(Barely) Surviving Avianca Airlines

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Long-haul buses in South America can be painful but it can’t compare to the nightmare of delayed and cancelled flights combined with very poor service from the airline. Finding some unwelcome time on my hands, I have taken the chance to write this blog on our experiences!

We had a fair share of air travel during the past seven months and, for one reason or another, we ended up travelling with Avianca all the time. Half the flights were delayed and when things go wrong, the arrogant attitude and incompetency from the staff was appalling. Instead of boring you with pages of accounts of bad service, here are some examples that surprised and frustrated us the most:

  • When our flight was delayed from Pereira to Bogota, the only three foreign travellers (including us) were singled out and forced to go home without any compensation and come back for a flight 12 hours later despite the fact that there were a later connection to Bogota. After much persuasion, they finally allowed us to go on the later connection on the condition that we sign a piece of paper waiving our rights to hotel and food compensation while in Bogota. Being forced to choose between no compensation, or travelling 6 hours round-trip to the airport at our own costs, we signed the papers under duress.
  • We made from Pereira to Bogota only to find out that they wouldn’t let us on the connection to Santa Marta even though it had not left the airport. There were 6 other locals travelling from Pereira to Santa Marta as well and they fought with the airline for solutions. Only after much tears from one of the locals and more than an hour at Bogota airport, we were promised hotel and food. Even then, the hotel shuttle took another hour and half to come.
  • Our flight from Lima to Bogota was delayed 2 hours due to “technical problems” and we arrived in Bogota half an hour before the scheduled departure time for our London flight. Again, we were refused to board while we stared at the parked plane at the gate. The reason is that they insist that we cant board without the luggage they could apparently not manage to get the luggage on the flight fast enough! (Half an hour in the same terminal!!!) Two different staff on two different occasions assured me that I will be able to enter immigration and got to a hotel even after I pointed out that I do not possess a valid Colombia visa anymore. Of course, when we took all the trouble to go through immigration, I was denied access into the country. We ended up being trapped in the airport in Bogota for 16 hours and they changed our flight from a direct one to a connection via Madrid, adding another 2 hours to our travel.

Through various delays, all we got was misinformation and a shrug of shoulders saying that there is nothing more they can do at this point. No apologies at all and no help unless you put up a good long fight for your rights and demand to see their superiors.

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After a sleepless night, we finally found the most comfortable place to spend our (hopefully only) 16 hours trapped in airport!

During our long hours of waiting and agonies in the airports, we can’t help but wonder: how can the airline be so arrogant? Who protects air travellers’ rights?  

  • Travelling from EU with any airlines or to EU with EU airlines: You are in luck! EU laws has specific rules that protect your rights: http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=2211&pagetype=90&pageid=15443 Besides accommodation, food and Internet access, the airlines are obligated to compensate you for the travel delays depending on the length of your travel and the delays. You should try to file the complaint with the airline first. You can also file complaint through CAA or other private agencies that are specialized in air travel compensations.
  • Other cases: Most of the countries ratify Montreal Convention 1999 (http://www.jus.uio.no/lm/air.carriage.unification.convention.montreal.1999/) although the treaty mandates airline to compensate travellers for delays, it does not specify the amount and the means to compensate. Some countries may have their own laws protecting travellers’ rights but most of the developing countries do not! That is why airlines like Avianca treat their clients with utter lack of respect. It is best to travel with reputable airlines so if things go wrong, you are not left at mercy of the airlines. Check the reviews for airlines for the country you are travelling to before you decide.

Travel Insurance: Most policies include some sort of compensation though it may not come to much, but the cover appears to be most commonly (and certainly for our policies) limited to actual expenses occurred for things not provided by the airline. This could include; food, accommodation and taxis to a hotel etc. But it does not normally include compensation for things like; your time and loss of earnings, reduced comfort of travel because you are trapped in an airport without luggage etc. Check the small print!

What to do when thing do go wrong?

CAA is a very good reference: http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=2226. From our experiences, it is also helpful to take photos of the announcement boards at the airport that indicate your flight is delayed and note down the names of the employees who you spoke to.

We hope you all have better luck flying than us! And avoid Avianca at all costs!!

Paragliding in Roldanillo, Colombia

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Paragliding over Valle de Cauca

General Description:

Located on the west side of the Valle del Cauca at the foot of the Cordillera Occidental, the small town of Roldanillo provides easy access to some of the best XC sites in Colombia. Primarily an agricultural region (mostly sugarcane), the north-south Valle de Cauca has highways that run along the east and west sides of the valley and the central valley area is bisected north‐south by the snaking Cauca River. 

The best flying is between November to April and according to some locals, even wet season offers some lovely flyable days. But we had some unusually wet days during our visit between late January and February this year. However on some days, even if it was raining in the morning it could turn into a cracking XC day later. Conditions were still good when we left at the end of February but by then there were not as many visiting pilots.

On good days, flying conditions can start as early as 9:30 a.m. and last as late as 5:30 p.m. Al flew 5.5hrs one day! Normally good flyable conditions started between 10:30 and 12:00, 4 hrs being normal. Although if you have a slower wing like my HOOK 3 (size XS, flown at mid-weight), it could be difficult to cover distance as you often need to fly cross or into wind because you need to cross the valley and the wind can change directions.

Many visiting pilots, including us, had been given the impression from various articles we’d read that thermals in Roldanillo were big and smooth. What shocked most of us is that though there were big smooth thermals at times, on many days conditions could get very rough indeed, and not only in the mountains but also in the flats. You definitely need to be prepared for rough and complex changeable conditions when you visit! For us, we would not have flown Roldanillo as beginners or if we were not current with our active flying. We were glad that we flew some other thermic sites in Colombia and asked many locals for advice before flying in Roldanillo. The complex terrain and afternoon Pacific wind can make conditions change fast and you have to be prepared for it!

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Crossing Valle de Caucau

Main Take-offs: There are 3 locations to take-off around Roldanillo. You can find other pilots to share transport at the main town square (El Parque Principal) next to a juice bar (Jugos). Meet time varies between 7:30-10:00 a.m., depending on the day’s conditions and how many pilots there are. Just ask around when you get into town.

  • Los Tangues: Around 1 hour drive from the main town square. It is a big and grassy take-off; there is a restaurant at the bottom and donkeys/locals who can be hired with 3000 pesos to get your gear up the steep stairs. There are also toilets and water taps for filling up ballast bags. It costs 3000 pesos to access the take-off during the peak season. As this is the highest take-off of all three, when the westerly pacific wind comes in, it impacts Tangues first. During the time we were in Roldanillo, the wind can be blowing from the back as early as noon, making the take-off dangerous, but it mostly came in at about 2pm.
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Looking back at Los Tangues Take-off

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Walking up to Los Tangues Take-off

  • Pico: Around 40 mins drive from the main twon square to launch, or just below depending on the vehicle you take and the track conditions. The take-off is a lot smaller than Tangues (tiny actually – you can probably only lay out 5-6 wings at the same time) and it’s frequented by local tandem operators as access is free. There are also local buses passing by the dirt road to take-off frequently (if you take the local bus, the walk up to take-off is around 30 mins). Thanks to its easy and cheaper access, many pilots prefer this take-off and it can get very crowded during weekends in peak season when more tandems are flown. On some days, we had more than 40 pilots on the take-off, which can get very chaotic. On light wind days (which is almost always the case when we were there), thermic cycles can come through from either side – there were frustrating days whenever I picked a side, thermals decided to come through from the other! Locals say that pacific wind impact this take-off later than Tangues, which makes it a safer bet when the day starts late.
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Pico Take-off and One of the Local Bus that Goes to Both Tangues(mainly) and Pico(sometimes)

  • Aguapanela: This is a much bigger and grassier take-off just behind Pico. Some prefer it because it is not as crowded as Pico and stronger thermic cycles come straight onto take-off while in Pico, it is usually lighter and may not come up at an easy angle. However, part of the reason it is not as popular as Pico is that it is a longer glide to the reliable house thermal (which is right in front of Pico) and you have 2 sets of high tension power lines to clear. We took off from here once and both felt utterly uncomfortable when we barely cleared the power lines before we hit some usable lift.
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Getting Ready on Pico

Landings:

  • Official landings: For Los Tangues, it is a nice grassy airstrip big enough for micro-lights. For both Pico and Aguapanela, the most popular landings are a grassy field just south of the town or a soccer stadium. The latter is often used by tandem pilots, but you could be locked in if there was no tandems operating. But it is possible to climb out from the back of the stadium as Al found, and if you are taller than me (1.56 m that is)!
  • XC landings: There are plenty of options everywhere. Even in sugarcane plantations, there are usually wide dirt roads that you can land in. Watch out for black fields, which could have been just burnt and can scorch you and your wing. Some of the pasturelands have small fences running through them frequently. And of course, watch out for power lines although usually they are not too bad. Its best to always have a Plan B, for when down low, you noticed that your plan A is a death-trap! As many will tell you, be strategic about which side of river you land on. There are only 2 bridges across the river in the normal flying areas so if you picked the wrong side, the return journey can be a lot longer.
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Landing in the Stadium in Roldanillo

Notes:

  • The Pacific westerly wind can bring strong conditions all the way to the east end of the valley. Locals advised us not to attempt landing close to Roldanillo after 1:00 p.m. as you never know whether you would be landing backwards. We once landed near Obando (30 km north of Roldanillo on the east side of the valley) around 2:30 p.m. and after 30 mins, the wind was already blowing enough to make us land backwards. We did not anticipate the westerly wind could hit the east side of the valley so soon so we were both relieved that we landed early! Just keep in mind the conditions can change quickly and the westerly wind can come in unusually early! The ever-present fires in the valley can be good indicators.
  • The wind direction when landing can be unpredictable. Don’t be surprised despite all indications of a particular wind direction, that your final approach suddenly becomes downwind because a thermal is released nearby or there is wind shear. Run like the wind if this happens!

Pros:

  • Potential for big triangles and various XC routes: The wind is usually light so you can fly either north or south along the west side of the mountain range in the morning, cross the valley before the pacific wind comes in, and fly the east side in the afternoon. There are different points you can choose to cross the valley, but to avoid potential long walk out, you can play safe and follow the major roads and bridges.
  • Extremely friendly and hospitable locals: The lovely and generous Colombians really make Roldanillo a place that you’ll want to go back to again! Our landlady in Roldanillo treated us as family: offering us food when we return early, folding our laundry, giving us the best room in her house. The drivers to take-off are all very friendly and are extremely proud when they hear that you are having a good time in Roldanillo! One of the drivers invited us to his farm for dinner and treated us to juices and fruits they grow on their farm. And when he heard that we were craving spicy food, his family even drove to neighbours’ farm and got some chillies for us! You can also find locals offering you free ride after your XCs, and the list goes on! There are not many places I travelled to where people are equally genuine, friendly and generous.
  • Easy, quick and cheap retrieves: The buses are very economical, frequent and always stop anywhere for you, especially on the east side of the valley where there are dual carriage ways. Direct buses to Roldanillo on the east side are less frequent but you can also catch a bus passing Zarzal where there are very frequent buses to Roldanillo. The local bus cooperative Occidente has paragliders and handgliders printed on their buses so it is hard to miss them when you are waiting! Hitchhiking is relatively easy as well and normally free.
  • Relatively low living costs:
    • Accommodation: We rented a very comfortable room with a local family for 400 USD/month. You can also find similar priced rooms for rent for shorter period of time. Always ask if they have hot showers though if that is important to you (Locals only have cold showers, but in the early morning and at nights, this can be a bit hard to handle for those not used to it!). There are many affordable hotel options in Roldanillo as well.
    • Food: We cooked most of the time, and for two people, it only costs about 10-15 USD/day – fresh vegetables and fruits are cheap! The options for eating-out are more limited – for us picky foodies, Colombia food tastes are not that varied and can be too oily, salty and meat-centric!
  • Many other easily accessible flying sites nearby:
    • We only visited Ansenmanuevo, a town 1 hour 15 mins drive north from Roldanillo. (Unfortunately we couldn’t fly it as it was raining!) Like Roldanillo, you can find pilots to share rides up to launch at the main town square. It is a beautiful flying site also located on the west side of the valley. The launch is very spacious and grassy – big enough to top land. There is even a hotel located right next to launch which offers cheap accommodation. Although the road to launch is not as nice as in Rolda so a 4 wheel drive is normally required (though we did just get up in a battered old 2wd pickup it is normally only the Willis Jeeps that come up!).

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      Ansermanuevo Take-off

    • Piedechinche is another site on the west side of the valley close to Cali south of Roldanillo that every one raved about how great it is, but also said it isn’t as good for XCs. From what we heard, it seems easy to get to launch if you are on your own.
    • Other sites in the valley: There are many other sites you can fly on both the east and west side of the valley. Paragliding Earth provides details for many but some of those can be hard to get to if you don’t have your own transportation to launch.
    • Other sites in Colombia: You can easily travel around Colombia via buses and visit those lovely sites one by one if you have time. We flew these two:
      • San Felix (near Medellin) has lovely launches and great XC potential: you can base yourself in Medellin and get rides to launch from local tandems or by buses/taxi. Medellin is about 5.5hrs drive from Roldanillo. While we were there one pilot flew all the way from Roldanillo to Medellin!
      • Chicamocha Canyon: This is a 9 hour drive from Roldanillo, but an easy stop if you are travelling from Medellin back to Bogota for your flight out of Colombia. We flew into Bogota, visited Chicamocha canyon first, then Medellin then headed south to Roldanillo before flying out of Cali. See details for Chicamocha Canyon from our blog here.

Al also made a great video to offer some glimpses of flights around Colombia:

Relatively easy to arrange other touristy activities: Valle de Cocora is only about 3 hrs bus ride from Rodanillo (less than 2 hour drive if you have a car), where you can explore the beautiful wax palm filled valley. Or for the more adventurous, you can hike through cloud forests into the south end of the amazing PNN Los Nevados. For details, see our blog here.

  • EASY TO FLY ON YOUR OWN! All the above pros adding together means that you can easily explore the area on your own!
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The People (and their animals) who Made us Feel at Home

 Cons:

  • Sometimes very rough flying conditions: It can be strong and rough especially close to the west mountain range side where all the main take-offs are located. In a northerly wind, the house thermal off Tangues is in the lee side and it can be rotory! Based on local advice and our own observations, wind directions change quickly and often; one moment you could be flying on upwind side on a ridge, the next, you could be in the lee! The flats can be rough as well. Some days we suspect it was the mixing Pacific and meteo winds, but some days we just couldn’t explain why! Just keep on the ball with your active flying and keep your margins. I know one pilots “rough” is another’s “smooth”, so to put things another way – while we were there, many reserves were thrown and a few serious accidents happened due to the conditions and one pilot from Sun Valley equated Roldanillo’s roughness with the mountains of home. Click here for an account of a tragic accident of a great Swiss pilot happened while we were in Roldanillo.
  • Many loud nights for those who prefer early bed time: Colombians love to party and have many holidays! (They definitely get the life/work balance right :p) Loud music and dancing parties can happen on weekends and weekdays! It is great if you love parties, for those who need our beauty sleep, you would want to find a quiet street for your accommodation or bring your earplugs. Our room unfortunately faced a busy major street in town but by the end of our month stay in Roldanillo, we miraculously developed an ability to tune the noise out!
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Al Enjoying the Last Flight in Roldanillo after a Month Stay

Other things not to miss:

  • Cholado: It is a local ice-shaving desert. There are many flavours you can choose from; our favourite is lulo! A local fruit.) “Fruit salad” is laced with ice cream and mild cheese – a perfect treat after a hot walk out of the landing field if you land early in Roldanillo!
  • Juices: for around 1 USD, you can get a litre of freshly squeezed juice (with milk or without) in Jugos, the juice bar next to where you get your ride up to launch every day. Some of those are the best juices I have ever had! My favourite is again lulo juice with milk, a fruit that is exclusive to the Andean mountains of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Chicamocha Canyon, Colombia (27-28 December)

There is no better way to enjoy the spectacular views of Chicamocha Canyon than paragliding! It was our first flying stop in Colombia. We flew there twice and admired the 2000 meter deep gullies from cloud base!

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looking back at the launch (middle ridge) and the canyon

There is a narrow but reliable window to fly (seemingly everyday at this time of the year): Thermals start to come in steadily around 11 am (around which time the first tandem will take off and be the “wind dummy”). You can usually fly till about 1 pm before the wind and thermals get too strong for top landings (although there seems to be rare days when you can fly till 3 pm according to local pilots). There are bottom landing options but you have to be aware of strong valley winds in the afternoon and it may involve paying for an expensive cable car ride up, a long walk up or hitch hiking.

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Canyon View

Terrain around the canyons are complicated and the landing options are limited, but there is definitely great XC potential for experienced pilots. Local short XCs and small triangles can be easily flown. On our second day flying, we set ourselves a task to fly over a flat mountain top on the far left side of the take off where you can have amazing views of another side of the canyon. The route is about 17 k (over 3 turn points) and about 11 k flat triangle. I succeeded in the end after 3 attempts during my flight and it was very rewarding when I reached the other side. Although it also meant I did not land until 1:30 pm making the top landing bit trickier.

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On glide towards the other side of the flat mountain top

Where to be based and how to get there

The most well known base is the hostel at the flying site Las Aguilas near Bucaramanga run by Colombia Paragliding, but the hostel is extremely expensive for Colombia standards; 40,000 Pesos per night for a dorm bed, 50,000-70,000 per night for single bed and 70,000-95,000 pesos per night for a double! And as it is so famous it is usually booked up for the high seasons well in advance despite its high price. Waking up to a flyable site is great but it also means you are out of town and it is not a convenient place to stay if you don’t have your own transportation and want more choices of food and drinks.

We would recommend basing yourselves in San Gil instead if you want a flexible schedule and have tight budget like us. San Gil is not the most charming Colombian town you can stay in but; many tandem companies go to Chicamocha every day (while in Bucarmanga trips to the canyon are not that often). The tandem companies will charge you 10,000 pesos per person for transportation to and back from Canyon. You can get accommodation for almost half the price the Bucarmanga hostel charges. San Gil is actually closer to the canyon than Bucarmanga (45 mins – 95 mins ride depending on traffic and whether you get stuck behind slow trucks on the windy canyon roads). It has a huge covered farmers market downtown for easy access to great and fresh food. Being the “Adventure sports capital of Colombia” according to Lonely Planet there are also many things to do after you fly the canyon; there is a local site called Curiti that has a view towards the canyon but it apparrently gets windy and crowded with tandems, or if you had enough flying in the canyon you can also visit botanic garden in town (its OK but not great!), try white water rafting, caving or visit some great colonial towns nearby.

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how the tandem pilots transport wings :p

Hiking and travelling in Utah 玩转犹他州

Utah is the outdoor enthusiasts’ dreamland! Within a short span of 2 weeks, we strolled around alpine meadows, meandered through aspen and pine forests, dipped in natural hot springs, slept under the milky way, ducked our head under well preserved stalactites and stalagmites in Timpanogos Cave and dropped our jaws at spectacular and unique sceneries in the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

犹他州是户外运动爱好者的天堂!在短短的2周内,我们漫步高山草甸,徒步白桦林,观赏钟乳石洞,跨越拱门和峡谷地两大国家公园。天然温泉泡澡,银河当被, 完全融入大自然中。

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Timpanogos Cave 钟乳岩洞

The sceneries between the parks were often amazing too and there are actually scenic spots marked along some of the highways for you to stop and take in the view. The speed limit is often 80 mph so you could miss a scenic spot really fast!

在犹他州自驾是非常享受的:五个著名国家公园紧贴着。沿途风景很好。还有路标提醒你沿途值得一停的采风点。很多路段限速130码。爽开!不过飙车同时也容易错过采风点。

Pretending to be an arch in the Arches

Pretending to a Arch in the Arches 拱门国家公园

July probably is not the best time to visit some of the national parks though as the heat makes hiking between 11:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m. almost impossible for those used to mellow European summers. When we are in Arches and Canyonlands, we tried to do hikes early in the morning and late in the afternoon and used the time in between to store up on supplies, drive in between our destinations and eat icecream. LOTS of ICECREAM!

七月份并不是去犹他州最好的季节。(春秋天最好)正午最高温度可以到40摄氏度以上。干热加暴晒。我们习惯了英国夏天平均25摄氏度的天气,只能在早上11点之前和下午4点之后活动。中午时间用来赶路和狂吃冰激凌解暑!

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Sunset hike in Canyonlands 夕阳下的峡谷地国家公园

Around Salt Lake City, it was slightly easier to escape from heat as there are higher elevation trails you can drive up to, cooling caves you can explore and some well-shaded valleys. You can also just enjoy the AC in your car and drive around the scenic alpine loop . Make sure that you stop in Java Cow Coffee for the world’s best Icecream in Park City on your way!

盐湖城附近有一些海拔高或者阴凉的景区。避暑比较方便。你也可以享受车内空调自驾风景秀丽的盘山公路。

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Monroe Mountain near Richmond, Central Utah 门罗山

There are so many hiking options and flying usually won’t start before 1:30 p.m. in July around SLC itself. This somehow laid out a great daily schedule for Al and me: hike in the morning, 1 pint icecream each at noon and fly in the afternoon till sunsets around 9:00 p.m.! (hey, maybe July is the time to go visit Utah :p)

犹他州也是滑翔胜地。盐湖城的伞友就有将近2000人,两小时车程以内场地将近20个。这里小气候很稳定,七月份,下午一点半后可以飞灵感山,六点到九点太阳下山之间可以飞超豪华的点北场地。当地伞友相当好客。但懂点英语是必须的 :p

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Canyons forever! 峡谷地国家公园