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Turn Right at Machu Picchu, by Mark Adams

Updated on November 17, 2015

A book of both history and travel adventure, "Turn Right at Machu Picchu" chronicles the travels of the author, Mark Adams, through the mountains of Peru. Adams had worked as an editor for an adventure travel magazine, but had never traveled in an adventurous way in his life. He has never slept overnight in a tent (aside from one night in a Sears tipi in his childhood) and the most adventurous he has been was an attempt to enter Bolivia during a trip to Peru and being turned away at gunpoint. Thanks to a connection to Peru through his wife, who is Peruvian, Adams decided to take his first adventure travel trip following the trail of Hiram Bingham III through the Andes when he first visited Machu Picchu.

Bingham has long been described as the discoverer of Machu Picchu, but "discoverer" is not really accurate, as there were families living on the site at the time. Bingham is, however, the man who brought knowledge of Machu Picchu to peoples of European descent. He also raised awareness of Machu Picchu to the point where preservation of the site, and, eventually of all Inca heritage sites, became a priority for the Peruvian government. Without Bingham, Machu Picchu might have been taken away, stone by stone, by farmers and grave robbers.

The book moves back and forth in time among the age of the Incas, the life and times of Hiram Bingham III, and Adams's trek through the Andes.

I suspect that Adams may have exaggerated events and personalities in the book. But it is still a fantastic read -- interesting and amusing, often going all the way to "hilarious," by turns. I have read passages from it to my friends and family, just so that they can see what I'm laughing about.

Hiram Bingham III came from a family of adventurers. His grandfather, Hiram Bingham I (As an aside it really feels weird to write "I" that way; my mom taught me that unless we are talking about royalty or Popes, if a grandfather, father, and son all have the same name, they should be "Senior," "Junior," and "III," but Adams uses "I", so I am using it, too). Hiram Bingham I built the first Christian church in Hawaii, in 1820. A subsequent church, built on the site in 1837, is still there today, in downtown Kailua. Hiram I didn't stay on the Big Island very long, and soon moved to Honolulu. Hiram I was not fond of the Hawaiians, and they didn't much like him either. The people who ran the missions agreed with the Hawaiians. When Hiram I had to bring his wife back to the mainland for medical treatment, the missionary association refused to send them back to Hawaii.

Hiram III's father, Hiram II, followed in Hiram I's footsteps, only on the Gilbert Islands. Hiram III (whom I will refer to from now on as just "Bingham") however, was born in Honolulu when Hiram II had to go there for medical treatment. Bingham plotted his escape to the mainland for several years before he finally got to accompany his father to the mainland, where Bingham stayed to go to school. And when, on his way back from a conference, he happened to overhear tales of a lost capital of the Incas, Bingham discovered that he had inherited the family wandering feet, as well. He spent six years going back and forth between Yale University and Peru, searching for history and, of course, for treasure.

Complicating matters was the way the idea of archaeology evolved during those years. Originally, archaeology was treasure-hunting. Whoever found an item could take it out of the country, oftentimes without even needing to bribe anyone. By the end of Bingham's time traveling back and forth to Peru, the idea that the artifacts found should, as a rule, stay in their country of origin had taken hold. Adams chronicles the problems this caused for Bingham in the 20th century and for Yale in the 21st.

This book is full of fascinating characters, both modern and historical. The Incas, the Spaniards, the people Adams travels with and meets on the road, are all wonderfully drawn. I almost felt that we actually met a number of them.

And, as an aside, as someone who has an entirely humiliating fondness for "The Emperor's New Groove," I was very pleased to find out that Pacha's name is an actual Quechua word ("Pacha" means "Earth," as in the ground, not the planet). I have had less luck with Yzma and Kronk.

I loved this book and have read it several times already. This may end up being one of those books I reread with frequency.


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