This Tourist Waited 7 Months in Peru to See Machu Picchu

He arrived just as lockdown hit Peru in March, but his patience paid off.

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Machu Picchu view
A view of Machu Picchu.

Frédéric Soltan / Getty Images

My new favorite person is Jesse Katayama. The 26-year-old Japanese traveler arrived in Peru last March, ready to climb the old Inca trail to Machu Picchu. It was supposed to be the grand finale to an around-the-world trip, but then lockdown struck Peru on March 16, the day Katayama was supposed to start hiking.

He decided to hang around for a few weeks, in hopes that it would reopen. He considered some of the emergency evacuation flights back home to Japan, but found them to be very expensive. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months, and still Katayama waited. 

He made the best of his time. The New York Times reported that he "rented a small apartment in the town and passed the time taking daily yoga classes, teaching local children how to box, and studying for various fitness and sports nutrition certification exams."

This fit nicely into his goal of learning boxing techniques in various countries around the world before opening his own gym back home in Japan. He'd already spent time coaching in boxing gyms in Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya, prior to arriving in Peru. 

Eventually, after earning the nickname "the last tourist in Peru," Katayama's patience paid off. On Sunday, October 11, he was granted special access to Machu Picchu and allowed to enter the ancient site alongside the country's culture minister, Alejandro Neyra, and a handful of guides. Neyra said in a press conference that "[Katayama] had come to Peru with the dream of being able to enter. The Japanese citizen has entered together with our head of the park so that he can do this before returning to his country."

I love this story so much because it's the ultimate example of slow travel – travel so slow, in fact, that it didn't even go anywhere except to the village at the foot of the Andean mountains. Rather than rush off on an emergency flight, Katayama embraced that sudden slow pace of life and made the best of it, simply fitting into the local community and putting in time because he felt that the end result would be worth it.

That very perspective – that these magnificent, awe-inspiring, ancient wonders of the world are worth waiting and fighting for – is what's missing in today's era of high-speed travel. We've grown accustomed to buying cheap flights, sitting for a few hours in airplanes that zip around the globe, and deposit us in distant lands, where we proceed to rush around in a crowd of tourists, ticking landmarks off a list before hopping back on the plane and rushing home. It's exhausting just thinking about it.

Katayama did not assume he'd just come back at a more convenient time. Instead, he settled down. He must have gotten to know Peruvian village life better than he ever imagined – and gained so much more in the process than if he'd taken the quick and easy route home. It made me think of what Ed Gillespie wrote in his delightful book "One Planet," which recounts his own 13-month journey around the world without using planes:

"You can see real countries when you spend more time there, getting to know local people, familiarizing yourself with the rhythm of a town, learning a language, and eating the food. Speedy vacations, on the other hand, often drop tourists into protected Westernized zones that mediate all interactions with a place, often at a cost to the local populations."

Katayama's adventure reminds me of historic modes of travel, when a person had to take a multi-month sea voyage or overland caravan in order to visit distant continents. This built up the anticipation, eased the travelers into their destinations, and opened doors for many new, unusual, and unplanned encounters along the way. 

It's how I wish I could travel, and hopefully will someday, when I don't have small children in tow. But for now I will have to live vicariously through wonderful stories like Katayama's, the last tourist in Peru, who got to be the first tourist back at Machu Picchu.