Peru's new highway to the future
The Interoceanic Highway, which will connect Peru's Pacific coast to the shores of the Atlantic in Brazil, could revolutionize the region much as the transcontinental railroad did in the US in 1869.
(Page 2 of 4)
From the border, it's a two-hour drive south across rolling farmland to the tiny village of Triunfo. Scattered spindly trees by the highway are reminders of the rainforest, long since logged over. Miles to the right, where the forests remain more intact, indigenous groups live in voluntary isolation, avoiding industrial society.Skip to next paragraph
The road halts at the Madre de Dios River, a Mississippi-sized stream that flows south into Bolivia and Brazil before eventually joining the Amazon River. Across the river is the regional capital, Puerto Maldonado, with its cyber cafes, Chinese import shops, and air-conditioned hotels. But tiny Triunfo had never even been touched by asphalt until the highway was paved two years ago. Naked children still play on the dirt streets of the town. Buses and trucks cross the river on wooden ferryboats just big enough for a vehicle.
Rafael Gahona and Graciela Lopez live 200 yards upriver on a 35-hectare tract where mysterious flute-like sounds emanate from mahogany trees. Their house is built of lumber hewn from river driftwood and is flanked by mango, orange, banana, and cocoa trees. When they want to cross over to Puerto Maldonado, they go by motorized canoe. Like the natives upriver, they too live in a form of voluntary isolation, preferring the noises of monkeys and parrots rather than moto-taxis and dance clubs.
But this quiet life is about to end. The view from the riverbank is dominated by a towering, nearly complete suspension bridge. Every day, workers weld in more orange trusses, racing to complete the half-mile-long span before Alan Garcia's presidential term ends in July. The outgoing president sees the highway as a crowning achievement of his tenure.
Peru’s government first bought the bridge steel in 1980, but financial problems delayed construction for decades, says Biaggio Carollo, an engineer from Brazilian company Odebrecht who is in charge of building the bridge and hundreds of miles of nearby highway.
When the bridge opens, Mr. Gahona's property will suddenly be a 15-minute walk from the center of Puerto Maldonado. It would make the perfect spot for a luxury hotel – and Gahona has already fielded offers for the land.
If they sell, the Gahonas will have cash to pursue other dreams. But their fruit trees are likely to be cut, and the birds and monkeys will be pushed back into the woods.
West of Puerto Maldonado, the Interoceanica Highway splits. One branch goes to Cuzco, where tourists leave for Machu Picchu. The other branch goes to the trading post of Juliaca in the high desert near Lake Titicaca. Either route requires ascending well over 15,000 feet before dropping toward the sea.
In the Amazon near Puerto Maldonado, ramshackle mining camps have popped up, thanks to the rising price of gold and the easier access afforded by the new highway. At the village of Limonchayoc, a two-story-high yellow excavator is converting a deep green meadow into a wasteland of red upturned soil as a team seeks to extract gold dust from ancient river deposits.