Paragliding over Valle de Cauca
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!
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.
Looking back at Los Tangues Take-off
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.
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.
Getting Ready on Pico
- 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.
Landing in the Stadium in Roldanillo
- 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!
- 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!).
- 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!
The People (and their animals) who Made us Feel at Home
- 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!
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.