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Review: Turn Right at Machu Picchu

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

The ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru, Latin America

Photo by Getty Images

The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.

En español  |  On July 24, 1911, a Yale University history lecturer named Hiram Bingham awoke early one morning and, with his Peruvian guide, set out on a punishing climb into the Andes Mountains. Bingham, 35, had grown up scaling the peaks and swimming in the surf of his native Hawaii, then later tramped about the rugged Appalachians of his adopted New England. He was in excellent physical condition, but admitted being daunted by the nearly vertical slope of rock to which his guide led him. The local people called it Machu Picchu — “Old Mountain,” in the Quechuan language.

Bingham made it to the summit, where he beheld a sprawling complex of uninhabited stone buildings and plazas hugging a narrow isthmus of mountaintop with sheer cliffs on two sides — a hidden fortress that Bingham, with mercantile Yankee ingenuity, would come to call “the lost capital of the Incas.” That claim brought him fame (the governorship of Connecticut, a seat in the U.S. Senate) and fortune (a best-selling book he titled Lost City of the Incas). Never mind that his fellow senators would censure him for financial hanky-panky, or that he would be accused of violating Peruvian antiquities law; Bingham (now widely acknowledged as the model for Indiana Jones) cut a heroic figure in his day.

Urbanite Mark Adams, a contributing editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine, makes a considerably less intrepid narrator in his nonetheless valiant new adventure tale, Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Though the 41-year-old author hadn’t slept in a tent since 1978 (a department-store teepee in his suburban backyard), Adams yearned for some outdoor diversion, having spent years “writing at a computer in New York and sending writers off on assignment to Kilimanjaro and Katmandu.” Now the time had come for an adventure of his own — and, perhaps, a chance to dish a little dirt on the complex and morally challenged Bingham, with the Schadenfreudenary prospect of seeing the “hero adventurer exposed as villainous fraud.”

Machu Picchu, of course, is no backyard-teepee affair, especially if you plan to scale it via Bingham’s original route. There’s the long climb up, for one thing, which entails an elevation gain of 7,970 feet. Then there’s the long climb down, every bit as difficult as the ascent. And in both directions you must negotiate plunging ravines spanned by packed-earth bridges with quavering single handrails and dire warning signs — although “most of the signs and railings had tumbled down the hillside” by the time the author reached them.

No stranger to the area — his wife is Peruvian — Adams sensibly sought help from the outset. He found it in a daredevilish, 58-year-old Australian guide named John Leivers and an Andean support team; together they saw to it that Adams came to no grief on the slopes, giving him the leisure to reflect on the majesty and folly of his undertaking (and Bingham’s before him).

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.