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Cayman S versus the road of 3,000 curves

  1. Mexico, as you may have read on the news, is not the world’s safest country at present. Especially not if you’re driving the ‘Road of Three Thousand Curves’ - the twisting mountain pass winding through the heart of drug-war territory - in a Porsche Cayman S.

    Can Top Gear’s Sam Philip survive the drug barons, the 1,000-foot drops and, most terrifyingly, the Really Quite Spicy Food? 

    Pictures: Daniel Byrne
    This article was originally published in the December issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. “The only safe way from Durango to Mazatlán,” says Roberto, “is by helicopter.”

    It’s half-midnight. Roberto is a taxi driver, taking photographer Daniel Byrne and me from Durango airport to our hotel. We’ve just told him we’re driving the Camino de Tres Mil Curvas - Mexico’s ‘Road of Three Thousand Curves’ running from Durango, high on the country’s north-western plateau, to Mazatlán on the Pacific coast - the next morning. After cheerily regaling us with tales of hijackings, shootings and beheadings, he pauses and sucks air in through his teeth.

    “Maybe you’ll be OK. You don’t look rich. The narcotráficos - the drug traffickers - will only shoot you if your car is expensive. What car do you have?”

    “A Porsche.”

    “Ni madres! It’s worth how much?”

    “A hundred thousand US dollars.”

    “Watch out for the bad men.”

  3. A police siren blares behind us. A battered Pontiac of early Eighties vintage screams past. It is clearly not a police car, but its owners have somehow acquired a police siren. The wailing Pontiac spears into the side of another car ahead, running it into the kerb, and howls off into the city. Roberto shrugs.

    My phone rings. It is David, a contact from Porsche’s Mexico set-up who has provided us with the Cayman S for this trip. “Be careful tomorrow,” he warns. “There are some… bad men on that road. They will kill you.”

    “We’ve been hearing all about them. They sound fun.”

    “It’s a dangerous place. If they point a gun at you, you give them the car, OK. Don’t be brave.”

    Wasn’t planning on it. “OK.”

    “Don’t drive at night. And don’t stop. At any point.”

    “But we have to take photos!”

    “OK, you can stop for one minute at the most. And never in the towns. Whatever happens, keep moving.”

  4. Brilliant. We stop at the hotel and step into the Durango night. The air is cold and chalk-dry, and the town is silent. It feels like the calm before the storm.

    A bit of background. In the 1990s, the USA cracked down on drugs entering the country through its Caribbean ports. The drug traffic - cocaine, mainly - shifted overland through Mexico, a handful of rival gangs fighting to control the route. The battle has intensified in recent years. Best estimates suggest 28,000 have died in drug-related incidents since 2006. A couple of months earlier in Gómez Palacio, a city just up the road, 17 were killed in a drug-related massacre.

  5. Our road runs straight through one of the most hotly contested territories on the drugs route, an area defended viciously by the incumbent gangs. The consensus is that if you travel during daylight, keep a low profile and steer clear of the cocaine, you’ll be OK, but the narcotráficante response to ostentatious displays on their patch is undiplomatic but effective: beheading. Driving a box-fresh Porsche Cayman S - albeit someone else’s Porsche Cayman S - through their territory ranks as a pretty ostentatious display.

  6. So why the hell are we driving this route? Because it’s an astonishing road that won’t exist for much longer. The two-lane Highway 40 - for a century, the only route from Durango to the coast - is soon to be bypassed by a new motorway, a monster feat of engineering that bores through mountains and soars high over valleys (see right). Highway 40 won’t be destroyed, but, relegated to a minor road serving a handful of mountain settlements, it’ll inevitably fall into disrepair. This is the last chance to drive the Camino de Tres Mil Curvas in all its glory. And what better to do it in than the Cayman S: a coupe with supercar performance but a compact footprint that means it won’t be nerfed off the road by trucks?

    At 4am on a sleepless night, my phone beeps. It is TG’s Associate Editor. “Don’t get beheaded,” it reads. “I’m not dealing with the mountain of HR paperwork…”

  7. Next morning, and things are not going well. Twenty minutes ago, as we pulled out the entrance of the hotel and into Durango’s early morning traffic, a mangy, stray mongrel leapt in front of the Cayman. I stamped on the brakes and swerved to avoid the mutt as it scampered back onto the pavement, then watched in the rear-view mirror as it sauntered back into the road and was swiftly flattened by the pick-up truck behind us. A bad omen. And now, despite our plan to count every corner on the Road of Three Thousand Curves, we can’t tick off the first three without disagreement…

    “One.”

    “Two.”

    “Three-“

    “That wasn’t three. That was still two.”

    “No, there was a straight in between. Right-straight-right. Two and three.”

    “That wasn’t a straight. That was a… lesser bit of the same bend. There, that one was three.”

    “That was four.”

  8. We are out of the city, past the checkpoint marking the edge of civilisation. A TG Top Travelling Tip: want to be sure no one has planted drugs on your car? Roll up at a puesto de control militar in an unregistered Cayman S. The guards will generously tear every panel and trim section apart to ascertain your car is clean. For free.

    There is no one here now, no drug lords, no police, just us and the odd long-horned cow and donkey chilling by the side of the road. We dive down rocky river valleys, strewn with wildflowers and cactii. If the Porsche engineers had a road in mind when they set up the Cayman, surely it was this one. Smooth, even bends open out into quarter-mile straights before another delicious complex of corners, all with finer rhythm than anything Hermann Tilke has committed to tarmac. The Cayman clings hard to the immaculate surface, firing out of corners with a flat-six yowl. All is well, and we laugh at that mad talk of narcotráficos.

  9. Then things take a turn for the unnerving. As we idle through a scrubby town where scraggy horses stroll idly across the highway, a black Ford pick-up with darkened windows and wide-spaced tyres pulls deliberately out from a side street and speeds up to our rear bumper, locking in two feet behind us.

    “If the henchman of a Mexican drug lord was to drive any car…” I start.

    “Yeah, it’d look more or less exactly like that,” finishes Daniel calmly, glancing in the mirror but not turning round. The pick-up stays glued to our bumper as civilisation fades out and the woodland reappears. Anonymous, empty woodland. Full of good places to bury a pair of flabby gringo bodies.

    “What do I do?” I ask, attempting not to sound panicky. I sound panicky. “How the hell does drug-lord etiquette work? Should I speed up? Or does that make us look like we’re trying to… evade them?”

    Daniel wrinkles his nose. “Floor it?” he suggests.

  10. I flick down a couple of gears on the PDK box, kick the Cayman’s throttle through the carpet, the floorpan and some way into the tarmac below. Nothing happens. I realise I have actually shifted up a couple of gears, not down. Damn those ridiculous push-me-pull-you steering wheel buttons. Back down through the ‘box. First gear. The Cayman bellows like a throaty donkey and we haul off into the distance. The black pick-up shrinks in my mirrors and then disappears.

    “I think we’ve lost him,” I announce with more confidence than I’m feeling.

    Daniel nods. “Or… he’s just radioed his mates down the road.”

  11. Bar a couple of rocky dirt tracks leading to Mordor, there are no turnings off Highway 40. We have no choice but to carry on and hope Señor Grande isn’t waiting for us down the road with a couple of his leetle friends.

    The road is really climbing now. The scenery morphs from scrubby woodland to greener, denser forest. Papery butterflies the size of magazines flit alongside the road, keeping pace with the huge trucks laden with beer and horses and recycling and petróleo, often all at the same time, lumbering up the inclines at a few miles per hour. If there’s space to overtake, some lorry drivers flick on their indicators to let us know it’s safe to pass. Most don’t. Quick glance, cross fingers, pull out, hope for the best. We are grateful to have a car rapid enough to dispatch overtakes in a couple of seconds.  

  12. We stop, warily, for lunch at a wooden shack beside the road. Its proprietor, an ancient woman with raked-back hair and teeth rendered completely in shiny gold, bashes lumps of dough flat with the heel of her hand and drops them onto her wood-fired stove. The Cayman, with its brothel-red interior, looks very conspicuous.

    We ask, in pidgin Spanglish, about the drug barons. Narcotráficos? Here? She nods and smiles a big goldy smile. Peligroso? Dangerous? She nods and smiles again. Has she called the boys already, with cunning smoke signals from her stove? Are they on their way, with their machetes and lunch orders? Or is she just a nice old Mexican lady, humouring us and our total lack of Spanish? Surely the former.

  13. We wolf down our gorditas - Mexican incendiary devices containing molten lava within a thin doughy case, which explode like grenades as you bite into them - and, sustaining 10 per cent body burns and total T-shirt ruination, scramble back into the Cayman.

    And ahead, looming large, are the olive peaks of the Sierra Madre’s highest mountains. Between the trees, we catch glimpses of Highway 40, snaking its way to very top of the world. It seems an insane route to build a road, as we wind our way higher and higher: was there no easier, lower path? We round a hairpin, and in front of us stretches a prehistoric paradise of mountain and sky.

  14. We have reached the highest point on Highway 40, 9,000 feet up, a skinny pass that connects two of the Sierra Madre’s highest peaks. The locals call it the Espinazo del Diablo: the Devil’s Backbone. If they’re right, Lucifer needs to find himself a new osteopath.

    The pass kinks and writhes over the sheer rock face, desperately clinging onto the peak as the void below beckons, a drop of - what? - a thousand feet? More? The vista isn’t so much jaw-dropping as temporarily incapacitating. Blithely disregarding our one-minute rule, we park up and absorb the dizzying view. If you’re going to get beheaded, might as well make your last vision something spectacular.

  15. Fate tempted, we tip over the top of the pass and begin our descent, the air becoming thicker, wetter, funkier. Moisture rising off the Pacific clings to this side of the mountains, turning the atmosphere more tropical, the stray dogs slower, heat-drunk. A small child runs across the road with a bucket on his head.

    And the road, spectacular before, raises its game to world-beating levels. It dives down the mountainside like a spasming eel, twisting and bucking against the slope. Forget Alpine passes, with their tight hairpins interspersed by sensible straights. There is not a metre of straight road here, just corner after hairpin after bend after zigzag, with no respite between. It is non-stop and terrifying and significantly vomit-inducing.

  16. Where lorries brake for the tightest corners, they have worn the road surface bare and kicked up gravel and dust, meaning friction where you need it most is tenuous. Several times, I bang hard on the brakes, only to find us sliding straight on, the traction control flashing and Daniel attempting to escape the car through the passenger footwell. Potential Durango drug barons: deal Dramamine instead of cocaine, and make a killing!

    If three or four of these cambered bends were stitched together on a British road, devoted drivers would flock from every corner of our isle to drive it. But here are hundreds of the devious buggers, wedged in a loopy, unending succession that’d send the hardiest rally co-pilot into pace-note-aneurism. Loudly, foolishly, I proclaim this the finest road ever.

  17. And then we nearly die. As we round a knotty left-hand hairpin, the giant, bluff front of a petrol tanker looms large on our side of the road, honking furiously and definitely not stopping. There is nowhere to go. Too wide to swing round the hairpin on the inside lane alone, the tanker is straddling the entire road, bearing down on our windscreen, leaving no more than a metre of grassy verge on the right-hand side of the road before a sheer drop into the abyss.

  18. Faced with the tasty choice of Death By Truck Flattening and Death By Plummety Fall, I opt for the latter and swerve for the verge, slamming on the brakes as the front of the truck swings straight for us. It veers right at the last second, missing the front of the Cayman - and, a millisecond later, my head - by no more than six inches. The tanker barrels off down the road in a maelstrom of screaming brakes and blaring horn. The Cayman is stationary now, the outer edge of our passenger-side wheels hanging over the edge, clinging on by the inner inches of their tread.

  19. We crawl back onto the tarmac and pull over at a tiny roadside shack selling thick-glass bottles of Coke and sugar-crusted pastry. The owner, a dense, doughy man with a moustache from Stalin’s back catalogue, ambles out with three scruffy dogs in tow. He beckons me to the edge of the cliff and points down into the foliage far below. Just visible, 500 feet down, is a mangled lump of bright red metal, clearly a car, clearly not long deposited. “Ayer,” he nods. “Yesterday…”

    “Did he die?” I ask.

    The owner shrugs. “Who knows?” he frowns. “There are too many…”

  20. Dozens - hundreds - of makeshift wooden crosses line the road to Mazatlán, each a reminder of a body over the edge. Some form in clumps of four or five - separate incidents? One packed car? Best not considered. Hugging the roadside by one especially vertiginous drop is a cross with a car bonnet carefully mounted against it. Did you leave flowers, Señorita? No, just the Atoz bonnet. It is what he would have wanted.

    As the Cayman has just saved our lives, this seems a good moment to reflect on what a mighty car the baby Porsche is. Fast, tactile, unflappable, it has dealt with everything this insane road has thrown its way and is ready for more. We sweep past perfectly preserved Beetles and ancient Ford F150 Custom trucks, the temperature and humidity rising. There are no drug lords, and all is magnificent in the world.

  21. The sun is blaring pink across the horizon as we drop out of the bottom of the mountains and through the final military checkpoint, where trucks’ brakes are hosed down with icy gas to stop them igniting their tyres. We have reached the last 20 miles of sensible, straight highway to Mazatlán. Maybe 15 minutes of daylight remain. If this were a film, it’s an equation that would trigger a desperate, down-to-the-wire race, in which we reach the safety of our city hotel as the final licks of sunlight dropped below the Pacific, outrunning nightfall - and Señor Grande’s henchmen - by a matter of seconds. But this isn’t a film, so we don’t. 

  22. Night has fallen by the time we reach the hot, thrumming port of Mazatlán, and we don’t get beheaded by the narcotráficos. Were we ever close to it? Who knows? That’s the problem with hidden dangers: they remain hidden until the moment you have a machete to your throat and a crazed Mexican asking if you like to dance real slow. But, beyond our own paranoia, the greatest threat we’ve encountered has been a big slow truck.

    The greatest road in the world? Truly, this is. And the Cayman? Better than a helicopter any day.

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