We’ve been trying to go paragliding since my first trip to Colombia. Or, at least, the first trip we had together. But despite having spent nearly a half a year here, we just couldn’t make it happen. Conditions weren’t right or we were off doing other things, or whatever.
Finally the stars aligned, however, and I had the incredibly unique experience of FLYING.
I’ve never had an issue with heights – in fact I truly love to get up as high as I can – on mountains. But to be soaring over the tops of the trees… eye to eye with birds (seriously!!) is a completely different kind of experience, obviously. I wasn’t afraid of the flying itself – but I was a little daunted by the idea that I’d have to run down the mountain first. And, do so while attached to someone else.
You have to have a license to fly by yourself, and of course, the gear isn’t something you find at the sports store on the corner. If you want to fly, you have to go with a pilot. Gratefully, my favorite Colombian adventure guide has loads of friends in the biz and with a phone call and an hour-long drive, he and I and his little were on our way to La Buitrera.
It’s near Santiago de Cali, better known as Cali, Colombia and the tiny little town is mostly occupied by pilots and / or fans of the sport. There aren’t a lot of hotels, but there are several well appointed hostels and ours even boasted hot water, a natural swimming pool, and a decommissioned plane in the yard.
Colombia is well known for air-borne sports. The steep Andes mountains almost beg you to drop off their peaks and set yourself free among the clouds. Parapenting (paragliding), Paracaidisom (skydiving) and all manner of other kite-based sports are available everywhere in the country. I once met a chap from Europe who was backpacking through Colombia. We were sharing a bus to Villa de Lleyva and he was sharing his seat with the massive bulk of his kite and harness, the lightweight day pack into which he’d stuffed all the rest of his clothing, toiletries, and other necessities sat wedged between his feet.
One of the Wild Man’s pilot friends arranged for some licensed pilots to accompany us and we met them at the launch point around mid-day. The Little and I were especially excited. Neither of us had flown before and the day was perfect. I thought for sure it would take at least an hour to set up all the gear, but before I could finish my Instagram post they were ready. My pilot strapped me into my harness, settled himself in behind me and gave me some instructions, which I *mostly* understood. Sit all the way back. Don’t touch my harness or the lines. And let him know if I feel sick. He asked if I was nervous and I told him no, but that I wasn’t a good runner. His face changed only slightly, but it did touch my nerves. I suddenly had a horrifying vision of taking a couple awkward giant steps, stumbling face first down the sheer mountain side, and pulling my young, very handsome pilot, and his kite down on top of me. I giggled awkwardly behind my mask and told myself I could do this. I’d run, a little, since the accident. Like, you know, 10 steps.
He commenced the countdown and I took off running. Except I didn’t go anywhere. I was forcing myself forward with all my strength but I couldn’t even get far enough ahead of my feet to require taking another step. Just as I was about to surrender and look over my shoulder at my pilot for advice, a helper appeared in front of us, yanking hard on the lines attached to my harness, and with a final heave I started to move. I felt my pilot’s legs working to propel me forward but I’d only taken a single step before I was no longer able to touch the ground and we were aloft.
Daniel (I think that was his name) passed me the selfie stick and worked the lines behind me, reminding me to push myself back into the harness and when I finally settled myself in to the necessarily awkward (but really rather comfortable) position between his legs he turned us sharply and we floated out over the tops of the tress.
I’ve thought for quite awhile about how to describe the sensation and I still can’t quite come up with the words. It isn’t an adrenaline rush, in the sense that I’m used to. There is no urgency. There’s no sense of do-or-die. Your body isn’t working at all – at least not as the passenger. It’s just… relaxed. To be honest, I didn’t quite no what to do with it. The wonder and awe was there, of course, and I loved the sensation, but after the first couple of minutes I started to feel bad for my pilot. It was like being the only two people on a plane, watching a beautiful sunset. Incredibly lovely, but he had to be bored. I mean, not like groan-and-stare-at-your-phone bored, but it wasn’t exactly edge-of-your-set exciting either. So I chatted him up a bit. But after a few moments I realized – I was missing it. I was so worried about whether or not HE was having fun that even up here, soaring above the trees, I was missing the experience itself. And I was paying him to do this!
Just then I heard a screech from behind and to the left of us. Li’l Wild and his pilot were circling around our right side. “Jaciiiiiiii!” he screamed. And it pulled me right back into the moment. That child-like wonder, that full immersion in an experience so unique and beautiful, gave me the gift of appreciation. I screeched back, we laughed loudly, and waved at each other across the sky. Finally I sat back and relaxed, celebrated the noisy silence of fast-moving air and nothing more. I watched the mountains fall away beneath my feet, flung my arms wide, and tilted my head up to a sky turning pale with the first touches of dusk.
We passed a full thirty minutes in the air, floating back and forth to stretch the experience out as long as possible before gliding to a rather graceful landing in a cow pasture. I did manage to press my hands into a cow pie, but outside of that arrived both unscathed and blissed out. And the Li’l did the same, right behind me.
Once freed from our harnesses we ran to each other and hugged. I jumped and shrieked and he did too and the Wild Man embraced us both. “How beautiful,” my pilot had said, when we’d been hundreds of feet up in the air, “to have the whole family together for this.” How right he was.