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.