Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Part One
Mark Adams’s rollicking historical-homage-cum-adventure-saga masterfully interweaves descriptions of explorer Hiram Bingham III’s life, ambitions, and expeditions with a riveting account of his own adventures retracing Bingham’s storied, and sometimes slippery, steps. The book is an entertaining and editfying triumph. If you haven’t been to Machu Picchu and environs, it will inspire you to drop everything and go. And if you’ve already been, it will transport you straight back to those soul-soaring heights. Here we present an excerpt from its first chapter.
By Mark Adams
Chapter One: The Man from Oz
As the man dressed head-to-toe in khaki turned the corner and began racewalking uphill in my direction, I had to wonder: had we met before? It certainly seemed unlikely. John Leivers was in his late fifties and spent most of his time exploring in remote parts of the Andes, machete in hand, searching for ancient ruins. The overdeveloped lobe of my brain that processed all sensory data in relation to popular culture noted his passing resemblance to Crocodile Dundee—John wore a vest and a bush hat and greeted me on the sidewalk outside my hotel with a cheery ‘’Hallo, Mark!’’ that confirmed deep Australian roots—but there was something else strangely familiar about him.
‘’Sorry about the delay,’’ he said as we shook hands. ‘’Just got back to Cusco last night.’’
In a general sort of way, John Leivers reminded me of the professional explorers I’d encountered over the years while working as an editor at various adventure travel magazines in New York City—the sorts of men and women who drove dogsleds to the South Pole and combed the ocean floor for sunken treasure. John was extremely fit; dressed as if ready to clamber up the Matterhorn though it was a cloudless, seventy-degree day; and about as unattached as a man could be in the twenty-first century. He had no wife, no children, no house or permanent mailing address, just a cell phone and a Gmail account.
He’d been recommended to me as one of the best guides in South America, and it had taken weeks to reach him. But now that he was finally here, sitting down to a late breakfast at my tiny hotel in Cusco, an old colonial city in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin. Because I didn’t exactly have a plan.
We ordered coffees, and John started to tell me about himself, occasionally stopping in the middle of a sentence—’’When you’re traveling alone, you’ve got to be absolutely, um, seguro . . . sorry, it’s been a little while since I’ve spoken English’’—then patting his ear like a swimmer dislodging water, as if a tenacious Spanish verb were stuck in there. John had started coming to Cusco twenty years ago, when he was working as an extreme-trip leader, driving fearless globetrotters across four continents in an open-backed truck. ‘’Back then the shops were still closed on Sundays and you could go months without seeing an American,’’ he said. During the last decade, a period during which the number of visitors to Cusco had multiplied exponentially because of its position as the gateway to Machu Picchu, John had seen interest in serious adventure dwindle.
‘’People used to be travelers, Mark,’’ he said, stirring his coffee. ‘’Now they’re tourists. People want hotels, cafés, the Internet. They won’t even camp!’’
’’You’re kidding!‘’ I said, a little too loudly. I had already checked my e-mail at an Internet café twice that morning. The last time I’d slept in a tent was in 1978, when my father brought an imitation teepee home from Sears and set it up in our backyard.
And that, more or less, was why I was in Cusco. After years of sitting at a computer in New York and sending writers off on assignment to Kilimanjaro and Katmandu—places John knew firsthand—I wanted an adventure of my own. I figured that my near-total lack of outdoor experience was a subject that John and I could discuss once I’d decided whether to go through with this.
‘’So what sort of trip did you have in mind?" John asked. ’’Paolo says you’re thinking about going after Bingham.’’
‘’Yeah, I think so. Something like that.’’
For most of his life and many decades after his death in 1956, Hiram Bingham was known as the discoverer of Machu Picchu. The story he told in his adventure classic Lost City of the Incas—knock-off editions of which were available in most of the stores that catered to tourists (even on Sundays) in the center of Cusco—was one of the most famous in the annals of exploration. Bingham was a Yale University history lecturer who happened to be passing through Cusco in 1909 when he learned of a four-hundred-year-old unsolved mystery. When the Spanish conquistadors had invaded in the sixteenth century, a group of Incas withdrew to a city in Peru’s impenetrable high-altitude cloud forest, carrying the sacred treasures of their empire. This city and its inhabitants had vanished so long ago that as far as most serious scholars were concerned, legends of its existence were about as credible as tales of Atlantis. Bingham thought the experts were wrong, and he scoured obscure texts and maps for clues to its location. In the dramatic climax of Lost City of the Incas, he was on the hunt for this final Inca refuge on July 24, 1911 when he stumbled across the geometric splendor of Machu Picchu instead. The citadel he discovered was so unexpected, so incredible that he wondered, ’’Would anyone believe what I had found?"
This excerpt is from “Turn Right at Machu Picchu,” by Mark Adams, copyright © 2011 by Mark Adams. Reprinted with permission of Dutton, Penguin Group U.S.A. For more information on the book, click here.
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