As I entered the vast greenness of the rainforest as a “queen” in a special wheelchair, helped by two native guides, I couldn’t help one of my most heartfelt smiles in a while. I thought I would not be able to have that feeling again. To take in the overwhelming diversity of the forest with all my senses. To feel the sun’s rays filtering through the wilderness. The humidity, the mud, the singing of the birds and loud buzzing of insects. To feel so tiny and insignificant in the world, while at the same time part of the infinite life on our planet.
I had been in a tropical forest in numerous occasions. I am a nature lover, and being brought up in a country as diverse as Ecuador, I was lucky enough to visit several tropical forests at different geographies, altitudes, states of conservation, … But this was the first time in my new condition: paraplejia. First time in a wheelchair. And first time with my children, 6 and 7 years old.
How was it possible? And why as a queen?
In LATIN AMERICA FOR ALL they have come up with a special wheelchair, all terrain, which to me looks similar to a rickshaw. It allows for a person who cannot walk to go through the most irregular, muddy and steep terrain, with help, of course. It is not such a sophisticated artifact, but it means the world to someone who, like me, could not think of a way to explore the “jungle” again. I could even bathe in a waterfall in the middle of the forest; taking in all that energy!
A couple of months after my accident, back in 2014, I learned by a friend in common, that Juan Francisco Marañón and his brother Pablo have a company that offers premium tourist services for people in wheelchairs: LATIN AMERICA FOR ALL. Furthermore, Pablo and his wife Bastienne Paliz own Huasquila Lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which offers accessible lodging and the possibility to participate in some of the rainforest tours in a wheelchair. Huasquila Lodge is found near the town of Cotundo in the Napo Province, only 180 km (112 miles) from Quito, an approximately 3.5 -4 hour drive. I had no idea I could visit a rainforest again… and so close to my home city!
I had worked in the tourist industry in Ecuador for over 15 years, but I am ashamed to confess that I ignored this segment of tourism. Usually we oversee people with disabilities unless we have someone close to us who is under this condition. Most of us know very little about disabilities in general. That’s why what especially caught my attention was to learn that the Marañón brothers did not have a family member or close friend with a disability. That is… before they began hosting them (us)! The Marañón family must feel very proud to offer such joy and excitement to people who, like me, thought it would be impossible to visit the Amazonia.
Accessible facilities and activities
Huasquila Lodge has 7 special bungalows with roll in showers, wide doors and all accommodations to help people with special needs have a wonderful stay. They count with custom built concrete paths to connect these bungalows with all social areas including a lift at the swimming pool so people with limited mobility the Jacuzzi and enjoy all facilities.
The activities they offer are:
- visit to a special trail in a secondary rainforest, which includes a waterfall and a lagoon that is home to caymans
- visit to a nearby local community to learn about their way of life and traditions, as well as their use of medicinal plants. They also have handicrafts for sale.
- elaboration of artisanal chocolate
- kayaking and rafting
Interview to Pablo Marañón
-I learned that you do not have any family member or close friend with a disability that means for him/ her to mobilize in a wheelchair. How did you come up with the interest in offering tourist services for this segment?
By coincidence. My mother in law runs Fundación Am-En, a NGO that helps people with mental and physical disabilities through integral rehabilitation based on Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. A foreign tourist with Multiple Sclerosis contacted her asking for accessible lodging options. He would be in Ecuador in less than a week and could not find a place to stay. We decided to help him out, having no idea what we were getting into. We were able to learn a great deal. It was our first contact with accessible tourism.
-Do you also work with tourists with other disabilities? Which?
Sporadically we have had other experiences, but our expertise is mostly on people with physical disabilities.
-How long have you been working in accessible tourism?
Over 10 years.
-Which are the greatest challenges you have had to face when dealing with tourists in wheelchairs?
The infrastructure, which is a barrier hard to change. Also the prices, given that, for example, generally only 5 star hotels offer accessible rooms. This makes it hard for us to find services in more competitive prices.
-What has been your greatest satisfaction?
The happiness and joy of the people who visit us. In many cases, they believe it is impossible to visit the Amazonia or Galapagos, and to be able to make what seems like an impossible dream become a reality, is unique.
-What tours do you currently offer for people in a wheelchair?
In Ecuador, we offer tours in the Amazonia, Andes and Galapagos. In Peru, Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu. We also offer tours in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, Iguazú and Patagonia.
-In case a traveler wants a tailor made tour, are you able to arrange it?
Definitely; we personalize routes and even develop new destinations upon request. That is how we have grown our offer to other countries. For example, some clients that visited the Galapagos asked us if we could take them to Machu Picchu. We did the inspection, designed the route, and now we offer this destination on a regular basis.
-Can you share with me a particular experience that has left a special mark on you and has motivated you to continue on this job?
Our first client! When he first arrived we had no experience whatsoever, and had a very challenging first 3-days. We made all the possible mistakes, and, moreover, his wheelchair had been lost in the flight. It was very hard. However, we learned and shared so much with him, that after his 3-week visit, he came back on the two following years, each time for a month. That motivated us and we decided to undertake on accessible tourism.
As a wheelchair user, I feel infinitely thankful to LATIN AMERICA FOR ALL for allowing us to live wonderful experiences in our country and South America. On the other hand, as an Ecuadorian, I feel proud that you have created a first-class company that allows for people with physical disabilities to discover the wonders our country offers. Congratulations!