Peru-Realizing The ImPossible
A Cross-Disability Adventure

By Laurel Van Horn

It all began at the American Travel Market last October when Sharon Myers of Turtle Tours, a wheelchair user, stopped by the PromPeru booth and met the owner of Apumayo Expediciones, Juan José "Pepe" López. He excitedly told her about his dream: to make Peru accessible for travelers with disabilities. Less than six months-and a lot of hard work-later, Sharon, Paula Bonillas, editor of Hearing Health Magazine, and I set off for Peru on a quite unique adventure.

Peru is a magical destination, with something for everyone. Beautiful beaches, the awe-inspiring Andes, pristine rain forests, Inca ruins, traditional peoples in colorful textiles, a fabulous cuisine…the list goes on and on. So it was easy to see why Pepe dreamed of sharing this bounty with all travelers, but would this really be possible? We were there to find out.

Our itinerary was a real "fam" trip, not the pace of an actual tour for persons with physical disabilities. But we had lots to inspect and many people to see. Pepe had put together an impressive list of sponsors, from the tourist board itself to AeroPeru and two hotel chains (see page 22 for a complete list and itinerary). All were counting on our advice
to make their services and facilities better.

After a somewhat rocky start-with Carroll Driscoll of Turtle Tours, our "slow walker," having to cancel and a 5-hour delay in the AeroPeru flight-we finally arrived in Lima at 3 a.m., tired but excited. Pepe was on hand with a small bus-unfortunately, not adapted-to take us to our first hotel, the Posada del Inca Lima. An attractive, new 3-star, it has
a huge wheelchair suite with kitchenette on each floor. Here, as in the other hotels in the chain, the management is young, dynamic and very interested in serving this market. Except for their property in Cusco, whose entrance is down a flight of stairs, all the Posada del Inca
hotels, including the 5-star El Olivar in Lima, have basic access and very willing staff.

Late the next morning we made a whirlwind tour of Lima, which included a visit to the National Museum of Art for a fantastic display of pre-Colombian treasure. Then we headed down the coast to Paracas, home of the National Marine Reserve. In Pisco where we stopped for dinner, disaster suddenly struck. A speeding motorbike hit our driver Cesar, who
fell backward, hitting his head. However, after a visit to the hospital, he was able to drive on to Hotel Paracas, where again we arrived after midnight.

Here the realities of Paula's disability-which I knew well from our previous trip to Alaska-finally sank in with Pepe and his staff. They had brought her a bottle of water but had no way to alert her to open the door. Without the processor for her cochlear implant, which she takes off to bathe and sleep, Paula is completely deaf. None of the Peruvian hotels, of course, had flashing alarms or alerting devices. Paula, in fact, brought along a complete kit, including TDD, to show to the hoteliers, but at midnight who wanted to set it up?

The next morning we were up early to catch the excursion boat to the Ballestas Islands. Sharon's transfer was difficult, but she and Pepe subsequently found a better pier for future use. The real drama was Paula's getting drenched on the boat while wearing her $20,000 processor! Luckily it survived, or we would have been writing her notes the remainder of the trip. Despite El Niño, we managed to see blue-footed boobies, pelicans, penguins, and sea lions. We also stopped to marvel at a giant figure carved in the hardened sand called the Candelabra, thought to have been made by the same ancient people who drew the Nasca Lines.

Back at Hotel Paracas, we had a few hours to look over the property, which is quite accessible, with level entrances to the little cottages, wide doors, and showers manageable with the use of a transfer bench. We also met with an official from the Department of Social Security, responsible in Peru for the welfare of persons with disabilities. Amazingly, he recognized Sharon from 20 years before when she competed in the Pan American Games in Lima.

Joining the expedition the next morning as we flew to Cusco were two Lima residents: Rosario Griffiths, Sales Manager for Posada del Inca, who wanted to learn all she could about special needs; and José Isola, a Lima businessman who walks with crutches due to polio and who would be filling in for Carroll. Both were a delight and contributed immeasurably to the success of the tour.

Lima's airport is modern, clean and has accessible rest rooms, but, alas, no jetways and not much signage either. Although a boarding chair was rumored to exist, it could never be found. This meant that Sharon had to be lifted up and down the long flight of steps in her own chair. José made the climb himself, but it was obviously a strain. Once onboard, Sharon also couldn't reach her seat because the aisle was too narrow, so other passengers had to be asked to move. AeroPeru was one of our sponsors for the trip and we would like to see them do well by better serving their clients with disabilities. With American Airlines now flying through Lima into Cusco, wheelchair travelers have a choice and perhaps this competition will help to spur a change.

In Cusco, after a brief stop for a cup of coca tea-an herbal remedy for altitude sickness, we headed to the Sacred Valley of the Incas to acclimatize. The ride over the mountains was exhilarating and the Posada del Inca Yucay (see inside back cover) is simply paradise, with its
yellow and orange walls against the blue of the high mountain sky. Alpacas graze outside, Andean musicians entertain against the mountain backdrop, the quinoa soup is a poem, and the standard bathroom doors are all 36 inches wide. And then there's Pilar Paredes, the manager, whom we all loved on sight.

The next morning I was awakened by Pepe banging on the door-Sharon had fallen. The portable shower bench I had brought from the States had collapsed, throwing her onto the floor. Unable to summon help by yelling, she had had to crawl into the bedroom to the phone, which, at that altitude, had taken almost an hour. Luckily, she'd only sustained a few bruises and after a few hours rest was ready to go again.

It was Palm Sunday and we were to attend a mass in Quechua, the language of the Incas, at the village church in Pisaq, famous for its colorful Indian market. Winding through its crowded passages, one had only to look up to see ancient Inca terraces stretching to the sky. In the church, the a cappella singing was unbelievably moving, the ceremony ending with
choirboys blowing a mournful dirge on conch shells. Conch shells! In the Andes!

The next day was very special--the ascent of Machu Picchu and also Sharon's birthday! Meeting us on the train were two of Pepe's river guides, Leonel and Zaca. With snowy peaks above, the train winds along the Urubamba River, unnavigable here as it rushes downhill through the rocks. To the north lies the Amazon and already the vegetation is that of the rain forest. Along the way we caught tantalizing glimpses of the Inca Trail. And then, suddenly, Machu Picchu!

Here, we changed from one train to another to avoid a flight of steps. Then it was onto the bus for the ride up to the national park, the view ever more thrilling as one climbs. Getting Sharon into that bus, however, was anything but thrilling, with its narrow door and steep steps. None of the vehicles we used in Peru were accessible, but this was definitely the worst. Fortunately, within two years it is due to be replaced by a cable car, which should be wheelchair accessible.

Machu Picchu is indeed one of the world's wonders. Its setting, conception, construction, beauty-all defy understanding. No pictures convey the place as one experiences it. Which is why people with disabilities should also have the opportunity to visit this sacred site and feel its mystery. That said, Machu Picchu will never be barrier-free. But the goal should be to make the visit for people with physical disabilities as safe and easy as possible.

At the top that day, Pepe's staff-all smiles--gave Sharon a new name, "Braveheart." It could as well have gone to José, who labored up the steps to the point of collapse before he, too, was carried up the last stretch by wheelchair. This was his fourth visit to Machu Picchu, and the Main Temple where we stopped was the highest he had been.

Paula, on the other hand, was having a frustrating day because of her communication barrier. Our guide spoke almost no English and Paula was desperate for information. Just getting to the top, understandably, had no meaning for her. So she went off on her own and experienced a powerful, non-verbal communication with one of the Indian guardians of
the site, in one of its most sacred areas, the Intiwatana. I was really happy for her. In Cusco where there had been a welcome reception with dancing and music for the group, she had been overlooked because her disability was hidden. Understanding speech using a cochlear implant can take a lot of effort, even without foreign accents to contend with, and on this trip Paula was able to understand only a few of the Peruvians we met. The result-a feeling of isolation. But Machu Picchu had worked its magic for her as well.

That night, after a spectacular helicopter flight back to Cusco, we celebrated Sharon's birthday dinner in Pizarro's 16th century palace, now the 5-star Libertador Cusco, our home for two nights. Joining us were Fernando Blanco, manager of the Posada del Inca Cusco, and Pilar, as well as Leonel and Zaca. My heart was full that night as I looked around
the table, and I know Sharon felt as I did-with all these young people in the tourism sector dedicated to improving access in Peru, the future can only be bright.

The next day held another much-anticipated event-rafting on the Urubamba. This was truly Pepe's area of expertise and it went off without a hitch. Sharon and Jose easily transferred to their positions in the middle of the raft before it was lowered into the river. Paula this time left her processor behind, so Jose and Sharon worked out a system of taps to tell her when to paddle forward, backward or stop. It worked great, except for confusing me on the other oar! The picnic afterward in a grove of trees along the river was also special.

Our visit to the Andes seemed to fly by, and before we knew it we were back to Lima and serious business. Our meeting with Ibeth Acuña and Alessia Di Paolo of PromPeru can best be described as a debriefing, which they even tape recorded. Alessia and I had exchanged many, many pages of e-mail before the trip, as she bombarded me with questions about SATH, ADA, statistics on travelers with disabilities, etc. Thanks to PromPeru's efforts, the government has just passed a law to improve accessibility in the tourism sector, with regulations to be based on the ADA. This is the kind of advance in awareness one dreams about; one hopes that it will pay off for Peruvians with disabilities as well.

It was hard to leave Peru and our newfound friends. This is a destination one can return to time and time again and I'm sure I will. Meanwhile, the work goes on there to put all the pieces in place for truly wheelchair accessible tours. Apumayo Expediciones is adapting vans with ramps and tiedowns. Sharon has found a piece of equipment that will be great for carrying people at Machu Picchu. Posada del Inca Hotels is undertaking renovations in Yucay and acquiring needed bathroom equipment such as shower benches, and Paula is working with them on adaptive equipment for the deaf. So if Peru is a destination you've ever dreamed about, "Yes, it's possible!" Open World will keep you updated.

Peru Possible '98 Itinerary
April 1: AeroPeru Miami-Lima, Posada del Inca Lima
2: City Tour, Bus to Paracas, Paracas Hotel
3: Boat tour Ballestas Islands, Return to Lima
4: AeroPeru to Cusco, 2 nights Posada del Inca Yucay
5: Tour of Sacred Valley, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo
6: Train to Machu Picchu, Helicopter to Cusco, 2 nights Hotel
Libertador Cusco
7: Whitewater rafting on Urubamba River, Cusco Tour
8: AeroPeru to Lima, Meeting and lunch with PromPeru, 2 nights El
Olivar Hotel
9: Day of leisure
10: AeroPeru Lima-Miami

Thank You to Our Sponsors
AeroPeru, Assist-Card, HeliCusco, Hoteles Posada del Inca, Hotel
Libertador Cusco, Hotel El Olivar, PromPeru, Apumayo Expediciones

Apumayo Expediciones, Bellavista 518, Miraflores, Lima, Peru; Telefax.
(511) 444-2320; E-mail:

Posada del Inca Hotels, E-mail:; Web site:

Alessia Di Paolo, PromPeru, Calle 1 oeste s/n, edificio Mitinci, piso 13,
(Urb. Corpac) Lima 27, Peru; Tel. (511) 224-3279; Fax. 224-3323; E-mail:

Sharon Myers, Turtle Tours, 2511 Sanderson Drive, Troutville, VA 24175;
(540) 992-2670; E-mail:

This article was reproduced with permission from Open World a travel magazine produced by the Society for of the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped (SATH) To find out more about SATH and Open World Magazine check out the website

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