Like many travelers around the world, Jesse Katayama found his dream trip thwarted by the spread of Covid-19.
But after an unexpected seven month stay in Peru, Katayama is finally crossing “visit Machu Picchu” off of his bucket list – and he got to enjoy being the only tourist there.
Katayama, a native of Nara, Japan, arrived in Aguas Calientes – the town from which most people begin their Machu Picchu expeditions – on March 14.
He already had his entry ticket and permit to enter the UNESCO World Heritage site on March 16 in hand, but that was when the Peruvian government opted to close the site. Katayama was stranded.
Since then, the 26-year-old Katayama has become a local in Aguas Calientes, where he has been renting a small room for the past seven months.
Although border closures have kept him from visiting other South American countries, he has made the best of his experience by exploring local attractions like Putucusi Mountain and the Calientes Waterfalls. He even taught boxing classes to some of the local kids and has made friends in his accidental new hometown.
Katayama tells CNN that his goal is to become a gym owner and instructor when he returns to Japan, so he used his lockdown period to practice his moves.
“I go to run every morning and I could see Machu Picchu afar in distance,” Katayama told CNN. “I thought I would never make it to Machu Picchu as I was expecting it won’t open within this year, but I was OK with it because I had a great time here.”
However, as he started to run out of money, it looked like Katayama would have to head back home to Japan without ever having used his Machu Picchu ticket.
Enter Andean Roots Peru, a local tour company. With help from the national Ministry of Culture, Katayama was given special permission to enter Machu Picchu – and to have the normally crowded site nearly all to himself. He was accompanied by two photographers who documented the experience and by Jose Bastante, the site’s chief.
In a celebratory Instagram post, Katayama wrote, “I thought I never make it (to Machu Picchu) but everyone asked the government and the town and they game me super special permission.” He added: “Peruvians are soooo kind. Thank you soooo much!”
He tells CNN that he will leave Peru for Japan on October 16. As he prepares to head home, he is saying goodbye to the townspeople who have become his friends over the past months. Several local children have drawn Katayama pictures and created a doll for him out of toilet paper rolls.
“I will definitely cry,” he says about his farewell to Aguas Calientes. “These seven months have been very special to me. I have discovered a new part of me.”
“The Japanese citizen has entered together with our head of the park so that he can do this before returning to his country,” Peru’s Minister of Culture Alejandro Neyra confirmed to reporters.
Neyra added that there are plans to reopen Machu Picchu to visitors at 30% capacity, but did not specify an exact date.
CNN’s Yoko Wakatsuki contributed reporting.