As the man dressed head-to-toe in khaki turned the corner and began racewalking uphill in my direction, I had to wonder: had we met before? It certainly seemed unlikely. John Leivers was in his late fifties and spent most of his time exploring in remote parts of the Andes, machete in hand, searching for ancient ruins. The overdeveloped lobe of my brain that processed all sensory data in relation to popular culture noted his passing resemblance to Crocodile Dundee—John wore a vest and a bush hat and greeted me on the sidewalk outside my hotel with a cheery "Hallo, Mark!" that confirmed deep Australian roots—but there was something else strangely familiar about him.
"Sorry about the delay," he said as we shook hands. "Just got back to Cusco last night."
In a general sort of way, John Leivers reminded me of the professional explorers I'd encountered over the years while working as an editor at various adventure travel magazines in New York City—the sorts of men and women who drove dogsleds to the South Pole and combed the ocean floor for sunken treasure. John was extremely fit; dressed as if ready to clamber up the Matterhorn though it was a cloudless, seventy-degree day; and about as unattached as a man could be in the twenty-first century. He had no wife, no children, no house or permanent mailing address, just a cell phone and a Gmail account. He'd been recommended to me as one of the best guides in South America, and it had taken weeks to reach him. But now that he was finally here, sitting down to a late breakfast at my tiny hotel in Cusco, an old colonial city in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, I wasn't quite sure where to begin. Because I didn't exactly have a plan.
We ordered coffees, and John started to tell me about himself, occasionally stopping in the middle of a sentence—"When you're traveling alone, you've got to be absolutely, um, seguro . . . sorry, it's been a little while since I've spoken English"—then patting his ear like a swimmer dislodging water, as if a tenacious Spanish verb were stuck in there. John had started coming to Cusco twenty years ago, when he was working as an extreme-trip leader, driving fearless globetrotters across four continents in an open-backed truck. "Back then the shops were still closed on Sundays and you could go months without seeing an American," he said. During the last decade, a period during which the number of visitors to Cusco had multiplied exponentially because of its position as the gateway to Machu Picchu, John had seen interest in serious adventure dwindle.
"People used to be travelers, Mark," he said, stirring his coffee. "Now they're tourists. People want hotels, cafés, the Internet. They won't even camp!"
"You're kidding!" I said, a little too loudly. I had already checked my e-mail at an Internet café twice that morning. The last time I'd slept in a tent was in 1978, when my father brought an imitation teepee home from Sears and set it up in our backyard.
And that, more or less, was why I was in Cusco. After years of sitting at a computer in New York and sending writers off on assignment to Kilimanjaro and Katmandu—places John knew firsthand—I wanted an adventure of my own. I figured that my near-total lack of outdoor experience was a subject that John and I could discuss once I'd decided whether to go through with this.
"So what sort of trip did you have in mind?" John asked. "Paolo says you're thinking about going after Bingham."
"Yeah, I think so. Something like that."
For most of his life and many decades after his death in 1956, Hiram Bingham was known as the discoverer of Machu Picchu. The story he told in his adventure classic Lost City of the Incas—knock-off editions of which were available in most of the stores that catered to tourists (even on Sundays) in the center of Cusco—was one of the most famous in the annals of exploration. Bingham was a Yale University history lecturer who happened to be passing through Cusco in 1909 when he learned of a four-hundred-year-old unsolved mystery. When the Spanish conquistadors had invaded in the sixteenth century, a group of Incas withdrew to a city in Peru's impenetrable high-altitude cloud forest, carrying the sacred treasures of their empire. This city and its inhabitants had vanished so long ago that as far as most serious scholars were concerned, legends of its existence were about as credible as tales of Atlantis. Bingham thought the experts were wrong, and he scoured obscure texts and maps for clues to its location. In the dramatic climax of Lost City of the Incas, he was on the hunt for this final Inca refuge on July 24, 1911 when he stumbled across the geometric splendor of Machu Picchu instead. The citadel he discovered was so unexpected, so incredible that he wondered, "Would anyone believe what I had found?"
As the hundredth anniversary of Bingham's achievement approached, the explorer was suddenly back in the news. I'd been introduced to John via e-mail through his friend Paolo Greer, an obsessive amateur researcher with an encyclopedic knowledge of Inca history who also happened to be a retired Alaskan pipeline worker living alone in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods outside of Fairbanks. Paolo had found what he claimed was a rare map indicating that someone may have beaten Bingham to the top of Machu Picchu by forty years or more. Almost simultaneously, the former first lady of Peru ignited an international incident by demanding that Yale return artifacts that Bingham had excavated at Machu Picchu, on the grounds that the explorer—she preferred the term "grave robber"—and his employer had violated a legal agreement. Yale and Peru had once planned to jointly open a new museum in Cusco to celebrate the centennial of Bingham's feat. Instead, they were suing each other in U.S. courts.
In the avalanche of news coverage that followed the filing of Peru's lawsuit, questions kept popping up: Had Bingham lied about discovering Machu Picchu? Had he smuggled artifacts out of the country illegally? A woman in Cusco was even claiming that her family still owned the land on which Machu Picchu sits; was it possible that both Yale and the government of Peru were wrong?
As a magazine editor, I knew the revised version of Bingham's tale had the makings of a great story: hero adventurer exposed as villainous fraud. To get a clearer idea of what had really happened on that mountaintop in 1911, I took a day off and rode the train up to Yale. I spent hours in the library, leafing through Bingham's diaries and expedition journals. While holding the little leather-covered notebook in which Bingham had penciled his first impressions of Machu Picchu, any thoughts of the controversies fell away. Far more interesting was the story of how he had gotten to Machu Picchu in the first place. I'd heard that Bingham had inspired the character of Indiana Jones, a connection that was mentioned—without much evidence—in almost every news story about the explorer in the last twenty years. Sitting in the neo-gothic splendor of Yale's Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, the Indy-Bingham connection made sense for the first time. Bingham's search had been a geographic detective story, one that began as a hunt for the Lost City of the Incas but grew into an all-consuming attempt to solve the mystery of why such a spectacular granite city had been built in such a spellbinding location: high on a secluded mountain-ridge, in the misty subtropical zone where the Andes meet the Amazon. Fifty years after Bingham's death, the case had been reopened. And the clues were still out there to be examined by anyone with strong legs and a large block of vacation time.
"What's your take on Bingham?" I asked John.
"Bit of a martini explorer," he said, employing what I later learned was a euphemism for a traveler who fancies himself tough but who really expects a certain level of comfort. "Not very popular in Peru at the moment. But you can't argue with the things he found."
Like every serious explorer in Peru, John had all but memorized Bingham's published accounts of his 1911 expedition. During that summer, Bingham had made not one but three incredible archaeological discoveries, any one of which would have cemented his reputation as a world-class explorer. In his spare time during that visit he had managed to squeeze in the first ascent of Peru's twenty-thousand-foot Mount Coropuna, thought at the time to be the highest unclimbed peak in the Western Hemisphere. Bingham found so many ruins during his three major Peru expeditions that many had since been reclaimed by the wilderness. John had helped organize an expedition a few years earlier to rediscover a site that Bingham had found within view of Machu Picchu, which had gone missing again for ninety years.
As John sipped his coffee, I floated my idea to him. I wanted to retrace Bingham's route through the Andes on the way to discovering Machu Picchu. I also wanted to see three other important sites that he had visited: the mountaintop citadel of Choquequirao, now considered by many to be Machu Picchu's twin city; Vitcos, site of one of the holiest shrines in the Inca empire; and Espiritu Pampa, the long-lost jungle city where the Incas made their last stand against the Spaniards. Exactly how we were going to accomplish this—buses? trains? llamas?—was a detail I hadn't thought through very well.
"Maybe we could hike the Inca Trail," I said. "That way I could get a taste of Bingham's experience, you know, following the road that leads to Machu Picchu." I had mixed feelings about the Inca Trail. For trekkers, hiking it was like making the Hajj to Mecca; you had to do it once in your life. But every story I'd read about the Inca Trail—and when you work at an adventure-travel magazine, you read a lot of stories about the Inca Trail—made it sound as crowded as the George Washington Bridge at rush hour. The best parts of Bingham's books were those sections describing Peru's natural beauty, and I was hoping to get a sense of Peru as Bingham had seen it, if such a thing still existed.
"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 three 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 15,000 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 lost city. You'll want at least two days there." John paused for a second. "Presumably you want to see Llactapata, too."
"Llacatapata. 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 in my 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 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, double back toward Cusco and then turn right at Machu Picchu. I could handle that. I had only one question.
"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."
Excerpt from Turn Right At Machu Picchu © 2011 by Mark Adams published by Dutton. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.