More than two-and-a-half centuries ago, the French explorer Charles Marie de la Condamine crossed the continent of South America. It took his expedition four years to wind its way over the Andes and through the Amazon jungles to reach the Atlantic Ocean. Within this decade, the same trip will take four days.

Cliff Schexnayder
Parts of the existing unpaved road are impassable in the rainy season.

Engineers are currently working on a massive $1.3-billion InterOceanic Highway project slated for completion by 2009. The finished route will create the first paved roadway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the South American Continent itself.

“This is a multi-country effort to create an infrastructure that will be the backbone of economic integration for the region,” says Peru’s Minister of Transportation and Communications, Veronica Zavala. “It makes sense not just for matters of transportation it makes sense in a much bigger picture for everyone involved.”

The paved highway has been completed through Brazil with the border crossing at Iñapari marking the final point of the project in Peru. Peru is counting on the road as a means of opening up its long-neglected interior for development. Brazil is looking for access to Pacific ports.

It’s one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted in Peru, Zavala says.

“This area has some of the most difficult geography in South America to overcome with the Andes and the jungle,” she says. “It is an incredibly complex project.”

A traveler through Southern Peru can wake up in the harsh chill of the high Andes in the early morning and spend the evening sweating it out in a jungle hut. That poses a legion of difficulties including extreme elevations, incessant downpours and dramatic geography.

Cliff Schexnayder
New road follows old route.

Success will require a delicate balancing act of planning, logistics and luck, says Wilhelm Funcke, the head engineer for Irsasur, the concessionaire constructing a 300-kilometer section of the road.

"We have to evaluate what is the best solution in each specific case and then make up the cost elsewhere," he says. "It's a ongoing process that we will have to watch carefully over the entire project."

The Highway

The InterOceanic highway project is divided into five sections, or “Tramos.” The three currently under construction consist of upgrading more than 1,000 kilometers of the existing two-lane unpaved road that was built more than three decades ago. The route runs through the Peruvian Andes and the jungle to Brazil.

In 2004, two sections that make up approximately 700 kilometers, Tramo II and Tramo III, were awarded to ConIrsa, a consortium made up of Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and several Peruvian firms. The 300-kilometer Tramo IV was awarded at that same time to InterSur, a consortium comprised of a similar group of Peruvian companies led by the Brazilian construction firm Camargo Correa.

Two other sections that entail upgrading more than 1,500 kilometers of existing paved roads that lead to the coastal cites in Southern Peru are expected to be awarded in the next few months.

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Peru's Minsitry of Transportation and Comm.
Road will foster development.

The existing unpaved road is difficult to traverse due to obstacles such as hairpin turns, towns built on the road and roadway decay. In addition, the route has no drainage and only limited bridging. With inclement conditions – including the November-to-April rainy season – many sections simply become impassable.

The lack of maintenance limits the amount of useful roadway for the construction effort and almost all of it will be covered to build the new highway. Despite that, the one advantage of the crude road is that since approximately 90 percent of roadway already exists there is a reduced need for land clearance and limited environmental impact.

When completed, the new highway will be a total of 7.4 meters wide with two lanes of 3 meters and a shoulder on each side. The sub-base is 15 centimeters thick and consists of lime mixed with prepared material. It is topped with a 15 centimeter base of a cement and soil mix.

The paved roadway itself will be two layers of asphalt a total of 7.5 centimeters thick. The road surface will have a 2.5 percent incline to permit runoff. Extensive drainage will be constructed as well although the exact type will vary from location to location as conditions require.

Officials with both Conirsa and Irsasur say the key to handling the construction challenge was organizational aspect of the job. The sheer scope of the work that engineers from Odebrecht and Carmargo Correa spent months preparing every aspect of the project before beginning the actual work.

Conirsa spent six months on advance planning alone, says Daniel Villar, the Odebrecht engineer who headed the highway project for Conirsa through its initial phase.

“Logistics are the key to making a project of this scale succeed,” he says.

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    Building the InterOceanic Highway

    To do that, Conirsa effectively divided itself into two companies that are handling the two sections independently. While the heads of those two entities are in constant contact and meetings between the engineers are encouraged, the two jobs have been organized independently.

    The Conirsa office in Lima then concentrates on handling the governmental and regulatory issues for both jobs instead of micromanaging the oversight of each highway portion.

    Irsasur followed a similar patter with its one section. Camargo Correa worked for years in anticipation of the InterOceanic Highway project says Marco de Moura, the head of the company’s Peru office.

    “So when we got the contract had the people with the experience to build roads under every condition we would be working under,” de Moura says. “So then our main responsibility was to put it all together and make it all work as a whole.”

    Arranging the financing posed one of the most important initial hurdles for both Conirsa and Irsasur. Each section is part of a 25-year concession that will be paid back through tolls when the construction is completed. Final design of the roadway also took much of the first year of work to complete.

    “In many case the initial reports provided for the job were seriously out of date and incorrect,” Funcke says. “When we got out there to do the preliminary planning work what we encountered was significantly different that what we were told was there.”

    Due to the remote locations of most of the work, the companies are depending on a...