Hops and Skips

Recommended Read: Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams

I have an obsession (especially recently) with travel writing, but I’ve never been able to decide if I prefer reading about a destination before I visit or after. One way brings the thrill of anticipation and the other the thrill of familiarity. Is it better to have the context before the experience, or does the context end up influencing the experience?

When I recently discovered Mark Adam’s travelogue Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time on a best-of travel writing list, I jumped at the chance to re-live our own Machu Picchu trek from 2014, filling in the contextual gaps a long six years later.

Hiram Bingham III is widely credited with the 1911 “discovery” of Machu Picchu during an era of competitive exploration and a booming international interest in the world’s forgotten or unseen sites. (National Geographic Magazine, for example, boomed in the early 1900s following an increased focus on photojournalism.) But of course Bingham didn’t actually discover Machu Piccchu; existence of the now-famous ancient Incan site has always been known by local communities, and Bingham’s role is (now) more accurately identified as “initiating the scientific discovery of” or “making known to the public.”

Many tales of adventure can be wrapped up with a conclusive bow: Tenzing and Hillary summit Mount Everest; Amundsen reaches the South Pole. But Bingham’s 1911 quest for the “lost city of the Incas” has continued to stir up controversy during the 100+ years since, from frequent claims of undue credit to allegations of stolen and smuggled ancient artifacts. (As recently as 2011, a century-long custody battle between Peru and Yale University, the expedition’s sponsor, over artifacts excavated and brought to the US by Bingham resulted in Yale finally relinquishing them to their home country.) Alongside the pervading mystery surrounding Machu Picchu’s fundamental how and why, this lingering controversy is one reason the site has remained such a compelling story. 

For the 100-year anniversary of Bingham’s first encounter with Machu Picchu, author Mark Adams, a journalist for outdoor/travel magazines with no actual outdoor/travel experience, decides to follow in Bingham’s footsteps and discover Machu Picchu for himself. Having once before visited the site in a total tourist manner, for this journey, Adams is determined to trek as an explorer would. He finds himself a guide, an Aussie named John who is survivalist by nature, fluent in Quechua, and very much the antithesis to Adams’ inexperience. On this modern-day expedition, Adams and his guides spend weeks traversing the Sacred Valley, retracing Bingham’s footsteps through the region, aiming to “re-discover” the ancient Incan sites as Bingham first saw them 100 years prior. 

While the foundation of this book is Adams’ own often-humorous journey through the wilds of Peru, the author does a good job sharing the history and context to make this more than just a personal travel memoir. He has done extensive research on ancient Incan civilization, sharing a perspective that attempts to explain the region’s enigmatic allure. He also tracks Bingham’s original treks, sharing the explorer’s complex relationship with the region. Adams segments his writing with brief chapters, frequently jumping between these three narratives which may feel fragmented to some readers; I found that it kept the perspective fresh, preventing long sections bogged down by explanation.

Adams’ story is one of both trivial observation and conflicted reflection. Readers trek alongside the journey and its physical demands, getting as first-hand as dreaded altitude gastrointestinal troubles, but we also consider the lasting effects of Bingham’s “discovery” on a region, country, and cultural history. 

For this one, I’m glad to have read it after my own Machu Picchu encounter. The full story is satisfying, but sometimes the most enlightening way to experience something new is from a perspective of complete ignorance. 

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