This Inspiring Traveler Conquered Machu Picchu in a Wheelchair — and He Let Us Come Along (Video)
Jesse Billauer is deliberate.
That was clear from the second we met as we took off on a plane from our shared hometown of Los Angeles, California for a five-day journey to Peru. While I scrambled to get on the plane first, Billauer casually entered dead last, causing a slight jolt of panic to swell from my belly to my chest in fear that he was going to miss our flight.
He’s the kind of person and traveler everyone wants to be: laid-back, confident, and naturally cool. So cool that you want to study him so you can be just a little more like him.
He wears all black from head to toe — right down to his knit beanie and his cotton socks — and somehow makes it look original. Billauer, now 40 years old, is the guy who lets everyone around him do the talking and worrying about getting from point A to point B as he coyly smiles knowing we’ll get there eventually, whether we fuss about it or not.
Billauer learned to have that patience early in life. At the age of 17, while surfing in Malibu, California, he fell off a wave, hit his head, and shattered his spinal cord at the C6 level, leaving him instantly paralyzed from the chest down.
This accident and his resulting injury in no way define him, but rather, have become a part of his story and the driving force behind his mission to show everyone there simply are no roadblocks that can stop you from living your best life.
All this — the confidence, the easy-breezy attitude, and the sheer determination to want to see and do it all — is why he was the perfect person to pick as a travel partner to go on the journey of a lifetime with me thanks to a dare from Chase and Marriott.
Several months prior to our trip, I had written about a company called Wheel the World that claimed it could make Machu Picchu, a place rather well-known for having a lot of stairs, wheelchair-accessible for all. A true revelation in travel, no doubt. But a few weeks after it published, I got an email from Chase and Marriott that essentially read: Prove it.
“We were inspired by the work Wheel the World has done and how they’re making travel more accessible for consumers with disabilities,” Matt Schlitz, Chase and Marriott co-brand cards general manager, said. “An adventure like this allows us to connect to our travel beliefs — which is to inspire and empower those trips that can stay with you forever.”
Specifically, Schiltz explained, they found that Wheel the World and our trip to Peru aligned with what they are trying to accomplish with the Marriot Bonvoy Boundless Card, which is to empower people to travel, and why they dared us in the first place.
“The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card is dedicated to inspiring and empowering travel that can move you,” Schiltz said. “The more people travel, the better citizens we become. We want to encourage people to go travel, fuel their passions, make new connections and new stories.”
But, as we took off from Los Angeles, I was afraid Billauer regretted his decision to come. For starters, he was late. Then, for the entire eight-hour journey to the southern hemisphere, he said nothing of the absolutely massive undertaking we had ahead of us. In fact, the first real thing he said to me came the next day when we arrived in Cusco.
“Cobblestones are not my friend. I wish the world was made of marble,” he said with a delightfully infectious ear-to-ear grin that instantly put my fears at ease. “But that’s progress,” he added, pointing to the lone ramp from the sidewalk to the street along the main square in Cusco.
That’s when I learned that he’s not quiet — he’s a contemplative and thoughtful person and traveler.
Billauer sees the bright side in everything and also sees his adventures as an opportunity to advance the lives of other people with disabilities. It’s why he agreed to go to Peru with me and why he started his non-profit organization, Life Rolls On, which is dedicated to getting others with disabilities out surfing and skateboarding once again.
“The most important thing isn’t surfing. That’s the excuse,” he explained of his group’s work. “The real reason is relationships, and letting them know anything is possible.”
However, Billauer isn’t shy to admit that things haven’t always been so upbeat along his journey.
“Everyone has down days,” he said some time close to midnight as we sat together around a crackling fireplace in the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, a stunning converted convent in the center of town. “I wish I didn’t surf that day. It eats at me sometimes. I miss sensations like waves hitting my feet and all the sensations that made the world beautiful.”
But he pushes forward and even gave his organization the mission to show others there’s “freedom beyond paralysis,” which is an ethos shared by the founders of Wheel the World, too.
“We founded Wheel the World because we realized that people with disabilities want to explore the world as anyone else and the travel industry hasn't considered accessibility the way it should,” Camilo Navarro and Álvaro Silberstein, COO and CEO of Wheel the World, respectively, told me via email. Silberstein happens to be in a wheelchair himself.
“Through our personal experiences, we realized that people with severe disabilities, as Jesse or myself, can go anywhere in the world if the right resources are allocated to make travel experiences inclusive for us: accessibility, adaptive equipment, goodwill of people, and the right information to know what's accessible and what's not,” Silberstein said.
Catering to people with disabilities isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s a business decision for companies like Wheel the World that makes a lot of economic sense as well.
According to the United Nations, globally, there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities, as well as “more than 2 billion people, such as spouses, children, and caregivers of persons with disabilities, representing almost a third of the world’s population.”
And, as the Open Doors Organization noted in its 2015 market study, people with disabilities spend $17.3 billion annually on just their own travel. It added, “Since these individuals typically travel with one or more other adults, the economic impact is actually double, or $34.6 billion.”
However, as the UN also explained, though this number signifies a “huge potential market for travel and tourism,” it remains a vastly untapped and under-served community due to “inaccessible travel and tourism facilities and services, as well as discriminatory policies and practices.”
That “inaccessible” part was largely the case for Machu Picchu until Wheel the World came along.
“Many travel destinations are extremely difficult but never impossible,” the guys from Wheel the World explained. “We have demonstrated that by allowing people with disabilities to travel to places like Torres del Paine, Patagonia, or Machu Picchu. Allowing them to have life-changing experiences, not only for them but also for their families.”
So, what about in real life? Do services like these really work for everyone?
Immediately upon arrival in Cusco, we were met by Jovana, our specially trained tour leader with Wheel the World, along with her two assistants who would be with us for the entire trip to assist Billauer with anything he needed and to help everyone get to where they needed to be.
They introduced us to the itinerary, our outfitted van, and even the ancillary wheel they brought along to fit on Billauer’s wheelchair to help him steadily make it over the historic cobblestone streets. Billauer and his travel companion, his father George, both instantly marveled at the “independence that Wheel the World brings.”
In fact, that was both of their favorite part — that George, who's been on plenty of adventures with his son around the globe — had to do nothing to assist his son. He could just enjoy the journey alongside him.
“I honestly don’t remember a trip that we’ve done together to strengthen our bond that didn’t result in some animosity because literally I’d be lifting him and doing everything with him,” the elder Billauer, who turned 70 this year, shared as we explored a tiny market down a side street. “We’d be too close too much of the time. As I’m speaking to you he’s off doing his own thing and I’m at ease because I know he’s in good hands.”
From there, we made our way into the countryside to Huaypo lagoon for a bike tour. Wheel the World had our bikes waiting, along with a handbike for Billauer, which, upon first glance, he found a little intimidating.
“Your biggest muscles are your legs,” he said with a laugh. “It’s more than a workout, bro.”
But this is Jesse Billauer we’re talking about, so of course, he not only crushed the hillsides but also took on the challenge of handcycling down a section of the ancient Inca Trail, joining a small group of other adventurers living with disabilities.
From there, we checked into our hotel for the night, the Tambo del Inka hotel. For our group, its location about halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu was ideal so we could prep for the big day ahead and sleep in pure luxury before catching our train in the morning.
At 6 a.m., before the sun came up, we made our way to Ollantaytambo to catch the Inca Rail, a train that takes you straight to the sacred site. For the entire ride, Billauer sat nearly silent, looking out the window. Every once in a while he asked to go over the plan again, as he couldn’t quite fathom how it would all work out once we arrived.
At 9 a.m., we pulled up to the gate. This is when we learned the real secret of navigating Machu Picchu in a wheelchair: local porters.
There are no specialized chairs to help, no back way in. It was the assistance of three local porters hired by Wheel the World that made this glorious place so accessible.
The team carried Billauer up the steps and to our first viewpoint. There, Billauer asked to be alone for just a few minutes. It’s a feeling all too familiar to those who’ve visited the site before. It overwhelms you. It swallows you whole. It’s a place you can’t possibly understand even when you’re staring at it, and that's something everyone should have the opportunity to feel for themselves.
After taking it in and snapping the requisite gazillion photos, we all stood quietly and watched the llamas graze, the clouds pass over, and the tourists enjoy their time around us. We discussed conspiracy theories on how the structure even got there and all the people we’d love to share the moment with.
However, despite all the glory that came with making it to Machu Picchu, it’s crucial to not glaze over just how difficult this journey was, and how nearly impossible and totally impractical it would be without organizations like Wheel the World.
For starters, getting around Peru required an adapted van. Next, it took specialized equipment many people won’t travel with and don’t want to purchase for one-time trips. Then — and most importantly — it took a trained staff that understood both the physical and mental needs of their client, and the needs of his travel companions. While companies like Wheel the World are making an enormous dent in accessibility for all, there is still a long way to go.
As part of the UN’s 2030 agenda, which contains the Sustainable Development Goals, the organization cited goal 11, which is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” According to the UN, this particular goal includes “tourism and recreation through its call for the provision of universal design for accessible and sustainable transport systems, inclusive urbanization, and access to green and public spaces.”
But that may not be enough. It will require a chorus of voices, people like Billauer who are willing to go the distance to test out new companies that cater to the disabled population, and older companies pushing to adapt and serve everyone.
For now, Billauer still thinks everyone who wants to travel to the far reaches of the planet should do so, no matter their circumstance. All they need to do is plan accordingly, he says, which includes a laundry list of to-dos that other people may not even consider. Things like researching a destination to ensure he can actually get around, calling a hotel accommodation to ensure it’s friendly to each person’s needs, and doing a bit of Google searching on what extras to bring along, like medications and equipment. He also explained that if you’re in a wheelchair, there’s a reason you should board the plane last like he does.
“I’m the longest on the plane,” Billauer explained, as he typically is asked if he wants to board first and must wait for everyone else to disembark before he can get off. But by boarding just before the doors close, he gets to spend just a little less time inside the tin can. There is one conciliatory place, however, that Billauer said he lucks out when it comes to travel. And that’s in the security line.
“It’s faster,” he said with a chuckle.
Despite all the extra work, Billauer said it’s all worth it to see the world.
“It’s good for your heart and soul to venture out and see new things,” he said. “The keyword for traveling with a disability is patience, but everyone deserves the opportunity to travel. I want others to go too, to maybe struggle, and to see for themselves so they can help make change too. ”