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Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is no mean feat. Travel influencer and accessibility advocate Marcela Maranon talks all things Tanzania, ‘trekkers’ (off-road wheelchairs) and why she loves world travel.

I was born in Peru and now live in the United States. When I was 20 years old, I was in a car accident that left me paralysed from the waist down and caused me to lose my leg. After the accident, I completed a degree in Communications, got involved in adaptive sports and had a daughter. After 10 years as a paraplegic, I was able to walk with an assistive device called a ReWalk Robotics exoskeleton.

When I became a global ambassador for the company, I discovered my passion for travel. So far, I have travelled to more than 31 states in America and 16 countries around the world, covering every continent except Australia and Antarctica. I’m the type of solo traveller who likes adventure and going with the flow. I prefer backpacking at a low cost. I am always enthusiastic about meeting new people wherever I land and love to learn about their cultures and customs. I don’t like to over-plan – I just leave with my budget and my crazy self!

I have become a travel influencer on social media, where I raise awareness about accessible travel. I like to test wheelchair access in different countries and see what obstacles I face. 

The lure of Mount Kilimanjaro

I’m someone who likes to take risks. I never thought Mount Kilimanjaro would be impossible to climb. I thought a lot about the mountain being challenging for someone who has a physical limitation like mine, and decided to begin preparing mentally for the adventure. 

I was travelling with the non-profit organisation Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) when I first heard that Mount Kilimanjaro National Park officials were working on improving its accessibility. The goal was to open the mountain to anyone who dared to climb it, including trekkers with disabilities from all over the world. 

I had also become friends with the founder of Paratrek trekkers while trekking in Jerusalem during my last visit to Israel. Having Omer Zur along on the trip gave me peace of mind because I had used his trekkers before. 

FAISR, which fights for accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities, planned the whole trip for me and all the trekkers. This helped me believe that climbing the tallest free-standing mountain in the world would be possible. I knew I’d be well taken care of. After doing some fundraising, all I had to do was train for the climb, get my visa approved and make sure I brought the proper clothing for the mountain.

The team

We were a group of 27 trekkers with and without disabilities from Texas, Montana, Israel and New York City. We all climbed the mountain together, with four of us using the Paratrek trekkers. These are off-road wheelchairs designed by Paratrek especially for their outdoor adventure trips. It took us seven days to climb Mount Kilimanjaro along the Coca Cola (Marangu) route. There was accessible accommodation along the way at Mandara Hut, Horombo Hut and Kibo Hut.

Each of us had a guide and six porters to help us with whatever we needed, which was crucial for our success. This made us a team of over 120 people on the mountain.

A group of twelve people standing in scrubland, one woman at the front of the group is sitting in a paratrekker chair. A mountain peak is visible in the background.
The team worked together to make climbing Mount Kilimanjaro a dream come true.

The highlights of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as a team made my trip better because we were all climbing for the same goal: inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities. The main highlight of the trip was when I got to the peak of the mountain with all of the other trekkers, and we congratulated each other with lots of excitement. We were complete strangers before we left for Kilimanjaro, but have now become a family. Another highlight was having my porters sing reggaeton while pushing me up!

The challenges

We all learn something positive from challenging situations.

One of the biggest challenges for me during the ascent was being seated for so many hours in a trekker, and putting my trust in porters and guides who had never engaged with people with disabilities before. I lost my independence 95% of the time, as I needed my porters to help with every little thing except for eating, changing and going to the restroom.

There were times when I couldn’t use the restroom as needed because there were no accessible ones except when I was in the huts.

The cold temperatures were difficult as we couldn’t stop and rest. Looking back, I should have packed more warm clothes.

The future

My goal is to visit the Seven Wonders of the World. So far I have visited Petra, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, and the Taj Mahal.

My advice to others is to not live life in fear. I understand that travelling with a disability requires a lot of work and planning, but there are agencies that can help you organise a good holiday.

If you are new to travelling, I recommend taking short trips first. Then, when you feel comfortable, travel somewhere further. Do not forget to call your airline to let them know you are coming in your wheelchair and that you need an aisle chair for transferring. Always double-check with your hotel about wheelchair-accessible rooms.

Enjoy, relax, and know that there are a lot of kind people who would love to help you if you are struggling in a place that lacks wheelchair access. Be a disabled traveller advocate. The more we go out there and show that accessibility needs to improve in all parts of the world, the better for us.

Follow Marcela and learn more about her adventures around the world on Facebook, Instagram, and her website.

This article first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. You can subscribe here.

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