Transoceanic Hwy: Road to Riches & Ruin

Few events in history have had such an immediate effect on the Amazon rainforest as the construction of the Carr Interocéanica (Transoceanic Hwy) has: following its completion in July 2011, it now links the Pacific coast of Peru with the Atlantic coast of Brazil via paved road. At a cost of billions of dollars, the road is now a massive export opportunity for both countries (former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo estimated the road would signify a 1.5% annual increase in Peru’s GDP). The more than 2500km of newly constructed road breaches the dual hazards of the Andes and the rainforest to link the Peruvian coast at San Juan de Marcona near Nazca via Cuzco to the southern Amazon, through Puerto Maldonado, to the Brazilian border at Iñapari. From there the road runs to Rio Branco in Brazil and feeds into the Brazilian road system.

The effects of the road, good and bad, are being felt. Thousands of new jobs have been created and Puerto Maldonado, the main city on the route not previously connected by asphalted highway, is thriving from increased tourism (Cuzco is now only 10 hours away by road) and commerce.

But for the estimated 15 uncontacted tribes that inhabit the once-isolated southeastern corner of Peru, the road now slicing through their territory heralds the risk of disease and the loss of hunting grounds. According to one NGO, Survival International, the possibility of migration a road creates without the facilities to back it up would, along with the destruction of natural habitat, have a disastrous effect on such peoples. And if there are 15 human groups at risk, there are infinitely more species of plants and animals. The total area of destroyed rainforest as a result of the Transoceanic’s construction equates to a third of the size of the UK and, according to various studies on roads in the Brazilian Amazon, is likely to have a significant effect on rainforest deforestation for 40km to 60km on either side.

Yet the devastation the building of the road has caused is less significant than the devastation that people who now have improved access to the remote rainforest could bring. Newspapers from the Peruvian Times to the Guardian have reported on the prosibars (bars with often underage prostitutes) springing up along routes that can now be traversed with greater ease by the loggers and miners that already posed an ecological threat to this part of the Amazon. Illegal mining has since become a serious enough issue to call in the army to quell it. Ecosystems here are renowned for being among the world’s most diverse and undisturbed. They still are. But, one wonders, for how much longer.

Amazonian Regions

The Peruvian Amazon is a vast and varied place, and your experience will be very different depending on which part of it you visit. There are three key regions: central, north and south.

Central Amazon Basin

For a quick Amazon fix on long weekends and holidays, limeños (inhabitants of Lima) usually head for this relatively accessible area of the Amazon, reachable in eight hours by bus. The tropical Chanchamayo Province, which accounts for most of this region, is as different to the coastal desert or the Andean mountains as can be. The last hour of the journey here is particularly remarkable for the change in vegetation and climate as you slip down the Andes into the vibrant green of La Selva Central, as it is known in Spanish. Comprising the two towns of La Merced and San Ramón, plus a scattering of remoter communities, the area is noted for coffee and fruit production. The region offers the traveler a good insight into Amazon life in all its sweaty clamor. An adventurous back route also awaits the intrepid: forging ahead via Satipo to the port of Pucallpa, a jumping-off point for river trips deeper into the jungle.

Northern Amazon Basin

Raw, vast and encapsulating the real spirit of the Amazon, the northern Amazon Basin is home to the eponymous river that wells up from the depths of the Peruvian jungle before making its long, languorous passage through Brazil to the distant Atlantic Ocean. Settlements are scarce in this remote region: Yurimaguas in the west and Iquitos in the northeast are the only two of any size.

Southern Amazon Basin

Abutting the neighboring nations of Bolivia and Brazil, the vast tract of the southern Amazon Basin is among Peru’s remotest territories: comparatively little is either inhabited or explored. That said, this is changing almost as fast as a Peruvian bus timetable, thanks to the Carr Interocéanica (Transoceanic Hwy) transecting much of the region. Yet with well-developed facilities for ecotravelers, the benefits of travel here are clear: visitors will, with relatively little effort, be rewarded with a treasure trove of unforgettable close encounters of the wild kind.