Following in the footsteps of the Incas, a new, high-altitude trek in Salta, north-west Argentina, tackles a trail locals hope will boost tourism in this wild and lonely region
‘It’s a mystery,” mountain guide Fernando Santamaria says, as we peer through an arched doorway. The “mystery” is an ancient throne made from slate, inside a boxy stone building in the remote desert of Salta in north-west Argentina. “It could have been used by an Inca general as their meeting room, or for religious ceremonies.” But it could also have been used as a bathroom. “For washing,” Fernando says quickly emphasising that it’s not that kind of “throne”.
The throne room is part of the Sillón del Inca archeological site, the ruins of a town that was one of the most southerly parts of the Inca empire. No one is claiming that it’s the new Machu Picchu, but it is a significant – if virtually unknown – spot, recently recognised as a Unesco heritage site, and the cherry on the cake of a brand new, four-day, 48km trek. The high-altitude route has been put together by three local companies as Salta’s own “Inca trail”, a chance to explore this underrated, little-known region close to the borders of Chile and Bolivia.
Take a seat … the mysterious throne room at Sillón del Inca.
After an acclimatisation day in Salta city, we start out from the roadside near Maury station in the Quebrada del Toro gorge. I can feel the thinness of the air as we start from 2,360 metres and climb for three hours up steep switchbacks, the dusty trail cutting through the arid hillside’s giant candelabra cacti. “This path was used by the Incas,” Fernando tells me. “Then, the Spanish, and now local people.” And now us.
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A guanaco watches from the ridge above as we reach the 3,260m top of the trail and start our hike through a remote, silent valley. Dramatic hills the colour of sand and cement surround the valley, sculpted smooth by time and weather, striped with layers of red and yellow rock. Tall, two-pronged cacti look like they’re sticking two fingers up at the sky for not giving them more water.
“This valley is called the Quebrada da Incahuasi,” says Angel Vilte, who’s leading the mules carrying our gear. We descend into the abandoned Inca city, where waist-high walls mark out where houses and other buildings stood. “It’s actually a pre-Inca ruin,” Fernando tells me. “The Incas arrived here in the 1400s and before that, the houses were circular; the Incas brought the right angles.”
“At its most developed, the Inca empire ran from the south of Colombia and Peru to Mendoza in Argentina,” he continues. “The arrival of the Spanish in the 1530s stopped their expansion.”
Layers of coloured rock above Quebrada da Incahuasi
As ancient archaeological sites go, it’s pretty low key. We’re the only people here, though some locals have built homes inside the city walls. Cows lumber about. “This place would have supplied goods to passing caravans,” Fernando says. “It was a big city, an important military, residential and administration centre.”
We pause for a guessing game of thrones at the Inca’s seat, Fernando pointing to holes in walls that would have housed religious statues. There’s hope there could be more of interest below the ground, including artefacts, if the government or anyone else chooses to investigate.
With hot sun and a hard wind on our backs, and a fat round moon rising over the ridge ahead, we make slow progress up a hillside where sheep and guanaco are grazing. My lungs feel tight, my legs sapped of energy from hours of hiking at such a high altitude. The puesto (small ranch) where we’re staying is a welcome sight as daylight starts to fade: it’s just a few mud-and-stone buildings around a courtyard where dogs and chickens wander. Tents are pitched, while Berta Vilte, Angel’s sister, calls the sheep in for the night. Smoke from the kitchen fire billows into the night as we pass around warming cups of mate tea. The stars and moon are so bright they light up the mountainside. Even if there were no ancient Inca site out here, you’d come for this feeling of absolute wilderness.
A rooster that clearly doesn’t understand the term lie-in starts us on our way early next morning. We hike through cow pastures, past frozen mountain streams and up to the highest point on the trek, Abra de la Cruz at 3,457m, marked by a cross. Below us is an ocean of cloud, the kind of view you usually only see from an aeroplane window.
“This really is like trekking to the clouds,” Fernando says, as we descend. It’s actually trekking inside the clouds, as we’re enveloped by a ghostly grey-white mist. We use GPS to keep us on track as Fernando sings “In the middle of the cloud”, a pastiche of the Billy Joel song.
A black dog greets us the next evening at Puesto Pascuala, a small ranch with a donkey’s skull hanging in the courtyard. Pascuala Cruz, who lives there, is slowly milking a pen full of goats as we set off in the morning, hiking down into a green valley towards the confluence of two rivers. Four condors circle high above us, soaring in and out of the cloud. A group of semi-wild horses roam freely on the hills.
A goat at Puesto Pascuala
Having dropped 1,000m, we reach the warm floor of the gorge and cross a rushing river. After a tough uphill stretch, the bleating of goats announces that we’ve arrived at Puesto Sarapura. In the yard, a gnarly tree trunk has been carved into a regal-looking throne by owner Vicente Burgos. This time, I’ve no doubt what it’s for: a nice sit down after a long hike.
We stop on our way out next morning to see a new lamb, born overnight, shakily clutching its mother’s side and struggling to find its legs. Up in these hills, he’s really going to need them.
Our final day takes us into Salta’s Yungas, an area of tropical rainforest. The thick greenery and fast-flowing streams feel a world away from the dry desert landscape we started from days before, as we make our way up to a vantage point high above sprawling Salta city.
After a long, knee-busting downhill, our peaceful wilderness hike ends in the busy Quebrada de San Lorenzo nature reserve, where couples are posing for selfies and children run about, the first city folks we’ve seen in days. Skrillex-style music blasts from a cafe’s stereo.
“Welcome back to civilisation,” Fernando grins. It feels like it’s been a while.
• The trip was provided by Rainbow Tours (020-7666 1266, rainbowtours.co.uk); its 11-day trip costs from £2,460pp, based on two sharing, including BA flights to Buenos Aires, domestic flights, transfers, breakfast and some meals, the four-day Trek to the Clouds, three nights at Finca Valentina in Salta and four nights in Buenos Aires, plus a Buenos Aires city tour. For more details on the Trek to the Clouds, see norteactivo.com
Fuente: The Guardian