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On The Trail to Small Cusco

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Join Ariana Svenson as she heads out into the Andean mountains, to the ancient ruins of Small Cusco; the modest relation of the more famed Inca capital.

The Ancient Inca Capital of Peru

Legs like lead and lungs screaming in the thin mountain air, we ascended a high pass and were rewarded with views into the ancient Inca capital of Cusco, in Peru.

The Incas, a small tribe that expanded and conquered a good part of South America, about five hundred years ago, are most commonly associated with The Inca Trail and the ancient city of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu - by Michel Guntern,
Machu Picchu - by Michel

Stretching from present day Ecuador in the north and Chile in the south, the Inca Empire was ruled by an Inca (literally the king) and his Quechua tribe that originated in the Cusco area of Peru.

However, as we followed a track barely decipherable in the long yellow grasses on the steep mountainsides we weren't on our way to the famed Machu Picchu, instead to an another ancient city; older and more difficult to access.

Small Cusco

We were on our way to Huchuy Qosqo (meaning 'Small Cusco' in the Quechua language).

Huchuy Qosqo - Small Cusco|
Huchuy Qosqo, by Ariana Svenson

The small Inca tribe of the Cusco region held their huge empire together with an incredible system of communication.

A network of trails wound through the rich valleys of the Andes, on through and around the craggy peaks. A message would take five days to reach Cusco from the far north of the empire in Ecuador. It still takes about six hours to fly.

Thousands of foreign tourists converge on Machu Picchu each year and a good proportion don their hiking boots for a hike along the Inca Trail. This route has earned its reputation as one of the worlds great walks, leading over a series of high passes that reveal spectacular mountain scenery on the Royal approach to Machu Picchu.

This is indeed an incredible trail, however for those with a sense of adventure there are a myriad of 'Inca Trails' in the Inca Empire. Indeed, the Cusco tourism industry, recognising the pressure placed on the traditionally popular trail to Machu Picchu are encouraging tourists to follow other Inca Trails in the region.

Tambo Machay, a series of beautiful stone constructions and waterfalls probably used by the Incas for divine purification, are the starting point for a two-day walk through the mountains from the Cusco Valley to the ruins of Small Cusco.

Confronted by a cliff-like mountain towering over the sacred Inca baths we follow meandering sheep paths up the pretty valley, spotted with potato crops, flocks of sheep and the odd campesino (farmer) at his daily work. No children or porters dressed up for the tourist cameras here.

A Peruvian friend is my guide and he is following the lay of the land. I desperately hope that he knows where he is going as we take one cautious step after another on this windswept mountainside in the middle of nowhere.

From the edge of our grassy perpendicular mountain we have heart-stopping views out over dark green and blue rippled valleys. At times the goat tracks give way to rock faces and we climb around, up and over. With adrenaline pumping, it emerges to me why people find hiking so exhilarating.

Crossing a second pass we enjoy great views of alpine lakes, and encounter big herds of llamas and alpacas. They start at our approach and run away with a comical gait.

Sheltering under craggy rocks for lunch, thunder booms directly above us - it feels as if we are up in the heavens with the storm. The cold came in as if someone had opened a freezer door. With shoulders hunched and our eyes gazing at our feet, we pressed on over a third pass to view the storm whirling close by, snow peppering a nearby mountain.

Under-dressed for the occasion, I was convinced that I was going to die of overexposure yet we came upon a group of colourfully dressed women and children tending their llamas seemingly oblivious to the freezing sleet.

Ascending to the final pass marked by three Inca altars, through the drizzle and low clouds, we were now clearly following an Inca trail, although the intricate stones were treacherously wet.

Passing through a village of thatched alpine huts, the slippery track led downwards into a spectacular ravine and passed through 'La Puerta de Leon Punca' (The Door of the Canyon), a solid and incredible Inca construction perched about 200 metres up on sheer cliff face. Hearts in mouth, we edged around the slimy cliff face never quite seeing where the path led next.

A gurgling river led us past Inca ruins and as we dropped from the bleak Altiplano to a milder landscape around 3,000 metres in altitude, where the smells of the jungle began to waft through the air.

Emerging above the Sacred Valley of the Incas on a narrow stone ledge we literally had the whole world at our feet.

Though a non-hiker, but driven by foul weather and sleet, I completed the 24 kilometres to the age-old city of Small Cusco in one day. I was on top of the world.

In a whole day's hiking, we had only chanced upon five campesinos and as we camped alone near scattered ruins, with clouds engulfing our tent and obscuring the holy mountains, this felt like true adventure.

At sunrise we gazed from the ancient windows of ruins over the cloud-shrouded Sacred Valley - emotion filled our chests at the sheer ability of the Incas. How did the Incas construct these cities high up on mountain faces with huge, perfect carved stones; and how do these buildings stand firm today, despite the earthquakes which shake this seismically active region?

Enjoying Small Cusco With Friends
Enjoying Small Cusco With Friends

Climbing to an extraordinary watchtower constructed on a rock with sheer drops beneath the audacity of the Incas prompted my friend to repeat in wonder, "The Incas had no fear!"

By Ariana Svenson.

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