Bestselling Author Mark Adams On Machu Picchu

turn right at machu picchu mark adamsMark Adams is the author of “Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time,” his bestselling account of his attempt to retrace Hiram Bingham’s groundbreaking 1911 expedition to “discover” Machu Picchu. The book, which is now out in paperback, was a New York Times Bestseller and was named one of the best non-fiction titles of the year by Men’s Journal and the Washington Post. Adams gave us the inside story of what motivated him to take this expedition, shared some tips on visiting Machu Picchu and gave us his take on Bingham’s legacy.

What inspired you to trace Hiram Bingham’s famous Machu Picchu expedition route of 1911?

I was an editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine and working at a place like that, Machu Picchu played the same kind of role there that Tiger Woods might have, pre-scandal at Golf Digest. It’s always in your face; you’re always thinking about it; you’re always trying to come up with new ways to look at Machu Picchu because people love it. They can’t get enough of it.

Why is that, do you think?

It has that little element of mystery. Someone once said that you can’t take a bad picture of Machu Picchu, and I think it’s that iconic shot that’s just so alluring that people are really drawn to it. People think, ‘That’s one of those places I want to see before I die.’ It’s so far out and it’s so exotic and yet, pretty much anyone can do it if they have enough money and time.
mark adams machu pichuYou wrote that you hadn’t gone camping since you were a kid, and hadn’t been on any real expeditions, so you had to get in shape to embark on this expedition, is that right?

I was in OK shape. I didn’t quite realize how strenuous this trip was going to be. My guide, John Leivers, had explained to me that I needed to get ready by doing knee bends and other exercises because I’d be carrying a day pack and walking through some pretty deep canyons. But literally 90 minutes into our first day I got a look at a canyon we were supposed to cross and it was essentially like a sub-tropical Grand Canyon. It was a mile down and a mile back up the other side and steep!

This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The last time I’d slept in a tent was when my dad brought a fake teepee home from Sears when I was 7 years old and we put it up in the back yard. That’s another reason why I wanted to take the trip, because I felt like a bit of a fraud working at National Geographic Adventure giving thumbs up or thumbs down to a camp stove based on the color of paint.

You made an investigative trip to Machu Picchu with your son, who was 13, before your big expedition, is that right?

I did. And I’ve been to Peru many times because my wife is Peruvian and her family lives in Lima. But Lima is like L.A. and the Andes are like nowhere else on earth. It’s a weird, beautiful, wild place and Cusco is a little bastion of civilization in the Andes, so I did go on a reconnaissance mission in August 2009 with my son because I knew I needed a guide to recreate the Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition.

I met a guy named Paolo Greer, who appears in the book, he’s an Alaskan amateur expert on Machu Picchu, and he suggested I hook up with John Leivers.

How did your son handle the trip to Machu Picchu?

He was there for about 40 minutes and said, ‘I think we’ve done this, can we move on now, maybe get an Inca cola and catch an early train back?’

That was summertime and you wrote in the book that the place was swarming with tourists. So is summer not the best time to visit Machu Picchu?

It is and it isn’t. June, July, August you get the best weather there. But it’s also when most tourists arrive. John and I went on the (first) expedition in October, which is kind of a perfect month. April, October or September are also good.

You were way off the beaten path for most of your big expedition. You didn’t want to do the Inca Trail, at least at first, right?

If I’m honest, I probably thought I was too cool for it. There are so many stories about the Inca Trail, I thought, ‘I’ve got to try something a little more serious here.’ I don’t think I had any idea what I was getting myself into. The farthest we went was, perhaps 60 miles west of Machu Picchu, and in that span, you go from a 20,000-foot snowy peak in the Andes to being knee deep in the Amazon basin.

We met an archaeologist who told us, ‘Mark, if you see some guys in dresses with bowl haircuts, you run, because those guys are natives and they live by their own laws.’ Not far from where we were there are un-contacted tribes.

So on your first visit to Machu Picchu with your son, it sounded like you made a lot of mistakes, right?

I made this same mistake myself the first time I went, but why would people fly all the way to Peru and then fly to Cusco and then take the 3.5-hour train ride and then go up for a couple hours, come down and go back to Cusco? There are plenty of nice little places to stay in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. I would recommend taking two days, spending an overnight there. Take one of the first buses up in the morning, and hit that main area of Machu Picchu where all the famous things are – the Sun Temple, the Temple of The Three Windows, and the Intihuatana Stone at the top of the main ruins, you can hit all those before 9 a.m. and they’re pretty deserted.

If you wait until say 11 or 11:30, that’s when the trains from Cusco start coming in, and in a matter of an hour or so, the ruins go from being relatively empty to absolutely packed and for 3-4 hours, they’re absolutely packed. You’ve got traffic jams on all the old stairways and it’s almost like someone pulls the drain out of a bathtub around 3 p.m. All the tourists go draining out and you get this lovely hour or hour and a half at the end of the day.

I got up at like 4:30 a.m. to be there early but that was back when the rule was the first people had to sign up to climb Wayna Picchu. I believe they’ve changed that and now you have to buy tickets in advance.

And what else would you do in that area?

There are lots of interesting things to do on the periphery of Machu Picchu. You’ve got Mt. Macchu Picchu, a climb you can do that’s 1,000 feet up that gives you some spectacular views. You can walk up to the Sun Gate, and take probably the best photos of Machu Picchu from that vantage point. Take a break, have lunch but I do not recommend going to the Machu Picchu cafeteria. Picture those iconic photos of the last helicopters leaving Saigon and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like there.

Visiting Machu Picchu isn’t cheap, is it?

It can be expensive. If you’re really diligent there are ways where you can take local minibuses to save money. Kind of an end-around route, instead of the direct route, but it’ll take you a full day to get there that way.

I think the figure I came up with was, maybe $20-$30 doing it that way, and then sneaking in through the train tracks, which isn’t entirely legal, versus taking the train from Cusco, which can be anywhere from $150 to $600.

There’s a section in the book where you describe a place called Salcantay, and it sounds spectacular and also devoid of tourists, is that right?

Salcantay was one of the two holy peaks of the Inca Empire. Salcantay is the famous one near Machu Picchu, it’s directly due south of the ruins, but you can’t see it from the ruins. You have to take the Inca Trail and then on the last day of your walk, if the clouds cooperate, you get this incredible view of Salcantay, which is this massive 20,000-plus-foot white peak, which sort of springs up above all the other peaks in the Andes, and you can see why it was popular in both Inca times with the Quechua people and now because it’s absolutely spectacular.

The Inca Trail really is spectacular but you have two options. You can do a five-day option or a four-day option and if you do the four-day option you miss Salcantay. I highly recommend the five-day trip and you also have less hiking to do every day with it, so it’s less grueling, and you’re out of sync with the rest of the hikers, so you end up being alone a lot rather than in huge packs.

The Inca Trail is probably sold out now for the whole summer, because it sells out in advance, but you can also get there via the Salcantay route, which comes from a different angle.

How fit do you need to be to do this?

If you can run 3-4 miles at a decent pace, you’re probably fine. The Peruvian porters are in amazing shape; I’ve seen them run ahead with the packs, dump the packs at the campsite and then run back and literally start pushing people up from behind uphill. It’s a lot like the Sherpas and Mt. Everest. I have to ask, are people doing this just to have a photo of themselves at Machu Picchu for their Facebook profile?

What’s a standard 7-10 day trip to Machu Picchu look like?

I’d say a pretty standard itinerary is 1-2 days in Lima, fly to Cusco which takes an hour or so, and depending on if you have 7 or 10 days, you might acclimate in Cusco, because it’s 12,000 feet. It takes 2-3 days to get used to the altitude. Or if they’re in a big rush, they go straight to Machu Picchu, which the town there is only 6,500 feet in altitude.

Some will then take 4-5 days to do the Inca Trail and then go back to Cusco; others spend more time visiting the sites around the ruins.

How long was your big expedition in which you traced Bingham’s route?

It was almost a month. About 24 days, I think.

Of all the off-the-beaten-track places you visited near Machu Picchu, which ones do you recommend?

You can get out to Vitcos on a bus. It’ll take you a whole day but that is spectacular and there’s nobody there. There are two sets of ruins, Vitcos and Yurakrumi, which is this giant Winnebago-sized piece of granite that has all these sacred Inca carvings all over it that’s in the middle of this weird, green, spooky valley.

What about Choquequirao?

Choquequirao is amazing but there is no bus to get there. It’s called the Machu Picchu sister site for good reason, because it’s spectacular. It’s perched on top of this mountain ridge with spectacular views in all directions. But you have to be in good shape to get there because you’re walking up the far side of a mile-high canyon to get there and it’s steep.

From reading the book, it sounded like you struggled to adapt to the Peruvian work ethic, just as Bingham did?

Absolutely. I’m uptight about being on time and that is not the way things are done in Peru. Even among South Americans Peruvians are known to show up hours late. They had a national campaign to try to address this a few years ago but it didn’t work.

What was the hardest part of your expedition?

All we drank was boiled water, so every time we stopped to take a drink, I’d be so thirsty. It was 85 degrees and you’d be presented with a giant bowl of steaming hot water. It’s the thing you want most but the last thing you want to put to your lips at that moment.

After doing the trip though, I can now see the allure of sleeping outdoors, but that said, I haven’t slept in a tent since.

Would you still have done this trip if no publisher were interested in the story?

I would have wanted to do it regardless but I’m not sure if I could have convinced my wife to let me take the trip. And there’s the cost as well. I think the whole thing cost me less than $10,000 including everything but it still adds up. Peru is one of those places where you can do things dirt bag cheap or spend an awful lot of money.

If someone wants to hire your guide, John Leivers, is he available?

He is. People can go to my website, www.markadamsbooks.com, and if they’re interested in hiring him, I’ll get ahold of him.

Bingham’s legacy is mixed. Some call him an intrepid discoverer, but others scoff at the notion of him “discovering” Machu Picchu and consider him a grave robber and a thief. Where do you come down?

The title of “discoverer” of Machu Picchu was thrust upon him, though he didn’t do much to escape it. In Peru, he was a hero for 90 years, until 2001 or so, and then people started saying he stole credit and took artifacts. I started with the attitude that he was a punk who took all these things from Peru, exploited the people and so on.

But the more I looked into the history and the three expeditions he did in 1911, 1912, and 1914-15, he did a lifetime of work in four years and had he not gotten to Machu Picchu in 1911 when he did and publicized the ruins, they wouldn’t be preserved as they are today. I think treasure hunters or vandals would have knocked them down. And that is the glory of Machu Picchu, the fact that you have these gorgeous stone buildings that are basically in the same state they were built in 600 years ago in this natural setting, and the fact that that exists is largely thanks to Bingham.

Mark Adams is working on a book about the search for Atlantis, which will come out in 2014. He lives near New York City.