angle-left Great works of Latin American engineering
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Great works of Latin American engineering

Latin America is the land of large bridges, such as General Rafael Urdaneta, which crosses Lake Maracaibo and is the second longest on the continent. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno

Latin America is a continent full of surprises, including in the field of infrastructure. Although entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank have noted that in many countries of the region there is a notable gap in terms of investment and quality compared to other parts of the world, there are many examples of large projects in operation that are worth knowing. In different cases, engineers were able to translate new and daring ideas into reality, or overcome highly complex challenges due to the peculiar characteristics of the location chosen for construction. We are going to discover some of them.

"The greatest work of the 21st century"

The Panama Canal, the maritime route that for more than a century has allowed ships to pass from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and vice versa, is undoubtedly one of the best known pieces of infrastructure in the world. But many people are not aware that a major project was recently carried out to expand the canal. The objective was to allow the passage of a class of ships larger than traditional cargo ships (defined as New Panamax), as well as to reduce the transit times of ships.

Work began almost a decade ago and ended in 2016, when the canal extension was inaugurated with the passage of the first New Panamax vessel. The project was entrusted to an international consortium of companies led by Sacyr, which has no hesitation in defining it as "the greatest engineering work of the 21st century." A team of 10,000 workers carried out the expansion, which employed innovative materials and techniques and a state-of-the-art lock system.

Driving for 13 kilometres above the sea

Latin America is also a land of great bridges. Among the most impressive is President Costa e Silva bridge, which connects the Brazilian metropolis of Rio de Janeiro with the city of Niterói (often referred to as the Rio-Niterói bridge). The company Ecoponte, which is responsible for managing this structure, says that the bridge, with a length of 13.2 kilometres, is the longest in the southern hemisphere. Inaugurated in 1974, it supports the daily transit of 150,000 vehicles.

Another famous Latin American bridge, commonly referred to as the second longest on the continent, is General Rafael Urdaneta, located in Maracaibo (Venezuela). It measures 8,678 metres and was inaugurated in 1962. The author of this project was Riccardo Morandi, an engineer known for designing the bridge in Genoa (Italy) that collapsed last year, causing 43 deaths. The Rafael Urdaneta Bridge also suffered an accident: in 1964, a ship caused the collapse of a section when it struck part of the structure. The damaged segment was later rebuilt.

The Panama Canal was recently expanded to accommodate larger ships, the Post Panamex, and reduce transit time. Credit: Canal de Panamá.

A way to cross the Americas from top to bottom

Another mythical piece of infrastructure on the continent is known as the Pan-American Highway, which the Guinness Book of World Records recognises as the world’s longest "motorable road". Crossing 14 countries and all kinds of climates, landscapes and ecosystems, the Pan-American Highway stretches from Prudhoe Bay (in northern Alaska, USA) to Ushuaia (in southern Tierra del Fuego, Argentina), according to the most common definition, but encyclopaedias do not agree on its total length and give very different estimates. There are two problems. On the one hand, it is not really one highway but rather a network of highways and fast roads, which in Canada is not even official and in other countries such as the U.S. and Mexico includes several alternative routes. On the other hand, it is still impossible to travel by car from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

The Pan-American is interrupted by a jungle —until today impenetrable— between Panama and Colombia: it is called the Darien Gap, a strip of humid, swampy and mountainous forest. This is why the northern section of the route ends in Yaviza (Panama) and the southern section begins in Turbo (Colombia), without any transport route between the two localities (106 km as the crow flies). Whether or not to complete the final part of the Pan-American Highway is the subject of a broad debate; the project has been at a standstill for decades, given the negative effects that this infrastructure would have on the environment and the indigenous cultures of this remote area, or on the transmission of diseases between the fauna of North and South America.

The Darien Gap is a very dangerous area to cross on foot and any attempt to do so is strongly discouraged. So, today, travelling the Pan-American is actually two great separate adventures, without a complete itinerary strictly and officially marked. We have made our own calculations: a car trip along the northern stretch (from Prudhoe Bay to Yaviza) would be about 13,500 kilometres if we choose the variant that in the U.S. passes through Denver and Albuquerque; the southern stretch (from Turbo to the end of the road, past Ushuaia) would be about 11,300 kilometres if we choose the route that passes through Buenos Aires and make all the journey on roads marked as part of the Pan American network. In total, the journey would be almost 25,000 kilometres, by a route that is not the most efficient to cross the Americas from end to end. Following the indications of Google Maps, we could save more than 2,000 kilometres if we took shortcuts that are not part of that road network.

The Itaipu dam, one of the seven wonders of the contemporary world, rises over the Paraná River and is the largest power generator on the planet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Large arenas to enjoy football

In some Latin American countries, football is experienced as a multitudinous passion. And in order to provide fans with arenas that match the spectacle, over the years several mythical stadiums have been erected that are known to all fans of the sport. Among the biggest is the Azteca, in Mexico City, where two World Cup finals were played (1970 and 1986).

The stadium was designed by architects Pedro Ramiro Vázquez and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca and inaugurated in 1966. It currently hosts two men's teams (America and Cruz Azul) and one women's team (America). According to the official website of the Mexican League, it has a capacity for 81,700 spectators. However, in the past it was able to accommodate more than 100,000 people.

Among the mythical arenas, there is also the Estadio Monumental in Lima (Peru), indicated as the largest in the southern continent, and the Maracaná of Rio de Janeiro, remodelled in the last decade and recently also the object of controversy for being abandoned after the 2016 Olympic Games, before returning to host various football matches.

A colossal dam

Supplying electricity to a continent the size of Latin America requires large generators and significant resources, which are not lacking in the region. Proof of this is the Itaipu hydroelectric plant, located on the Paraná River, just on the border between Brazil and Paraguay, and inaugurated in 1983. The official website of this power plant claims that the infrastructure supplies 15% of the energy consumed in the Portuguese-speaking giant and 90% of the energy demand in the neighbouring country.

With its record 103 million megawatts per hour of energy generated in 2016, it is "the world's largest hydroelectric power plant in terms of energy production," according to the website. Located in a unique natural environment, surrounded by protected areas, the Itaipu power plant is also a popular tourist attraction. One highlight is the light show organized every Friday and Saturday night, free of charge for visitors who have booked ahead.

 

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

 

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