What It's Like to Climb Machu Picchu in a Wheelchair: Episode 1 of Travel + Leisure’s New Podcast
Jesse Billauer's life plan originally didn't include climbing Machu Picchu, and even if he had dreamed about making the trek as a young kid, he definitely didn't envision doing it in a wheelchair. But Billauer, a California native, champion surfer, and inspirational speaker, did just that — and he shared his experience on the premier episode of Travel + Leisure's new podcast, Let's Go Together.
After taking up surfing at the ripe age of 10, Billauer quickly found his way in the sport, becoming a top-ranked competitive surfer while still in school, traveling the world to compete. “By 15, 16 I was one of the top surfers in the country, looking to turn professional,” he told Kellee Edwards, the host of Let’s Go Together.
However, things took a dramatic turn for Billauer a month after his 17th birthday. While surfing with friends, a wave knocked the experienced athlete into a sandbar, breaking his spinal cord and taking away the ability to use his legs, and limiting the use of his hands and arms.
But that didn’t keep Billauer away from the water. Three years after his accident he returned to surfing, relearning his sport with new equipment and the physical skills necessary for someone who can’t use their legs. And that return to surfing served as a catalyst for Jesse’s foundation, Life Rolls On, which helps people with paralysis surf and skate. “It's about allowing people to get out of their wheelchairs,” Billauer said of his foundation and the community he’s building around the world.
Surfing wasn’t the only passion that was altered by Billauer’s accident; it severely changed the way he traveled the world. Again, that didn’t stop him, and in 2019 he was invited by Chase and Marriott to join Wheel the World, a company that specializes in adaptive travel, on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Machu Picchu.
“There's about a million stairs,” Billauer said. “...and so when I was asked to go to Machu Picchu, I kind of laughed and was like, yeah, OK, where are we really going to go? And they said, no, I'm serious.”
So he went, in his wheelchair, the 7,972 feet up to Machu Picchu. In the podcast Billauer describes the struggles of the journey, like fighting altitude sickness, the helpers who made it physically possible, and the reward waiting at the end of the seemingly impossible trek. Above all, he emphasizes the fact that all people, regardless of their physical capabilities, should have the opportunity to see some of the world’s greatest wonders in person.
“Everyone who's disabled should have the exact same right to travel, to see beautiful places, to experience new experiences, the same as an able-bodied person,” Billauer told Edwards. “Yeah, it's going to take a little bit more preparation, more help, but it should be possible, you know?”