I do enjoy going on trips, and I had a long backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon planned for October of this year. Unfortunately, I could not get a permit, so I was left with some vacation time and nothing to do. I decided to join a tour company I’d used before and go visit Peru and Machu Picchu. I’d never been to South America, and the trip included some hiking over a 15,000 foot pass, which sounded beautiful and interesting.
Because I was going with a tour company that I trusted, I did very little research. I knew I would be safe and be taken to cool places, and that was enough. But I wanted to get as much out of the trip as possible, so I started working through my Rosetta Stone for Spanish. I also looked into books I might read to get some knowledge and understanding of where I was going.
And that was when I found Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time (2011) by Mark Adams. This book was a New York Times bestseller with high ratings on Amazon. I realize I’d seen it before, too, but never got around to reading it. Suddenly, I had the inspiration I needed.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu is really three intertwined stories in one. The first is the story of Mark Adams and his underdog adventure as he treks along the Inca trail, discovering many of their wonders along the way. The second story is that of Hiram Bingham III, the man credited with “discovering” Machu Picchu, or at least bringing Machu Picchu to the attention of the western world. Finally, the third story is that of the downfall of the Incan empire. Each separate thread was interesting on its own, and the book as a whole was the perfect thing for me to read before my trip.
Mark Adams is an entertaining writer as he describes his challenges and tribulations in the Peruvian wilds. His guide is a hard-ass Australian with great knowledge and love for Peru and its amazing artifacts. He takes Mark up and down steep mountainsides and shows him things that most tourists don’t get to see. Adams’s self deprecating approach and discomfort with camping are probably relatable to a lot of people. He also describes and gives some context to most of the ruins that I was able to see on my trip.
Hiram Bingham III is another fascinating character, and Adams does a good job in telling his story in a relatively objective manner. Bingham undoubtedly accomplished a lot, and he worked hard to be successful. He planned and implemented a number of major expeditions under very difficult circumstances. However, it is hard to “discover” a major Incan city when the farmers who live on it show it to you. He certainly brought this knowledge back to America, something the Quechuan farmers were not in a position to do.
What I remember most about him, though, is how he married a rich, young woman. He was given a house to live in and a yearly stipend that was larger than any salary he was going to make as a teacher. He was able to gallivant about the world because he was financed by his wife’s family while she stayed at home bearing children. I was also irritated by his treatment of a woman explorer attempting to summit a Peruvian peak before him. First, he asked her to wait because he wanted a chance to climb it first. And then he called her a spiteful spinster (or something). He’s definitely a product of his age, so I don’t want to judge him too harshly, but he wasn’t a favorite of mine.
Finally, Adams discusses the final years of the Incan empire. This was all very helpful for me to gain some understanding of where Machu Picchu (and other historical sites) came from and why, and how old they were. Two things especially stuck out while I was reading. Tupac Amaru was the last indigenous monarch of the neo-Incan states. If that name seems familiar, that’s because Tupac Shakur’s mother liked the story of the Incan rebel, and named her son after him. I had no idea.
Atahualpa was the emperor when the Spanish initially arrived. They kidnapped him and held him ransom. After the ransom was paid, they killed him. It’s a fascinating story, but what stuck out to me, again, was just a couple sentences in the book. Atahualpa had a ten-year-old bride, who subsequently became the mistress to Pizarro, bearing him two sons. She later married a Spaniard who wrote one of the better histories of the Incan people. I think her story is incredible, and I cannot imagine all the things she saw and what she went through.
Although keeping track of all the names and places could sometimes be confusing, I still found this book informative and entertaining. Perhaps its best for people planning a trip to Peru or especially interested in history, but I think anyone could find it worth reading.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.