Roldanillo Update (Dec ’15-Jan ’16)

Under protest, against the barrage of my Wife’s very angry Spanish learnt on our trip last year, Avianca eventually gave us compensation for leaving us stranded at the airport last year. Since this was in the form of a discount for another ticket with them, we decided to use the excuse to go back to Roldanillo, Colombia this Christmas to what is definitely the best XC flying area we’ve ever been.

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Cauca Valley looking West from the East side

Conditions

Last year was a bit rough for our liking, but since everyone we met said it was unusually rough, we were hoping for some of the ‘huge smooth thermals’ we heard talk of. However, the biggest El Nino year since 1997 meant droughts across Colombia and some of the strongest conditions flying they’ve had – damn it!

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Going South from Pico

Drought meant water rationing from about 1200 until 1800-1900 which really isn’t great when you come back from an XC in a hot bus!. We only got one day of rain which is unusual especially in December which would normally be 1 day in 3 of rain. In fact the best conditions we had were in December.

Strong conditions meant the mountains (on the West side of the valley where the Rolda takeoffs are) can get rough, but the climbs could certainly be great (my max sustained was 6m/s which looks like the clouds are falling past you!). The days generally started early, Pico was often working at 0930 but normally best about 1000ish.

We were there for almost a month and every day was flyable and XCable!

Getting up to take-of

IMG_2822This year there were few times people congregated in the square to catch a lift, instead the routine was to wait in front of Cloudbase hostel where a jeep and a pickup would leave every day at 0830ish taking tandems and hostellers. You’ll need to get there at least 0815 if want best seats i.e. not hanging off the back near the exhaust fumes, though sitting on the jeep roof does give the best views!

 

IMG_2866If you speak Spanish, contact Jose Manuela if you have a group of 6+ pilots and cloudbase trucks are full. He is a very reliable, responsible and nice driver (we travelled with him for both years). He invites all his passengers to his lovely finca right next to the Cauca river for tour and dinner (for free!) every year just because he is that nice! He is also building his finca into a nice guest house so he can host pilots. his number is: 3218394995. Do say Hi for Xiaoting and Al if you see him! 🙂

Price this year is 7,000-8,000 COP/PP for Pico and Agua Panela; 10,000 COP/PP for tangues. You can also take local buses with Occidente to Agua Panela: check with the bus station for timing and price.

Take-offs

P1160144Rolda is definitely getting more crowded, for good reasons! (where else can you get to fly daily, sometimes for 6 hours and have reliable cheap retrieves). Pico is currently the most popular launch; it has more house thermals which are less rough comparing to Tangues and its easier to clear the power lines comparing to Auga Panela. But sometimes there could be 50+ pilots packed tight on the very small launch and it is not often relaxing especially when thermic cycles came through irregularly between back-wind. XT is not so confident at forward launching and could find it stressful sometimes.

Some days the land owners at Pico charged a fee for using the launch: 3000 COP/PP; Los Tangues is also 3000 COP/PP but in December, the aunch was mostly deserted as everyone swarmed to Pico and no one bothered to charge us anything the few times we were there. Agua Panela is the only launch that still remains free. This year two comps were held there so they even cut the grass on the launch.

Landing

A new grassy landing field next to the one that I used last year to the South of Rolda is available. This one has a small windsock which is handy in the unpredictable winds but it is 2000 COP to land there, but only if people are there to collect it! The old landing field is still free and a section has been cleared of vegetation so its very nice.

Retrieves

We found that the main Rolda bus company Occidente is stopping less regularly for pilots hitching on the road. Were not sure if they changed their policies or if is that they are always too full (though it didnt seem so!). However there are some other companies and hitching (normally free is still pretty easy). Bus prices haven’t changed.

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Getting there

Not on a budget this year, we can tell you that a normal taxi from Cali to Rolda is 240,000 COP each way which would fit up to 3 pilots depending on luggage. A mini van is 260,000 COP in which is very spacious for 4 pilots.

Other useful stuff

A local SIM card (a new number) in Roldanillo costs only 6000 COP. MOVISTAR works well in the area; you can then charge money as much as you want to your number. Some shops has a minimum 6000 COP charge requirement, some don’t. We found that if you charge more to your cellphone, the more economical it is: 10,000 COP last us about 3 weeks when 5,000 COP only last us for 2 days (although the shops may not tell you this).

There are more and more families renting their rooms out to pilots. The one we stayed in costs 35,000 COP/night for two people with shared kitchen, balcony and private bathroom. It was very close to Cloudbase and the square and we could see Pico and Tangues from the balcony. 🙂

Have fun out there, just remember to be wary of the back-wind and strong conditions especially in the mountains. See our blog from last year for more details.

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Fun with clouds!

Bonus section: friendly locals and fun retrieves!

What makes Roldanillo amazing is also the most sincere, friendly and generous locals you meet. We had so much fun landing out this year. Just remember to learn some basic Spanish and greet the lovely locals with smiles! Below are a small selection of this year’s highlights:

Jan 18th: Diego, a vet lives in tulua, saw me land and came to give me a ride after he finished vaccinating some cows. He invited me to his house and introduced me to his family. His family offered me lunch, fresh towel and a shower at their house and a tour around tulua. Diego gave me his number and address of his house in case I land near tulua again!

Diego

Jan 14th: Local kids guided us to a waterfall for a fun swim after landing (one kid even carried my glider all the way! )

waterfall

Jan 9th: An old lady came to help me pack when I landed in her field and invited me to lunch at her home. She lives with her two brothers and one sister. Rest of the family have moved to the cities but they enjoy the quiet countryside. They gave me a tour of their farm and picked loads of fresh grapes and guava for me to take home. The old lady finds hard to pronounce my name so keeps on calling me ‘my love’ and gave me directions to her farm to visit again. She insisted carrying all my heavy gears to the road and made sure I got on the right bus. I left almost in tears as she said “everyone around the world should be friends” ” you have a family here and take your husband back here to visit any time!”

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Jan 6th: I landed in a sugarcane plantation. Many stopped working to keep me entertained. A giant sugar cane truck happened to be heading back to Roldanillo just when I packed up. The whole plantation waved me goodbye as I rode on the almighty truck! No one dare to mess with my retrieve vehicle today.

 

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Paragliding Cerro Sacro near Cusco, Peru

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Xiaoting enjoying views of  the Sacred Valley of the Incas

Link to video: Flying the Sacred Valley

Introduction

Cerro Sacro near Cusco is probably the most established XC site in Peru. It’s not that Peru hasn’t more sites, its more that the flying community is so small you may well find yourself on your own if you go elsewhere. However, you could join the small but active Peruvian pilot community on one of their frequent gatherings at other sites for a friendly competition, clinic or festival where the more is very much the merrier.

Flying here can be full on but the rewards are well worth it with views of the Sacred Valley of the Incas (Machu Pitchu is just out of sight!), several Inca ruins, and the truly impressive snowcapped mountain range to the north. Caracaras and other birds of prey can also be found enjoying the area, but sadly no condors any more.

This site has complex and often strong conditions, it is high altitude and is also not officially recognised by the airline traffic that frequently fly close. Therefore it shouldn’t be flown without good active flying skills and a good dose of self preservation – I personally had a very close call here flying too close to the mountain requiring a low full stall to recover. Most importantly, we strongly advise only flying it for the first time with an experienced local present to give a thorough site and weather brief.

However, chilled out morning and evening flights are possible, but in the evening watch out for strengthening winds and the restitution can be strong so some decent techniques may be needed to get down while you can still see.

A small and friendly group of local solo and tandem pilots regularly fly here, contact Casa Elena Cusco for more details.

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Restitution flights can give fantastic views of the mountains at sunset

Getting There

Cerro Sacro at 3864m amsl is about an hours drive from Cusco past the town of Chinchero. It is possible to get a cheap ride in a cooperative minivan to the rough dirt track which goes up to launch. It takes about 25 minutes to walk up from the main road. Or ,you could take the cooperative to Chinchero and then get a taxi up to launch. However, it’s much nicer to get a ride with the local pilots if possible.

Launches

There are 3 launches on the main hill at Cerro Sacro an another at Valle Sagrado Incas – the mirador (viewpoint) closer to Chinchero. We can only comment on the top and lower launches at Cerro Sacro as we did not fly from the others though the Valle Sagrado Incas sounds very technical…

Top launch (512 m above the zipline landing field)

This is a nice large grassy/dusty sloping area just in front of some communication towers. It is big enough for about 6 gliders to lay out. Watch out for the power lines just behind launch that you could potentially get blown into if the conditions get strong.

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Top launch

Lower launch

This is normally used later in the day when it normally gets too strong to takeoff safely at the top launch. It’s a very large gently sloping grassy area big enough for ground handling. It was being ploughed up when we last visited butthere are alternative areas. Watch out for the zipline going passed to the right forcing your first move after takeoff to be a left turn only!

Landings

For Cerro Sacro there are two commonly used landing areas and many safe alternatives in the huge flat farmland plateau.

Conditions can become dangerously strong around the landing areas later in the day and because of this it is not recommended to land in the village football field surrounded by trees. However, while we were there it was normally OK until midday, but the wind on the ground could become strong and changeable and dustdevils common – rather unnerving if you’re still flying!

Village field

This is a very large roughly square grassy field right next to a village. It is further away than the zipline field so normally used if you know you have a lift back up the hill. It sometimes has livestock in but this never seems a problem as the horses/cows/sheep etc are docile or tethered. If you’re lucky, some of the village kids may come out with improvised windsocks which are invaluable for a safe landing!

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Kids “helping” Xiaoting pack her wing

Zipline field

This landing is often used as it’s the closest to launch and so takes less time to walk back up if no lift is available. It’s a large grassy field with the one major fault of having the near invisible zipline going straight though it. It is unnerving landing here but possible to be safe if you mentally make a straight line between the obvious start and end points of the line.

Dust devils are frequent here :/

Dust devils are frequent here

Weather Conditions

The main flying season is from May to July in the dry season, but it seems possible throughout the year looking at flights posted online.

For us most days we visited the site during the first half of May it was flyable, but this ranged from being (rarely) great with bubbly clouds at a 5000m base to flat grey skies or impending thunderstorms – leading to a rather short dash down to safety. Local pilots said conditions are normally more consistent at this time of year and bases can get above 6000m!

On flyable days the normal takeoff for us was between 1000 and 1200 when reliable thermals could be found but before conditions became too strong to safely takeoff. Otherwise it was also normally possible to fly after 1600 in weak thermic conditions and dynamic lift in the afternoon and often until sunset if restitution set in.

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The Sacred Valley of the Incas

XC Potential

The normal XC direction – downwind towards Cusco is relatively straightforward apart from looking out for the airliners which often seemed to fly through this route…

After gaining height to clear the rotor of the takeoff hill (at least 3 times the communications masts according to local pilots), there’s about 10k to fly over the friendly farmlands of the plateau. After this the hills close in and the land becomes more built up which is as far as Xiaoting got, but pilots have regularly reached the edge of Cusco. It is not permitted to land in the historic sites such as Sachywaman and landing in the city is not safe because of the lack of landing options and the airport.

Other directions and triangles etc are also possible – see XContest for flight details (especially flights by the local guru Franz Schilter) though flying over the sacred valley itself and near the big mountains requires good knowledge of the conditions there and was not for us personally!

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View from ~4000m

Hazards

  • Zipline to the right of the lower launch and in the zipline landing field
  • Strong thermals
  • Changeable and sometimes strong winds in air and on the ground
  • Powerlines behind top launch
  • Airliners flying below base downwind
  • Dustdevils around plateau including landing areas
  • High altitude flying

My wing felt strange flying between 4000-5000m amsl: Glider speed at these heights increases and everything happens faster including collapses – so be cautious doing those wingovers for the first time! Landing is also super fast which combined with the changeable winds means you must nail your flare as you may be approaching very fast indeed – leave it to the very last minute and make it big!

Also…

There is currently a serious threat to flying as the chosen area for the proposed Cusco international airport is in the same area. Aside from this spoiling the beautiful plateau behind launch, it will make paragliding here impossible. There is some speculation weather the airport building will go ahead as the ground is rumoured to be unsuitable, and also if the opening will close the national airport in Cusco city opening up the possibility of flying here, but in my view the future doesn’t look at all good.

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Plateau downwind of launch (site of proposed international airport)

Paragliding in Governador Valadares, Brazil

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Looking back at Pico da Ibitruna from the South on XC 

General Description: 

Governador Valadares is located in the state of Minas Gerais and in the middle valley of the Doce River 

The best flying season is usually between December to April but the fast changing climate is making it harder to predict as for many places these days. This year, there was not much rain during the raining season and pilots were having cracking flights as early as November although that also meant rougher conditions than normal in December and January because it was so dry.

It can be flyable very early during the day (as soon as the usual morning cloud lifts above launch), but the XC window only seems to start after 11:00 a.m as it can be especially tricky to make the 1st and 2nd climbs. The earliest we launched was 11:40 a.m. On good days, it could remain good for XCs as late as 5:00 p.m. but we also had XC days when the thermals seemed just to disappear as early as 3:00 p.m. If you want to fly locally, you can go up to launch and fly almost any hour of the day provided you can find transport up.

The conditions here can change rapidly from epic to awful and vice versa. One day, there were dark scary towering clouds and thunder near launch, so we flew early fearing a full on storm later. But after successfully not getting sucked into the 2nd cloud and heading downwind on XC to the next cloud, the sky suddenly turned blue, leaving us stranded!

Most XCs head south, following the main tarmac road between GV and Caratinga and the typical northerly wind and where there are regular buses back to GV. However, during most of our time in GV, the wind was northeasterly or easterly and sometimes even westerly and southerly, so it was more tricky to cover big distances. But in these conditions you can set yourself the challenge to do triangles, out-and-returns or explore other routes.

Take-off:

  • Pico da Ibitruna: It is around 45 mins drive (if your truck does not break down, or not turn up as happened to us!) from the town to launch. There is a café on the top and there are bathrooms and water taps, but the opening hours are irregular and it may not open at all during some weekdays, and the water taps may not have water… The launch is a long grassy strip with the road separating the west and east sides. We launched mostly from the west side during our stay there but prefer the east side as it generally seems to work more reliably and be less sinky than the west side. However, there are less bomb-out options on the east side if you do hit sink, and you may struggle to fly around the mountain to the normal landings on the west side! There are many thermal triggers on both sides: even the bomb-out fields on the west side often trigger thermals! There is a rocky cliff on the west side with signal towers sticking out on the top: it often triggers thermals but you want to get to it high as it was often rough and sinky low down.
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Pico da Ibitruna takeoff from above

Landing:

  • Official landing: The official landing is on the far edge of the river, which you reach by crossing the island formed from a split in the river. Locals warned us that there is a restriction how high you can fly over the landing as there is an airport nearby, but you can always loose height over the island and the river before coming in. Its a fairly tight spot which may concern low airtime pilots as you have to loose height above a huge fast flowing river, and then come in over some power lines, buildings and, depending on the wind direction, near a tower block. But it’s actually quite a nice big area and quite fun. There are also normally locals who can pack up your wing professionally for a cheap price. If you hit some brutal sink after take-off (which can happen here quite often) and can’t make the official landing, there are bomb out fields on the take-off side of the river. The bomb-out fields often do trigger thermals however, so be ready for the rough stuff and to make the most of it! There are buses back into town if you walk a couple of km towards town on the dirt track and sometimes there is a even taxi hanging around. We won’t recommend walking back – from experience, it’s a very hot and sweaty 2hrs to the town centre as the only bridge is far to the south!
  • XC landings: Around Pico da Ibitruna, its all rolling hills and farmland, with an occasional little town and grey cliffs as far as you can see and good landing options are quite common. If you follow the main road towards Caratingaon XC it can be hilly near the road especially when you get closer to Ihapim where there are very limited landing options for 10 k or so due to the hilly terrain and the many many power lines! Here you need to get high or be prepared to land on top of a hill or somewhere further away from the road.
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Official landing, mid-right of picture (far side of island from photographer)

Pros: 

  • Reliable flying conditions: During 3 weeks we spent in GV in March, there were only two days towards the end when it was raining and not flyable. According to others who have been there since December, there were only few days within the four months that they could not fly, but its apparently not always so good. Some days may be trickier than the others to cover distance but this can make the flying more challenging and varied.
  • Better potential for big distances: When the wind is northerly, you can follow the main road and go big distances downwind! We got only a couple of days that were easy to fly downwind during our stay, but we managed some large triangles and out-and-returns when the wind was not carrying us down south. It is also a challenging and fun place to go XC: especially the first bit – making it away from the mountain! Climbs vary from almost zeros to about 5m/s which can be rough or smooth. On a long XC you also have to be prepared for some low saves – hanging on in rough weak climbs hoping for the vultures or eagles come to help (which they often do). It’s such a privilege to fly with them and they seem just as interested in us – flying close to check us out, or surfing our wake!
  • Smoother and less complicated flying conditions: GV offered unbelievably smooth thermals for me after Roldanillo! As you may have noticed, we had a lot more pictures from GV and its surrounding sites than Roldanillo. It was a nice change when we do not always need to fight to keep our wings open! Having said that though, in some locations and on some days, it couldalso be unpredictably turbulent, even in light winds, and especially around the take-off. For example, in the official landing on day, we watched a Skywalk glider get low and close to a ridge below the launch and have a really scary cascade of collapses which eventually recovered and they landed in the bomb out field – don’t get too close to the rock-face down low! Climbs could be weird too – mostly smooth in comparison to Roldanillo, but it could catch you out if you were flying in something big and smooth, it could suddenly change to turbulent. Al experienced a couple of parachutal stalls in one gnarly thermal, and also some severe asymmetrics and frontals at times! See our blog on roldanillo for reference. 
  • Relatively easy retrieves if you follow the main road: If you follow the main road between GV and Caratinga, there are buses that will stop for you anywhere and they are often Air-conditioned and very comfortable! There are hourly buses from caratinga to GV and closer to GV, you can also get some more frequent local buses. But they all run less frequent on weekendsbut hitch-hiking is possible and often free. I had one of my best retrieve ever near GV: when a local saw me land and stopped his car, waited for me for more than half an hour as I slowly packing up in the field (as I could not even believe that he could be waiting for me!), fed me food and drove me to my door for free! Motorbikes and even bicycles often offer lifts but they can be utterly uncomfortable with a big glider bag, sweaty hands, and an ill-fitted helmet over the many speed bumps going into town!
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Looking back at Pico da Ibitruna from the South on XC

Cons: 

  • Relatively difficult and expensive to get to take-off: The transport to take-off is not well-organized (apparently due to rivalries between the two clubs that operate here!) and there can be more pilots than available spaces. It generally cost 30 R per person to get to launch (around 10 USD) in one of the organised transports, or taxis are around 100 R from the town. You do need to pick some reliable local drivers for the transport up though; one day our driver simply did not show up with no explanation whatsoever so we missed out on a flyable day! The local club has a bus going up to launch on weekends: 1:00 p.m. on Saturday and 10:00 a.m. & 1:00 p.m. on Sunday for 20 R per person. But it is incredibly slow and noisy and never departs on time!
  • Power lines: There are a lot of them everywhere! Just because you’ve seen 4 going across your chosen landing field does not mean there are not a few more to catch you out! The most dangerous ones are the “home-made” skinny lines hanging very low close to the ground. It is very hard to notice them in the air until you are very low. On one of my flights, I had quadruple checked my landing field only to find in the last seconds a power line hanging 4 meters over the ground right in front of me with one of its poles hidden under a local roof – almost impossible to spot from the air!
  • Hot climate and a sprawling city:  In a way GV is similar to Roldanillo in that if you don’t fly, there’s nothing to do, but its hotter – much hotter! With the Pacific wind, Roldanillo usually gets cooler at night, but GV retains the heat throughout the day and even overnight. It is over 30 Celsius every day when we were there in March and according to other pilots, it was much hotter in December! Electricity is expensive so Air-conditioning is a luxurious commodity. We were on a budget and could not afford an air-coned room and on some nights it was almost too hot to sleep under a fan!

For us, it is also a less friendly place to stay than the small town of Roldanillo. In Roldanillo, all pilots hang out in the town square and it is very easy to get acquainted with locals in such a small place! GV is much bigger and people are more spread out making it a bit less friendly a place for us to navigate around.

  • Relatively higher living costs: 

o    Accommodation: We rented a very comfortable room with a local family for 350 R/week without air-conditioning. There are many hotels in GV but some of them are expensive.  From we heard, the cheapest you can find is probably 45-50 R a night per person with air-con though without kitchen.

o    Food: There are more eating out options than Roldanillo and more diversity of food. We cooked most of the time and there are some good local farmers’ markets but the price for eating out can be comparable to Europe.

  • Beautiful other flying sites and touristy attractions but they are less accessible if you are on your own: There are other nearby sites such as Castelo, Baixu Guandu and Pancas. We flew Baixu Guandu and Pancas which were some of the most stunning places I have ever flown! However, it is very hard to get to launch and fly on your own in those places. See our blogs here for more details. And as Brazil is such a big country, travelling time and costs to get to other flying or touristy destinations is very significant. We visited a beautiful national park south of GV (caparao national park) but it took us 8+ hours and 3 buses to get to the park!
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Pico da Ibitruna from the bomb-out field! (Jurassic Park)

In conclusion, GV is a great XC destination, but a more difficult place than RoldaniIlo to fly on your own. Despite the expense, next time we go we will probably go with a tour so we can fully enjoy the variety of flying the region offers and have guaranteed air-coned retrieves (even if we land out remote!) and air-coned accommodation!

We can’t recommend Steve Barton’s tour enough: Steve is very knowledgeable about all local sites and does his uttermost best to make sure that you are having a great time! And frankly, I never thought such exceptional organizational skills are possible for the male species before I met Steve :p

More details on GV can be also found in our related blog here

More information on GV, other flying sites nearby and Steve’s tour click here

Written by Xiaoting

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

Salt Lake City, Utah Paragliding Sites

There are loads of good sites within an hr drive of SLC and there are some massive sites in Central Utah just 2.5hrs drive away. A lot of the mountains are labelled with a large letter or two to advertise the local town or university or something! It makes identification easy, but it’s perhaps not the nicest way to celebrate having a beautiful mountain at your doorstep! Most sites require car sharing as the launches can be high, but if it’s flyable there are usually pilots with spare seats (or floor space) to help out.

For those who don’t know, SLC is in a huge high altitude plain with the truly massive salt lake in the north and big mountain ranges in the E and W. Most of the flying is on the E range.

Typically (at least while we were there) the wind blows from the S in the morn and goes W/NW but strong by midday, and then it eases off in the afternoon – this is when most of the XC flying happens, though it seems talking to locals that sometimes late morning can work at the right site.

We only flew a few sites, mainly the N Point and Inspo:

N Point
Point of the mountain (or Draper – the towns name) N side is the default location for SLC pilots (unless you count the mostly early morning soaring S side which we didn’t visit – not being morning people!). It’s one of the best set up sites I’ve ever been to with a massive lawn to layout on and a ridge to soar before catching a thermal to “bench up” to the high ridge (900ft above). It seemed to mostly start off being strong and cross, but pretty reliably it would become good between 6-8pm and flyable till dark. Some days we were able to boat around in super smooth light thermals up to 10k ft as the sun was going down! A tricky site to XC from though as being on the edge (point!) of the mountain, you have tricky crossings to the mountains but it is done.

Point of the Mountain N. side takeoff 北点山起飞场

Inspo
Inspiration point “Inspo” launch is a space big enough to lay out 2-3 gliders and a bit rocky and steep in places. The thermic cycles can come in pretty strong but it’s high and a great XC site where you can go N or S along the mountain range, or the brilliant (or crazy!) can go downwind over the 12k ft mountain wilderness. This was our favourite. 🙂

Looking back over Inspiration Point takeoff 灵感山滑翔-起飞场在半山腰

We also visited G-mountain, Frances Peak, and V-mountain in the SLC area which all showed great promise, but we didn’t have much of a chance to properly fly them for various reasons. In Central Utah we flew two of their big and impressive sites; Munro and Cove which we highly recommend!

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