So, You Want to be an Explorer: An Essay Review of Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams

So, You Want to be an Explorer: An Essay Review of Mark Adams’
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time

By Molly Spero, 2016

Title: Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time

Author: Mark Adams

Publisher/Date: Dutton, 2012

Length: 1-292

Price: $16 

The Basics: Synopsis

Praised by National Geographic as “a serious (and seriously funny) travelogue,” Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, Mark Adams ingeniously weaves together three narrative threads – his own travel, Bingham’s parallel journeys, and Spanish colonialism during the Inca Conquest – to answer the question, just what was Machu Picchu? Adams, a magazine editor at a traveling publication follows the path forged by Hiram Bingham III, who is famed for “discovering” Machu Picchu during an expedition into the Andes Mountains of Peru in 1911. A century later, Bingham is recast as a villainous huaqueros, or grave robber, who stole priceless artifacts and claimed undeserved credit for finding the archaeological site. Aware that he had never even slept in a tent, let alone trekked hundreds of miles through the Peruvian forest, Adams entrusted “hard-as-nails” Australian adventurer, John Leivers, to guide him. Adams hikes, climbs, and slogs through the Vilcabama region of Peru to his ultimate destination of Machu Picchu. Armed with a guide, a group of muleteers, Bingham’s journals, and indigenous local farmers (among many others), Adams quests to illuminate the mythology of Machu Picchu.

La Hora Peruana: Peruvian Time

Adams quickly discovers that Peruvian standard time is synonymous for tardiness. La Hora Peruana, Peruvian Time, is “the code, indecipherable to North Americans, by which Peruvians determine the latest possible moment that is acceptable to arrive for an appointment” (42). Hiram III, a man who was so astute about time management that he had designated hours for “reading for fun,” found this to be a particularly annoying cultural phenomenon (223). However, unlike Bingham, I am accustomed to this practice, as my stepmother is from Bolivia. She and my dad sent their wedding invitations with a time 3 hours before the actual ceremony to just her relatives, knowing that stragglers were still expected. All of South America seems to treat time similarly.

The theme of time is ever present throughout the book. While South Americans refuse to be slaves to the clock, North American culture values expediency, always striving to accomplish more in the least amount of time. Hiram Bingham III’s ambitious drive came from his grandfather and father who were missionaries with little to show for their dedication. Bingham learned the importance of self-promotion. Adams summarizes the motivation behind Bingham’s relentless need to explore: “If a man was going to work that hard, the world ought to know about it” (17). Hiram III certainly earned his celebrity by managing his time to the fullest. Between 1911 and 1915, he led three expeditions, finding Machu Picchu and many other major Incan sites. However, this rush to make his mark on the world may have been his undoing.

History is Written by the Victors

Adams asserts, “…Bingham has been accused of exaggerating the details of his expeditions…” (55). Evidence for this is provided in Bingham’s 1948 travelogue, Lost City of the Incas (now a misnomer). This book, the most famous version of the story, romanticized Machu Picchu, creating a classic adventure tale and editing out the boring sections such as catalogs on canned goods. He editorialized the “discovery” narrative by sanitizing the part that gave credit to Lizarraga, a local farmer whose name and the year 1902 were etched into the wall of the Temple of the Three Windows. In addition, he lied about the University of Cusco professor having information about the ruins.

These few instances of many exaggerated half-truths by Bingham should not completely color your opinion of him. Adams points out the difficulty in separating fact from fiction. For example, “virtually all the sources available are Spanish accounts of stories that had already been vetted by the Inca emperors to highlight their own heroic roles. Imagine a history of modern Iraq written by Dick Cheney and based on authorized biographies of Saddam Hussein published in Arabic, and you’ll get some idea of the problem historians face” (47). History involves many narratives – many of which are never recorded – but often a dominant narrative becomes embedded in the culture and society. Bingham’s narrative just happened to emerge as the dominant history, largely due to the romantic embellishments that embodied The Explorer.

Of course, readers realize through Adams’ dry humor that history is about perspective. He understates, “The arrival of Europeans in the New World was not a major cause for celebration in the Andes” (105). We feel embarrassment as we are confronted by the genocide of ancient Incans by Spanish conquistadors. Although discredited as the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu gained its fame from being mythologized like Atlantis, the fantasy underwater kingdom. As an outsider Bingham painted Incan descendants as “savages.” Adams recognizes this cultural clash writing, “The Peruvians crossed barefoot, Bingham later recalled, ‘using their somewhat prehensile toes to keep from slipping,’ a description that managed to compliment their bravery while not-so-subtly comparing them to monkeys” (177). White explorers have historically been known for depicting natives as primitive, wild creatures and Bingham was no exception.

He also fell prey, like many other explorers, to confirmation bias. Adams overtly explains Bingham’s incessant desire to prove his Grand Unified Theory: Machu Picchu was both Tampu Tocco, the location of Incas’ creation myth, and Vilcabama, the Lost City of the Incas. His determination to prove his theory led him to only confirm new evidence that reinforced his theory and reject or ignore evidence that contradicted it. I admit I’ve also fallen into this trap, and I cannot deny that it is convenient. The trouble for Bingham was that proving his theory required exporting artifacts back to the U.S, and there was no way he was leaving them behind.

Claim to Fame: The Controversy of Peru vs. Yale

Bingham led a total of three expeditions to Peru sponsored by Yale University, and later the National Geographic Society. The head of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor, instructed him to bring Incan artifacts back to the U.S. in order to be displayed in the Yale’s museum. However, in response to Bingham’s 1911 exploration, Peru solidified its stance toward its national heritage and prohibited the exportation of artifacts from its country without official consent (204). A compromise was reached, allowing Bingham to export all the artifacts he found back to Yale upon the condition that Peru could demand them back whenever it wanted.

According to Adams, “Anticipating the legal trouble that would arise a century later, Lima’s newspapers portrayed Bingham as a Yankee imperialist looking to steal the country’s treasures and dispatch them to Yale” (208). This negative image would be wielded by former first lady of Peru, Eliane Karp-Toledo, whom Adams interviewed in a Barnes and Noble in suburban Washington, D.C. Controversy stirred when Peru brought Yale to court in 2007 over Yale’s refusal to honor the agreement to return the artifacts to Peru when requested. In Februrary 2008, Karp-Toledo denounced Bingham’s inheritance in an Op-Ed column for The New York Times, claiming the agreement between Peru and Yale reflected Yale’s “colonial way of thinking” (211).

Adams seems to perhaps sympathize a bit with Bingham, writing, “I asked as diplomatically as possible if perhaps Bingham was being used as the whipping boy for other interests” (213). In my mind, Bingham is a victim – albeit not an innocent one – but worthy of sympathy. Yes, I believe it is incorrect and unjust to suggest he “discovered” Machu Picchu since there were three families who were living at the site when he arrived – even he admitted this fact. But, I think the controversy that politicized the hostility between Yale and Peru fifty years after Bingham’s death earns the explorer the benefit of the doubt. Yale declined to honor the agreement, while National Geographic sided with Peru. I’d speculate that Bingham, with his obsession-like desire to be memorialized in history, would have also sided with Peru if it meant his reputation, as a hero, remained intact.

Karp-Toledo responds, “I think the politician in [Bingham] ate the adventurer in him. That’s too bad” (213). After reading her Op-Ed, I agree with her assertion that Yale demonstrated colonialist values by ignoring the request of Peru. Although it does not excuse Bingham and Yale and National Geographic Society for their past actions of exporting Incan artifacts, the early-to- mid 20th century courtesies and political relations were not framed with the same understanding we have today of oppression. Today in the U.S., especially in academia, we are (supposed to be) more sensitive to the colonial/imperialist narrative and are more vocal about recognizing the injustice. For me, I am confused about why Yale resisted returning the artifacts to its rightful country – even if there was not an agreement – when academia espouses cultural literacy and cognizant of types of privilege. Many more sources arose in the aftermath of the controversy and painted Bingham as a villainous scoundrel who walked – no stomped – all over the Peruvian government without a care and focused only his own career ambitions.

“Martini Explorer”

Unlike Bingham, Adams’ goal in exploring Machu Picchu was to follow a path already trekked and to prove to himself that a city man could turn into a “serious traveler” (13). According to John, the hard-as-nails Australian guide, Bingham was a “bit of a martini explorer,” which was “a euphemism for a traveler who fancies himself tough but who really expects a certain level of comfort” (5). Adams considered himself a different type of explorer, “Mr. Travel Guy,” who is dressed in a cheesy safari outfit and forgets the “Wear Two Pairs of Socks Rule” (55).

Adams critiques the commercialized tourism industry through the voice of John, the embodiment of the serious traveler and explorer. John complains to Adams saying, “Travel today is ticking things off: ‘Whew, I’ve done Machu Picchu, now I can get drunk…It’s a real problem now—people don’t know how to enjoy life. They want hedonism, short-term thrills’” (145). Through the trip, Adams realizes that time should be appreciated and as cliché as it is, slow down to smell the roses. I think that is were Bingham went astray. He was in such a hurry to make a name for himself that he got caught up in the tourism need for grand, romantic adventures that accomplish a goal. Perhaps Bingham needed to embrace Peruvian Time.


Just what was Machu Picchu? That is the driving question of the entire book. Adams presents so many theories and speculations of Bingham and other scholars posed to solve the mystery of Machu Picchu that I have a hard time keeping up. Some evidence points to the city’s purpose as either a hideout in the jungle, a religious site, or the emperor’s royal estate. For Adams, he sees Machu Picchu as interconnected with the ancient Inca Trail, dotted with Incan ruins that create the sublime. Johan Reinhard, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, succinctly places the Inca Trail in its proper context, “You can’t finish the Inca Trail and NOT know that this was the end point of a pilgrimage” (198).

Despite the verdict on Bingham, I agree with Karp-Toledo when she admits, “If I were to give Bingham credit for one thing, it was that he brought knowledge of Machu Picchu to the world” (213). Regardless on which theory is right or what the purpose of Machu Picchu was, we must acknowledge Bingham’s contribution as not the “discoverer” of Machu Picchu, but perhaps its illuminator.


Adams, Mark. Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time.

Dutton, 2012.