated outposts of the empire. The European institutions represented by such settlements hastened the acculturation of many native peoples.

There was no primary land route running the length of Central America, but the transisthmian route across Panama was among the most important in the Indies. The difficult mountain trail channeled Peruvian silver from Panama City to Nombre de Dios and later Portobelo, then on to Europe. A much longer, equally important silver road traversed a large part of the Andes in South America, serving the mines of Upper Peru.

Peruvian roads were built on the Inca system linking the capital of Lima with the mines of Potosí and then through the South American interior to the Atlantic ports of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The dominant trade and communication route in South America, it connected all the major cities. From Potosí, the northern route passed through La Plata (or La Paz), Cuzco, Huamanga (Ayacucho), Huancavelica and its mercury mines, and finally Lima and its port of Callao. South from Potosí, the route ran down out of the Andes through the Argentine settlements of Jujuy, Salta, San Miguel de Tucumán, and Córdoba before reaching the Río de la Plata. Spaniards also developed some important secondary routes in South America, such as one connecting Potosí with the closer port of Arica and another crossing the pampas from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, then over the Andes into Santiago, Chile. As in New Spain, South American roads hastened the consolidation of empire.

There was little change in the highway systems of Latin America through the colonial period, except for the volume of traffic dictated by economic prosperity. Several late-eighteenth-century efforts to improve the main routes, mainly through bridge construction and some paving, proved costly and difficult, and most fell through with the advent of the independence wars.

An exception, however, was Brazil. By 1800 coffee was a major export crop from the area of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and ever-increasing production was being successfully hauled from plantation to port via a dynamic, adaptive transport sector that included mule trains, slave labor, and new roads. Brazil's first railroads replaced this complex, which had shown that it could support sustained economic growth.

The damage and crisis occasioned by war and its aftermath stifled road development in most of Latin America in the early nineteenth century, and railroads precluded their development in the second half. Roads certainly would have encouraged economic progress in many areas, but patterns of development favored export-oriented economies and the primacy of export-oriented infrastructures. Modern, efficient railroads serving producing regions and ports expanded at the expense of internal highway development. Significant highway construction awaited the appearance of automobiles and trucks.

Motor transportation made possible the exploitation of previously unsettled lands. Most Latin American nations began comprehensive highway construction programs in the first decades of the twentieth century, with varying degrees of success. Argentina, riding a wave of prosperity through the 1920s, improved its system significantly. In Mexico, despite the widespread destruction of the Revolution, highway construction increased dramatically after 1925. From 1925 to 1950, with the first phases of a national program, some 13,600 miles of paved road were completed; in the next ten years this number doubled. By 1975 Mexico had completed 115,000 miles of paved highway reaching into all regions of the country. In general, most Latin American nations saw important expansion in the years after World War II with the emergence of nationalist governments and import-substitution development strategies. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, difficulties in financing slowed many programs and brought others to a virtual standstill.

The Pan-American Highway system is an international project linking the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Sponsored by the Organization of American States (OAS) and largely funded by the United States, the Pan-American system was first proposed in 1925 with the purpose of establishing a physical link among the capital cities of the American states. This concept was soon replaced by a more extensive highway system that included other routes between countries. The Pan-American system is generally regarded as a success, often serving as a major route in the areas through which it passes, and it is also recognized as a unifying link between American countries. In 2006 the Pan-American highway between Alaska and Chile was the site of a conceptual art project, the "School of Panamerican Unrest," that included performances, discussions, and screenings.

Perhaps the most ambitious road construction program has occurred in Brazil, with the Transamazon Highway. Part of a long-term plan to populate and develop Brazil's "backlands," it has been constructed in several phases. The first route completed was the Belém-Brasília highway, built between 1957 and 1967, linking the capital with the eastern edge of the Amazon Basin and much of Goiás Province. The second route, the Cuiabá-Santarém highway, was started several years after the first. This road leads from the state of Mato Grosso into the northwest and the state of Rondônia, and it too triggered significant internal migration and an economic boom based on the extraction of forest resources. The third major link, the Transamazonica, links the Northeast with the far west, through the provinces of Pará and Amazonas. This major stretch was intended to integrate these isolated regions with the rest of the country, free the Amazon Basin from dependence on the river for transport, provide an emigration route for land-poor Northeasterners, facilitate the discovery of mineral wealth, and promote the economic growth of unexploited regions. All the aims, it is argued, were intended to strengthen the hand of the military governments that planned and began the network. However, in 1989 travel was still extremely difficult in many regions; it sometimes took three days to travel the 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from Belém to Altamira. Similar projects, although on a much smaller scale, in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia have also attempted to penetrate parts of the Amazon, often with similar social and economic results.

See alsoCuzco; Pan-American Highway; Transamazon Highway.


Alberto Regal, Los caminos del Inca en el antiguo Perú (1936).

Pedro De Cieza De León, The Incas, translated by Harriet de Onís, edited by Victor Wolfgang von Hagen (1959).

José Joaquín Real Díaz and Manuel Carrera Stampa, Las ferias comerciales de Nueva España (1959).

Concolorcorvo, El Lazarillo: A Guide for Inexperienced Travelers Between Buenos Aires and Lima, 1773, translated by Walter D. Kline (1965).

David Ringrose, "Carting in the Hispanic World: An Example of Divergent Development," in Hispanic American Historical Review 50, no. 1 (1970): 30-51.

Secretaria De Obras Públicas, Caminos y desarrollo: México, 1925–1975 (1975).

Kenneth Lederman, Modern Frontier Expansion in Brazil and Adjacent Amazonian Lands (1981).

Lyle N. McAlister, Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492–1700 (1984).

Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Engel, Eduardo; Ronald D. Fischer; and Alexander P. Galetovic. Privatizing Highways in Latin America: Is It Possible to Fix What Went Wrong? New Haven, CT: Economic Growth Center, Yale University, 2003.

Zeitlow, Gunter. "Road Funds: Sustainable Financing and Management of Latin America's Roads." Transport and Communication Bulletins for Asia and the Pacific 75 (2005): 1-23.

                                            Jeremy Stahl