Turn Right at Machu Picchu
Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time
What happens when an adventure travel expert-who's never actually done anything adventurous-tries to re-create the original expedition to Machu Picchu?
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?
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"You know, Mark, all Inca roads lead to Machu Picchu," John said. He reached across the cluttered tabletop for a jam jar. I couldn't help but notice how different our hands were. His had square-cut nails and looked like they'd spent a lifetime hauling lines on a trawler. Mine looked like I'd just visited the salon for a mani-pedi. "If this is Machu Picchu"—here he placed the jar at the center of the table—"and this is Choquequirao"—he aligned the sugar bowl—"then these are Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa." He moved the salt and pepper shakers into position. The four pieces formed a Y shape with Machu Picchu at the bottom.
"There are no roads to most of these places, only trails," John said. "You can still walk pretty much everywhere Bingham went." He reached into one of his vest's many pockets and pulled out a little blue notebook with a plastic cover. "I buy these in Chile—they're essential for traveling in wet areas.
"Now, let's see. You'll need three days in Cusco to acclimatize to the altitude. One day to drive to the trailhead for the hike to Choquequirao. Two days' walk to the ruins. It's not very far but it is a bit steep. Incredible views. We'll have a look around, then continue on to Vitcos—that's about four days of walking. We'll take a good look at the White Rock, a very important religious site that Bingham spent a lot of time trying to figure out. Serious country out there, serious Inca trails. You'll need a good sleeping bag because we'll be spending one night near fifteen thousand feet. Might get snowed in.
"We'll take a day or two of rest near Vitcos. Then we go down to the jungle, quite a ways down, actually, toward the Amazon basin. Maybe three more days to get there, depending on the weather, which can be a little unpredictable. We get to Espiritu Pampa and walk down the staircase to the old capital of the Inca empire, which Bingham made it to, though he never really understood the importance of what he'd seen. You'll want at least two days there." John paused for a second. "Presumably you want to see Llactapata, too."
"Llactapata. It's the site Bingham found when he came back to Peru in 1912. I was up there a few years ago. You can look right across the valley to Machu Picchu. Just incredible. It's like what Machu Picchu used to be like before it was cleaned up—hardly been excavated."
"Of course, that Llactapata," I said, trying to guess how the name was spelled so that I could look it up later. "Definitely can't miss that."
"It'll help you get an idea of how the Inca engineers and priests aligned all these sites with the sun and stars. Brilliant stuff."
If John didn't look like a cum laude graduate of the French Foreign Legion, I'd have sworn we were tiptoeing into New Age territory. Cusco was a magnet for mystics. You couldn't swing a crystal without hitting someone wearing feathers who called himself a spiritual healer. The big draw, of course, was Machu Picchu itself. Something about the cloud-swathed ruins in the sky had a dog-whistle effect on the sorts of New Agers who went in for astrological readings, sweat lodges, and Kabbalah bracelets. Travel brochures that arrived at the magazine office always seemed to imply that the stones of Machu Picchu practically glowed with positive energy. There was no single explanation for why the citadel Bingham had found was sacred ground, but that didn't stop thousands of spiritual pilgrims from flocking to the site each year hoping to experience a personal harmonic convergence.
"All right. So we walk up to Llactapata, come down the far side, and we can either take the train to Aguas Calientes"—he looked at me over his notebook—"that's the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Or we can walk along the rails and save the train fare."
"Is that legal?"
"Well, you know how things work in Peru, Mark. It all depends on who you ask."
"Do a lot of people sign up for this sort of trip?"
"We used to get a few people every year—serious travelers. Hardly anyone does it anymore."
"How long would it take?"
"About a month. Maybe less if the weather cooperates."
Represented by breakfast condiments, the trip didn't look especially daunting. About a hundred miles of walking, by my rough calculations. From the sound of what John had described, we'd go north, cut through the mountains, bear left toward the jungle, then double back toward Cusco. For the big finish, all we had to do was follow the river and turn right at Machu Picchu. This last part sounded like a pleasant afternoon stroll, something to kill a few hours and work up an appetite for dinner.
"I know it's a lot to take in," John said. "Any questions so far?"
I could only think of one. "Is this harder than the Inca Trail?"
For a split second, John looked like he didn't understand me. "Mark, this trek is a lot harder than the Inca Trail."
"[An] entirely delightful book."
-Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
"Quite funny and unpretentiously well informed . . . The perfect way to acknowledge the lost city's 100th birthday."
-Christian Science Monitor (Editor's Choice)
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