Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Part Two
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
As the hundredth anniversary of Bingham’s achievement approached, the explorer was suddenly back in the news. I’d been introduced to John via e-mail through his friend Paolo Greer, an obsessive amateur researcher with an encyclopedic knowledge of Inca history who also happened to be a retired Alaskan pipeline worker living alone in an off -the-grid cabin in the woods outside of Fairbanks. Paolo had found what he claimed was a rare map indicating that someone may have beaten Bingham to the top of Machu Picchu by forty years or more. Almost simultaneously, the former fi rst lady of Peru ignited an international incident by demanding that Yale return artifacts that Bingham had excavated at Machu Picchu, on the grounds that the explorer—she preferred the term ‘’grave robber’‘—and his employer had violated a legal agreement. Yale and Peru had once planned to jointly open a new museum in Cusco to celebrate the centennial of Bingham’s feat. Instead, they were suing each other in U.S. courts. In the avalanche of news coverage that followed the filing of Peru’s lawsuit, questions kept popping up: Had Bingham lied about discovering Machu Picchu? Had he smuggled artifacts out of the country illegally? A woman in Cusco was even claiming that her family still owned the land on which Machu Picchu sits; was it possible that both Yale and the government of Peru were wrong?
As a magazine editor, I knew the revised version of Bingham’s tale had the makings of a great story: hero adventurer exposed as villainous fraud. To get a clearer idea of what had really happened on that mountaintop in 1911, I took a day off and rode the train up to Yale. I spent hours in the library, leafing through Bingham’s diaries and expedition journals. While holding the little leather-covered notebook in which Bingham had penciled his first impressions of Machu Picchu, any thoughts of the controversies fell away. Far more interesting was the story of how he had gotten to Machu Picchu in the first place.
I’d heard that Bingham had inspired the character of Indiana Jones, a connection that was mentioned—without much evidence—in almost every news story about the explorer in the last twenty years. Sitting in the neo-gothic splendor of Yale’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, the Indy-Bingham connection made sense for the first time. Bingham’s search had been a geographic detective story, one that began as a hunt for the Lost City of the Incas but grew into an all-consuming attempt to solve the mystery of why such a spectacular granite city had been built in such a spellbinding location: high on a secluded mountain ridge, in the misty subtropical zone where the Andes meet the Amazon. Fifty years after Bingham’s death, the case had been reopened. And the clues were still out there to be examined by anyone with strong legs and a large block of vacation time.
’’What’s your take on Bingham?" I asked John.
‘’Bit of a martini explorer,’’ he said, employing what I later learned was a euphemism for a traveler who fancies himself tough but who really expects a certain level of comfort. ‘’Not very popular in Peru at the moment. But you can’t argue with the things he found.’’
Like every serious explorer in Peru, John had all but memorized Bingham’s published accounts of his 1911 expedition. During that summer, Bingham had made not one but three incredible archaeological discoveries, any one of which would have cemented his reputation as a world-class explorer. In his spare time during that visit he had managed to squeeze in the first ascent of Peru’s twenty-thousand-foot Mount Coropuna, thought at the time to be the highest unclimbed peak in the Western Hemisphere. Bingham found so many ruins during his three major Peru expeditions that many had since been reclaimed by the wilderness. John had helped organize an expedition a few years earlier to rediscover a site that Bingham had found within view of Machu Picchu, which had gone missing again for ninety years.
As John sipped his coffee, I floated my idea to him. I wanted to retrace Bingham’s route through the Andes on the way to discovering Machu Picchu. I also wanted to see three other important sites that he had visited: the mountaintop citadel of Choquequirao, now considered by many to be Machu Picchu’s twin city; Vitcos, site of one of the holiest shrines in the Inca empire; and Espiritu Pampa, the long-lost jungle city where the Incas made their last stand against the Spaniards. Exactly how we were going to accomplish this—buses? trains? llamas?—was a detail I hadn’t thought through very well.
‘’Maybe we could hike the Inca Trail,’’ I said. ‘’That way I could get a taste of Bingham’s experience, you know, following the road that leads to Machu Picchu.‘’ I had mixed feelings about the Inca Trail. For trekkers, hiking it was like making the Hajj to Mecca; you had to do it once in your life. But every story I’d read about the Inca Trail—and when you work at an adventure-travel magazine, you read a lot of stories about the Inca Trail—made it sound as crowded as the George Washington Bridge at rush hour. The best parts of Bingham’s books were those sections describing Peru’s natural beauty, and I was hoping to get a sense of Peru as Bingham had seen it, if such a thing still existed.
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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