It is no secret that our Colombia XC tour is my favorite trip of our yearly season and this year did not disappoint. Before we get into the nitty gritty of the trip lets just have a quick statistical analysis and crunch some numbers. We flew 25 out of the 26 available days and made a number of different XC tasks including return to base triangles, open distance and declared goals. We also had the privilege of helping a number of our pilots beat their personal bests, especially on our first two-week tour where Hugo and Nick broke their PB's three times during their trip.
As we always do, we started the two tours in what has become one of my favorite flying sites in the world, Pie de Chinche. Staying at the luxurious hotel Siga la Vaca, which literally means follow the cow, it is a great way of settling into the tour after a long haul flight. With its air conditioned rooms, two swimming pools and incredible steaks which are two feet thick, the trip gets off to a flying start before our feet have even left the ground.
Pie de Chinche boasts a perfectly manicured launch and a huge landing field which I believe is really important for the start of the trip. Most pilots struggle to keep up currency and airtime during a long UK winter, so it really helps to settle pilots back into thermal flying
Pie de Chinche is located 25 minutes from our arrival airport of Cali and offers all day flying and relatively smooth thermals compared to the other popular sites in Colombia which we move to later on. It’s a great chance for pilots to get to grips with thermalling in the plentiful house thermals, which are helpfully marked by the local Colombian black vultures. As well as being a very easy and safe place to make XC flights at the end of the day there is also the option of finishing with a small XC flight back to the hotel which has a landing field right next door!
After three days of warming up and getting into the swing of thermalling and XC it’s time to move on to Roldanillo, which is one the of the worlds best XC flying sites. Instead of making the trip to Roldanillo in the van we always try to fly the route, which Akis has done on numerous occasions on our past trips. Sadly on our first tour, the group got to 40k along the route before some severe over development forced the boys to make a sensible decision and land next to the motorway, where they were met by the van and some cold beers to make the rest of the journey by road. On our second tour the weather again didn’t read the script and a blanket of high level cloud forced us to keep the flight local landing back at the hotel before heading to Roldanillo in the van with my dodgy music playlist and a stash of cold beers.
Arriving into Roldanillo is always a special moment, especially for the pilots who have not been there before. Once we arrive we head straight for our beautiful finca la Posada, which is located just outside of the main town of Roldanillo. With all rooms boasting en suites and a pool and numerous hammocks for some post XC chilling, it is a great base to begin our XC flying proper. During both tours we flew Roldanillo everyday making a range of different flights from open distance to the North and South and my personal favourite which is the around the valley triangle ending up back at base landing within meters of our front door at the finca.
We achieved a collection of different distances ranging from 40k up to 90k during both tours. As much as I love XC flying I have to admit what really appeals to me is the adventure of landing somewhere unknown. In Colombia this always results in the warmest of welcomes from friendly locals, who love to come to the landing spot to see these space men that have descended from the sky.
This year by chance we landed in a small village called San Pacho which has become my favorite experience of all time because of the landing party which was there to meet us. San Pacho is a small town just short of 40k from Roldanillo but it has the most amazing population of kids I have ever had the privilege of letting completely mess up my lines. These kids are the best air traffic controllers I have ever met, they know exactly where around the village each pilot has landed and they steer us all to the central plaza and the best places to get cold beers while we wait for our retrieve.
Their friendly attitude touched us so much during our first tour that we made a point of flying back there on our second tour and it was an amazing experience to be greeted by the same kids, as they knew our names and were so pleased to see us again. The second time we landed was a Saturday and so every kid in the village came rushing down to our landing spot to see us and it almost felt like dropping in to see some old friends.
This really highlighted to me what I love about paragliding, it’s not always the distance flown but the people and adventures you get once your feet touch the ground.
As lovely as San Pacho was we were in Colombia to make long XC and although the light but constant southerly breeze made going south hard work it really helped to blow us along to the North and we made some great flights to Ansermanuevo and up to La Victoria 65k from Roldanillo. Despite flying everyday but one, the weather wasn’t always perfect during our second tour so the guys did really well fighting for every kilometer. We had the Jersey boys out with us on the second tour, for their second visit to Colombia with us and they worked Akis and I hard never bombing out and pushing it all the way to succeed at nearly every task we set them. Akis and Ross made a spectacular flight from Roldanillo to Ansermanuevo and back to our Finca completing a hard fought and well earned 87k despite pushing back into the Pacific breeze on the way home.
One particular day stands out during our second tour. We were attempting the round the valley tour and although mid-flight the day started working really well with good solid climbs all the way to base it didn’t last. On the last leg of the flight, just before hitting Zarzel and heading for home, the cloud build up put the valley into shadow and it was like a switch had been flicked shutting off the thermals. Some great gaggle flying and a few low saves saw nearly all the group nearly completing the task and getting close to Zarzel but we all sank like submarines once we hit the shadow.
It was however to be another amazing adventure with the locals, where up to 60 kids and as many grown ups came rushing out to our landing spot to dive all over the gliders and pass our helmets around. Once again the frustration of being put down so close to our goal vanished amidst the excitement and adventure we were about to have with the locals. Every kid wanted a swing in the harness and to carry the bags, which was a great game to play as they carried our gliders all the way to the bar where we waited for our retrieve. No matter what anyone has heard or thinks they know about Colombia, I can say with my hand on heart they are the nicest, friendliest and most helpful people I have had the pleasure of bombing out around.
When the time came to leave the Finca and Roldanillo behind and move on to Apia we again set a task to fly the route. On our first tour the weather was favorable and the group made a gallant effort with Hugo making 45k and Nick and I dropping just 5k short of the goal field after the sea breeze came in and blued up the sky. In fact there was some great gaggle flying from all the guys, which helped carry everyone along as a team and with the van following on below we soon arrived at our third and final stop. On our second tour we set the same task from Roldanillo to Apia but once again the weather neglected to read the script and an early sea breeze and high cloud made the going very tough. Despite this the guys rocked it and a few in the lead gaggle with Akis and the Jersey boys, were on course to complete the task but had to land due to some heavy build up and showers over the goal town of La Victoria.
Apia, our third and final stop is a chance to taste some real Colombian culture. Set high up in the coffee triangle at the North end of the Cauca valley, Apia is a living breathing town not yet brushed with the paragliding tourism feel that exists in Roldanillo and other flying sites. It’s a small town consisting of coffee farmers and native Colombians and from the balcony of our hotel every year our pilots sit and watch the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
In Apia the adventure begins with the ride to launch, which consists of riding in, on top of or hanging onto the back of 1960’s Willies Jeeps.
The launch site has been made purely by the locals, who have hand cut a pristine grassy launch in amongst the coffee plantations and banana trees. For me this hidden gem of a flying site is the most beautiful along the Cauca valley route and this year we were blessed for the most part with cracking weather and plentiful cumulous clouds resulting in some lovely XC routes down towards Ansermanuevo. One particular day Akis and Ross broke ahead of myself and the rest of the gaggle and flew all the way to Ansermanuevo to top land for a coffee before embarking on a flight back towards Apia. I led the rest of the gaggle almost all of the way before just missing the last climb for the top landing and heading down to the valley to complete another great day.
With the first group we made a wonderful cumulous fuelled flight back to San Pacho 55k from Apia landing together to the welcoming committee of our local friends, shouting our names as we approached the landing.
A huge thank you to all our pilots across both tours for making Colombia once again an amazing trip with memories we will treasure forever.
Next year we will be doing it all over again, so if you want to come and meet our friends in San Pacho or break your PB head to our trips page and book your place.