(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 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)

Epic South American Adventures… by Bus

While searching for some games to download for one of our countless epic S. American bus journeys, I was surprised that one of the most popular games in the Google play store here in Brazil was “Bus Simulator”, a little less popular being “Bus Simulator 3D” – I suppose it just goes to show how the South Americans love buses! However, I decided to stick with solitaire for now…

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A typical cramped cooperative mini-van (usually only travel once ALL the seats are taken)

I honestly find it hard to believe the days (actually weeks now) we’ve spent on buses on this trip – anything from comfortable new double-decker sleepers, to antique creaking, squeaking local mountain village buses complete with a cargo of cuey (guinepig) food and smelly cheese brought in by an equally smelly passenger. I do hate bus travel especially on the longer routes – the dirty, busy stations, the seemingly endless waiting and being forced to eat so much junk food and truly awful coffee. I never set foot in one in the UK if I can help it, however it’s unavoidable here and especially for us as carting around paragliders and camping gear means that internal flights are impossible or very expensive. Without this problem and on long routes, flying is actually often cheaper and obviously faster, but it does also lock you into a schedule (which we normally needed to keep more flexible) as you have to book in advance to get these cheaper tickets. We were the only dumb ones to take the entire 30+ hour trip from Salvador to Rio in the bus!

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No, not a dead body in the hold – just the driver taking a nap!

While night buses are an efficient use of time and help with accommodation costs, they are not at all nice in my view (though Xioating, being able sleep anywhere at any time enjoys the excuse for extended rest!). For some reason they always turn the air-conditioning to the max in Colombia and Brazil. This can catch out naive travellers like us (despite the warnings in the guidebooks) who can’t comprehend the Arctic temperatures these buses can achieve and hop on without changing from our 40 degrees tropical clothing. After spending one very long shivering sleepless night like me, you’ll learn!  The view is of course limited to the frequent glare of passing traffic and the occasional town lights which (for me anyway) makes the time go very slow, and it is sometimes scary – like our breakneck rally race into the Colombian mountains on a bumpy winding road where all you can see is the dim outline of trees rushing past as the bus bounces and slides around the corners. In Colombia especially, you also have to just try to accept the blind overtaking of lorries around corners to preserve the hard won momentum.

On the plus side, buses here are generally pretty good (certainly better than in the UK) – they’re mostly cheap, numerous, frequent, nearly always have friendly drivers who help with luggage and are mostly comfortable especially in Brazil and Peru (though nothing could really be comfortable over 24hrs!). And like flying, there’s often a choice of class including sleeping seats which go quite flat, for a price of course. In Colombia the WIFI was great (better than any place we stayed at) and seemed to be in nearly every bus, even mini buses. Brazil in contrast was rather disappointing – all our buses advertised WIFI but it has absolutely never worked even in a top end sleeper bus. The drivers just shrug and walk away if questioned about it. The WIFI in Peru only occasionally worked.

Day buses can also offer the opportunity for some extensive daydreaming (and even blog writing!) for those like me. Though not to be counted on, we’ve also been on some truly beautiful and spectacular roads which you’d just miss if flying over it all.

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El Cocuy milk truck (stand in the back and dodge the milk being poured in)

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Our very welcome ride in the back of a government official pickup truck in Colca Canyon in Peru

Occasionally situations called for alternative transport to busses if there were none available. In S. America it is quite easy to hitch a lift in or on whatever might be going your way which is often free or maybe for a small donation. This included; the El Cocuy milk truck in Colombia (a fun but smelly, incredibly slow and roundabout way to get up and down the mountains), motorbikes, supply trucks, the back of pickup trucks, in various cars/taxis and rickshaws and once Xiaoting got a rather slow and uncomfortable ride in a peddle powered ice-cream trike! All these trips were interesting, but not always the fastest or most comfortable means of transport!

Bus Travel Advice

On our travels, we learnt several hard facts the hard way, so this summary should help you get there a bit more smoothly and with a bit less stress:

In Colombia and Peru buses stop almost anywhere (except for the long distance express or tour buses of course). In Brazil they will only stop at designated areas in town, but will stop at random places out of town, though on hi-ways it’s best not to count on it.

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Our fun ride up to the paragliding launch in Roldanillo in Colombia

We heard stories of bags going missing from buses from overheads and the trunk, so keep an eye on it if you can, and keep your baggage tag and tickets safe. In Brazil (and sometimes Peru) the system is very secure – they check your ticket, then put a tag on your bag and the corresponding sticker on your ticket so they can be matched up later. Colombia was only sometimes this thorough. For the posh long distance buses in Peru the baggage system was very fussy but secure requiring an airline-like check-in system, but at other times on other busses there was no tags or security at all.

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Expect flat tyres, but don’t expect any spares even in smart-looking buses like this one in Colombia

For night buses, wear long sleeves and socks, take water and maybe something for a pillow. But some of the up market buses in Brazil and Peru provide a thin blanket and a pillow, water and some snacks which they’ll mostly advertise, but there is no such thing as up market in Colombia, so you need your own. We found sleeping bags a comfortable solution to combat the cold. I also had an eye-mask (stolen from a plane) and headphones which were useful to block out some of the bustle of people getting on and off or the loud TV speakers in some Peruvian busses.

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Landslides like this one in Peru are not uncommon

In Columbia the buses double in price for national holidays so try to avoid these if possible, though for us on this length of trip, it was not. And during holiday periods also beware of different, limited or non existent schedule as we found on Boxing Day in Colombia! Also in Colombia and Peru we were often overcharged compared to the locals when getting on local buses (though this was not normally much). We found the trick was not to ask “how much” but to simply hand over what you think it should be (if you have a rough idea!) Companies often vary in price, speed (number of stops) and comfort if they serve the same route, so get advice on which to take, though it’s normally pretty obvious as in the bus station – it’s the company with the biggest queue! And though not necessary in Colombia, for the long distance routes in Brazil and Peru you must have your passports ready when booking and boarding or they won’t let you on.

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Roadside repair of suspension in Peru

Book early if possible to get a good seat – the very front on bigger buses is good as you don’t have some annoying person squashing you as they put their seat as far back as possible and you are more likely to get a view out front. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do in advance about that damn kid behind you who enjoys repeatedly kicking you in the kidneys unless you sit in the back. But this we do not recommend as the ride is normally very bumpy indeed in the back and the toilets can start to be unpleasant after a few hrs on the road. Especially in Colombia don’t be surprised if your booked seat is taken though, but we found that people will mostly move if you wave your ticket at them and stubbornly wait!

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1st of 2 flats in 10 minutes in Peru

Don’t count on a schedule, especially on the longer routes. Though departures can be on time, arrival times are aspirational at best (if not; no earlier than) and seldom achieved. Our supposedly 16hr bus from Governador Valadares to Salvador in Brazil was 2 hrs late leaving and arrived in Salvador 4 hrs late. Also, the local cooperative mini-vans typically only leave when completely full which in our experience can mean a 30+ minute wait. Flat tyres are common because of the tyre and road quality – In Peru our taxi had 2 flats literally in the space of 10 minutes! And I’m frankly amazed that in Colombia that we only experienced one flat tyre, but it did delay us a good hour as the bus had no spare and we has to go to a repair shop. Landslides are also common due to the rough and ready road building techniques, and a couple of times we came to an extended stop to wait for our road to be built!

All in all, we had some fascinating if sometimes uncomfortable bus journeys in S. America and in any case, what choice do you have…!?

Hiking the Colca Canyon to the Valley of the Volcanoes, Peru (26-29 May)

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Looking back into the Rio Achacota valley and the Sabancaya volcano smoking on the right

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest in Peru at 3270m and is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is very wide with many different layers with very varied topography from active volcanoes over 6000m high to the white water of the Rio Colca itself.

Though most people choose to do guided group trips in the Colca Canyon, hiking the Canyon and indeed from there to the Valley of the Volcanoes solo and without a guide is very possible.

The main tourist routes in the Colca Canyon from Cabanaconde (the town where the majority of the Canyon trails start) looked easy to us, though this is just speculation as we chose to do something different. Those paths looked a bit dull with all the trekking tour groups treading the same routes in a long line. So after a bit of research and obtaining a contour map in Arequipa (the main entry town for the Canyon) we decided on a 3 to 7 day trek west from Cabanaconde in the Colca Canyon to Chacas or maybe Andagua in the Valley of the Volcanoes where there is night bus back to Arequipa.

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Colca Canyon

However, hiking off the tourist routes is not straight forward: The map we obtained “Canyon del Colca” a 1:100,000 scale contour map printed by Edicions El Lector, though undated proved to be truly ancient but nevertheless essential. Many marked paths are now roads (sometimes even paved!) and many paths no longer exist or follow different routes, but we supposed the mountains and valleys are still mostly the same!

Local advice along the way is also essential but not always very accurate: Some Spanish is required to enquire on a route to find out where it goes and if its currently passable. And a decent amount of skepticism is required when asking the time a route will take to hike!

We considered getting a guide (apparently found in villages for the following day if you ask) on some sections we thought looked tricky, but in the end we did the whole route solo due to (over?) confidence gained in conversations with locals!

Hiking this route could be tricky and it pays to be prepared: Sometimes the paths were confusing in their numerosity or nonexistence, and sometimes we needed to cross icy-cold rivers or tread carefully around the edge of recent landslides. We did also get lost on a couple of occasions, but our experience navigating in mountain terrain helped us get back on track! We were well acclimatised to the altitude, but the route does go to 5200m so be prepared to walk slowly and watch out for signs of altitude sickness. Also the depths of temperature at night surprised us after being at similar altitudes in Colombia without as much problem (for example; water even inside the tent freezing!) so try to be a bit more prepared than we were! And two days before we intended to set off, a big snow storm came over which everyone said was unusual for this time of year (dry season!). We were grateful that it cleared and we had perfect blue skies, though it led us to be flexible with plans just in case we had to head back.

Remoteness has its benefits though – we found ourselves walking nearly all the paths with only the company of the wildlife – bliss!

Day 1: Cabanaconde to Choco

Duration: By foot: 9+ hours or drive to Punte (bridge) (about 1/3 of the route) and by foot: 4-5 hours

Difficulty: Easy (but local advice on the initial route required)

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Track to Choco

A supply truck leaves from the main square of Cabanaconde to the bridge across Rio Colca every Wednesday and Friday at 0700 at the time of writing (but the schedule seems to change frequently so inquire at the shops on the square). We discovered later they are currently building a dirt track all the way to Choco so in future it may be possible to drive all the way – ask first!

Trusting the locals estimate of 8 hours to hike to Choco, we started our hike at 0600. The start of the trail is very hard to find without a more detailed map than we had as many trails to surrounding villages in Colca Canyon start in Cabanaconde. Ask locals for detailed directions if you want to hike, but watch out as their descriptions are not always so clear! We were lucky enough to find a local farmer while scouting out a route the previous day who used to be a guide. He spent more than half an hour describing the route to us!

The trail heads west out of the town: Follow the route to the Mirador Achachiwa which is signed from the square and ask locals to put you on the right trail head.

Follow the wide stony trail west, ignoring shoot-offs going off to the left, until it goes down to cross the small river in the valley. Once over this, ascend west-southwest towards the eucalyptus tree line. Some parts of the trail here may appear to be a small stream, but keep on it and you will reach two small pools on your right. Turn left uphill here and shortly you will reach a crossroads where you should turn right to take the path that goes between two hedges. The trail then meanders along west-northwest to eventually join the dirt track (still a footpath on our map) that the supply truck takes towards Choco. Turn left on the next junction (the right turn heads towards Llahuar).

We meandered a little uncertainly through the interesting and varied farmland of quinoa, potato, maize and barley until descending into the Colca Canyon. The trail traverses through some lovely countryside of the Colca Canyon which is seldom visited by tourists and friendly farmers offered help with directions.

Once on the dirt road, we started our descent into some of the deepest parts of the Colca Canyon with views of the wild river below and snowcapped mountains in the distance. The road meanders lazily around but you can find short cuts down some the ridges. The view is amazing as the canyon walls close around you and the vegetation and geology changes. Condors may thermal high to keep you company while lizards escape behind rocks and you are surrounded by cacti and blooming wild flowers. It is a very different experience than the Oasis hike as the canyon here runs even deeper and it is seemingly untouched by the tourism in the rest of Colca.

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Humming bird restaurant on the trail to Choco

As we ran out of shortcuts to shorten our journey at about 3.5hours in, we started to realize that this trek could be hours longer than the locals said! Before we had time to contemplate a plan b, a pickup truck offered us a ride in the back to the bridge. Later we found out that they were government officials heading all the way to Choco! To our delight, we got some picture time at the new bridge built for the future dirt road all the way to Choco and continued with the truck up the other side of the valley as far as the under-construction road goes. We were fully expecting to walk this whole section (especially as we didn’t know how far the road went) so this was very fortunate indeed.

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Track to Choco

The grand scale and the incredible depth of the Colca Canyon stunned us as we carefully followed the small gradually ascending footpath, tightly hugging the walls of the canyon. Looking down, the Colca river continues to carve the canyon deeper, rushing down and turning green or brown in the changing light. There isn’t much vegetation here except on some abandoned Inca terraces. There are some traces of old Inca trails and lots of cacti and alien looking trees with few red or green leaves hanging on as a last goodbye to the wet season.

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Clothes line in our designated camping spot in Choco

The trail suddenly turned right and the greener Choco Canyon opened in front of our eyes. You can see some Inca terraces on the almost vertical slope opposite (those crazy Incas!) which later merged with other terraces currently in use by the Choco farmers. It is in this lusher canyon that we found the village of Choco (2473m) tucked away where the canyon splits into two, under the foothills of some awe-inspiring snowcapped mountains.

People in this remote town were very welcoming and helpful. We camped in the football field of the local school with access to the sink and toilet and could even dry our clothes on the goalposts! A local lady saw us setting up camp and give us some apples. The entire villages kids were very excited about these visiting “gringos” so it was hard finding some peace until the teacher eventually ordered them all to go home at dusk!

Day 2: Choco to Rio Achacota via Mina

Duration: 10 hours

Difficulty: Moderate – negotiating river crossings and small landslides

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Rio Chalza Valley

There are three routes to Chacas from Choco; the one via Mina up the Rio Chalza seemed to be the recommended route of most locals, another goes up the mountains more directly which not many seem to use, and the third bypasses the mountains and follows a river directly to Chacas. This last one is the least strenuous and does not require camping at altitudes (locals say it can be done in ten hours, but we couldn’t comment!)

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Bye bye, were leaving Choco…

Determined to see the mountains, we headed up towards Mina. The route gently climbs up an impressively narrow and deep river gorge, sometimes on the left, sometimes right of the river. A couple of the crossing points via rough stepping-stones are tricky and I had to change into my sandals and brave the fast flowing freezing cold water. The river attracts much wildlife including a family of green parrots having a morning bath, torrent ducks (which seem to enjoy swimming in the fastest flowing sections!), big humming birds hovering over the currents and two different types of dippers (small fat birds which take dips in the river to feed). Condors and eagles also frequent the sunny canyon walls.

Sometimes the path had been washed away by floods or covered by landslides and had been remade which made it sometimes unclear but there is no uncertainty of the general direction in this narrow, deep gorge. For us it was always possible to find a way even though it could be a bit concerning passing under some rather loose looking boulders overhanging above, or treading gently along a narrow scree ledge above the water. But its probably best to ask in Choco on the state of the path before setting off.

As the river valley comes to an end approaching some magnificent snow mountains, you can find Mina (~3600m) – a sleepy little agricultural village with families ready to host hikers for a rest after the five hour (supposedly the locals do it in 3!) hike from Choco. But we decided to press on to camp in the Rio Achacota valley which took us another five hours (but I was not feeling on top form so it may take others less). The trail starts from Mina (not before as is marked on our map) and locals will gladly point you in the right way. You could also hire guide in Mina.

The start of the climbing zigzagging trail is easy to follow but it then mingles in with multiple cattle tracks. Climbing and following the general bearing which our old trail map indicated on these intermittent paths, we arrived at the top of the ridge (~4600m) despite one small detour when we were tempted by a large but unmapped path! As we climbed up, alpine wild blossoms of the valley turn into an altiplano ecosystem where cactus and cushion plants dominate the landscape. We saw deer and condors with a range of snow peaks as our backdrop as we climbed. Nearer the top, you can even see Cabanaconde and the surrounding valley in the distance.

At the top of the ridge, the Rio Achacota valley revealed itself with a range of snow peaks including Cerro Cerani looming over it. There is an enclosure with a small hut inside near the river where we set up camp and took a much needed albeit cold rest before the bigger climb the next day.

Day 3: Rio Achacota to the foot of the Laguna Encante valley

Duration: 8 to 9 hours

Difficulty: Moderate/difficult – technical navigation and 5200m altitude reached

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Sabancaya volcano (most active in Peru)

We set off at 0700 as we needed to ascend from ~4300m to ~5200m then back to 4400m on the other side of the Cerro Cerani pass. Our water froze solid as we set off but luckily the path was heading towards the sunny side of the valley so there was much motivation to get there fast!

There are still cattle grazing at 5000m (purify your water as they graze upstream) and there are no clear footpaths as the cows reshape the rocky high mountain terrain as they wander around. We used the map to get our bearings and just picked the easiest looking route up towards the peaks. As we ascended past the multicoloured barren hills towards the looming snow capped peaks, views of the Colca Canyon started to reappear to our backs.

Hiking up to 5200 m pass

Hiking up to 5200 m pass

We could see some vicuña (wild llama) grazing on the hillsides in the distance. Always wary of us they would move away – clearly not aware that even if we wanted to get closer, the high altitude reduced us to a slow trudge with the minimum of deviations!

Our orientation was limited by the lack of a clear path and little detail on the map, so we were pleased to find our chosen route met up with a nice path up to the mountain pass at ~5200m where we finally got views of the Valley of the Volcanoes in the west as well as amazing views of the snow mountains in the east.

Cushion plants all around

Cushion plants all around

Walking down to the river was straightforward following a path which was mostly clear, but sometimes split up into multiple zigzags down some scree sections. But once down, things didn’t seem quite right – it turned out that we’d climbed the wrong pass according to the path marked on the map!!! It was all good though as we had rejoined the ongoing route at a high altitude meadow, we had just gone over a pass which went to the south instead of to the north of Cerro Cerani!

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Hiking down towards Valley of the Volcanoes

We made our way along a wide dirt road (also marked as a footpath on our map) passing vicuñas and viscachas (plump furry rabbit-like rodents) hopping around boulder fields and with an occasional condor cruising far above as we made our way towards our intended camping spot near the village of Umpallaca. However, the village turned out to be a long uninhabited ruin (did we mention the map was old!) so we settled for a nice spot near the road and river at the foot of the Laguna Encante valley with views of some snowcapped mountains one way and the Valley of the Volcanoes in the other.

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vicuña grazing at 4500+ masl

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Small Lake below 5200 m pass

We set up camp and started cooking, but my normally trusty Primus stove puttered out and wouldn’t restart. I figure it’s the “gasohol” (petrol with a small % of alcohol) I’m trying to run it on – the only liquid fuel available here. Petrol is the most horrid fuel as it stinks, is dangerously volatile and it seems that especially with alcohol added and at this altitude it burns very uncleanly and inefficiently and clogs the stove with soot. So dinner ended up being 2 very small cold sausages each, tomato paste and popcorn, with a little precious chocolate for desert!

Once the sun dipped below the mountains it became very cold so we retreated to the tent only to find Xiaoting’s sleeping mat had sprung a leak. Eventually giving up trying to sleep with the freezing jagged stones sticking in her, she squeezed into my sleeping bag – barely both covered it was a very cold and uncomfortable night but we both managed to sleep a little!

Day 4: The foot of Laguna Encante valley to Chacas

Duration: 5 hours

Difficulty: Easy

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Looking down at Chachas and valley of the volcanoes

After our disturbed night we woke to find our water frozen in the inside of our tent, it was COLD! Though the dawn light on the mountains across the Valley of the Volcanoes was beautiful we packed up in super quick time because we couldn’t cook breakfast and before we lost ALL the feeling in our fingers!

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Valley of the Volcanoes

Today was all downhill but the trails from the foot of Laguna Encante as shown on our map first took some finding. There is a little used trail which goes through the barren rocky terrain on the north side of the river and takes a more direct route compared to the new ascending and winding road. Then we had to take a small detour to find a place to cross a small but fast flowing river to then rejoin the dirt road which now replaces the two footpaths shown on our map.

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Viscacha enjoying the sun

As the track descended, it gave us amazing views of the big lake next to Chacas with its huge gravel inflow and the impressive Valley of the Volcanoes. Beneath a large snowcapped mountain lies a huge valley dotted with several perfectly shaped cinder-cones which are 200-300m high. About 200,000 years ago, these small volcanoes erupted when the lava fields were degassed – read more here.  The track does get a bit tedious however as it snakes back and forth without making much progress down towards Chacas below, so we sometimes cut the corner by making our own way though the rocks and cacti and later we found a couple of lovely but rarely used paths which saved us much time and allowed us to better enjoy the changing vegetation and views. Higher up, rock fields (complete with many viscachias) interspersed with grassland turns slowly into large cactus and many different flowering bushes carrying almost overwhelming scents and attracting buzzing bees.

From above, Chachas signaled one small step towards “civilization” with a modern looking square and even a bull fighting ring. But in reality, the town still runs at a very rural pace. When we arrived just before noon, there was only one restaurant open and the only shop in town opens at random hours. Based on our research online, there’s suppose to be a 1300 daily bus to Andagua but it seems that buses now run only at 0200 and 0800 in the morning on some days (as a local put it: “it all depends”!). After asking around, someone in the square offered us a ride to Andagua at 1700 in a supply truck. As the major path (~5 hours) to Andagua was flooded and as we did not fancy the alternative ~6 hour walk on dirt roads, we decided to wait. But of course, things run on Peru time here: After the driver manually filled up the tank with 5 buckets of diesel, loaded the back with squeaking guinea pigs and potatoes at 1730, the truck was parked up very neatly as if to stay for a while! We joined the locals indulging in the main entertainment in town – sitting on a bench chatting! In fact, the most active resident in town was an old man slowly walking around town all day with the help of two sticks. Getting cold as the sun set, we eventually retreated to the cab to keep warm.

At last, at 2245, a mere 5.75hrs after we were told we’d leave, and almost 12hrs from when we got into town, the two drivers appeared. They at least now agreed we could join them for their entire trip to Arequipa, not just to Andagua which saved us a night in hostel and a night bus the following day. So with the three of us uncomfortably crammed into the two passenger seats we set off on the supposed 12hr trip – gulp.

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Uh oh, no suspension!

As we left, it turned out that even the normal road out of town over the big gravel lake inflow was flooded and it would have been a very long walk out indeed, so perhaps the wait was worth it…? But the truck ride was not without incident – one of the leaf suspensions came apart on the rough dirt mountain road (which also accounted for our exceedingly numb bums). I think we all actually appreciated the break and after a long period of some dodgy jacking, the jack placed scarily on some rocks to raise it further, whacking the suspension with a spanner, and cutting up an inner-tube with my old Swiss Army penknife (Christmas present when I was about 8!) and by the light of my head-torch to tie the suspension back together, the truck was fixed.

After another 4hr bus ride from where we were dropped off, we were finally back in Arequipa at noon – so at least this uncomfortable ride saved us a days travel!

Other Activities

As well as the trail, these are our highlights not to be missed:

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    Vultures get a good view of the tourists at Cruz del Condor!

    Close condor encounters at Cruz del Condor: It may be busy with tourists early in the morning, but it is indescribably magic to have these vast creatures flying by so close you can almost touch them. Tours operate, but we just took the 0700 Reyna bus from Cabanaconde and then caught the Milagros (Chivay to Cabanaconde) bus (~0900-0930) going back which worked out perfectly for timing on that particular day. We could watch 10 condors take advantage of the morning thermals going up the cliff face to leave their nests before cruising off to find food. Following advice, we also highly recommend finding a clear spot on one of the two lower viewing areas for a chance of really close encounter!

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    Colca Canyon terraces

    Day hike between Coporaque to Yangue: This takes you through some beautiful rural landscape in the Colca Canyon on an easy trail and allows you a panoramic view of layered canyon terraces against snow-mountain back-drops almost all the way. The great news is for such an easy trail, it hardly gets any tourists! I started from Chivay: there are regular mini-buses leaving Chivay near the main square and it only takes 1.5 soles and around 15 mins to get to Coporaque (a sleepy canyon town). Ask around in Coporaque for the trail start and locals are extremely helpful with directions. Once you are on the trail, it is signed all the way to Yangue. The trail takes you past three ruins: an interesting cliff tomb, San Antonio and Oyu Oyu. From Oyu Oyu, you can hike down to a bridge that crosses the river to Yanque where you can get a mini-bus back to Chivay. The whole hike takes 3-4 hours and you can also hike from Chivay to Coporaque which adds another hour although you will be sharing the track with passing mini-buses.

  • Delicious Peruvian homemade food at Cabanita’s Place in Cabanaconde: Instead of paying a fortune for pizzas and pastas at your hostel in Cabanaconde, try this local gem! The owner Senora Gladis Feria speaks fluent English and is extremely friendly. She loves cooking and used to own a small Peruvian restaurant in Washington DC, USA. She moved back to her hometown recently but can’t give up what she loves – cooking great food and sharing it with others! She cooks everything in her restaurant with extreme care and changes the menu all the time. We ate three meals there and every dish was different and delicious! A set lunch menu cost 6 soles and a set dinner menu costs 7. You can taste her dedication to cooking Peruvian food in all her dishes! A must try for all those who visit Cabanaconde.
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Giant Hummingbird

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Local wares for sale at the 4800m pass from Ariquipa to Chivay

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