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)