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Machu Picchu Reopens for a Single Stranded Tourist

Jesse Katayama, 26, waited seven months for his chance to see the mountainous 15th-century Inca settlement

An empty Machu Picchu pictured on June 15, 2020. Travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic have decimated Peru's tourism industry. (Photo by Percy Hurtado / AFP / Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

Like many would-be tourists, Jesse Katayama’s spring travel plans were derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Osaka, Japan, native arrived in Aguas Calientes, Peru, on March 14, ready to venture to nearby Machu Picchu. Like the hundreds of thousands of international tourists who visit the historic site each year, he had booked tickets and a permit in advance and was excited to make the trek to the 15th-century Inca settlement in the sky.

Then, Covid-19 hit. Peru went into lockdown, shutting down Machu Picchu and other tourist sites around the country.

With international flights on hold and lockdown in full effect, 26-year-old Katayama was stranded, report Tiffany May and Hisako Ueno for the New York Times. He rented a small room in Aguas Calientes and passed the time by teaching boxing to local children, taking yoga classes, and studying for various exams.

In his free time, Katayama visited nearby attractions like the Putucusi Mountain and the Calientes Waterfalls. But the destination he’d originally set out to see remained elusive.

“I go to run every morning and I could see Machu Picchu afar in distance,” he tells CNN’s Lilit Marcus. “I thought I would never make it to Machu Picchu as I was expecting it [wouldn’t] open within this year.”

Seven months after he first arrived in Aguas Calientes, Katayama’s patience was rewarded. Working with local tour company Andean Roots Peru, the Peruvian government granted the stranded traveler special permission to visit Machu Picchu—and to have the typically busy historic site almost entirely to himself, as Raúl Mendonza first reported for Peruvian newspaper La República.

In a virtual news conference held Monday, Peruvian culture minister Alejandro Neyra said the government had awarded Katayama special permission to visit the site because of his patience.

“He had come to Peru with the dream of being able to enter [the park],” Neyra said, as quoted by the Times. “The Japanese citizen has entered together with our head of the park so that he can do this before returning to his country.”

Katayama shared a photo of himself and a park representative wearing masks and posing in front of Machu Picchu’s iconic scenery on Instagram.

“After the lockdown, the first man to visit Machu Picchu is meeeeeee,” he wrote in the caption, per a translation by the Times.

Travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic have decimated Peru’s tourism economy, which employs more than 1.3 million workers. Per Agence France-Presse, Machu Picchu was originally slated to reopen in July, but the reopening has now been pushed back to November at the earliest.

Under normal circumstances, Machu Picchu—which rests at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet—limits overcrowding by capping visitor numbers at around 2,240 per day, reports Gareth Harris for the Art Newspaper. Constructed in the 15th century at the height of the Inca empire, the city’s iconic terraces, temples and fountains are a marvel of engineering.

With his mission of seeing Machu Picchu finally accomplished, Katayama tells CNN that he plans to depart Peru for Japan on October 16—just a few months behind schedule.

“I thought I [would] never make it [to Machu Picchu] but everyone asked the government and the town and they [gave] me super special permission,” Katayama wrote in the Instagram post, per a translation by CNN.

He added, “Peruvians are soooo kind. Thank you soooo much!”

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