A paraglider’s paradise?

Ready to take off at Bucaramanga

Imagine a flying site which is so reliable you can almost guarantee it will be flyable. Sounds almost perfect, doesn’t it?

OK, so let’s see if we can make it better… Let’s add somewhere to stay right by take-off with a friendly vibe where you can lie in a hammock in the shade watching the sky until the conditions are just right for you. Is that perfect yet?

Well, almost. But let’s throw in breakfast, unlimited good coffee, retrieves, and radio support from two excellent instructors, just for good measure.

And while we’re imagining our perfect paragliding retreat, let’s set the price. We all know pilots don’t like spending much money, so we’ll chuck in all the extras for free and keep it about the same price as any other hostel in the area.

It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? So imagine our surprise when we arrived in Bucaramanga to find exactly that!

Getting to Hostel El Nido at 8am, exhausted after a 9-hour night bus ride across Colombia, Sarah, the Colombian lady who runs the hostel, did everything she could to make us welcome, magicking up a couple of extra plates of breakfast for us and pouring the tastiest coffee we’ve found in Colombia down our throats.

Hostel El Nido - a great place to hang out and watch the sky!
Hostel El Nido – a great place to hang out and watch the sky

As we ate our breakfast, we watched the birds exploring the first morning thermals in the valley in front, so we quickly polished off our third coffee and headed out to join them.

A badly timed launch on the tandem (neither of us are known for our patience) meant that our first flight can only be described as a brief orientation to the site as we found ourselves in the landing field in no time. But not a problem – the retrieve van was there waiting for us. Within less than half an hour we were back in the air. This time, staying up was no problem and we were high above takeoff before we knew it and able to explore the area properly.

The site tends to blow out in the middle of the day for all but the heavily loaded tandems (there are no skinny tandem pilots here) and those on mini wings. This may not suit everyone, but we found the enforced lunch break welcome setting us up nicely for the evening of soaring and restitution until the sun set.

The next day, the same. And again, and again and again! On the one day the weather wasn’t so good, the overcast sky slowed down the thermals, but it was still flyable with enough wind to soar by the end of the morning.

The place isn’t great for XC at the moment thanks to a recent reduction in the air space allowed by nearby Bucaramanga airport. Maybe this will be relaxed again in future? Let’s hope so!

But in the meantime, it’s still a great place to practice your XC skills and clock up loads of airtime. The thermals are just boisterous enough to warm you up for the European spring, without being so strong that they throw you around the sky. The flatish land out front gives you the chance to practice identifying thermal sources and joining up thermals. And if you’re wrong, you just land and have another go! You can set yourself little triangles to fly to build your skills.

Despite the lack of big distance potential, we certainly found enough to keep us entertained for a few days, so if you’re in Colombia, it’s definitely worth considering adding Bucaramanga to your itinerary!

Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga
Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga

Going with the flow

We always try to go with the flow, never more so than in the last few days…

Leaving Pana at 6am on Saturday had us reeling with mixed emotions – sadness at leaving our friends and the place that had come to feel like home and excitement about the next stage of our journey – Colombia!

As soon as we entered Guatemala airport, everything was different! The building was built with straight lines and modern design, there was air conditioning, good coffee, WiFi everywhere and everything operating smoothly. Other than the slightly awkward moment when I had to try and explain in faltering Spanish why I had three parachutes in my hand luggage, all went smoothly. It felt like we had already left Guatemala!

Welcome to America!
Welcome to America!

Arriving in America was a different matter… They have their procedures, and that’s just fine. But over 2 hours in queues from getting off the plane to out of the airport did seem a little much!

So first impressions of Fort Lauderdale? Everything is VERY BIG. And there are signs everywhere! Signs telling what you’re not allowed to do, where you should and shouldn’t go, things you should buy, ordering you to have a nice day, etc, etc. No one walks. I knew this, but it’s still a strange feeling driving along streets totally empty of pedestrians. The taxi driver seemed to have way more trouble understanding my English accent than any Spanish speaking Guatemalan had done in the previous 2 months and tried twice to drop us at the wrong house!

But when we finally arrived our hosts for the night, Heather and Benjamin welcomed us into their lovely home with open arms. If you’ve never tried www.airbnb.com (which you probably haven’t), I can highly recommend it. I have to admit we were a little wary of the idea of a website where people rent out their spare room, but with photos and reviews, it really is no different to finding any kind of hotel or b&b online. And at less than a third of the price of any hotel in town, we thought, “why not”?

Heather gave us a quick tour and offered us the choice of making ourselves at home with a takeout or joining her and Benjamin at a “young couples meet-up” they organise. The deal was further sweetened by a $5 brewery tour and beer tasting, and we bit (although I’m still not convinced the Funky Buddha Brewery pint glasses we were given will survive all the way back to the Uk)!

Unexpectedly finding ourselves in an American brewery
Unexpectedly finding ourselves in an American brewery

Not quite sure what to expect as we walked into the restaurant, we were pleasantly surprised to find a roomful of normal looking smiling and welcoming people! Apparently this kind of event is normal there. I suppose it’s natural that the culture that gave us internet dating has taken it one step further… As far as I understood it, these couples can network online and come together to make new friends. I remember how hard it was at times in London to meet new people and build up a good social network. This event seemed to solve that problem and there was definitely a great vibe.

Off early again, getting out of America was MUCH easier than getting in to it. The lady at security even complemented Graham on his new Guatemalan pant (and I genuinely don’t think she was being insulting when she called them PJs)!

Killing time at Fort Lauderdale airport
Killing time at Fort Lauderdale airport

With ideas of a new digital camera and some good quality suncream, we were looking forward to a bit of shopping at the airport. But America, the capital of consumerism, let us down! The airport had one small gift shop, a small duty free shop selling only drink and cigarettes and a bland café selling even more bland coffee. Puzzled and a little disappointed we had to content ourselves with people watching as we finished off the leftovers from the monster sized dinner of the previous night.

Arriving in Colombia the strangest thing was how normal everything felt. We were somewhat shocked by the sheer scale of Medellin town and relieved to find tranquillity, space and greenery a couple of miles outside the centre in El Poblado.

First flight at Medellin -  best way to take in the city!
First flight at Medellin – best way to take in the city!

The 2 hour taxi-metro-bus trip up to takeoff the next day slightly undermined the benefits of our peaceful haven, but we finally made it to launch receiving a warm welcome from the local pilots. They seemed surprised to see a girl flying tandem and rushed over to watch and help! They called over the only other female tandem pilot there to meet me which restored a little normality and Graham managed to fight his way through the crowd to claim his place as my co-pilot. But it was all friendly and extremely welcoming and after posing for a couple of pictures, off we went.

We were rewarded with a lovely evening soaring taking in the amazing views of this enormous city climbing up the sides of a huge valley with steep mountains all around. We finished the day with a lift back down the hill in an overheating banger (I quickly recognised that driving style), with a couple of teenagers teaching us Spanish swear words and talking to us about salsa music.

We decided to head south today to meet up with friends in Roldanillo, before working our way back up the country, stopping off to fly Medellin again on our way back north. Like the rest of the last couple of days, the journey through stunning countryside has been spiced up with random and amusing little moments, from fitting all our belongings into the smallest taxi in the world (getting them in a tuk tuk was easier) to being proudly served pãn lasagne – yes, that’s lasagne made with bread instead of pasta! We just keep on going with the flow and look forward to the next little piece of randomness to make us giggle as we go 🙂