Book Review: Turn Right at Machu Picchu

Genre: Nonfiction | History/World Travel

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

Synopsis from Goodreads: July 24, 1911, was a day for the history books. For on that rainy morning, the young Yale professor Hiram Bingham III climbed into the Andes Mountains of Peru and encountered an ancient city in the clouds: the now famous citadel of Machu Picchu. Nearly a century later, news reports have recast the hero explorer as a villain who smuggled out priceless artifacts and stole credit for finding one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites.

Mark Adams has spent his career editing adventure and travel magazines, so his plan to investigate the allegations against Bingham by retracing the explorer’s perilous path to Machu Picchu isn’t completely far- fetched, even if it does require him to sleep in a tent for the first time. With a crusty, antisocial Australian survivalist and several Quechua-speaking, coca-chewing mule tenders as his guides, Adams takes readers through some of the most gorgeous and historic landscapes in Peru, from the ancient Inca capital of Cusco to the enigmatic ruins of Vitcos and Vilcabamba. Along the way he finds a still-undiscovered country populated with brilliant and eccentric characters, as well as an answer to the question that has nagged scientists since Hiram Bingham’s time: Just what was Machu Picchu?

I read another title by Mark Adams at the end of last year on colonialism in North America (not only New England, but throughout the country, including the Southwest and West Coast of the US) and really enjoyed his dry wit and writing style, so I was delighted to have an excuse to pick up this book to meet a challenge prompt to read a book about a hiking trip. Which this is on the surface, but is also a history lesson, cultural lesson and geographic lesson rolled into one. I absolutely adore books that teach me something new while also being entertaining and this one is that.

Following in-depth research about the explorer, Hiram Bingham, III, who came from a family of intrepid and some might say “difficult personality” missionaries, Adams uses notes and journal entries about Bingham’s expeditions to Peru interspersed with a travelogue of his own adventures. Bingham is reportedly the college professor turned world explorer and archeologist on whom the character of Indiana Jones was based. Certainly Harrison Ford’s trademark fedora, jacket, pants and boots were taken straight out of the photograph included in this book. Bingham made 3 expeditions to Peru to explore the area around what is Machu Picchu, as well as other stone ruins in various states of disappearance back into the rain forest that surrounds them. The first expedition was funded on personal funds (Bingham married well) and personal donations, but the second two were funded by the National Geographic Society.

Adams traces not only Bingham’s expeditions, but also delves backward into the history (as much as is known) about the indigenous people of this area in Peru, their vast cultural and economic systems that fueled the building of sites like Machu Picchu, and their interactions in the 16th and 17th centuries with Europeans (spoiler alert – these interactions did not end well for the Inca and the indigenous people). Interspersed with chapters filled with lots of historical details and research, Adams chronicles his two visits to the area “in search of the real Machu Picchu”. Filled with self-deprecating humor, we get the chance to follow him along both trips, one of which is what I’d consider “back-country” hiking with a lot of machete-hacking and over hill and dale hikes (some above 13,000 feet, so not for the faint of heart), and the other of which follows the “Inca trail” which is a slightly less physically demanding, although still plenty adventurous hike to Machu Picchu.

In the end, there are still many questions unanswered. Yes, it’s likely the site was used for ceremonial events, many of which were tied to astrological occurrences like the solstices. It’s also likely the site was used for religious ceremonies, as well as being a remote and difficult to invade fortress. The complete story of the site will likely never be known, and many of the details of the people who lived in the space and their rich cultural heritage are only hinted at by the stones that remain, but I learned so much about Peru, the Inca and their people, and this amazing heritage site while being thoroughly entertained, so I’ll count this as a solid win.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Turn Right at Machu Picchu

  1. This sounds like a really interesting read! Thanks for the review—I’ll be picking this one up for sure. I don’t know nearly enough about the history of these sites, even though they fascinate me.

    1. I had a long-ago baby-sitter who went to the site for a year during college (after she was no longer a baby-sitter for us) but she came home that summer with so many amazing stories and photographs. I’ve always been interested in it but like you, didn’t really know much about the history behind it. I love any ancient site that also works as an observatory/planetarium.

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