Turn Right at Machu Picchu

Mark Adams sat in a New York office editing other peoples’ adventures for travel magazines. Then he decided to take his own trek. Turn Right at Machu Picchu is the story of his hike through Peru, following the trail of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor and amateur archaeologist who first photographed and brought Western attention to the Incan “lost” city.

Adams superbly interweaves three time periods. Chapters alternate between the author’s self-deprecating chronicle of his own experience hacking through a harshly beautiful Andean landscape with his irascible guide, John Leivers; historical accounts of Bingham’s 1911 journey of discovery; and Incan history. Traveling with Adams and Leivers are mule drivers who, in addition to managing the mules, set up the tents, prepare Peruvian meals, and make fun of Adams’s cultural missteps.

After Adams reaches Machu Picchu, the book, like an Andean range, takes an abrupt downhill turn, as he turns to controversies between Yale and Peru over who owns the antiquities Bingham found on his expeditions and takes on another, less strenuous trip to the lost city. Anticlimactic but packed with history, anthropology, and political debates, these chapters move the book beyond the Into Thin Air adventure travel genre with which it shares much of its high-altitude atmosphere.

Adams is a witty and knowledgeable guide, and the book will likely inspire visits to Machu Picchu’s uniquely affecting ruins. He does his best to make Bingham a fascinating figure, but he is working with weak material: the Ivy League lecturer-turned-explorer was an unexciting list maker, the pale first draft of Indiana Jones. Nor can Adams deliver the knockout punch we all crave–the answers to the manifold mysteries left after the destruction of Incan civilization by Spanish invaders. How did they build the damned place, and why does everything line up along a perfect solar axis?