When Peru closed Machu Picchu in mid-March, Jesse Katayama, 26, was on the brink of achieving a longtime dream. The Japanese boxing instructor had traveled halfway around the world to visit the ancient ruins.
But one day before he was due to see the UNESCO World Heritage site, Peru declared a state of emergency, shattering his plans and leaving him stranded in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, a gateway for visitors to the 15th-century Inca citadel, as other Latin American nations followed suit and closed their borders.
Seven months later, his patience has paid off.
Over the weekend, the Peruvian government reopened Machu Picchu just for Katayama, giving him a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see the ruins with no one else around except for the director of the site and photographers accompanying him.
Photos posted on Katayama’s Instagram account showed him standing amid the iconic site, backed by a sweeping Andean vista.
“The first person on Earth who went to Machu Picchu since the lockdown is meeeeeee,” Katayama wrote on Instagram on Sunday, adding the hashtag “Mission Impossible.”
“He’d come to Peru with the dream of getting in,” Peruvian Culture Minister Alejandro Neyra said at a Monday news conference, according to the Financial Times.
Around 200 Japanese citizens became stuck in Peru when the pandemic disrupted global travel in March. Many of them were flown out on repatriation flights in the following weeks, but Katayama told CNN Travel that he decided to stay in Aguas Calientes.
He rented a room, explored lesser-known sites in the area and began teaching boxing lessons to local children. But his hopes of getting to visit Machu Picchu dwindled as his savings started to run low and plans to reopen the site were delayed.
“I have seen the Machu Picchu, but only from very far away,” he told local media earlier this month.
Sympathetic locals who had met Katayama and learned of his plight lobbied on his behalf, and Peru’s Ministry of Culture eventually agreed to make an exception, ahead of Katayama’s scheduled departure from Peru this month.
“This is so amazing!” he said in a video recorded from the mountaintop and published by local authorities, according to Reuters. “Thank you!”
Machu Picchu’s initial reopening date in July was delayed, as a spike in novel coronavirus cases saw Peru become the nation with the world’s highest number of coronavirus deaths per capita. The country of 32 million has recorded more than 850,000 cases and 33,350 deaths.
The site is expected to begin admitting visitors at reduced capacity at some point next month, as the country opens gradually to foreign travelers amid a decline in the number of new cases. Before the pandemic, an estimated 1.4 million jobs depended on the tourism industry.
Local officials hope that the happy ending of Katayama’s long-awaited Machu Picchu trip could mark the beginning of the sector’s economic recovery.
Similar hopes in other virus-stricken nations have resulted in the reopening of other major sites in recent months. Rome reopened many of its tourist sites in June, requiring the purchase of online tickets for the Colosseum and other places. Egypt reopened the Giza pyramids one month later, but interest among tourists was limited. Travel restrictions affecting foreign tourists resulted in a severe drop in the number of visitors, even in destinations that remained accessible throughout much of 2020, including Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex.