As the pyramids are to Egypt, and the Taj Mahal is to India, so is Machu Picchu to Peru. That being the case, it is a site that attracts just about every sort of traveller, ranging from gritty, hardened adventurers hiking for days to reach the legendary Incan city, to those who are bussed in on coaches.
Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu, sounds like someone who would be more comfortable taking the latter option – no camping experience, zero expeditionary knowhow – who finds himself instead taking the former alongside a no-nonsense Australian survivalist, John Biers, and a crew of experienced Peruvian guides and porters.
This isn’t entirely down to masochism, or because it’s a good idea for a book (which it obviously is). It’s also because he seeks to retrace the route taken to Machu Picchu by famed explorer Hiram Bingham III, an American professor credited with ‘discovering’ it in 1911. This means no Inca Trail for them! As many reading this are no doubt aware, Bingham is a somewhat controversial figure – particularly despised in some quarters for stealing some of Machu Picchu’s invaluable treasures – and in following his route and conducting extensive research, Adams seeks out to gain a deeper understanding of both Bingham himself and the legendary world heritage site that made his name.
Essentially, Turn Right at Machu Picchu is a book with two concurrent narratives: the Adams-Biers expedition (the present-day trip, named after our humble narrator and his aforementioned Australian trekking buddy) and Bingham’s story, fleshed out with the author’s own knowledge of apposite Incan history, no doubt gleamed from many hours of painstaking research.
Traditional travel writing fans will find much to enjoy about the Adams-Biers trek, not least the chalk and cheese pairing of the duo themselves. It’s immediately apparent that there’ll be an odd couple vibe when John refers to Bingham as a ‘Martini Explorer’, immediately making Adams feel like his lack of trekking kudos is under the spotlight. Naturally, he becomes unstuck pretty quickly; but rather than roll our eyes at his naivety, we can’t help but root for him, not least because he is painfully self-aware of his “Western trekking guy” appearance (when his pockets are stuffed with sweets, he dubs himself a “trick or treating Hemingway”).
The two have so little in common that Adams has to flail for conversational topics to fill the many hours they spend together, but gradually their shared interest in Incan history sees the two form a bond. Before long, John is schooling our narrator in using a machete to hack a path through dense foliage, and eventually opens up about how he, a grizzled Australian in his fifties, ended up adventuring in South America. Together with the idiosyncrasies of their support team, and the interesting characters they meet/bizarre facts they learn along the way – who knew Brazilian women strip naked on the Inca Trail “whenever they want” – this part of the tale makes for an entertaining and frequently humorous read.
It’s fair to say that I’m not giving anything away by saying the group does make it to Machu Picchu. So how does Adams deal with trying to describe a place that has had every superlative thrown at it? Well, that I won’t give away, but let’s just say he neatly sidesteps the potential trap of scrawling lots of hackneyed clichés, instead opting to defer to a legendary German philosopher…
So what of the historical part of the book? Inevitably, this makes for a somewhat drier read, devoid of as it is of Adams’ personal anecdotes. But one should avoid the temptation to skim read through these parts, and not just because it does a disservice to Adams’ very extensive research. See the ‘Select’ Bibliography at the end for proof of just how extensive…
Not only does it provide a compelling insight in to the man who, arguably, we have to thank for Machu Picchu being the accessible attraction it is today; it also provides much needed contextual meat to the narrative bones. The sections dealing with the sometimes gruesome history of the Incans are particularly fascinating, and the ever-savvy Adams deftly slips in some fun trivia to ensure proceedings don’t come across too much as a history lesson.
Ultimately, Turn Right at Machu Picchu is a highly recommended read for anyone who has visited, or is planning to visit, the Inca Citadel. As much as anything it’s a vital learning experience; just as it is, indeed, for Adams himself. His experience not only toughens him up as a would-be adventurer, he also learns things along the way that he otherwise couldn’t from books alone. But it’s undoubtedly the case that you can learn a lot about the overall Machu Picchu experience – the history, the cultural significance, the trek to the site – from this one.
Featured image courtesy of Guido da Rozze