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Review: Turn Right at Machu Picchu

A New York magazine editor goes all Indiana Jones in the Peruvian Andes

Into Thin Air it’s not. But there are ugly blisters to contend with, and always the risk of succumbing to traveler’s tummy or (getting serious now) toppling into some bottomless canyon. Though untested at such high and treacherous altitudes, Adams acquits himself well on the trail — he survived to tell this story, after all — and does a creditable job of interweaving Bingham’s account with his own as he climbs into the clouds.

Atop Machu Picchu, that great ancient citadel vaulting high in the sky, the author experiences the requisite, though genuine, epiphany. Oxygen may be scarce there, but irony seems in ample supply, as Adams gently twits the “never-ending parade of New Age kooks” who had arrived there long before him (and who even now generate unceasing demand for cosmic package tours).

The undisputed world champion of rueful — and goofy — adventure narrative is Redmond O’Hanlon, whose Into the Heart of Borneo may be the funniest travel book ever written. Adams could use a little more of O’Hanlon’s sense of the sublimely absurd, as well as his ease around a sentence. That said, Turn Right at Machu Picchu is a pleasingly oblique approach to travel writing, which has morphed into a minor industry of Big Adventure Books whose authors somehow never get around to acknowledging all the sherpas and Passepartouts who smooth their way through tangles both geologic and bureaucratic.

Not so Mark Adams: Giving thanks and credit where they are due, he paints a lively portrait of a place that Hiram Bingham almost literally put on the map. Adams got his adventure after all. Sharing it with him is a pleasure.

Gregory McNamee, the author of Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals and other books, has climbed many lower peaks in the Alps and Rockies.

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