BBC Autos

Kicking up dust in Peru

HIDE CAPTION

Three vultures track the Duster up the dry, rocky canyon, gliding in silent formation 100 yards above the car as it bumps its way along the valley floor.

They have decided, I think, that its occupants represent their best chance of lunch in this lifeless desert, a pair of gringos in a budget Romanian runabout on one of the world's wildest roads. The slaphead scavengers may have a point. We are winding up the notorious Cañón del Pato, a dirt track strung between Peru's arid coast and its dizzying Andean highlands, and I am wondering if TopGear has bitten off more than the little Dacia Duster can gummily chew. The Cañón del Pato – translates as “Duck Canyon”, contains no ducks – should be approached with trepidation in a Toyota Land Cruiser or a military Humvee. But a £10,000 Eastern European SUV, a car that's too cheap to be badged a Renault? Gentlemen, prepare for your starring roles in Carrion up the Canyon!

I start to mentally compile a list of “Things in Our Favour”. After 15 minutes it stands at this: (1) Four-wheel drive

That's all I've got. A front-drive-only Duster is available at the freakishly reasonable price of £8,995, but – ever safety-conscious – we've got the AWD version, which starts at just under 11 grand, making it the UK's cheapest 4x4 by far. That said, it's the sort of AWD system that, on paper at least, looks more suited to “muddy driveway” than “Peruvian death road”. It remains front-drive in normal road use, a central clutch transferring up to 50% of the power to the rear when it detects slippage. And that's about it for off-tarmac protection: the Duster is on road tires, has no locking differentials, no winch and no water or food on board. Admittedly, the latter isn't really the Duster's issue so much as a total lack of forethought on the part of myself and photographer Matthias, but still the point stands: things ain't looking promising.

We are very much alone on this road. The last vehicle we saw was a rickety old bus bumbling the other way a few hours back, packed to the rafters with wan passengers and with the slogan “JESUS ALONSO” across the top of the windscreen. Judging by the speed it passed at, the driver could indeed have been a hybrid of F1 ace and deity. Since then, nothing. Just miles and miles of brown-grey rock and corrugated track, snaking into the gargantuan Andes.

The odds are stacked against it, but the Duster is holding up. We clatter over rickety iron bridges laid with splintered planks of wood; we do motorway speeds across vicious terrain – hard rutted dirt cut with foot-deep holes and jagged, tire-pinching boulders. The little Dacia (rhymes with ‘Comin' Atcha', innit) shrugs it off with ease.

Past Yuracmarca, where an ancient man waves a live chicken at us like a magic wand, the canyon walls begin to close in, pinching atop the road like mile-high stage curtains. If ominous geology exists, this is it. Onwards and upwards, little Duster.

The Andes are big. If you are in possession of an atlas or a basic knowledge of geography, you may already be aware of this fact. But really, they're enormous – the biggest mountains in the world outside the Himalayas. Peru boasts some three dozen peaks over 19,000 feet, which, for the non-mountaineers among you, translates as “really, really high”. But it's not just the size of the Andes, it's that they loom from nowhere: drive a few miles inland from Peru's arid, desert coast spring, and suddenly you're amid monstrous, snow-capped giants, sheer sides rising almost vertically from valley floors. This place makes the Alps look like the Norfolk Broads.

Monstrous mountains mean colon-puckering mountain roads. Beyond the hydroelectric plant at Huallanca, the canyon track climbs violently, switchbacking up a steep face before diving into a tunnel and emerging into the most freakish vista I have ever seen: a pair of opposing cliffs, each a couple of miles high, separated by barely 20 yards in places. The road is simply hacked along one straight-up cliff wall, a teetering path with 55 narrow tunnels blasted through the rock. There are no barriers, and the drop to the Río Santa below is – what? – 1,000 feet straight down. I locate my right testicle somewhere near my ribcage.

This isn't misplaced fear: Peru boasts one of the worst vehicle death rates in the world, and this is one of its most dangerous roads. The Cañón del Pato is lined with makeshift crosses marking where cars, buses and trucks have plunged over the edge. The tunnels don't offer much respite. Barely a car's width in sections, they twist within the mountain, meaning you can't see what's coming the other way when you enter. There's only one thing for it: pray. And gun it.

My prayers and gunning don't work. In one of the longest tunnels, perhaps half a mile in, I spot the lights of a bus heading the other way. Coward that I am, I get on the throttle, hoping to force him to reverse, but the rusty coach keeps on coming until he is a couple of inches from my front bumper. I look in the rear-view mirror and see nothing but blackness. No choice. As I start to edge gingerly back, another bus appears from behind, blaring its horn and flashing. Typical. You wait ages for a bus, then two turn up at once to trap you in an Andean death tunnel. We sit in stalemate for a few minutes, both bus drivers honking and gesturing. What do you want me to do, señor?

Eventually, Bus One starts to reverse. He inches back about 50 yards before pointing and waving to my left. Oh god. There is a car-sized window cut into the rock, looming out over the abyss below, with a sill of crumbling rock perhaps three feet across. He wants me to drive onto that ledge. I shake my head and cross my arms. Not happening. Bus Two begins to edge into the Duster's rear bumper, shoving me slowly but persistently into the gap. Happening, then. Head craned out the window, I edge into the too-small edge. When the Duster's left-front wheel is within two inches of the crumbly precipice, I stop. My bravery will permit me to go no further. Bus One lurches forward, convinced he can squeeze through. Alongside, mirrors folded, he must be within a inch of the Duster's flank. God, this is close. If he nudges us now, we will be over that edge and doing our best Wile E. Coyote impressions. And then dead. Inch by hideous inch, the bus edges past. Closer, closer... and then freedom. I tiptoe the Duster away from the ledge and out of the tunnel, not stopping to find out how the two buses passed each other. For all I know, they're still there now, locked in tunnelly stalemate for eternity.

Past the tunnels, beyond the abyss, into the lush mountain valley. And, finally, civilisation.

I do not know how there are not more dead dogs along Peru's roads. Conspicuously alive, the scruffy mutts are everywhere, hundreds in every tiny village, lounging under trucks or fighting lazily or, most often, trotting cheerily into the road in front of onrushing vehicles. (There are, officially, urban speed limits in Peru. They appear to be optional.) Stand at any Peruvian crossroads, and you'll witness the same scene played out every few minutes: dog ambles into road in front of truck, truck squeals to a stop, miraculously avoiding flattening dog by about six inches, dog doesn't flinch, offers canine Gallic shrug to irate truck driver, continues across road. They never get hit. I can only conclude that Peruvian dogs are magic.

If the dogs don't scupper you, the mototaxis might. Three-wheeled scooters with a rough tarpaulin over the back to accommodate a couple of passengers, they weave manically across the road, hundreds of them in even the smallest town, criss-crossing in slow-motion orbit without regard for cars, road laws or mortality. Stopped for lunch in a street market, I watch a mototaxi laden with perhaps 50 car batteries wheeze up the gentlest of inclines at barely a mile an hour. Having progressed 20 yards in the best part of five minutes, the mototaxi's front wheel catches a pothole, jolting its body and sending a couple of dozen of the batteries scattering back down the street. Without so much as a flicker of annoyance, the driver climbs from his cab, slowly loads the batteries back onto the rear seat and resumes his glacial progress up the hill. ("What did you do today, darling?" "Not much, dear. Became trapped in an infinite battery loop. You?")

An old lady under a huge, multi-hued hat is selling cute guinea pigs, perhaps a dozen of them in a bag by her feet. She holds one up and looks imploringly at me. So does the guinea pig.

"Sorry," I grin though my best “apologetic foreigner” face. "Don't think they'd let me back on the plane with one of those."

The old woman shakes her head sternly. "Not plane," she says. "To eat now." She makes a nibbling motion with her hands and mouth, as you'd munch a corn on the cob. Hot-buttered guinea pig. No wonder the little fella was looking desperate. Leaving fricasseed rodents to Peru's hardier lunchers, we cast off for the top of the world.

The summit of the Huinchas Pass stands 14,271 feet above sea level. There's a dizzying tarmac road to the top, but we're solemnly informed this is closed. (Either ‘closed' or ‘dead' - my Spanish isn't great.) So, demonstrating the do-or-almost-certainly-die mentality for which Top Gear is famed, we are now heading for the top of Peru up a mud path that makes our earlier dirt road look like the M6 toll.

This place isn't so much off the beaten track as unaware of the existence of a beaten track. We wind higher and higher, over boulders and rockslides, through jungly ferns and cacti, past tiny villages of wood shacks and crumbling stone. Judging by the stares of the farmers we pass, we might be the first gringos to pass through this century. Stopping for photos, one tiny, wizened grandma becomes obsessed with my blue eyes, a situation I find quite charming until it becomes apparent she is seriously contemplating removing them from my face to keep as souvenirs.

Up, past knackered donkeys and more patchy dogs that snarl and nip at the Duster's tires before retiring, wheezing, to the verge. And then nothing. No cars, no tarmac, no oxygen. Just mud, stones and vertigo-inducing drops. The cloud closes in. We are in darkest Peru, but there is no sign of a small, marmalade-hooked stuffed bear. (Yeah, Paddington Bear references. We totally went there.)

Over 13,000 feet, and the altitude sickness starts to hit hard. We have climbed from sea level almost three vertical miles in a single day. It's an odd, out-of-body sort of sickness: though you're acutely aware your movements are getting slower and your emotions less rational, there's nothing you can do about it. I spend two minutes attempting to locate reverse gear, which turns out to have been cunningly relocated exactly where it was before. This makes me very sad and I decide I should probably have a quick cry. It strikes me hazily this may not be the best mindset in which to tackle a deadly Andean ascent. The Duster, mountain goat that it is, soldiers on relentlessly. OK, so its idle has begun to wander a little, and I discover I have to dial in a load more revs to get going from stationary, but the little Dacia is coping with the lung-busting altitude far better than either me or Matthias, whose face has assumed the colour of absinthe and who is making the sort of respiratory noises commonly associated with advanced lung disease.

Higher and higher and the scenery turns curiously familiar. Granite outcrops and blue-green grass, a psychotropic interpretation of the Scottish Highlands. As we crest 14,000 feet - a mile above even the tallest Alpine pass - we break through the cloudline, and the Andes roll out about us, perfect snow-capped peaks poking through the mist like volcanic islands. The setting sun turns the fog below into a sea of trippy purple-pink. In celebration, I drive 500 yards up a scree field to the top of an Ande. The Duster has made it to the ceiling of Peru.

Traditionally, this is where the story should end: the humble car gloriously conquering one of the world's toughest climates. But, as Herr Baumgartner will attest, what goes up must come down, and so must we.

It is deep darkness as we begin the descent to Caraz, the nearest town. The tarmac road is now open. This proves to be A Bad Thing. The tarmac road turns out to be a track barely a lane wide, hacked into the side of a cliff, covered in a film of gravelly dust, devoid of markings or barriers. Below my left shoulder twinkle Caraz's lights, over a mile straight down. If we slide off the road, that's what we're hitting.

What follows is the most nerve-wracking hour of my life. Not that rollercoasterish oh-god-I'm-about-to-die-oh-no-I'm-alive-hahaha sort of fear, the sort quick-hit adrenaline addicts seek out, but a fear far more unpleasant and pervasive, the knowledge that the merest brush of the wrong pedal, a fractional misjudgement of steering, a misreading of the road, will result in plummety death. Hairpins are the worst, steering into empty darkness, no point on the road on which to fix your aim.

We are, it strikes me, putting a lot of trust in the Romanian men who checked the Duster's brake hoses, who fitted its wiring. If anything goes even marginally wrong now – flat tire, power steering glitch, headlight fuse failure – we are dead in the most horribly inevitable way possible. But the Duster keeps on, unstoppable, unruffled, its mud-painted headlights throwing a narrow, dim beam on the narrow, dim road.

I decide, altitude-drunk, thankful to be alive, that this must be the perfect car for Peru. You want something with four-wheel drive, something cheap enough you won't mind it getting a bit dented by, say, a rapidly onrushing valley floor. Decent visibility is a must, to avoid clouting a mototaxi and being clouted by a ten-tonne truck.

And, the altitude-monologue continues, all those things that make the Duster so good here make it the perfect cheap car for Britain. A bit of extra suspension travel isn't only useful when you're tackling an Ande –  it provides useful compliance on crumbled tarmac too, absorbing divots and ruts. The trade-off – in budget cars, at least – is usually a wallowing, sailboat approach to corners. But the Duster is slop-free. Maybe it's the hypoxia speaking, but I'm pretty sure it nails the ride-handling balance better than cars at many times its price.

The Duster doesn't aspire to budget chic or any such daft notion. It's simply budget, and all the better for it: honest, simple, good enough to make you reassess what you actually need, not want, from a new car. I can't claim it steers like an Exige or has a gearshift to match the Boxster, but it does all that stuff entirely adequately. And OK, its interior won't send Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen into raptures, but it has everything you need: seats, steering wheel, radio, all still attached after our thousand-mile off-road battering. We have subjected this simple, brilliant little car to punishment beyond anything that even Britain's most abused Defender has endured, and it has passed with flying colours. Brownish colours, admittedly, but flying brownish colours nonetheless.

Altitude sickness promotes grand, woozy thoughts, and this is mine. The Duster distills the very essence of motoring. Some cars we love for their pupil-melting beauty or for pushing the boundaries of technical possibility. But the main reason we love cars is because they offer freedom, a passport to the furthest-flung corners of the globe. And no car in the world offers more freedom for your quid than the Dacia Duster. Soft, strong and thoroughly canyon-proof, it's TopGear's Budget Car of the Year. Better look elsewhere for lunch, vultures.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of Top Gear magazine.

This place isn't so much off the beaten track as unaware of the existence of a beaten track.