El Penon is a world class and reliable xc flying site, located right next the relatively low cost, picturesque and civilised town of Valle. There are even a few great tourist activities in the area. Famous for its strong conditions, and reliable convergence, this is also a training destination due to possibility of mellow early morning and evening flights. There is also a flying site just above town that offers soaring which we won’t cover.
There are already plenty of good guides on Valle. The most complete and useful we found is the one on paragliding forum; http://www.paraglidingforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=45048. The Flumen website offers similar but also more up to date information on transport. And Cross Country magazine has the best description of what else there is to do in the area, and the classic routes to fly. Therefore this blog is to share some of our personal experiences that may provide additional useful information to pilots and companions!
How to get started?
Comparing to Colombia, Valle is much more technical to fly for us. There are certain known routes that work best and some thermal triggers that just work better than others. They may not be all obvious without some local knowledge or practice, for instance where crazy thermal and the g-spot is – though this remained a mystery to us as it is to many! How high the cloud base is, where the complex winds are blowing and where the convergence sets up on the day will mean some routes work better than the others. If you have some spare budget but limited time in Valle, we would highly recommend Marko’s xc course (see the Flumen link above) for the following reasons:
– Good guide to clients ratio: The maximum number in the group is six and Marko encourages and teaches how to fly in a group and help each other along the way.
– Marko always tries his best to ensure that those who are struggling can catch up with the group by giving advice and encouragement on the radio and flying down and guiding us back if necessary.
– Route planning is part of the course and we had detailed route briefed and programmed into our gps with radio updates on the way according to our progress and conditions.
– Marko is always considerate to personal needs – for instance knowing that Al wasn’t so comfortable in rough air, he warned him in flight that ‘crazy thermal’ was indeed crazy that day and to join it high if possible!
– Theory combined with practice: Besides flying as a group, Marko also offers thorough theory classes under the very good APPI scheme which not only helped us refresh some critical xc basics but also gave us some new insights and an understanding of how the weather and terrain works in Valle and how to best fly it. After the course, we were able to check local weather, study conditions on the day and more confidently design our own routes. Just beware of Marko’s ‘Turkish’ coffee, which though nicely strong as required after a long flight to get us through the theory, isn’t the most refined! :p
Where to stay:
The landing in Valle is near the lake at the end of ‘5 de Mayo’ street. If you don’t want to walk far from lake landing in Valle with your gear after making it back to town from an xc, try to stay close to Santa Maria church (close to landing) rather than in the center of town. There are plenty of nice hotels / posadas in Valle. For budget options, you can ask around the landing and see if there are local families willing to rent out rooms. We got very lucky and the first family we asked rented us a room with our own bathroom and kitchen for 300 pesos a night.
Getting to launch:
A private taxi from Valle to launch costs around 150 pesos at this time – though they’ll often try to rip off ignorant foreigners! So if you are traveling with a group or sharing with other pilots, it is the cheapest option. If you are alone, you can also get rides from tandem operators dotted around valle: Some meet at lake landing (in Valle), some in front of their paragliding shops. A return trip to El Penon with them, including pickup form the piano landing(right below the El Penon), Penitas or the Jovan restaurant where people often end up congregating after a flight, costs around 120 pesos.
We found the locals are extremely friendly and never had trouble hitchhiking, although it’s worth noting there are areas where we were warned away from landing as dangerous (for example, the flats beyond the antennas) . The taxis sometimes may try to charge you higher than normal price. If you landed around the main road linking El Penon to valle, it’s best to take ‘collectivos’ where you share taxi with others: they are just as fast as private hires as people just get on and off on the road. I was only unlucky enough once to sit next to a chap who smelt like he was allergic to water! From the mid-way town El Fresno, the price to Valle is between 15-20 pesos. If you land at the piano landing below El Penon and miss the group transports, it can be a bit slow. To get back up to launch can cost 150 to 200 via the rare taxis, or you can walk to the main road through the landing area to catch a normal cab. The family who owns the taco stand sometimes kindly offer rides to get stranded foreigners back to the main road.
If you have your own kitchen, there is a farmers’ market right in the centre of town! Offering a wide range of fresh but cheap local produce. There are a couple of tortilla shops which is also our favourites in town. Try the cactus: it has oakra texture and a bit lemon taste. It goes well in stews or fried eggs 🙂 trying local fruits we have never seen before is also fun! Vendors often offer free samples and good cooking advice. The Sunday market seems to have the best varieties on offer.
For eating out, our favourite is the taco stands near the market: they open for lunch and dinner. At 17 pesos a taco, fresh salsa, simple salad, grilled onion and a good selection of sauces are complimentary! For a change, there are also some restaurant in the market that offer tasty local dishes: they are great for those who do not read Spanish as all food selections are on display! You can just point and order. All tortilla you get are freshly made in the tortilla shop in the market. We always went to the one right next to the tortilla stand and the owner speaks some English. Most of them only open for lunch though Mexican lunch seems to continues until five pm!
Valle is also the best place to continue the Icecream after flight tradition: the local homemade icecream comes in many flavours and can be found in most shops.
Other things to do:
There is plenty to explore around Valle on non flyable days. You can hike around Nevado de Toluca (an easy day trip from Valle) – some also fly there from El Penon! Or visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary: we heard it is best to visit in early morning when the tourist crowds haven’t arrived yet. We did not go in the sanctuary but on our way back from Nevado de Toluca, all the butterflies were flying on the road and we just stopped on the road and watched them in awe! You are more likely to be flying most of the time though:) Enjoy!