As a gentle, tropical breeze tickled the nylon canopies spread across the grassy take-off zone overlooking Bucaramanga – Colombia’s so-called “beautiful city” in the eastern Andes – the previously animated arena fell silent. Six paraglider pilots stood still as the accelerating wind rippled their multicoloured wings.
I trembled like the windsock beside us as the gust picked up and whooshed over the ridge, rising up from the city below. “We’ve got a cycle,” one of the pilots shouted, as he sprinted towards the edge of the lawn, flinging himself over the cliff-side and into the air. Within seconds the rest of his squadron had followed, dangling dozens, hundreds and then thousands of metres above the ground, carried on an updraft of warm air. All I could do was squint and gawp.
Paragliding, like most forms of light aircraft flying, relies on consistent high pressure and gentle winds to remain safe and enjoyable. However, the same wide isobars that create ideal barbecue and cricket weather are something of an enigma in Britain. This means that attempting to master something like paragliding can be interrupted by weeks of summer downpours and grey clouds. It can also be an expensive sport to pursue, with many courses starting from around £1,500 – and that’s before you’ve even considered buying your own kit, costing in the region of £4,000.
The Colombia Paragliding School on the outskirts of Bucaramanga, however, in the north-eastern region of Santander, claims to have some of the best conditions for the sport found anywhere in the world. With a claim of 350 perfect days for flying every year, and a renowned school offering 10-day courses for the equivalent of £606, including equipment hire and accommodation, Bucaramanga is fast gaining a reputation as the paragliding capital of South America. Located on a plateau next to the Colombian Andes, the city is shielded from weather systems to the north. It’s also so far inland that the region receives little rain, creating a balmy microclimate that generates rising thermals in the mornings, before igniting hot, but soft paraglider-friendly winds in the afternoons. It’s a perfect place for a novice to learn. And when one of those rare days of no flying does occur? There’s an abundance of hiking trails, mountain-biking routes, cafés and bars to keep you entertained.
The Association of Paragliding Pilots and Instructors requires aspiring pilots to complete a minimum of 25 solo flights before they can be issued with their licence. With two weeks I certainly had the time, but as I wrestled nervously with the wing on the first day of the course, I was unsure if I had the resolve. My only previous experience had been a tandem flight in the Venezuelan Andes, where I’d bumped and swooped in unfavourable, cloudy conditions. In Colombia, though, I had a chance to receive one-on-one tuition from bilingual, internationally certified instructors.
The first few days of the course were all about getting a feel for the kit, while still remaining firmly rooted to the ground. A series of thin, multicoloured lines linked the 11-metre by four-metre nylon wing to the harness I was wearing, resembling a large backpack. Students learn the principles of flying at the fly site, but instead of launching themselves from the precipice, stop just short of making a full wing inflation by pulling their lines to the ground, as if applying a break. It’s a case of creating muscle memory and I practised hoisting the wing above my head, while running forward, over and over again.
My first taste of flying arrived on day three. “You need to fly with a little pressure in your hands,” explained one of the instructors, Herman, as we flew in tandem 100-metre above the sprawling, whitewashed suburbs of the city. “Everything seems so much easier up here,” I laughed, as I clutched the handles controlling the flight path. “The wing wants to be in the air,” he told me. “Ground handling is frustrating and essential, but being up here is when the pilot really starts to understand how paragliding works.”
On the eve of my first solo flight I was wracked with self-doubt, fearful of my ability to convert my practical and theoretical knowledge into appropriate actions, hundreds of metres above the ground. I dipped in and out of sleep as tree frogs and cicadas sang in the trees outside my bedroom.
The next morning I was bleary-eyed but determined. With hands clasping the polyester lines, I lunged at the crest of the hill as my glider filled with air. Ten lurching strides later, I was airborne, soaring almost weightlessly and silently above a tree-lined valley peppered with cattle and high-pitched mopeds whizzing along tiny roads. I could make out the Andes looming to the north, while to the left a spiral of turkey vultures soared in a rising thermal with grace and ease. I felt comparably clumsy, clenching my fists in the handles of the harness, listening for instructions on the radio strapped to my chest.
Within seconds I was bumping through a rising thermal and careering out the other side, then after just a few shaky minutes I was approaching the landing zone and accelerating towards the dusty, sun-scorched earth at an alarming rate.
“Flare, flare, flare,” shouted my instructor, Richie, on the radio as a prompt to pull down hard on my brakes and soften the landing. A sense of relief washed over me as the soles of my trainers made contact with ground. Two days and 10 flights later my confidence was increasing, but as I galloped laboriously to the edge of the hill like a sprinter in treacle I felt the wing pitch ahead of me. I hesitated momentarily, before continuing with my run. It was to be the most valuable lesson I’d learn during my fortnight at the school.
Falling into, rather than flying over the valley, I smashed through treetops as my lines and harness wrapped around the rapidly engulfing jungle and I plunged, head-first, into the sweltering undergrowth. It took an hour to be rescued. “No worries, Tarzan,” said Richie, as I nursed my ego, bumps and scratches. “We go again.”
Touching down at the landing zone at the end of my 27th and final flight, the sun ripped through the dusky sky and splintered its rays through hazy auburn clouds across the valley. As my limbs coursed with adrenalin and my parachute quivered over the soft grass I knew I’d acquired a new skill that I could, and now intend, to take with me all over the world.
Getting there: Simon Parker flew with TAP Portugal (0345 601 0932; flytap.com), which serves Bogota from Heathrow and Gatwick via Lisbon three times a week from £772 return. Bucuramanga can then be reached by bus (10 hours); alternatively, Avianca (0800 0314 206; avianca.com) flies between the two cities and also offers direct flights from Heathrow to Bogota.
Paragliding there: Colombia Paragliding in Bucuramenga (0057 312 432 6266); colomiaparagliding.com) offers courses for beginners and intermediates. The 10-day, internationally recognised course costs 2,7000,000 pesos (£606) and includes B&B, wi-fi and 50 to 60 hours of theoretical and practical tuition.Reuse content