Two Inventors Just Made Machu Picchu More Accessible to People With Wheelchairs Than the New York Subway

The project is the brainchild of two friends from Chile who are on a quest to make travel accessible to all.

Machu Pichhu. Image courtesy of Wheel the World.

Millions of people flock to Machu Picchu every year—but the first person in a wheelchair only visited the ancient Inca site last month.

Now, dozens more are due to follow thanks to the travel company Wheel the World, which will soon begin offering the first wheelchair-accessible tours of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The company, founded by longtime friends Alvaro Silberstein and Camilo Navarro, offers tours to far-flung destinations with the help of specially designed foldable wheelchairs.

The company was born when the two friends—one of whom uses a wheelchair, while the other doesn’t—set out to hike the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia in 2016. Silberstein, who has used a wheelchair since he had a car accident at age 18, raised $8,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to purchase a lightweight, foldable wheelchair.

“There are one billion people [in the world] with disabilities,” Navarro told CNN. “But there’s not one main travel company dedicated to these users.”

Travelers on the Inca Trail in Peru. Image courtesy Wheel the World.

Both men, who were born in Chile, moved to the United States for business school, where they began to develop Wheel of the World into a business. Since then, their travel company has expanded in Latin America, offering tours to other notable sites like Easter Island in Chile and scenic spots in Mexico and Peru.

Machu Picchu, the heart of the Inca empire nestled in the Andes, was brought to international attention by the American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911, at which point tourists began flocking to ancient ruins. But it was only in December 2018 that the first quadriplegic and paraplegic visitors were able to access it.

Trekking at Rano Raraku Volcano. Photo courtesy of Wheel the World.

The logistics of touring the rugged terrain—one part of the site features 320 near-vertical steps—required the company to turn once again to crowd-funding.

Some travelers with disabilities have avoided remote journeys because of the cost and hassle of buying and shipping an appropriate wheelchair. That’s why Wheel the World acquired specially designed steel-and-aluminum chairs and stores them on site in Peru for ease of use. (The chairs operate something like a lightweight wheelbarrow, with only one wheel and two long sticks.)

The cost of a four-day Wheel the World tour is around $1,500 (not including flights or accommodations), which is on par with those offered to non-disabled people, according to CNN. The first full tours for the public are due to begin in March.

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