July 24, 2011, will mark an anniversary of sorts – call it a coming-out party, perhaps – for Machu Picchu, Peru’s mysterious city in the clouds, the 16th-century Incan metropolis that is also known as one of the seven wonders of the world. Exactly 100 years earlier – on July 24, 1911 – Yale University professor and American explorer Hiram Bingham III stumbled upon the site and proceeded to introduce it to the world.
Anniversaries like this one are usually good excuses to sell books such as Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time and so travel journalist Mark Adams’s decision to fly to Peru, hire a guide, and attempt to retrace Bingham’s footsteps must have seemed to his publisher a sound one.
What makes it also a slightly comical one, however, is the fact that – although Adams has written his share of extreme travel pieces for magazines such as Outside and National Geographic Adventure – he is mostly an armchair adventurer. “I was banned from the Cub Scouts [in second grade] due to a late birthday,” writes Adams, hoping to excuse the fact that he has never slept in a tent before. Meanwhile, he is preparing to replicate the remote mountain trek undertaken by Bingham, the professional explorer who helped to inspire the character of Indiana Jones.
To Adams’s rescue comes John Leivers, the Australian guide who will undertake the journey with him. Leivers is a leathery outdoorsman with a bleak personal philosophy (he expresses to Adams his conviction that “the world had entered a deep, probably irreversible decline”) and a deep-seated contempt for ordinary people who sleep indoors at night and fail to embrace punishing physical challenges. (“The body and mind only get stronger when they’re traumatized,” he assures Adams.)
But what Adams lacks in survival skills he makes up for in sly humor, so the interactions between the chatty suburban author and his valiant but rather humorless guide become one of the most endearing features of “Turn Right at Machu Picchu.”
If your idea of a great travel book is the breathtaking life-and-death account of some daredevil who hitchhikes across the Sahara or canoes the length of the Congo River, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” might not be for you. Adams’s trip is ambitious but well thought out and there is never any reason to doubt its successful outcome.
And even the mystery he seeks to unravel – was Bingham a hero or a heel? – fails to come across as either terribly mysterious or particularly urgent.
But as a writer Adams is more than capable. He knows how to pace a story and manages to pull off a book that tells us just enough about several things – Machu Picchu, its history and its “sacred geography,” other Incan ruins, Bingham and the age of the great explorers – without trying to do too much.
He also touches lightly on some of the curiosities of Peruvian culture (his wife is Peruvian so he is no novice here), such as its intriguing local cuisine (which includes roasted guinea pig), the eerily gentle hand “flutters” that the Peruvian men he meets exchange instead of handshakes, the country’s 20 different weather zones, and the peculiar difficulties of the Quechuan language.
In short, if a strenuous but not particularly terrifying trip to one of the world’s great cultural sites with a companion who is quite funny and unpretentiously well informed is the kind of travel read that you crave, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” hits the mark skillfully. Short of actually traveling to Machu Picchu yourself, it’s the perfect way to acknowledge the lost city’s 100th birthday as a modern-day tourist site.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.