The Airborne Planet Expedition, Volume 2
Intro By Matt Gerdes
There are flying sites all over the world, in many exotic and faraway locations. However, the vast majority of pilots who travel do so with a specific and well known destination in mind. Sometimes these destinations are so overrun with pilots that they can only be described as soulless and predictable. But predictability is an asset for the busy modern pilot who is desperate to log as much airtime as possible on their seven day vacation, and who the hell cares for soul or ancient cultures when you can grind on the booty of a nubile teenager in a Brazilian disco or launch from a concrete pad in Mexico, surrounded by other white Europeans and North Americans? Indeed, it seems that most pilots are keen to turn their adventure sport into as little of an adventure as possible, in favor of racking up the miles and hours in their logbooks at thoroughly played-out ‘Cross Country’ sites.
The Airborne Planet Expedition is a journey back to the roots of our great sport, which is and always should be an adventure sport. In this multi-part series, Kris and Aude travel around the planet with solo and tandem wings, finding thermals and cross country routes in totally unknown flying areas and giving tandem flights to indigenous people who have never even seen a paraglider before. It is a true story of adventure, pure flying, and inspiring generosity.
My hope is that you too will be inspired to break away from the ‘Gringo Path’ and experience the pleasure of a true adventure flight. Imagine landing in a village you didn’t know existed, to be greeted by generous and enthusiastic local peoples who take you into their homes and help you to find your way to your next launch site. Imagine breaking away from launch and not knowing where the next ‘house thermal’ will be, relying on your training and instincts, and progressing as a pilot and a person with every decision you make during your flight into the unknown.
There are thermals everywhere on this great earth, people! Enjoy them!
By Kris Coppieters
Costa Rica is a destination far better known for surfing and kitesurfing than it is for paragliding, due mainly to the abundance of wind and waves. The trade winds are often above 35 knots which makes for less than ideal paragliding conditions, but after contacting some locals we meet a Costa Rican pilot who told us to check La Caldera on the West Coast. We have some difficulty with finding the launch site, which is in the garden of a Swiss man who landed here ten years ago with his motorcycle and glider bag. His house has an excellent deck, right in front of the launch! We spend most of the next four days soaring above a stunning green river lagoon and a black beach, cruising back and forth along the cliffs. The locals are friendly, the coastal site is excellent, and we’re feeling very welcome in Costa Rica.
After the excellent flying in La Caldera, we travel north in good spirits and with high hopes for the flying at the Miravalles volcano. There, we meet a very accommodating family of rangers. The surrounding hills look like perfect terrain for good flying as it is entirely grass covered fields and hillsides, excepting the very top, which is covered in jungle. Overall, it’s stunning. The first day, Aude and I hike up to different hills to check the conditions. We both find perfect launch sites, and I found something even more exciting: a puma! It was a scary encounter as I was all alone, but the cat slunk off quietly. On her solo mission, Aude meets a jumping long-tailed thing that is about five feet long with the head of a chameleon. And no, we weren’t eating jungle mushrooms! Unfortunately, strong northerlies surprised us the next day, and the rangers tell us that this wind normally persists for about three days before calming down. We reexamine the topographic maps and define a route through Costa Rica. Our main objective is an Indian Reserve in the South, home to the Ujarras Indians. This tribe doesn’t have the best or most friendly reputation, but they happen to live in a lovely mountain range.
A couple of days later we arrive at this mountain range that looked brilliant on the map. The mountains are lovely, as forecasted, but also completely inaccessible! The only way in is by foot or by horse, and we have no horses. Aude spots a likely launch site with birds circling above, and we decide to hoof it. The sweat pours from our bodies while we struggle upwards under a scalding sun. Now and then, I catch a whiff of burning skin, our skin perhaps? Shortly afterward, our lives flash before our eyes when a half-naked native man with a big machete charges us on the trail. Up close he’s even more threatening, with scars all over his body, only one eye and very few teeth, and he speaks an incomprehensible language that is more like a series of foul and wet eruptions from the deepest portion of his throat. Luckily, he doesn’t harm us and we can continue our hike. Aude’s premonition that this would be a good launch site proved to be correct and once we get airborne I catch a thermal and soon I have a great view of the mountains and valleys beyond. It’s a beautiful flight, and I’m reminded of what a thrill it is to find new paragliding sites. That is, until I see two armed natives running from a hut about one kilometer above the launch site straight towards Aude. By the time I top land, the two natives are only 50 yards from Aude, one with an axe and one with a machete. They stay at a safe distance, and we’re quite relieved to see their smiling faces. They seem reluctant to come closer, and it’s only after a second flight that we make contact. They inspect the gliders with big eyes and then invite us to their home. Amazing, in just half a day we found a site with great thermals and a new home for the following week!
Life is not so easy in these mountains, but the natives take great care of us. In the morning we help out with the tasks for living by milking the cows and picking green mangos. There is no electricity, but plenty fresh water from the river and fantastic flying. We give the whole family of eight tandem flights, and they love it! Only the grandfather fears the sky. Since he married a woman of another tribe, he no longer has the protection of his tribe’s gods, which he deems crucial to surviving a flight in our glider.
At the end of the week we are faced with another difficult good-bye, but other mountains and other native families are waiting for us, and the supposedly impossibly windy Costa Rica has turned into a paragliding paradise.
In Platanillo, central Costa Rica, we first follow a difficult and faint trail through the jungle to a tiny open area on the top of a 1,000 foot cliff. Somewhere in the bushes about half-way up, a creature with a threatening and deep growl seems to follow us, but spares us. The launch we found is very tight, and our gliders fit just between the trees. But after launching, the flying is wonderful. Gorgeous views and easy cross country flying bring us almost all the way to the sea and back, for a great XC flight of over 40km! The next day, instead of walking up through the beast-filled jungle, we try an open field next to the road. We have to try and avoid some power lines, but after launching we turn the corner and cruise up to the huge cliffs again, this time climbing above the peaks in thermals instead of in our boots!
At Palo Seco, on the northwest coast, we meet another family of Rangers. Palo Seco is an established flying site, with good thermals and cross country options, but we realized that the unofficial jungle site we’d just come from was even better. Palo Seco is excellent though, and we fly with the children from the summit of Palo Seco back to their homes in the valley. Our last week in Costa Rica is spent here, and we enjoy the flying and the people immensely.
Our advice for travellers in Costa Rica
Stay off of the gringo trail, and take care of your belongings: drugs traffickers who lose their drugs, and thus their livelihood, to competing gangs, will look for alternative wealth inside your luggage. They rarely stray from the lucrative gringo trail. And last but not least… beware of Costa Rican cows: Aude was brutally assaulted by an angry cow after landing in the corner of its field! Never assume third world domesticated animals are actually domesticated.