Nicolás Arbeláez

Medellín, Colombia


„Within the next five years I want to make Colombia a country that is easily accessible to disabled tourists. They all shall be able to explore the beauty of my country. I want to start with my hometown Medellin and continue with whole Colombia.“

On first steps

„You can achieve whatever you want, but you need to find your passion first. Once you have, you will attract what you need to get closer to your goals. When you are in that flow, the whole process won’t feel like hard work anymore. It will rather feel like following your heart.“


travel agent & visionary

Before I traveled to Medellín I posted a „public trip“ on A great way to meet locals. Nicolás responded quickly and invited me to his house. It was by the time that I came to his home when I saw him sitting in a wheelchair. A night full of surprises, laughter and good conversations enfolded. Including the story of Nicolás that is as extraordinary as touching.

„Do you have a driver’s license?“

Nicolás asks me when we left his house. „Not with me“, I responded slightly surprised about the question. „Oh, that’s not good. You will have to drive me through the district tonight“, he smiles at my questioning face. „Not in the car though, in my wheelchair.“ A joke he has certainly not made for the first time. Nicolás has over 220 references from Couchsurfers – meaning, he hosted or visited or showed them around in his hometown. That’s a lot! Nicolás loves to meet people and that is a great way for somebody who is sitting in a wheelchair.“

„Meeting and helping people is my passion“,

Nicolás completes while I push his wheelchair through the dark and quiet streets of Belen, the district of Medellín he lives in. The air is alive with the odor of grilled and fried street food and the distant noise of a South American metropole’s traffic and one can smell the smog issue Medellín has these days. Not many tourists come to this area – no sights, no fancy shops, it’s a locals place. It seems that the friendly and constantly smiling guy in the wheelchair is well known here, almost everybody greets us. We stop at a small food truck and buy some Empanadas, a small and popular deep fried potato finger food. „Buy four for us, and four for Cristina“, Nicolas instructs me. With no idea who Cristina is I go and get what my host asked for. I’ll get to know her soon. Cristina owns a food truck on the other side of the small street selling „Patacones”, a tortilla made of cooking bananas with guacamole and meat. „She is working a lot“, Nicolás explains. „I want to bring her some food that is different from what she always eats there.“

Nicolás suffers from a physical disability called muscular dystrophy

At the age when children usually start to walk, Nicolás did not. His parents first tried special shoes and crutches to assist his ability to walk, but due to circumstances, had to submit him to a wheelchair at the age of fourteen. „I can’t move from my wheelchair into bed and showering is hard work. I am dependent on other people in my everyday life.“

After he studied accountancy for five years at the university of Medellín, Nicolás got a post graduate in finance. He worked as an accountant for many years, when one day he started questioning his purpose seriously:

„I don’t live eternally so I want to make the best out of the time I’ve been given. My passion is to help people, thus I wondered which profession I could choose that builds a symbiosis here.“

Nicolás founded his travel agency „Atravex“

„Now he is just about to rebuild it for tourists with special needs:

„I want to help disabled tourists who visit Colombia, so that they don’t go through the same as I did here. I walked in their shoes and understand their issues, so I can help them to enjoy and explore the city as a tourist, not as a disabled person.“

That requires a lot of work. Nicolás needs to build connections to all the players, to accommodations, restaurants, tour companies, attractions and car rental services. „The biggest car rental service in Colombia has not a single car that is adaptable for wheelchairs“, Nicolás explains the status quo. He has done a lot of networking and research in the past two years to understand the problem better. He also supports the table of Medellín’s department of tourism to discuss improvements with stakeholders. „I am very happy that they include my opinion in their decisions now. They start understanding the issue slowly. That’s a big first success for me. I’m the only one in Medellín who is doing such a thing.“

Nicolás’ idea is to create packages for disabled tourists that are well customized for them. With easily accessible restaurants and hotels, with adaptable rental cars, with tours that provide all the assistance they need. „When do you see somebody traveling in a wheelchair? Usually you don’t. Many people need at least one other person to accompany them 24/7 when they travel in a wheelchair. My dream is to enable them to travel by themselves just by booking the packages I provide.“ But the road is long, Nicolás needs to connect all important operators facing a challenge of a tricky kind: „They are making business and thinking first and foremost of money. But the number of customers is low. So I need to convince them not so much with monetary arguments, but rather with social ones.“

How to deal with the negative opinion of others?

„Many people don’t believe that somebody in a wheelchair is capable of achieving any success“, he tells. „A mi no me importa. I don’t care!“ I ask him, if he feels that the world is unfair sometimes, if he asks himself the question „why me?“: „That happens, of course. I’m a human. But I have found a tool for myself that quickly helps me feeling better. I focus on my goals, on the bigger picture I’ve created for myself. I am physically weak, yes. But I am a very good thinker. I’m quick, you know?“ Nicolás has found qualities in himself that other people don’t have and uses them to follow his purpose and to realize his vision. That is „making the best out of a situation“, expert level.

Reality proves him right

One day a museum called him asking for his help. A blind woman from Paris was just about to visit Medellin. It was her first time in Colombia and Nicolás was asked to show her around. He did more than that. „I stayed with her for one week, took her out for dinner, went on beer tours and even to the mountains. Everyday I created a surprise. When she left, she was crying and told me that she’ll never forget Medellin again. It was that day when I realized: I can do it!“

It’s shortly after midnight on March 25th. It’s my birthday.

We sit on a wall next to a street and cheers with a Coke Rum, when Nicolás sings Feliz Cumpleanos to me smiling brightly. „What keeps you young?“, I ask him. „I enjoy life“, is his brief answer. Indeed, Nicolás radiates energy of confidence and positivity that one might search long for in many people’s characters.

A birthday gift of a different kind

My host offered me a mattress in his room, for he didn’t want me to drive through the city alone at four o’clock in the night. I took his offer with gratefulness, helped him out of his wheelchair, carried him into bed. Nicolás can neither get into the right position in bed without help nor can he pull over the blanket. My 31st birthday was four hours old when I realized that. Nicolás, a person I knew for eight hours, gave me one of the most personal birthday gifts possible: The insight, how relative the dimensions of worries and personal issues are. And the evidence, that it’s really up to us what we make out of the circumstances we’ve been given in our lives. Only we decide, how we feel about it. Nobody else.

Find Nicolás Arbeláez on facebook and his travel agency Atravex online.

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