Jim's Wheelchair Traveler Tips & Information
I've been fortunate to have traveled to many corners of the globe. Although planning comes to me fairly easily, traveling in a wheelchair necessitates becoming an even better planner. Experience has taught me many lessons. I've been to hotels where the wheelchair could not fit through doors or into an elevator, and visited too many restaurants without an accessible restroom. While traveling, I've had wheels, axles, the wheelchair frame and footrests break or fall off. And getting into a taxi or renting a car was far easier 30 years ago when vehicles were considerably larger.
Today I plan my hotel and restaurant reservations with great care, calling and emailing and following up well in advance. It is now possible to arrange almost everything including taxis and van rentals across many parts of the globe in advance. Every location can be put on speed dial before departure. This is all especially true in South America where the English language is not as well understood and wheelchair accessibility has a ways to go. We have attempted our best to provide you with some helpful hints throughout our website including some local contacts below that you might find helpful.
South America Tours and Guides:
Tours by Locals: We used Tours by Locals extensively in Buenos Aires, Argentina and I suspect they operate throughout much of South America. We spent several days with Andres Miguel in Buenos Aires and he's one of the best guides we've ever used. Andres was exceptionally knowledgeable, gracious, always prepared and willing to do everything necessary to make our week and day trips convenient and enjoyable although neither his modern, air conditioned car or personal boat were wheelchair accessible. We arranged to have Andres pick us up from the cruise ship terminal, and he arranged tours to Estancia (Gaucho Day), the Tigre Delta (aboard his personal boat), to the Historic Quarter of Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay via the Buquebus Ferry and golf cart in Colonia, and to a night of Milonga dancing (local club Tango dancing - I watched). Andre was terrific - and he spoke perfect English. (SEE ATTRACTIONS tabs for additional comments and videos).
We also used Tours by Local in Montevideo, Uruguay where Shalako Walker met us at the cruise ship and escorted us throughout Montevideo for the day in his new 4-door Honda sedan. He provided a driver Robert to make the day easier. Shalako was a recent college graduate, very knowledgeable of Uruguayan history and Montevideo and he too spoke perfect English. He was simply a pleasure to be with all day. What a fun young man! (SEE ATTRACTIONS tabs for video).
We also used Tours by Local in Rio de Janeiro and Rose Frias took us to around Rio in her new, air conditioned Toyota sedan and escorted us to Sugar Loaf Mountain and lunch. Rose had the almost impossible task of navigating around the Carnival crowds and she too spoke perfect English. (SEE ATTRACTIONS tabs for videos).
They were all well educated, extremely knowledgeable about their respectively cities and countries and provided modern, air conditioned cars. We were able to email, receive pictures and speak with each of the Tours by Local guides prior to departing the U.S.
Viator: We used Viator in Santiago. They too were knowledgeable, spoke perfect English and provided modern, air conditioned vans, not sedans.
Neither tour company offered accessible vans or vehicles in South America, but they were reliable and I highly recommend them. I believe both are operated by Canadian companies where they too speak perfect English. This helped us plan a month long trip where English is not alway spoken and accessibility can be an issue. Tours by Locals helped us out on an early Sunday morning when we experienced a "U.S. dollar availability" issue - see below. For a number of reasons, I prefer Tours by Locals.
Booking your Hotel Room in South America
Booking a hotel room online is convenient, but more often than not it results in arriving to the hotel only to find out they did not properly reserve an accessible room, or even worse - they have no accessible rooms in the hotel. Before booking a hotel room, we recommend reviewing our list of certified South America hotels. And please remember international hotels typically offer fewer wheelchair accessible rooms and do not use the term ADA, so book your room well in advance and request a room that is wheelchair accessible with a bathroom that is accessible for a wheelchair. In each of the South American hotels I stayed, they only had 1 wheelchair accessible room. So book early if you can. When booking a hotel room, I highly recommends the following:
- Call the hotel directly and "block" your wheelchair accessible room for the desired dates of travel. I typically found the front desk personnel spoke reasonably fluent English.
- Have the hotel email or fax you a confirmation, noting the accessible room and bring this with you at check-in.
- Call the hotel directly 24-48 hours in advance of your arrival to re-confirm your wheelchair accessible room. Put their "local phone number" in your speed dial before you leave home.
- While we loved our hotels in Buenos Aires and Santiago, and we like to stay at locally owned hotels when we travel abroad, on a return visit to Rio I’d suggest staying with the major hotel chain such as Marriott, Sofitel, Sheraton or Hilton.
- Rio is built around many mountains and steep hills, which create beautiful scenery, but it's not necessarily good for a wheelchair traveler. And the city is huge and very spread out so be careful where you stay.
When calling the nationwide reservations call center for many hotel chains, they do not have the ability to "block" wheelchair accessible rooms with individual hotel properties. We recommended to call the hotel directly, and speak to the front desk to properly reserve and block your accessible guestroom.
Booking your Hotel Room in Buenos Aires, Argentina
We especially enjoyed our visit to Buenos Aires and one day we hope to return. All things considered I'd select Buenos Aires over Paris or London. Although we only spent a week, I gave some though to the various districts and neighborhoods to stay and what's preferable for wheelchair travelers. Below are my notes:
- Recoleta: Beautiful, high-end area in Buenos Aires with many foreign embassies, several great hotels, restaurants and shopping. It's safe, charming but rather expensive. I love the old world architecture in the Recoleta district. About a 15-20 minute reasonably level walk to the theatre and opera district. Highly recommended area. The Sofitel and famous Alvear Palace hotels are located here.
- Palermo: Large area in north end of Buenos Aires with huge open parks, bike trails and walkways. The American Embassy is located in this very nice upscale area.
- Puerto Madera Waterfront: Beautiful "newly built" area along the waterfront in the southern part of the city along the river and near the Cruise Port. Very modern. One of the most expensive areas of Buenos Aires. Several nice restaurants, shops and hotels. There is a very nice, newly built Hilton here. It's a short somewhat uphill distance to the Presidential Pink House, Plaza del Mayo and Metropolitan Cathedral. This area is very safe, level and wheelchair accessible. If you like new, modern and waterfront, I'd certainly recommend Puerto Madero.
- San Telmo: Charming southern sector in Buenos Aires with old world French and Italian architecture. Beautiful small antique shops and great restaurants (including La Brigada) line each block. Well known Sunday flea market. Wheelchair accessibility is limited as virtually all the streets are cobblestones. However the sidewalks are generally level and reasonably accessible. Regardless of accessibility, the San Telmo district is a must visit. One of the most charming areas in the city.
- La Boco: Older area of the city with a interesting history. However for safety reasons tourists would be well advised to avoid booking a hotel in this area.
Pack You Airlines Bags Carefully
Wheelchair passengers are always last to exit the plane, sometimes 30 minutes or more after all other passengers have departed. Since I'm generally the last person to the luggage carousel, I'm always concerned someone will steal my bags (yes, this has happened). As a result, I always pack a special carry on bag with anything I might need for 2 days if my luggage is lost or stolen. This includes critical medical supplies and medications, an extra seat cushion cover, lightweight wheelchair repair tools, handy wipes and plastic bags.
I always bring large black plastic bags to collect my detachable wheelchair parts at the end of the jet way. These should be placed in the over head luggage rack, not in the cargo area.
You should also know that the Air Carrier Access Act mandates that fold up wheelchairs have priority for on-board storage if a closet is available. Keep your wheelchair on-board if possible. Demand your rights! Our airline placed my folded wheelchair in the suit closet onboard the Dreamliner on both departing and returning flights.
For those travelers requiring cranberry juice, I found absolutely none anywhere in South America. So remember to pack Cranberry Pills.
Local Currency, ATMs and Banking Tips in South America
After traveling to many European cities and several other continents, I was surprised find obtaining local currency and U.S. dollars could be so problematic in South America. This no doubt results from too much government debt in some countries. U.S. dollars are hard to find. And many ATMs didn’t accept U.S. credit and debit cards and often had restrictive steps for access. Often ATMs in Rio had no currency availability (perhaps due to Carnival crowds), and they generally had low daily cash limits on withdrawals throughout South America. Even hotel front desk cash advances have daily limits and airport currency windows provided only local currency. To make matters more complex, some service providers only want payment in U.S. dollars while others won't take U.S. dollars.
Some tour and taxi drivers take only U.S. dollars, some only local currency. Those taking U.S. dollars only accepted pristine bills and wouldn't accept wrinkled bills or those with turned-up corners. (I was told local banks take a 10% fee for currency not in pristine condition).
So plan carefully and don't run out of U.S. dollars as we almost did. Perhaps talk with your bank before you depart and create a back-up plan.