The ride of your life – Paragliding in Merida

18 Aug

“Enjoy the ride of your life” advertised a large poster depicting an athletic young couple paragliding high above the Andean mountain city of Merida. We stopped in our tracks and stared at the image of them soaring gracefully in the sky, the wind in their hair whilst their tanned and toned bodies effortlessly manoeuvred the wing above their heads and before we could stop ourselves we were booking our own paragliding (tandem) flight. The reality, as we stood on the precipice with harnesses squeezing us in places not designed to be squeezed while strapped to the front of our instructor like baby kangaroos, was quite different. Red faces, sweaty palms and a total lack of co-ordination as our legs turned to jelly. “Are you ready?” yelled the instructor in our ears and just as we were about to shake our heads, we felt a force from behind and we were running down a mountain before launching ourselves off its steep side.

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The notion of doing something that scares you every day is not something that appeals to everyone. In everyday situations we generally lead pretty routine and safe lives. We get up, go to work, come home, cook dinner, go to sleep, repeat. Life in the slow lane has a tendency to become a little bit dull. One of the things we love so much about travelling is that it takes you away from the daily grind. It pushes you outside of your comfort zone and presents you with opportunities that you may never encounter in the ‘work-eat-sleep’ bubble. Dan and I had tried paragliding once before, several years ago when on holiday in Slovenia, and we loved every minute of it and when we saw the activity advertised in Merida, Venezuela’s adventure sports capital, we jumped at the chance to try it again.

Invented in the late 70’s and adapted from the principles of parachuting, this relatively new sport is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. There are numerous agencies clustered around central Parque Las Heroines who offer paragliding, from short tandem flights to week-long instructing courses. We booked with Gravity Tours who we’d highly recommend for their reasonable prices, quality equipment and experienced guides. The cost worked out at around $30 USD per person for a 25 minute flight (allow half a day for transfers, briefings, flights etc.) so at that price it would have been rude not to partake!

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We were picked up at 2.30pm from outside of the agency along with a couple from Poland. We’d specifically been told not to eat too much as paragliding can play havoc with beginners stomachs but our love of good food got the better of us and we’d enjoyed a two course set lunch just hours before so we hoped it wouldn’t come back to haunt us.

We travelled roughly 40 minutes out of Merida to the bottom of a mountainous valley. We stopped at a small activity centre where we collected our equipment and had our safety briefing. The pilots offered clear instructions in English and had a confidence that instantly made us feel at ease. There was a bar connected to the centre and we salivated over the thought of a cold beer in the heat of the afternoon but decided we’d need a clear head to fully appreciate our ride and we would look forward to returning to celebrate after our flight.

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Back in the van we trundled upwards on dirt roads with sudden drops and no safety barriers. The truck shook from side to side with every bump and we winced whilst turning sharp corners and laughed that perhaps the drive would be more scary than the flight itself! The climb up into the mountains took around 25 minutes. Our driver looked like BA Baracus from the A-Team minus the gold chains, and had a penchant for reggae music which blared out of the open windows and echoed down the valley.

We arrived at a high mountain ridge with beautiful 360 degree panoramas. The mountains were dry and dusty and the predominately brown range was scarred with landslides. It felt like we were eye level with the clouds that circled the mountain tops and we felt the gentle breeze that would hopefully help to propel us into the air.

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Unlike other methods of flying, paragliding requires relatively little equipment and the wing and suspension lines can be folded away into a small backpack, making it easy to transport pretty much everywhere. When you’re the one taking the flight its lack of size might even leave you thinking “is that it?”
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We were given harnesses and hard hats whilst our pilots unpacked the gear. The harness would secure us to the pilot and the wing and would offer support in both standing and sitting positions. It was actually pretty comfortable and similar to a canvas lounge chair in the sitting position. Underneath the seat and round the back, foam protectors were designed to reduce impact on failed landings but we hoped we wouldn’t need to test them out!
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The wing (or canopy) is unravelled first and consists of two layers of fabric, connected internally and forming what looks like a row of cells. The wing is typically 20-35 square metres but is very lightweight and manoeuvrable. The pilot is supported underneath the wing by a network of 5-6 metre long suspension lines. Although the lines look slender, we were relieved to learn that they are incredibly strong.
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It’s really important to take time laying out the equipment and ensuring that nothing is tangled or knotted prior to take off. The wing is laid out behind the pilot, and once harnessed up they run forward into the breeze. This movement and the gusts of wind elevate the wing. The pilot is then lifted from the ground and only after a short safety period can sit into the harness.

Once the set up was complete we were buckled onto our pilots and attached to the wing. They explained that we’d launch by running down a very steep incline and letting the wing inflate above our heads. We were told that paragliding was not like skydiving and at no point must we jump or take our feet off the ground on take off. The wind would inflate the wing and gently lift our feet from the ground before reaching the precipice!! Gulp, easier said than done. 

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Then, before we could change our minds, we were bounding forward and the wing instantly elevated. We felt a huge drag but kept moving forward. I’d often laughed at the cartoon characters who’s legs kept spinning in mid-air even though they’d run off the side of a mountain, and suddenly this was me. I had the urge to sit down into my secure harness but the pilot’s firm instructions kept me in a standing position until we were a few feet off the ground.
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Once we were airborne, the thing that struck me the most, apart from the fabulous views, was the silence. There was no wind rushing part my ears and no thumping heart – just calmness and peacefulness. The world was neatly laid out in miniature below my feet like a patchwork quilt. Farmland dotted the countryside and rivers snaked their way through the valley.
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The pilot moved through the sky effortlessly pointing out landmarks in a very laid back manner. He explained that he was catching thermals to rise through the air and these pockets of upwards air were caused when the sun warms the ground. The pilot seemed to have a sixth sense to find the thermals and each time we caught one the pilot would move in a circular motion to find its core where the air was rising fastest. Passing over ridges in the mountains also gave us uplift as air was forced up over the slope.
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An instrument called a vario-altimeter helps the pilot find and stay in the core of a thermal to control height and to indicate when a pilot is sinking in air and needs to gain more height. The climb or sink rate is announced through a series of short beeps which increase with pitch and frequency during the ascent and deepens to a drone when descending. Neither Dan nor I could work out which noise was more unnerving but couldn’t help wondering just how high could we go? The world record for gain of height whilst paragliding is currently held by a Brit named Robbie Whittall who ascended 4,526 metres during a flight in South Africa.
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The controls to turn are held in the pilot’s hands and connect to the left and right sides of the wing. They can be used to adjust speed and change direction. Flying across the valley it was difficult to judge just how fast we were moving but when we flew over ridges our toes curled as we could see the ground whizzing past below us. The speed range for beginners is typically 20-30 kilometres per hour and for the advanced paraglider can be up to 75 kilometres per hour.

Dan’s youthful pilot had a twinkle in his eye and was keen to impress us with his moves. The spinning motion he was making with his fingers actually turned out to be what laid in wait for them and seconds later Dan was performing spiral turns downwards. This is the most rapid form of controlled descent with a sink rate of around 15-20 metres per second. The pilot had shifted his weight onto one side and pulled on the brakes to induce a sharp turn. The G-force made Dan look like one of those dogs you see with their heads hanging out of a moving car window. Hanging onto his stomach, Dan certainly wished he hadn’t indulged in two courses at lunchtime!

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As the sun started to set and cast whirlpools of colour against the sky, our pilots started to descend with us into the valley. We spent roughly 25 minutes in the air but it had seemed longer. The world below us became more defined as we glided towards it. Our van on the other hand was racing down the unpaved road at top speed to meet us at our drop point. 

At around 10 metres from the ground we pulled ourselves out of our harnesses and into a standing position once again. As our legs dangled below us I started rapidly analysing fields to find a soft and flat landing spot. I’d underestimated the pilot, and with gymnastic grace our feet met the ground, we took up a steady jog and then stopped as our wing flew over our heads.

To celebrate our survival, we stopped at the activity centre’s bar to drink a cold beer before heading back to Merida. For a brief moment we’d become the kings of the sky but even back on terra-firma we were on a natural high that would last a long time. We’d enjoyed the ride of our lives and the only question left was what would we be doing the following day to scare ourselves? Perhaps we’d tackle our washing! 

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One Response to “The ride of your life – Paragliding in Merida”

  1. thetravellush August 19, 2014 at 3:40 am #

    I want to do that! Those pictures are breathtaking. What an incredible experience. And I love hearing about the technical side of paragliding. Whenever I sit and watch paragliders I always wonder how it’s possible that they can go so high and float through the sky for so long. And that world record for height is astonishing!

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