The World’s Most Dangerous Roads – Peru

The last episode in the BBC series “The Worlds Most Dangerous Roads” featured the TV presenter and “adventurer” Ben Fogle and the comedian Hugh Dennis travelling from the town of Concepcion in the Central Peruvian Andes through the jungle to Satipo and Pozuzo to reach their final destination in Ciudad Constitucion close to the geographical centre of Peru. In the 1980s the site was chosen by the Peruvian president of the time, Fernando Belaunde Terry, as a possible location for a new capital city of Peru. Today the story behind the idea seems to be very little-known by many Peruvians and even though I have read extensively on the history of Peru I also had no idea of the plan and therefore decided to carry out some research into it.

Peruvians living outside of Lima have complained for many years that the country is “Lima-centred” and that the decisions of the government are dictated by what happens in Lima with much of the countries finances and resources being allocated to the city. Belaunde Terry, an architect by profession, had originally had the idea of relocating the capital in the 1950s when he was a Professor of Architecture at the National School of Engineering in Lima and an aspiring young politician. He got the idea from what had happened in Brazil in 1956 with the construction of Brasilia.

When the constitution of Brazil was re-drafted in 1891 due to the country converting to a republic one of its articles contained the suggestion that the capital city should be moved from the heavily populated and resource biased SE of the country to the sparsely populated centre. However, it wasn’t until Juscelino Kubitschek became Brazilian president in 1956 that these plans were actually put in place. Kubitschek held a contest in order to find an urban planner to build his new capital and this was one by Lucio Costa. Oscar Niemeyer was given the job of the chief architect for the city’s public buildings whilst Roberto Burle Marx was the chief landscape designer. Construction of the city took place between 1956 and 1960 and on April 21, 1960 the new capital was officially inaugurated. New capital cities were also built, for various reasons, in Australia (moving from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927), the United States (moving from Philadelphia to Washington DC in 1800), Nigeria (Lagos to Abuja in 1991), Turkey (Istanbul to Ankara in 1923), Pakistan (Karachi to Islamabad in 1960) and New Zealand (Auckland to Wellington in 1865).
In 1980 Fernando Belaunde Terry became president of Peru for the second time. His first presidential term had lasted from 1963 to 1968 when he was ousted by a military coup led by General Juan Velasco Alvarado leading to 11 years of military rule. When Peru reverted to a democratic government in 1979 General Francisco Morales Bermudez agreed to hand over power to a legally elected president who would be chosen during the election of April 1980. Belaunde won this election with 45 percent of the vote in a 15 candidate contest.

Belaunde had studied engineering in Paris before his family moved to the United States in 1930. He attended the University of Miami (where his father taught) between 1930 and 1935 before switched to the University of Texas in Austin where he obtained his degree (a second) in architecture. Following his graduation he moved to Mexico to work as an architect for the company “Whiting and Torres” before returning to Peru in 1936 where he designed private housing. The following year he started a magazine entitled “El Arquitecto Peruano” (“The Peruvian architect”). He was also elected to the Architects Association of Peru and shortly afterwards worked as an advisor to the government on public housing. In 1943 he was named Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at the National School of Engineering in Lima and later became the Dean of the Civil Engineering and Architecture department.

Belaunde’s political career had begun in 1945 when he was elected MP for Lima but in 1948 a coup d’état by General Manual Odria led to the government being dissolved. Belaunde resumed his political career in 1956 when he was chosen to lead the National Democratic Front party but he lost that year’s election to Manuel Prado. In 1963 he won the national election and became President of Peru after a year of the country being led by a military junta.

As part of his election campaign in 1956 Belaunde had written a book entitled “Peruanicemos Peru” in which he wrote that Peru should colonise the central jungle and expressed his wish to construct a road called “El Marginal de la Selva” (“the Jungle Border Highway”) running along the line between the eastern edge of the Andes and the Amazon basin from the Ecuadorian border to Puerto Maldonado close to the Bolivian border in the SE of Peru that would help to unite all the people living in that region.

During his second term of presidency Belaunde finally decided to try and fulfil this ambition and on May 20, 1984 the city of Ciudad Constitucion was founded on the River Palcazu, between Puerto Bermudez and Puerto Inca, in the province of Oxapampa in the Pasco region of central Peru. He chose the name of the settlement in order to recognise the importance the national constitution has in regulating the institutional life of a country. Ambitious plans for the new city were drawn up by the architect Julio Ernesto Gianella, outlined in his book “Ciudad Constitucion : nuevo nucleo urbano en la selva central del Peru” (Ciudad Constitucion : a new urban centre in the central jungle of Peru). Gianella had won a competition held in 1982 to find the architect responsible for creating Belaunde’s new capital city, similar to what had happened with Brasilia 30 years previously. Gianella’s plans containing housing that was suitable for the climate, sanitation works, an airport, hospitals and a highway linking the city to the outside world so that supplies could be brought in.

This highway would later be designated as Peruvian Highway 5N (PE-5N) and would eventually run north along the edge of the Amazon basin right up to the Ecuadorian border. One of the dreams of Fernando Belaunde Terry, the “Jungle Border Highway” was thus fulfilled and indeed in May 1998 the road was christened the “Fernando Belaunde Terry Highway” in recognition of this. The section passing through Ciudad Constitucion is known as the “Marginal de la Selva Norte” (North) but when the road reached Pueblo Pardo, just across the border of the Junin region, around 160km to the south it would change to the “Marginal de la Selva Sur” (South) with the highway designation PE-5S. Various offshoots also broke off from the main highway to nearby towns and these sections were given extra suffixes to distinguish them from each other (A,B,C, etc). There is a proposal to extend highway PE-5S across the regions of Cusco and Madre de Dios all the way to the Bolivian border but there is some opposition to the plan from environmentalists as the road would pass through areas of fauna and flora rich virgin rain forest.

                        

Despite all these ambitions very little of the planned city was actually built. The only buildings from the original city still existing are a few dilapidated wooden model houses a short distance from the modern day settlement of Ciudad Constitucion which are now being inhabited by members of the local Ashaninka Indians. One of the main reasons the building work was abandoned was due to the corruption that broke out between officials working for the senior government, for the civil service, the military and even among people very close to President Belaunde. In 1985 Belaunde lost the general election to Alan Garcia and his dream was abandoned.

                                   

In May 2010 the modern town of Ciudad Constitucion, now with a population of between 6 and 8 thousand, and its surrounding area broke off from the district of Puerto Bermudez to become the eighth district of the province of Oxapampa under the name Villa Ciudad Constitucion. This gives its inhabitants the opportunity to elect their own mayor and council. The town has a full electrical grid, built with EEC funding, and even internet. There is also a modern, well-constructed bridge by which the PE-5N crosses the Palcazu river. In the small municipality building on the main Plaza de Armas is a life-size statue of Fernando Belaunde Terry, with a shovel in his arm, in commemoration for his dream of building a new capital city.

                  
Ben Fogle and Hugh Dennis began their journey in the town of Concepcion in the Junin region. Concepcion was founded by Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, in 1536 and was also the site of a famous battle during the War of the Pacific when the Peruvian forces routed their vastly outnumbered Chilean foes. Construction of the road from Concepcion to the jungle frontier town of Satipo was started in 1922 and three years later the first section, from Concepcion to Comas, was completed. In 1927 the first group of settlers arrived in the region in order to search for natural resources. These settlers were mostly Peruvian but they also contained Europeans from Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Italy and Spain. Thanks to the influx of these settlers the population of Satipo quickly grew and in 1929 it was officially given town status. In 1934 the road was extended from Satipo to the town of Puerto Ocopa. Five years later the road from Concepcion to Satipo was finally completed and later in 1939 the first vehicle made use of the highway thus hastening the onset of civilisation in the region.

In November 1947 an earthquake almost completed destroyed Satipo and badly damaged the road from Concepcion. It wasn’t until 1961 that the road was fully restored. In 1968 the President of Peru Fernando Belaunde Terry visited the region to carry out research into his plan to construct the Marginal de la Selva highway which he hoped would one day run right across Peru. From Satipo the tarmaced PE-5S road runs for approximately 100km to Pueblo Pardo. Around 25km from Satipo is the town of Bajo Pichaniqui (also known as Pichanaki) in the Chanchamayo valley. The town takes its name from the language of the one of the local Indian tribes – Picha (“Sweeping), Naki (“River”) and it famous for its fruit, timber and coffee plantations. The paved road, completed in 1999, help to bring in many peasants from other parts of Peru looking for work on the plantations. At Pueblo Pardo the PE-5S road becomes PE-5N which will eventually reach the Ecuadorian border. Between Pueblo Pardo and Villa Rica a side-road, the PE-5NA, heads NW towards Oxapampa.

The 78km stretch along PE-5NA from Oxapampa to Pozuzo was completed in 1976 but is still very rough in places as it passes through the Yanachaga-Chemillen National Park, through the small towns of Santa Rosa and Huancabamba, and over numerous small streams and rivers. The journey takes around 4 hours to complete during the dry season and is often impassable during the wet season.
Pozuzo was founded in the 1850s when a large group of settlers from Austria and German, frustrated by the challenging conditions in central Europe at that time due to wars and famine, decided to move to the Peruvian jungle thanks to the persuasion of the Tyrolean chaplain Josef Egg. In 1868 a further 300 Austrians and Germans settled in the area and formed other settlements which would subsequently become the towns of Oxapampa and Villa Rica. The land around Pozuzo had by now been deforested and transformed into fertile farming land and Pozuzo had also gained an importance as a site for the breeding of cattle. Today many of the older inhabitants of Pozuzo still communicate in the dialect found in the valleys of Upper Austria and the architecture, culture and cuisine of the town also strongly reflect the heritage of its original founders.

From Pozuzo the PE-5NA highway continues along the Pozuzo river to the town of Codo del Pozuzo (“Codo” being the Spanish word for “elbow” to denote the pronounced change in course of the Pozuzo river at the site of the town) in the neighbouring region of Huanuco then meets up with the main PE-5N highway close to the town of Puerto Inca. Around 70km south of Puerto Inca, along the PE-5N is Ciudad Constitucion.

       

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About Jeff Lawrence

Hi, My name is Jeff Lawrence and I'm a writer, photographer and Boro fan from north-east England who has an interest in football history, in particular that relating to Dutch (thanks to eight years living in the Netherlands) and Peruvian (thanks to a wife from Peru) football. Another interest is how English managers and players played their part in the development of football overseas, particularly in the early part of the 20th century.
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9 Responses to The World’s Most Dangerous Roads – Peru

  1. Ivo Mertens says:

    Interesting… I bumped into this page whilst looking for information on Belaunde’s dream: Constitución. After seeing the program on bbc I too was intrigued by this and other then your article I couldn’t really find anything else on it.

    • Hi Ivo,
      Thanks for reading. Yes, there’s not an awful lot of information about this on the internet. I found a few bits and pieces on some Peruvian websites that I managed to translate though.
      My wife is actually Peruvian but didn’t know anything about it either so she wasn’t much help.
      Regards
      Jeff

  2. Keiran Nicklin says:

    Hi Jeff,
    I haven’t seem the documentary, but my friend did, and this page was the only thing I could find. The Belaude government seemed to cover it up quite nicely, and I’m surprised none of his political rivals never brought it up. I live in Arequipa, and my fiancee is Peruvian. I have asked about 10 Peruvians who have no idea it exists. Any more info would be helpful, even if the websites are in Spanish, as I have also tried searches in Spanish to no avail.
    Regards,
    Keiran

    • Hi Keiran,
      Thanks for reading. No, there’s not very much out there about this story and you’re right that even few Peruvians know about the story. There is a book by the architect behind designing the city but I’ve been unable to find a copy. It’s also hardly mentioned in any of the books on Peruvian history I have or in any of the biographies about Belaunde. Like you I would like to find out more so if you do find out anything please let me know. Maybe a visit to the local library over there might bring more information. I may contact some of the Peruvian universities to see if they can shed some light on it.
      My wife is actually from Arequipa too although we now live in the UK. But I’ve been to Arequipa many times and know it very well. My wife will be visiting again next month but unfortunately I won’t be able to join her this time. I wrote a blog about our last trip over there which you might
      like to read. http://jeffinperu2008.blogspot.com/
      If you’re interested I also have an article on my blog about the history of the exploration of Machu Picchu pre-Hiram Bingham.
      https://yaffle53.wordpress.com/2011/08/06/150/
      Regards
      Jeff

  3. Keiran Nicklin says:

    Thanks Jeff. Peruvian libraries don’t really exist in Arequipa…well decent ones anyway. Will check with the universities though. We’re thinking of planning a trip there, I’m trying to get hold of the documentary. Much appreciated!
    Regards,
    Keiran

  4. Keiran Nicklin says:

    Thanks Jeff. Peruvian libraries don’t really exist in Arequipa…well decent ones anyway. Will check with the universities though. We’re thinking of planning a trip there, and I’m trying to get hold of the documentary. All your info and blog most informative, cheers!
    Regards,
    Keiran

  5. Kevin says:

    Thanks, Saw the BBC program and wanted to look it up, only good article I could find, not even a wikipedia article!

    Great article.

    • Hi Kevin,
      I’m glad you liked it. You’re right in that there is not a lot of information out there about this story. It’s not even that well known within Peru. There are a few bits and pieces in Spanish though and luckily I speak it a bit so that shed a bit more light on it. I’m hoping to expand it further if I can though.
      Regards
      Jeff

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