Machu Picchu is estimated to be about 600 years old. But it has only been fully wheelchair accessible for a few months.
The company was the brainchild of two longtime best friends from Chile — Alvaro Silberstein, who uses a wheelchair, and Camilo Navarro, who doesn’t.
Together, they were able to come up with a way for Silberstein and Navarro to hike at Patagonia’s Torres de Paine National Park together, with Silberstein using a special foldable wheelchair that he paid for via an online crowdfunding campaign.
As both men emigrated to the U.S. to study business at UC Berkeley, they made expanding Wheel the World their top priority. Navarro and Silberstein have since grown the business in Latin America, adding tours in Chile, Mexico and now Peru.
“Accessible does not mean inclusive,” Navarro tells CNN Travel. “There are one billion people [in the world] with disabilities. But there’s not one main travel company dedicated to these users.”
Wheel the World had several issues to resolve before offering accessible tours of Machu Picchu.
One was the high cost of special wheelchairs that can traverse some of the more challenging trails. This price can keep many people from being able to manage the cost of their bucket-list trip.
Wheel the World works with partners who can donate the wheelchairs and store them in the region, meaning users don’t have to supply their own or handle the cost of shipping.
Currently, a four-day Wheel the World trip to Machu Picchu costs $1,500, including overnight accommodations and excluding flights, which is comparable with what it would cost an able-bodied person to do the same experience.
“Sometimes we get phone calls from national parks saying they want us to come explore the place,” says Navarro. But often, because of erosion concerns or restrictions about how ancient sites can be modified, it’s not always as simple as immediately building a wheelchair ramp. “Accessibility is a matter of being creative.”
As for the wheelchair itself, “It’s designed with only one wheel and two long sticks that make it look like a wheelbarrow. It is a mix of steel and aluminum, like a bicycle, so it’s light,” Navarro explains.
The only drawback is that this wheelchair can’t be self-propelled, so it does require a travel companion to help operate the chair and navigate it through some of the narrower or more difficult passes along the trail.
And Navarro says that his company’s work is far from over. Travelers who are deaf, blind or have other accessibility needs can sometimes still struggle when travel operators or destinations lump all disabilities together and assume they need the same accommodations.