Turn Right at Machu Picchu
is a hybrid book, part serious historical reflection and part travelogue. Written by journalist Mark Adams and published in 2011, it reflects on Hiram Bingham III’s famous journey into the wilderness of Peru and supposed discovery of Machu Picchu, a “lost” Incan city that briefly made Bingham one of the most famous explorers in the world. Bingham’s star faded, however, when it was realized that the city was not at all lost and more or less everyone in the area knew about it and that Bingham had elided certain details in order to burnish his story. As the one-hundred-year anniversary of the “discovery” approached and Yale University prepared to finally return Peruvian artifacts Bingham had taken from the site, Adams proposed following in Bingham’s footsteps to wrestle with his legacy and see what had happened to these incredible places over the course of decades.
The book opens with Adams meeting the man who would be his guide on this journey, Australian John Leivers in Peru. The two discuss Bingham and Adams lays out his proposal to follow Bingham’s route to both understand how the man found his way to the city of Machu Picchu in the first place and possibly understand Bingham’s thinking in presenting his “discovery” in the way he did. Adams freely admits that he is not a seasoned adventurer, but rather a man who normally sits at a desk all day. Leivers and Adams hit it off immediately and begin planning the adventure.
Adams then alternates several chapters between background on Hiram Bingham III and background on himself. He traces Bingham III’s family and early life, noting that the man’s obsession with his own legacy means we have all the information necessary to reconstruct his life’s journey. He recounts his own early life and notes that as he aged he became conscious of how life can end suddenly, without warning, which drives him to think about achieving some of his goals—like visiting Machu Picchu. The mystery of why the Incas built these immense and carefully organized structures in beautiful but isolated areas of Peru is established as one of the main goals of Adams’ journey: After Bingham’s deception concerning the “discovery” of Machu Picchu, theories about its provenance and purpose had shifted and changed and Adams hopes to find some clue as to the truth.
Adams continues this alternating structure, tracing Bingham’s journeys and interspersing his own preparations, noting the many parallels between their experiences as he does so, such as their shared bewilderment at the Peruvian habit of being exceptionally late for every appointment. Adams reflects on the difficulty in sifting fact from fiction regarding Bingham’s discoveries, as the histories often quoted are exaggerated to the point of uselessness, and he notes the fact that Bingham was less than honest about his three expeditions and acted in an imperialist manner in regard to artifacts taken without permission, though this doesn’t necessarily mean his work completely lacks value.
As they set off to follow Bingham’s route (alternating, again, with accounts of Bingham himself at the same locations), Leivers has doubts about Adams’ abilities, calling him a “Martini Explorer.” Adams does struggle; even a century later, the route Bingham took remains largely wilderness, and it is difficult, physically demanding hiking with plenty of danger. As Adams acclimates to the demands of the trip, however, Leivers comes to respect him and the two become very good friends. Their relationship forms a third thread in the book, in fact.
As Adams follows Bingham’s footsteps, he relates to the reader what he’s learned about Peru and the Peruvians, much of which is frustrating and amusing to American sensibilities, as well as echoed by Bingham’s reactions a century earlier. Simultaneously, Adams notes the commercialization of tourism and adventure travel, mocking his own costume purchased for the trip and noting the erosion of natural beauty in places like Machu Picchu due to an influx of tourists who don’t have to work particularly hard to get there, although Peru does limit access to historic sites in an effort to stave off such damage.
As they draw nearer to Machu Picchu, Adams also puts himself in Bingham’s mindset, seeing the country as that explorer did, and trying to determine whether Bingham was a sincere explorer who thought he had discovered something lost or a self-promoter who purposefully deceived the world for his own gain. While the group encounters some danger and the occasional moment of drama, by and large Adams is up-front about carefully planning the trip, and most minor problems are resolved quickly. Between them, Leivers and Adams explore a theory that the symmetrical, beautiful abandoned city of Machu Picchu and other locations were not individual sites built in isolation but part of a large network of structures connected to each other.
At the end of the book, they successfully arrive at their destination, and Adams admits that he is no closer to solving the mystery of Machu Picchu, noting that due to the damage inflicted by the Spanish conquistadors and looters over the years, many of the sites remain largely unexplored and mysterious.Turn Right at Machu Picchu
is ultimately a personal book more than a historical work. While Adams is inspired by Hiram Bingham’s adventures and offers real historical rigor, the real point of the story is his own transformation into a legitimate explorer and his fascination with the country and people of Peru, as well as his burgeoning relationship with John Leivers, whose humorless but friendly attitude makes a perfect foil for Adams’ own wry self-criticism.