July 24th marks the 100th anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery of Machu Picchu, which awoke the world to the beauty and mystery of the “Lost City of the Inca.” Celebrations around the world are happening this summer to commemorate the centennial. Here at the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C., you’ll find a photo exhibit of vintage shots of Bingham’s first three expeditions to Peru.
Also this month, we’re celebrating online. Our Trip Lit columnist Don George reviews Mark Adams’s new book Turn Right at Machu Picchu. As an über-fan of all things Inca, I asked Mark to do a Q&A with us so we could learn more about his book, his trek, and other travels. Plus, we’re offering a free copy of Mark’s book to one lucky reader who submits a comment below detailing their best tale of trudging to Machu Picchu or why they dream about heading there.
How did you come up with the idea to retrace Bingham’s steps on his search for the Lost City of the Inca?
About three years ago, I was working in New York City as an editor at the late, lamented National Geographic Adventure magazine. At an active travel magazine, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail are subjects that come up in meetings pretty much daily, probably in the same way the British royals are discussed at Vanity Fair. So when the name of Hiram Bingham III—the man who famously located Machu Picchu in 1911—popped up in the news not once but twice in 2008, I immediately thought there might be potential for a story.
When did your fascination with the Inca world begin and what ignited it?
I’ve always had an interest in Peru because my wife’s family is half Peruvian, and we’ve made several trips to Lima to visit relatives. But I have to admit that the Incas and Bingham were largely mysteries to me until I started researching this book. What happens is that the material is so fascinating—lost cities, temples of gold, human sacrifices, evil Spanish conquistadors, ambitious Ivy League professors-turned-explorers obsessed with becoming famous— you can’t help but get sucked in.
What was the trip’s toughest moment? And its best?
The hardest moment came on the second day of a three-week trek, as we were climbing to the ruins of Choquequirao. It was almost 90 degrees out and we were traversing a slope that was almost vertical. I struggled because I was not in nearly good enough shape, and I’d ground my toes into hamburger meat the previous day by walking down 5,000 steep feet of switchbacks wearing new boots. Bingham wrote about the climb in one of his books, but I thought he had exaggerated. He didn’t.
The best moment (leaving aside my arrival at Machu Picchu, which is always amazing) was probably the morning we spent walking the 15,000-foot-high Choquetacarpo Pass. The area is so far off the map that the old Inca highway there, probably built 600 years ago, is in great condition. It’s like walking on a miniature scale model of the Great Wall of China. We didn’t see another person for two days.
For our website you compiled a list of six alternate routes to Machu Picchu for visitors who want to escape the congested Inca Trail. Any tips for travelers to avoid the crowds?
Thanks to the quota system on the Inca Trail, it’s still a terrific hike. The Incas quite obviously designed it to unfold like a good mystery novel, with twists and turns, rising and falling action, suspense and surprises. What I’d recommend is to do the Inca Trail in five days rather than the standard four. After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so what’s the rush? Plus, you’ll stay at less-crowded campsites and spend most of your hiking time separated from the biggest crowds. I’m told that all the other treks to Machu Picchu are lovely—there’s even one now that allows you to sleep in lodges rather than tents, if you don’t mind paying extra. June, July, and August are the busiest months for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, so if you can go in April, May, September, or October, that’s preferable. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to book ahead, even months in advance. The good old days of strolling into Cusco and arranging an impromptu Inca Trail trip have long since come and gone. You might, however, be able to set up a last-minute journey to the ruins of Choquequirao. It’s known as Machu Picchu’s “sister site” because of the resemblance between the two.
Besides Machu Picchu, what are some other places you’ve traveled that have really captivated you?
When I worked as a magazine writer, I always seemed to get sent to out-of-the-way places. The Basque country in northern Spain, which looks like a cross between Provence and Wisconsin. The crumbling red-brick shell of what was once America’s greatest health sanitarium, in upstate New York. One of the most incredible places I’ve ever been is American Samoa, where I was dispatched to find out why so many Samoans make it to the NFL. The main town, Pago Pago, is pretty drab, but once you get outside of it the beaches are amazing and deserted, and half of the island is a national park with a skyscraping mountain called the Rainmaker at its center. Because there’s no tourism infrastructure on the island, almost no one ever visits.
If you’ve been to Machu Picchu tell us about your visit and its most transcendent moment. Or, if you haven’t yet been, let us know why you dream of heading there some day. We’ll select our favorite comment and send the commenter a free copy of Mark’s book Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Commenting ends Sunday, July 24 at 11:59 p.m. EST.
Meg Weaver is a senior researcher at National Geographic Traveler.