Columbia – January/February
Flying above the Cocaine Trail, from Columbia to the North
Understandably, our friends and family were not fond of the idea of us beginning our journey in Bogota, which is considered one of the more dangerous cities in the world. And, to be honest, we were a bit apprehensive as well until we heard about the Pre-World Cup at Roldanillo; surely if there was an international comp there then it would be safe enough, right? Suddenly optimistic, we decided to head for the Valle de Cauca and begin the adventure.
We soon realize that overall, Columbia is a relatively safe country, although it began badly with a couple of close calls in Bogota. There, I experienced the unique feeling of a cold knife held to my throat, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. While I was boarding a bus in the city, I felt the sharp edge beneath my chin and quickly tossed my camera bag onto the bus as I felt hands rummaging in my pockets, removing my cash. The knife retreated, and as I turned around the criminal sneered and made a motion with his knife as if to kill me, while his friend walked slowly into the crowd, casually counting my money. This seemed to be more a symptom of a large city than a dangerous country however, and the rest of our travels there were largely uneventful.
Just thirty minutes from Bogota, the village of La Calera is sleepy town near a good flying site, where we meet an entire flying family! A man named Augusto sees us carrying our Ozone bags and immediately knows we are pilots. Two hours later, he and his brother are driving us up to launch. In 1978, Augusto built himself a hang glider out of bamboo and jacket material, and he’s been flying hang gliders and paragliders since. Today, he’s flying tandem with a policeman in order to “Maintain a good relationship with the local authorities.”
Site of the Pre PWC, the Valle de Cauca is an XC paradise. More than 180km in length, the valley is bordered by the Sierra Occidental and the Central Massif. Each day the tropical sun beats down on the valley, heating it and brewing massive thermals. It’s only possible to launch until about 1pm, when the sea breeze sweeps inland from the Pacific. House thermals abound, and a nice collection of predicatble climb areas give us thermals of up to 12m/s 2400fpm! The air is turbulent, but my Ozone Buzz takes good care of me.
Cloud development is good, and cumulus clouds guide us down the valley each afternoon. On the third day the clouds get to be a little too much and rain falls, but pilots still climb to over 2000m and complete the tasks!
Xavier Murillo, the PWC meet director and a well spring of positive energy, talks to us about organizing the event with Carlos, the man responsible: The Colombian government supports the event with 600 soldiers who are on constant patrol in the mountains surrounding the event!
We had meant for this first leg of the journey to be a test run, where we settle into the traveling and test the new wings, but the gang of helpful happy kids in the LZ gets the better of us and we begin offering them tandem flights. Some of the children have been folding gliders here for 5 years, but have never been flying. They are overjoyed to be airborne above their home village, and scream with glee as we fly over the forested mountains and sugar cane plantations. Soon, the parents are begging us for flights and we get a few fathers airborne as well. In return, they overloaded us with gifts and food and enthusiastic thanks from all.
Los Nevados - El Ruiz (5300m)
After a week in Roldanillo we bid goodbye to the excellent group of pilots, who gave us lots of good info about more places to fly in Columbia. One of the info nuggets they passed on was that El Ruiz (5300m), one of the highest volcanoes in the country, had never been flown from. When we heard that, we went straight to the municipal office of the nearest town to look for maps. The municipal staff were kind, and sent us to the volcanic research center at Ingeominas, where the scientists gave us a detailed topographic map of the Nevados.
Our plan is to summit El Ruiz, and to fly from there to the base of Santa Isabel (5100m) for another climb, and then glide on to Villamaria. However, after calculating the glide ratio of our wings, supposed wind strengths, wind directions and the topographic lines, we realize that we’d have to change that plan. We opt to launch from El Ruiz, and see where we get!
The next day we are straining under the weight of our glider bags in the gradually thinning air. Conditions look perfect, and as we near the summit we encounter a national park officer who sees our bags and formally forbids us to fly. Just then, vultures soar overhead in the perfect breeze and we finally convince the guard to let us go- we promise him that we will just follow the birds, nothing more. He relents, and we carefully lay out our tandem on the sharp volcanic rocks. Five minutes later we’re airborne again, cruising down the glacier and then over the massive moraines and into the forest.
At Mamancana, a great thermal site in the northern part of Colombia near the colonial Carthagena, we attempt to organize a flight in the Sierra Madre de Santa Martha, where the highest peak towers above 6000m! This area is home to the legendary Kogi-indians whose first contacts with ‘civilization’ was as recent as the ninties! Just ten years ago, an elder descended from his holy mountain to tell the world that the earth is in danger of wars, pollution, deforestation and overpopulation, which he had seen during a trance-ritual.
This mountain range is also hiding many drugs plantations which are now controlled by the paramilitary, who signed a friendship agreement with the government. For our security, we needed special permission from a military boss in Medellin which, to our great surprise, we easily obtain. However, bad weather blows away our plans of flying with the Kogis and instead we turn our attention to the desolate Guajira desert of the Wayuu-indians. There, we enter a completely different world of a hostile nature: dry, hot and very dusty! The Wayuu have no political identity, only a tribal, matriarchal society. Transportation is very rare in the Guajira desert, which makes us easy prey for the few and greedy car owners. Luckily, we meet a friendly family near the ocean who take us in and allow us to sleep in hammocks in beach hut fenced by six foot tall cacti. We fly tandem with a Wayuu-girl in the rocky hills above the sea, and afterwards the whole family, wearing traditional dress, piles into a huge truck with us and drives to their ancestral burial site below the nearest mountain. A huge stereo system in the back of the truck blared wild Wayuu-music, and it was a hilarious moment. That same evening, they prepared the catch of the day: delicious lobster! The life of the poor can be very tasty!!
At the end of each installment of this series, we will leave you with a small piece of advice for traveling in the country we have written about. Enjoy your travels, fly only for fun, and be safe!
Our advice for travellers/paragliders in Colombia:
Listen to the locals’ advice, and you’ll be safe! Aside from our criminal encounter in Bogota, the only attack we experienced was on Aude when she was brutally assaulted by an eagle in the impressive Chiquimani canyon! The rural regions were more beautiful, friendly, and less expensive than Bogota (as is often the case) but be aware of changing political situations.
If Pablo Escobar had discovered paragliding instead of his white gold, we think he would have flown higher than he ever did with his best cocaine! Finally, with thermals so large and plentiful, friendly people and amazing mountains, our opinion is that no paraglider can rest peacefully without at least one visit to this free flight Mecca.