The Lares trek will probably be one of the most memorable experiences from my trip. I'd booked it months ago and had been eagerly anticipating the three day hike, camping in the Andes culminating with a visit to one of the most famous sights in South America, Machu Picchu.
When checking in with the company in Cusco I was told that the other three people in my group had pulled out and I was invited to join a different trek with anther group. Hell no, it sounded perfect! No one to get frustrated with me wanting to stop and paint whenever and wherever I chose. Much to the company's surprise it seemed, I jumped at the opportunity to go alone. Little did I know what was in store. The trip would entail hiking for six to eight hours a day at heights of up to 4400m, accompanied by a guide, with a horse porter to carry my things and a chef who would prepare wholesome and delicious meals. The porter and chef would travel separately leaving my guide and me to enjoy the views and go at our own pace. It quickly became clear that my guide had other ideas. While sexual advances of the sort he favoured might usually be an irritance, or at best flattering, in this situation it was actually quite unnerving. I was alone with him in the Andes, only passing two groups of tourists throughout the trek, with no phone signal and only the non English speaking porter and chef for back up.
It started with repeated and distasteful references to my body, looks, hair etc (he called me Rapunzella) and progressed to persistently insisting we share a tent. This was accompanied by endless uninvited touching and exclamations of excitement every time I took off a layer of clothing albeit only to reveal yet another alpaca jumper. Within an hour of setting off I had to tell him I felt extremely uncomfortable and requested that he behave more proffesionally. Unfortunately this did little to dampen his enthusiasm and the first dinner started with an exhausting argument over whether or not I was going to get drunk on Pisco with him and ended up in a blazing row.
Day two brought more of the same frequent and unnecessary comments interspersed with insults about how boring and strange I was. He bacame increasingly unpleasant and needless to say I disliked him intensely and wished I'd never set eyes on him, but I was not going to let him ruin the few days.
Guide aside, the trek was incredible. Roaming through the mountains (I say roaming but at that altitude every step was an almighty effort) through ravaged hillsides, tribal villages and even thick cloud. The tribal people who live there are totally untouched and unmoved by Western ideas of civilisation. They live hand to mouth with little need or desire for money. The children run around in mud-plastered sandals with bare legs under their layers of colourful embroidered clothes just as generations before them have done. Huge smiles light up filthy faces, it's so cold if they wash they are in danger of getting flu. Each morning they take the lamas up the hillsides before walking a further two hours to school. By the age of five they can cook so that they can have dinner prepared for their parents in the evening when they get back from working on the land. One man we spoke to had no idea where Lima was and most of them have never been to a town. They do not want for happiness but it's a tough life. We met one woman who I learnt after some translating by the horrible guide, had had a sore finger for some time and so had recently cut it off. In the damp conditions it wouldn't heal and she wasn't sure what to do but refused any suggestion of going to hospital.
On the second night we set up our tents in the barn of a local family. I spent the afternoon painting the Grandmother, Nueve, and her daughter Sintusa, both dressed to kill. They offered us a guinea pig for a small price for our dinner. Not wanting to offend I agreed and was presented with it looking all too similar to how it had looked in its hutch that afternoon, with the exception of a sprig of parsley stuffed in its mouth. Horrible guide ripped it's head off greedily and started stuffing his face while I was suddenly haunted with the chirruping faces of Sooty, Sweep, Whiskers, Black Beauty, Suzie...... I could go on. There was no electricity and I was the one with the head torch so I switched it off and we ate in the dark. In silence, as had become customary between my companion and myself.
That night it was -7 and I was still freezing despite wearing tights, leggings, two more pairs of trousers, puffas, coats and alpaca everything, all of which could double up as added obstacles should my guide decide to try his luck. After one night in those conditions, which are mild by their estimation, my respect for the tribal people grew even more.
After a day roaming round Olyantaytambo I took the train to Aguas Calientes for the last leg up Machu Picchu. It would be the final night with my guide but it seemed he had renewed gusto and dinner was spent once more declining incessant attempts to get me drunk prompting more sharp words.
Up at 4am the next morning ready to climb Machu Picchu, innocence still intact. Fortunately I had arrived after dark the previous day and the climb was done in pitch black so I had no idea quite how far and how steep it was. It was as if the three day trek was condensed into one hour although at a thousand metres lower at least the altitude was less of a hinderance. The added motivation was beating as many other faceless head torches as possible in order to secure my spot in the first hundred or so able to get in in time for sunrise. By some miracle I made it huffing and puffing in a sweaty heap in forty minutes. The quicker I got there the sooner I never had to see my guide again. I've seen countless photos, postcards and paintings of Machu Picchu in my life but nothing prepared me for the view that awaited me at the top. Thick, bright white fog. Yep. And it did not budge, but was soon accompanied by heavy rain. The odd thing is other people's postcard perfect photos really mean nothing and in this case I didn't feel in anyway underwhelmed or hard done by. I may not have got the photo or the painting I had wanted but nevertheless there I was standing in the midst of this ancient Inca civilisation. And it was magnificent. Every enormous, mighty stone told a story, many of which we will never know. I really couldn't believe how impressive it was and spent hours wandering round soaking wet trying to absorb it all.
My love affair with Cusco had not petered out when I left for my trek and I have spent the last five days painting as much as I could manage. I've painted fruit stalls, colonial architecture, winding whitewashed streets and doorways leading to secret courtyards and passages. Some have been a real struggle and others have felt like they've painted themselves with little input from me. I've adored every second and true to form punctuated my days with many a delicious Peruvian meal.
Having never set foot on this continent before I now feel a curiosity and a longing to return to South America which easily matches my love for Asia. My next stop is Cuba where I have been told if nothing else to expect the unexpected.