After a devastating accident, two friends became determined to make outdoor travel more accessible to those with disabilities.
The world isn’t everyone’s oyster. Though systems from cultural education to physical infrastructure vary worldwide, they rarely account for people with disabilities. Those few accommodations that are made are often one-size-fits-all gestures, and while they certainly do help some—and should continue to be supported and expanded—they don’t accommodate everyone.
After a life-changing accident impaired Alvaro Silberstein’s mobility just out of high school, he and his close friend, Camilo Navarro, refused to forfeit their love of outdoor adventure and remote destinations. The 36-year-old Chileans have known each other since they were seven. Their relentless determination and global travels have led them to launch Wheel the World, a booking platform for travelers with diverse disabilities.
This story is not your typical tale of man-overcomes-obstacle, but rather, it’s a story of tenacity and devotion forged by friendship. In this interview with Fodor’s Travel, Silberstein and Navarro share a look into their unshakeable bond, intrepid adventures, and the experience of launching an accessible travel company inclusive to those with disabilities.
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FODOR’S: What was your friendship like growing up?
ALVARO SILBERSTEIN: We were always into sports, and we, of course, played soccer. By high school, we started hanging out as friends, attending parties after school, and whatever. After we graduated high school, we started going on vacations, like to a lake near Santiago, the city where we used to live.
CAMILO NAVARRO: Alvaro was the good one at sports, and I was the bad one. Alvaro would be captain, and I was always on the bench, waiting for my turn to enter.
Can you tell us a bit about Alvaro’s accident and how it impacted your friendship?
AS: It was April 23, 2004, when we were almost 19, and we were in our first year of university. We were both still living in the same city but in different universities studying for different careers. We weren’t seeing each other as often as in previous years, however, we were still really good friends. I was in the backseat of a car coming back from a party, and a drunk driver came from across the road and crashed into the side where I was sitting. I broke my neck at level C5, which paralyzed my body from the chest down. At that moment, it was super hard for me, of course, and for my family and my friends. I had a lot of support from them, pushing me to regain independence and the life I wanted. I was in the hospital for six months and then went to rehab every day. Camilo was extremely supportive and part of my group of best friends that helped me and pushed me forward. Afterward, when I went back to university, we stayed closely connected. Camilo stayed very supportive and was a big part of rebuilding my confidence and regaining independence in my life.
How did Camilo’s solo trip in Patagonia have an impact on you both?
AS: Outdoor activity has been close to my heart since long before my accident, but I came to fear trips would be challenging accessibility-wise. Torres del Paine, in Patagonia, is the most aspirational national park that a Chilean would want to visit. We would compare it with Yosemite in California for Americans. It’s beautiful because it’s remote, and the majority of travelers who come to Chile want to visit it. For me, I thought it would never be possible anymore.
“It’s still hard to believe that this one trip opened a window that was absolutely closed before.”
I was very close to moving abroad to do my Master’s at Berkley, and I visited Camilo at his apartment while he was planning a solo trip to Patagonia. He was so excited and prepared all of his gear. I was so curious about the destination, so I asked him if he could explore, while he was there, how I might be able to visit. Camilo is a very intense person. Super passionate. He took this question so seriously and with so much energy that I think he spent his entire five days thinking of how it could be possible for me to visit the destination. He was so inspired by the trip that when he returned, he said, “We need to do this. We need to make this happen.”
What was the first step in making a Patagonia trek a reality?
AS: He organized a barbecue at his apartment with people he met in Patagonia to discuss how it might be possible for me to go visit. My takeaway from that discussion was that it was impossible. The width of my wheelchair was 70 centimeters, and the trail in the park was 30 centimeters, so it was already impossible for my chair to fit right from the start. They asked if I could ride a horse, which I could not. Overall, this was not going to happen, and I was a week away from moving to the United States anyway, so the discussion ended with nothing. A year and a half later, Camilo considered moving abroad also, so I asked him to consider Berkley as his next place to live.
CN: He convinced me!
AS: Through those conversations about moving, he said, “Okay, you’re coming to Santiago on your New Year’s vacation, and this is the moment to organize your Patagonia trip.” I was so inspired by the experience of living in California and being able to visit national parks that were so much more accessible than Torres del Paine, so I said, “Let’s do it.”
We convinced some friends to commit to this adventure with us. We hadn’t figured out how to do it yet, but we bought the flight tickets. I still have the email that Camilo sent with the flight confirmation with a subject line that read: life is too short. And then came the challenge of how to ideate this trip because we had no idea how to actually make Torres del Paine accessible.
How did you prepare for the Patagonia trek?
CN: We got the tickets for the official trip and thought, you know what, we need to figure out if this is even possible, so we decided to do a scouting trip for me and some friends to go there first without Alvaro. We figured out that we needed a special trekking wheelchair, which was extremely expensive, and other special gear. We did a crowdfunding campaign for the equipment to go through Patagonia and leave some sort of solution for future travelers to do the same after completing the trip. It was a complete success with so many supporting the idea, and it started to be noticed, and outdoor brands and airlines became excited to sponsor us.
Can you describe the chair Alvaro would need for this, and now it’s different from a standard wheelchair?
AS: There are different types of trekking wheelchairs, but the one we used for this particular challenge is a one-wheel chair that’s designed for other people to push you through narrow trails in a very comfortable way. One person at the back manages the balance and pushes, and one person in the front keeps balance with harnesses to pull. And you can be assisted by other people connected to the chair through ropes.
It’s not that I’m in an active position myself in the chair; other people do the work. For me, that was very difficult to accept. It’s about $5,000—super expensive for most people. Even I don’t have one, because I’d only use it a couple times a year. We developed the model that we leave this kind of equipment at the destinations so other people can rent it and use it where it is.
What happened after you learned about the trekking wheelchair?
CN: We took a model of the wheelchair all the way to Patagonia to replicate what we planned to do, and using that replica chair, we simulated Alvaro’s weight in it and started hiking to see if it would be possible. People were looking at us like we were crazy, pushing a sort of wheelbarrow with weights up the trail, but we realized it would be possible and came back and started preparing the trip.
“We want to eliminate the friction and guarantee accessibility in every single booking through our platform.”
We spoke with the government and with people with disabilities in the area, and everyone said we were crazy and they wouldn’t authorize the trip, but that only gave us more energy to push ahead. No one would stop us from getting there and going for it. And we did it. The trip was amazing, not just for Alvaro but for all of us. It was a magical moment in the end for us. I really would use that word—it was magic.
After that trip, our story went viral, and hundreds of people with disabilities started reaching out, wanting to replicate that same trip and asking us to help them with the booking process, the hotels, and the trekking chair. We started helping to organize the trips for them. It’s still hard to believe that this one trip opened a window that was absolutely closed before.
Camilo, Alvaro credits your passion and determination with inspiring much of this journey. What drives you?
CN: When you have a friend, you’re willing to do anything for them. After Alvaro’s accident, we still tried to live our lives as naturally as possible. Back then, nothing in life was designed to consider people with disabilities, so I decided that every time we encountered a problem with Alvaro, I was going to solve it, and we would try to enjoy life as much as we could. We would live as naturally as possible.
Alvaro’s accident completely changed his life, but it also changed our life as friends. After I took my solo trip and had that life-changing experience, I thought, if we could replicate this, how many other lives could we impact? Because it’s not only the person with disabilities whose life is impacted but their families and friends who are connected to them. They should be able to have this experience together.
My inspiration to make this happen on a larger scale came when Alvaro had an amazing experience with us but, second, when we took the next trip to Easter Island and brought other people with disabilities. Then I realized that this magic happened again, not just for Alvaro but now for other people, too, and this became not just about Alvaro, but about changing lives for others. That was when I knew we needed to make this available to the entire world, not just for the people with disabilities, but so their families and friends could come together and experience this with them.
How did you launch Wheel the World?
AS: At first, everything was about designing trips with local travel operators, like the ones in Torres del Paine and Easter Island—super remote destinations that aren’t easy to get to and completely out of the realm of possibility for people with disabilities. So, we started raising resources to buy the equipment for scouting trips where we could train travel operators to offer these experiences to others.
Our two main goals were to allow people to repeat these experiences and to focus on the destinations we always dreamed of visiting. This was an important initial drive, but after a few months, we realized that many other people were just as challenged to travel to more mainstream destinations like New York, Barcelona, or Rio de Janeiro. There were many more people who were looking to travel to these places than to the remote destinations but had challenges with hotels, transportation, and activities. We expanded our mission to become like a Booking.com for people with disabilities. We realized this was much more scalable regarding what we could offer and how many more people we could impact.
CN: When we started our company, it was just to go to Patagonia and then Easter Island, and then Machu Picchu. Ourselves. And then it became to replicate our experiences for others. And as we were doing this, we received phone calls from other travelers, and we arranged everything manually for them. But as it continued, it became impossible. Number one, we couldn’t physically go on every single scouting trip to determine a plan—we were receiving phone calls from all over the world, and we couldn’t be in two places at the same time. And as this developed, we realized that if we wanted to impact millions and millions of people, we had to shift from a manual operation to a technological solution. So, we built our platform to customize profiles for each person instead of doing this individually over the phone.
How does Wheel the World cater to the needs of travelers with disabilities?
AS: We started our accessibility mapping system and brought on our mappers to measure and collect data points like the width of a hotel door, the height of the bed, the type of shower—all of this data that our users need in order to determine how feasible this travel would be for them. And we started implementing our technology to help users with different needs find what was specific to them. Our users now build their accessibility needs profile and find recommendations that fit their exact needs. And that’s where we are now. About 1,800 people have booked their trips with us already.
When building your platform, how did you account for the different needs of travelers with disabilities?
AS: Our team includes a Head of Accessibility who has worked with people with disabilities for a long time, and with him, we analyzed in detail the different accessibility standards around the world. The ADA is one standard, but we wanted to know about the standard in Spain, the United Kingdom, and so on to understand how accessible everything really was, so we defined many of our data points from these standards. There’s a very good report from the Open Doors Organization every few years to analyze challenges, and we consider these points, too, as well our own interviews and experiences.
What’s next for Wheel the World?
CN: We’re really focused on becoming the best solution for American travelers with disabilities to travel domestically and internationally. We want to eliminate the friction and guarantee accessibility in every single booking through our platform. That’s our goal, and to achieve that, we have a 50 person team working very hard on building better systems and technology to allow this to happen in the most efficient way possible, and we’re increasing the number of listings on our platform to allow users to find exactly what they’re looking for. We want as many alternatives as possible, so any traveler knows they will find what they’re looking for on Wheel the World.