Head in the clouds in Salta, Argentina

Following in the steps of the Incas, a brand-new, high-altitude trek in Salta , north-west Argentina, tackles a road which locals hope will boost tourism in this wild and lonesome region

Its a riddle, mountain guide Fernando Santamaria articulates, as we peer through an arched doorway. The whodunit 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 lavatory. For cleaning, Fernando speaks speedily emphasising that its not that kind of throne.

The throne room is part of the Silln del Inca archeological site, the ruinings of a city that was one of the most southerly parts of the Inca empire. No one is claiming that its the brand-new Machu Picchu, but it is a significant if virtually unknown discern, lately recognised as a Unesco heritage site, and the cherry-red on the cake of a brand new, four-day, 48 km trek. The high-altitude route has been put together by three local companies as Saltas own Inca trail, a chance to explore this underrated, little-known field close to the borders of Chile and Bolivia.

Take a sit the strange throne room at Silln 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 breeze as we start from 2,360 metres and climb for 3 hour up steep switchbacks, the dust-covered route cutting through the arid hillsides giant candelabra cacti. This course was used by the Incas, Fernando tells me. Then, the Spanish, and now local parties. And now us.

A guanaco watches from the crest above as we reach the 3,260 m crown of the trail and begin our hike through a remote, silent valley. Dramatic mountains the color of sand and cement surround the depression, sculpted smooth by duration and condition, striped with mantles of red-faced and yellow-bellied boulder. Tall, two-pronged cacti look like theyre putting two fingers up at the sky for not making them more water.

This valley is called the Quebrada da Incahuasi, pronounces Angel Vilte, whos contributing the mules carrying our gear. We tumble into the vacated Inca city, where waist-high walls mark off where houses and other houses stood. Its actually a pre-Inca wrecking, Fernando tells me. The Incas arrived here in the 1400 s and before that, the members of this house were circular; the Incas drew the right angles.

At its most advanced, the Inca empire move from countries of the south of Colombia and Peru to Mendoza in Argentina, he persists. The arrival of the Spanish in the 1530 s stopped their expansion.

Layers of coloured rock-and-roll above Quebrada da Incahuasi

As ancient archaeological areas disappear, its pretty low key. Were the only parties here, though some neighbourhoods have constructed residences inside the city walls. Cows lumber about. This lieu would have supplied goods to legislating caravans, Fernando tells. It was a big city, its significant armed, residential and administration centre.

We pause for a guessing competition of thrones at the Incas seat, Fernando pointing to holes in walls that would have housed religious effigies. Theres hope there could be more of interest below the floor, including artefacts, if the government or anyone else chooses to investigate.

With red-hot sun and a hard wind on our backs, and a fat round moon rising over the crest ahead, we reach slow progress up a hillside where sheep and guanaco are grazing. My lungs seem tight, my legs sapped of energy from hours of hiking at such a high altitude. The puesto ( small-scale ranch) where were standing is a welcome vision as daylight starts to fade: its simply a few mud-and-stone builds around a courtyard where pups and chickens stroll. Tents are pitched, while Berta Vilte, Angels sister, calls the sheep in for the nighttime. Inhale from the kitchen ardor billows into the nighttime as we pass around warming bowls of copulate tea. The aces and moon are so bright they light up the mountainside. Even if there were no ancient Inca site out here, youd come for this feeling of absolute wilderness.

A rooster that clearly doesnt understand the expression lie-in starts us on our method early next morning. We hike through moo-cow pastures, past frozen mountain creeks and up to the highest point on the trek, Abra de la Cruz at 3,457 m, distinguished by a cross. Below us is an ocean of cloud, the type of sentiment you generally exclusively see from a plane window.

This really is like trekking to the gloom, Fernando suggests, as we tumble. Its actually trekking within the clouds, as were enclose by a ghostly grey-white mist. We use GPS to keep us on track as Fernando sings In the midriff of the cloud, a pastiche of the Billy Joel song.

A black hound reacts us the next night at Puesto Pascuala, a small ranch with a ass 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 depression towards the confluence of two flows. Four condors curve high-pitched above us, soaring in and out of the gloom. A group of semi-wild mares range freely on the hills.

A goat at Puesto Pascuala

Having declined 1,000 m, we reach the warm storey of the gorge and cross a rushing flow. After a tough uphill pull, the bleating of goats announced today weve been able to reach Puesto Sarapura. In the ground, a gnarly tree trunk has been carven into a regal-looking throne by owner Vicente Burgos. This time, Ive no doubt what its for: a neat mind sitting down after a long hike.

We stop on our way out next morning to consider a new lamb, born overnight, shakily clutching its mothers area and struggling to find its legs. Up in these hills, hes really going to need them.

Our final era takes us into Saltas Yungas, an area of tropical rainforest. The dense greenery and fast-flowing torrents feel a nature away from the dry desert landscape we started from periods before, as we shape our route up to a vantage point high-pitched above sprawling Salta city.

After a long, knee-busting downhill, our quiet wilderness hike ends in the busy Quebrada de San Lorenzo nature reserve, where duets are posing for selfies and children range about, the first city folks weve seen in epoches. Skrillex-style music detonations from a cafes stereo.

Welcome back to civilisation, Fernando grins. It feels like its been a while.

The journey is supplied by Rainbow Tours( 020 -7 666 1266, rainbowtours.co.uk ); its 11 -day trip overheads from 2,460 pp, based on two sharing, including BA flights to Buenos Aires, domestic flights, sends, breakfast and some meals, the four-day Trek to the Clouds, three darkness at Finca Valentina in Salta and four nights in Buenos Aires, plus a Buenos Aires city tour. For further details on the Trek to the Clouds, hear norteactivo.com

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