If you’ve ever been to Machu Picchu in Peru, you already know what an amazing place it is. You also probably know just how busy and crowded it can be. With more than a half-million visitors annually, the ancient Inca fortress rarely looks as quiet and empty as it does in photos.
Recently, however, one traveler found himself in a unique and enviable position. Thanks to the current state of affairs in the world, he was given a chance to explore Machu Picchu completely independently, without any the throngs of people who are normally wandering about the site.
Stranded by COVID
In March, Jesse Katayama of Nara, Japan, had embarked on what he thought was his dream trip. The 26-year old had flown to South America, where we explored the country of Peru just as the coronavirus was starting to take hold. In fact, he arrived in the town of Aguas Caliente on March 14, just as things started to shutdown.
As with much of the rest of the world, Peru quickly went into quarantine and restricted travel, stranding Katayama in the small town, which serves as the gateway to one of the most popular and visited tourist destinations on the planet—Machu Picchu.
The young Japanese adventurer had planned on visiting the famous archaeological site on March 16. He had even purchased a ticket ahead of time. But when Peru went into lockdown, Machu Picchu closed its doors as well. Katayama found himself unable to visit the place he had come so far to see, but he couldn’t go home either.
Seven Months in Aguas Calientes
For the past seven months, Jesse has been living in Aguas Calientes. He managed to find a room at an affordable rate and has settled in with the locals. To pass the time, he has taught some of the children in town how to box, and he has made short day trips to nearby attractions.
For the most part, however, he’s had to remain locked in place, waiting out the lifting of the travel ban.
Reportedly, Katayama is an avid fitness buff who plans to open his own gym once he returns to Japan. To help pass the time—and stay in shape—he went for daily runs throughout the city and the surrounding countryside.
On many of those runs, he could see Machu Picchu in the distance. Almost as if it was taunting him.
“I thought I would never make it to Machu Picchu as I was expecting it won’t open within this year,” he told CNN. “ But I was OK with it because I had a great time here.”
Running Out of Time
As the days and weeks passed, Katayama made the best of his situation, waiting for an opportunity to travel once again. But, he also started to run low on funds and knew that once he could leave his adopted Peruvian home, he’d probably have to back to Japan.
For a time, it looked like he would never get the chance to see Machu Picchu up close, let alone actually go inside.
Slowly, but surely Peru is starting to open up again, and on October 16, Jesse will indeed head home. But before he departs in a few days, he did get the chance to say goodbye to some of the friends he had made while under lockdown. He also got a surprise too.
Machu Picchu at Last
Knowing that the young Japanese man was preparing to go home somewhat disappointed, a travel company called Andean Roots Peru joined forces with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture to make his dream come true.
Through this partnership, Katayama was permitted to visit the Inca fortress at long last.
When he finally stepped through the gates into Machu Picchu, Jesse only had to share the place with three other people. He was accompanied by two photographers who were there to capture the moment, and Jose Bastante, the man in charge of maintaining the site.
Otherwise, he was alone—something almost unheard of for a tourist.
Now, Jesse is preparing to head home, saying he will shed a few tears before departing. He expects to be back in Japan in just a few days, with more than a few stories to share, I’m sure.
As for Machu Picchu, plans are underway to reopen it at 30% of its usual capacity. That will still make for a rare experience for anyone lucky enough to visit.
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