Chapada Diamantina, Brazil (31 Mar – 5 April)


Between the table mountains of Vale do Capao

Arriving after dark on the 7hr bus ride from Salvador, we were surprised to find Lencois, the normal gateway into the park, a very touristy but pleasant little town with many useful shops including a trekking shop where we could find a couple of topographic trail maps. The town also has some really nice, if pricy restaurants. We stayed in Casa Colonial: it is right in the town square and put on a huge breakfast including beiju – tapioca pancakes – yum!

Day 1: Lencois – Vale do Capao

We were planning a 3 day hike past the base of the famous Fumaca waterfall to Vale do Capao. Unfortunately, the local who we found to show us the start of the trail took us to the start of the northern-most trail, the “conventional” trail (as locals call it) between Lencois to Vale do Capao. We realized this fairly soon but we decided to continue on this lovely path and visit the falls later. However, this turned our planned 3 day trek into a 1 day rush because of our relaxed start! Luckily the trail is well walked, has a gradual climb at the beginning and is quite flat for the rest. Reportedly, the Fumaca trail and the Vinte e Um waterfall trails are both steeper and harder to navigate on your own – we heard it requires scrambling or possibly even rock-climbing in sections.


Sandstone landscape

The scenery on this walk is quite unique – lots of flat sheets of sandstone, sometimes with thin soil supporting short shrubs, cacti and flowers. It’s pretty dry here at the moment, but there are still a few streams if needed to top up water supplies.

We didn’t see so much wildlife apart from the millions of lizards, a few vultures and eagles and humming birds. We were warned its snake season, but we never saw any – they must be very rare, or maybe its just another ploy to try to get us on a guided tour!

The trail goes 18k to reach the 4k dirt track that leads into Capao. We started around 10 am and just managed to finish it before sunset (but that did include a 30 minute detour when we were seduced off the path by some paths around a camping area!). We could have powered through into Capao but instead camped at a lovely spot just outside “town” near a large clear stream. Though not marked on the map, the site has good views of the surrounding rocky terrain and many have camped here before. There are also couple of campsites earlier along the trail including a lovely one near the river which looked perfect for a swim.


River next to a camp ground

Day 2: Capao – Fumaca

It is a 4k hike from where we camped to Capao on a dirt track. There is not much scenery so we hitch hiked half of the way and then based ourselves in a lovely pousada (Cantagalo Eco Adventure) which has nice rooms, camping spots and a good kitchen. It is just 5 mins away from the trail head of Fumaca waterfall and about 20 mins walk to the main town centre.

We chose to take an easy day and hiked to the top of the Fumaca Waterfall which is the second highest in Brazil .Its a lovely and easy walk (about a 4 hour round trip) although the start looked like it may be very slippery in the wet. The waterfall is stunning, even now in the dry season there was some water going over and it is quite amazing to see how it evaporates before reaching the bottom as it falls down the sheer Cliff Drop 340m below.




Fumaca feed water

Day 3: Capao – Gerais Dos Vieira

We decided to take the west-most and highest trail into Vale do Pati. There is a 6k dirt track from Capao to the start of the trail in Bomba and walking it would not reward you with anything much except for dust from passing vehicles, so we decided to spend 15 R$ each for a motorbike taxi. It was terrifying to hare down the very bumpy track at speed with no helmet, our sweaty hands desperately trying to hold on, but the drivers were good and we both survived. XTs driver was feeling especially pleased with himself for overtaking Al’s bike towards the end!

The trail first crossed a few streams, which we imagine might require a paddle in the wet season, then climbed up through forest and eventually opened up into sweeping grassland (actually mostly mini bamboos) dotted with wild flowers and framed by hills. In places you could get a true 360 view of this vast landscape – truly spectacular. We were hoping to swim in a pool near a waterfall, named Purificacao, but either the path to it is very unused, or the map is wrong (not the first time) so we could only admire it from above.


Big spaces!

It was only about 9 k to the campground (marked on map and easy to find for a change) which we reached in 3 relaxed hours. The campground was great: there was a small waterfall going into a large pool complete with little fish, a couple of lime trees, and a wattle & daub hut complete with a fireplace. The pool water however was dark dark red like most of the pools in the park we saw. It gave Al the creeps but we both swam and it was nice to swim under the waterfall for a much needed shower! We were visited by a group of very colourful blue/green birds, some tiny marmoset monkeys, a big bat and a tiny blue humming bird which was very sociable and hovered in front of us for a while when we were cooking. And as sun set we were treated to a show by hundreds of glow-worms.


Playing with fire

Day 4: View of Vale do Pati – Toca do Gaviao

We continued on the west-most trail, which first climbed the west slope of the valley and then stayed on top of a ridge nearly all the way. The trail starts by the stream that is crossed to get to yesterdays campsite and is a bit of a chaos of eroded paths crossing several wet bits – search around the west side of the stream crossings for the path! We had grassy hills on our right and stunning views of the valley’s table mountains on our left as we travelled south to Vale do Pati. The vegetation and the views constantly changed with wild flowers dotted in the grassland and glorious purple and yellow flowers lighting up the lush green valley. We saw some truly weird plants too – seems it can be both boggy and extremely dry here with extremes from mosses to cacti!


Vale do Capao

We hiked about 14k and got to our campsite around mid afternoon. Our campsite was a cave where we’ve pitched our tent (again marked on the map and fairly easy to find). It was not as spacious as the night before but offers a view of a range of rocky hills between the vegetation and the company of some cheeky over fed little birds looking for crumbs. We climbed the rocks above the cave, dodging cactus and observing some of the alien plants up close. As the sun set and we watched our view turn red, we used the nice fireplace to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Later, the bright almost-full moon lit up the valley and we joked it was light enough to walk by (and certainly it would have given us a better view than the next day!). It was very peaceful with just a few bird, frog and monkey calls lulling us to sleep.


Camping caveman style!

Day 5: Toca Gaviao – Cachoeirao – Vale do Pati (Ponte)

We woke up around 5:30 a.m. to a mist that concealed the chirping birds 5 meters away. This persisted as we set off to the waterfall marked on the map as “Cachoeirao”. The layered sandstone terrain and the strange vegetation surrounded by the fog made it seem very alien! Luckily there were some chalk arrows on the rocks to follow as there were no landmarks. In some places the arrows were pointing in multiple directions but we followed the thickest, clearest arrow, which consistently gave the right direction.


Alien landscape

As there was not much information we could find about the park except about the Fumaca waterfall, we had no expectations about Cachoeirao and even thought it could be a small dried up waterfall we walked past as we headed on to find the trail that should lead us back into the valley according to the map. So we were stunned when our path abruptly dropped vertically away more than 100m beneath us! When we arrived the mist filled the valley so we were happy just admiring the four waterfalls dotted around the high cliffs dropping down into the valley. Then slowly, the valley opened up in front of our eyes as the sunrays hit it through the thinning mist and we could see more of the high cliff faces in the distance and the awe-inspiring narrow gorge around us – it was purely magical!


Cachoeirao waterfall valley

We were still high on this serendipitous dose of the wonder of nature when we set off to find our way down into the valley (marked as trail No. 15 on the map). But after an hour going to and fro following various conflicting and increasingly indistinct arrows in this landscape of countless natural paths of bare rock interspersed with shrubby vegetation, we could not find the trail. So, before we got lost completely, we were forced to retrace our steps about 4k and then get down to the valley from the west end of the park. Though long, this was a beautiful hike and led us onto some trails that offered views of both the west and east end of the valley and the table mountains. The vegetation in the valley is more lush and we saw a variety of vegetation distinctly different from in the high ground. There were also more exotic birds and butterflies including many groups of beautiful green parrots that fled in mass making very loud noises when they detected us getting close. Here there are a few local homes that take in tourists, but they all seemed very packed so we powered through to the north-end of the valley all the way to a bridge (ponte) that marked the start of the trail that exits the valley to Andarai.

We had walked 8 hours in total (including the hour trying to find the elusive no. 15 trail) and about 25 km. But our very tiring but scenery-charged day ended well when we found a nice camp spot just past the bridge (marked on the wrong side of the river on the map but easy to spot as you trek past the bridge towards the southeast). We went for a sunset swim in the cooling water of Rio Paty with the beautiful cliffs either side of the valley as our backdrop. No one was travelling past, so we cooked and ate our dinner on the bridge as we dangled our feet over the large river rushing past. We then laid on the sunray soaked surface of the bridge as the full moon rose up to light up the whole valley and dim the stars.

Day 6: Vale do Pati – Andarai – Lencois

This was a 14k hike with the first 4k climbing gradually 400 m to a pass. It was a great way to appreciate the changing vegetation between the valley and the hills: Lush tropical forest gradually becomes shorter and drier and it gets easier to get the last glimpses of the beautiful valley from different angles. Beyond the pass exiting the valley towards Andarai, the landscape gently drops away to the flatlands in the distance and we could see patches of wetlands between Andarai and Lencois. It almost seemed surreal that those deep gorges, high cliffs and lush valleys existed just few km west of here! The terrain became increasingly dry with lizards whooshing around cactus and bromeliads covered rocks. And close to Andarai, we entered a landscape of gigantic conglomerate rock formations, made up from naturally cemented pebbles and where the diamonds of the park’s name had been found, making us feel we were walking on a different planet!


Looking back at Vale do Capao for the last time

According to locals in Andarai (an interesting former diamond mining town), there is one daily bus departing from Andarai to Lencois and the departure time varies between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm. We missed it of course but luckily met another 2 travellers and shared a taxi back to Lencois, which cost 160 R in total. Though it is possible to hike along a dirt track (about 25k) back to Lencois it did not sound worth it based on information in Lonely Planet.


Bromeliad and cactus invasion

Notes for trekkers

Multiple day hikes in the park are completely possible without a guide. Lonely Planet gives very limited and out-dated information in this regard. However, local guide agencies in Lencois are hostile towards independent hikers and wouldn’t give us any information. With the trail maps we purchased in Lencois (“Trilhas e Caminhos” and “Trilhacerta”) and a compass, we enjoyed a six day trek around the more easily accessible North end of the park starting in Lencois and ending in Andarai. The scenery was amazing on all the trails and full of contrasts: from rolling grasslands to tropical jungle, high cliffs and alien looking cactus covered rocks. We hardly met anyone on the trails and always had the beautiful camping spots to ourselves.


Tourist map of the park

The Trilhas e Caminhos map is probably the best you can find and gives the basic information you need to navigate but it isn’t very accurate or detailed and does not mark all the points of interest or camping spots in the park. Some of the campsites are marked in the wrong places and some of the trails marked can be very hard to find on your own (if they even exist any more!?). Also, beware that the map isn’t quite aligned North up! Compared to the other one, the Trilhacerta map has more detailed contour lines, marked couple of trails more accurately. However, it has very little other information and is missing many of the trails marked on the other map. The trails though mostly well walked, are generally not well-marked and it’s easy to miss junctions if you’re not looking out for them. A few more difficult parts of some trails are marked with chalk arrows on the rock and the occasional cairn. These are mostly helpful, but sometimes confusing so beware – at one point we encountered arrows of various styles pointing north, south and west!

We trekked in the park from March 30th to April 5th and there were still loads of other trails, waterfalls, wetlands and caves we didn’t have time to explore. It was very very hot and mostly dry, but it did rain heavily in the night a couple of times and we were lucky to avoid the thunderstorms in the valley on the afternoon of our last day.

In addition to your usual trekking gear – don’t forget to take; trail map & compass, water purification, waterproofs and mosquito spray!


Kitchen/dining room Day 6

We had a really fantastic time in this amazing and unique park and highly recommend it to anyone who likes hiking. Also, do go without a guide if you prefer, but be prepared to use your navigation skills and keep your plans flexible!

For a brief intro to the park click here.

Goverador Valadares, Brazil (8-27 March)


Setting off for the 2nd thermal

I’m sitting writing this from a much needed shady tree in the bomb-out landing field (or Jurassic park as Active Edges group called it!). My flight today was a pitiful 15 mins from the top of the isolated rock called Pico da Ibitruna. The strong wind today has made for rubbish conditions despite the epic looking sky. My poor performance doesn’t seem to have encouraged the other guys off either, so I’m just wondering if they will take off or get a lift down… I’ll think chill out here a bit longer in case they come to join me!


Pico da Ibritruna

We’ve had some great flights from Governador Valadares (GV) over the last couple of weeks, but also a far share of short ones due to the sometimes rough, sinky, stormy air etc. It’s been flyable every day and this place definitely has the potential for personal best XCs, but it certainly isn’t easy either – especially the first bit, making it away from this mountain! The local advise is to  “be patient”: the first climb around launch can be strong but the second climb can be hard to find once you get away from the big rocky launch. What worked for me is hang in the weak ones or work as a group to find the second climb.

Pico de Ibitruna

Pico da Ibritruna

In a way GV is similar to Roldanillo in Colombia in that if you dont fly, there’s absolutely nothing to do, but its hotter – much hotter, bigger and a little less friendly. When we were asked by everyone who doesn’t fly where we were going next, there reaction was “Why!!?”!


Goverador Valadares

But the flying is different, after the high Pico da Ibitruna mountain its just green rolling hills and farmland, with an occasional little town and some grey cliffs as far as you can see.

Following the sparse paved roads is the way it’s normally done here – downwind if possible. Climbs here vary from almost zeros to about 5m/s which can be rough or smooth (though never as rough as it can get in Roldanill!). 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). I always feel 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! With landing you definitely have to take more care as its quite hilly and power lines are absolutely everywhere – just because you’ve seen 4 going across your chosen landing field doesn’t mean there’s not 2 more to catch you out! As for getting back the buses are less frequent than in the Roldanillo valley but people always seem willing to give pilots lifts (often free) even to this dodgy looking beardy gringo!


Urubu vulture friend!

Xiaoting and a few others eventually flew off and I’m watching them now, but only a couple got away on an XC – probably too late in the day to do a long one, but we shouldn’t complain – it was yet another flyable day!

Xiaoting got a personal best of 86k on just her 2nd day here! I’m yet to match my best from Roldanillo, but we’ve a few more flying days to come so who knows…


Playing with the clouds! 🙂

Baixo Guandu and Pancas, Brazil (4-8 March)

As a holiday in a holiday, we booked ourselves onto Steve Barton’s guided trip to Baixo Guandu, a beautiful area about 2-3hrs east of Governador Valadares (GV) in Brazil with huge dark rounded granite hills interspersed with grassy hills and a big river running through it. We joined a group that Steve had already guided at Castelo and GV. It was a great expense for us as poor travellers, but it was really relaxing to be in a nice air conditioned hotel, taken up to launch, briefed and picked up wherever we landed!


Looking back to Baxio Guandu takeoff

The flying in Baixo Guandu was great fun even if we were shower (or cunim!) dodging some days. On the first day despite it looking OK at first, the sky soon turned angry with the entire horizon dark with rain as Xiaoting and I were flying and it got suspiciously easy to stay up! We spiraled down to land – just in time as just a few minutes later we were hit by very strong winds (flying rapidly backwards kind of strength) from a gust front, and just packed up our wings before torrential rain hit. We cut it too fine this time… :/ A local pilot had seen us land and after calling us “loco” (crazy) for flying in these conditions, bundled us into his car and took us to a hotel to shelter the thunder storm with an icecream.


Time to run away!

We both flew some nice long flights on our 3 days, and it was a really nice experience to fly with the others – sometimes helping each other out by marking climbs or relaying conditions etc. We would love to come back to this area sometime, but its only really possible in a guided trip as getting up to launch and retrieves would be almost impossible on our own except maybe on weekends as the buses are not frequent and the local flying community is tiny and seems not very active.


Baxio Guandu landscape


Baxio Guandu landscape

Our last day was just the two of us as the other guys had to leave. Looking at the slow start to the day Steve suggested on the spur of the moment that we divert to Pancas, which is an area of concentrated granite hills which could be a scene from Jurassic park!



Clearly no one had flown there for weeks or even months as the track up had some fallen branches and I also think the launch needed a bit of tending too… Xiaoting took off first and as she started climbing out, I made my attempt. The wind was now a little cross and light so despite running all I could, I ended up on an unfortunate trajectory towards some treetops! As you can see in the video, it was lucky that they were bendy, or it would have been a long hot afternoon of untangling lines at best. However, I got through and had a nice if short flight around this stunning area – definitely one to come back to (with a chainsaw!).


Steve doesn’t always look this scary – honest! 😉

Thanks Steve for a brilliant and (almost) stress free adventure which wouldnt have been possible any other way! 🙂

Steve Barton is an British Expat living in GV who runs several guided paragliding tours in Brazil every year:

Detour to the Caribbean Coast, Colombia (11-15 Feb)

[Written by Xiaoting under Al’s account, as again, she could not remember her log-in info]

Roldanillo is great for flying and flying only! So when it poured down for four days and the forecast for the week still looked wet, we decided to take a “vacation” from our flying vacation and head to the sunny Caribbean coast for a change of scenery.

Frankly the coast would not have been our top choice as neither of us are the type that can laze around on a beach for too long. But Colombia’s Caribbean coast has something special to offer: it is overlooked by the world’s highest coastal mountain range- Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta-reaching the altitude of 5775 meters and just 42 Km from the coast. The mountain is revered by the indigenous as sacred and virgin tropical forests tightly hug the foothills. It is very difficult to hike up without local knowledge. Many go for the famous “lost city” (Ciudad Perdida) hike with local hiking agencies. It is a 5-6 days hike and we’ve heard mixed reviews about it. Dreading the mosquito bites, mud and humidity, (mostly the Mosquitos, they just love my Chinese blood and can find ways to suck me dry no matter how many layers of spray I put on!), we opted for 3 days beach hopping and hiking in Tayrona National Park, a locals’ favourite at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.


Beaches are hugged by tropical forests in the park

It is not a park that you want to visit during Colombian holidays as it is small and very popular. You definitely need to dedicate more than a day to the park if you want to get away from the touristy bits and enjoy the most fun parts of the park – beautiful quiet beaches that are not known by many and lush primary tropical forest that is home to 56 endangered species.

Beach hopping: Many of the beaches in the park are not suitable for swimming due to the strong current. But some of those are where you can find some peace and just enjoy the stunning contrast between the beach glistening with fools gold and the turquoise ocean with verdant tropical jungle as a backdrop. Vultures, eagles, pelicans and crabs kept us company on the beach near Arrecifes. We also saw a peccary (a bit like a furry pig), loads of lizards and a big iguana near the beaches. We cooked our breakfast and dinner on the beach while vultures were feasting on a fat eel nearby.




The only official swimmable beaches are La Piscina and Cabo San Juan la Guia. There are also some other beaches on the west side of the park where snorkelling is supposedly better but you need to go out the park and re-enter from the west entrance to access those. We would avoid Cabo at all costs: even in low season, it was packed. And the campground there resembles a refugee camp… Despite the crowd, there is only one restaurant, one shower/bathroom facility and one juicy bar… So be prepared to line up to take a shower, to eat and to pee!! La Piscina in comparison is much nicer with long thin stretch of beach and tourists spread along it. But the best option was a beach we found 5 mins walk from Cabo. It is hidden behind a palm tree forest but there are easy trails through the palm trees that will take you there. Hardly anyone goes there except some snorkelling groups and couple of tourists, mostly passing by. We had the beach mostly to ourselves and even found a private spot among the palm trees to camp for the night. The only problem was there are so many land crabs digging their homes in the palm forest, it was impossible to avoid camping on the entrance of their homes! We found a place with the least density of crab holes but Al still felt a poor crab struggling to get out for some fresh air under his feet at night! Luckily we found a couple of new holes around the tent the next morning so I think our crab safely escaped in the end.


Camping on our “private beach”


Palm forest help hide away our “private beach”

Exploring the jungle: It is amazing how quickly you can emerge yourself in the deep jungle just by hiking inland away from the breezy beaches. Most of the trails in the park is built up to suit the beach-lazing crowds; but the slowly ascending trek to Pueblito, ruins of a pre-Hispanic town, takes you over big granite boulders intertwined with the expansive roots of the ancient forests and offers you glimpses of the less developed side of the Caribbean Coast. We can hear groups of howler monkeys and many different types of birds having fun in the juggle. But they are hard to spot. We were lucky to see a woodpecker with a red crown, a turkey vulture and a mantled howler monkey very close!! (We observed the monkey for half an hour not to his delight. In the end, he stood up, stared into my eyes and decided we were not a threat but more an annoyance to his peaceful alone time and jumped to a lower branch to hide from our sight!)


trail leading to Pueblito

From Pueblito you can hike either to a beach called playa brava or to another gateway to the park called Calabazo. It is about 2 hour and half hike (with breaks in between and time to take in the views) from Pueblito to Calabazo. The trail is well maintained. There are some junctions without signs but you just need to keep to the left. The first half of the trail still takes you through primary forests ( where we encountered the monkey) and the trail follows the spines of the hilly terrain of the forests which offers some unique perspectives that you can’t get in every tropical forests: you could be walking close by to the canopies of some 20-30 meter tall trees rooted in the gullies close by while still enjoying the undergrowth on your trail! The most amazing type of canopy walk!!


There are canopy walks but also trails with tree roots as railings!

Human impacts have already encroached into the second half of the trail. The trail becomes wider; dotted around are farms, villages, burnt patches forests; and the sounds of chainsaw operations disturbs the peace of the forests and drowns out the songs of birds. But maybe that is why we were lucky enough to see the howler monkey as their natural habitats keep on shrinking. We also encountered groups of Kogi people, the indigenous communities who reside in Sirrera Nevada de Santa Marta. They wear simple white ropes, carry traditional colourful bags and live in circular huts made of stone, mud and palm leaf thatched roofs. They were really friendly people and seemed to have kept their culture and way of living despite the booming tourism around their territory and once isolated lifestyle.


Kogi Village

We ended our trip in Cartagena the old town part behind the chunky city walls is nice but very touristy and expensive, there are lots of old colonial buildings and restored buildings and lots of upmarket shops and restaurants in them! There are trains of horse carriages taking some tourists who desperately need some exercise around and causing traffic jams in some narrow alleys. We still enjoyed it though. It’s busy but not too crowded so it’s actually relaxing. We found a free art gallery that had some very nice and interesting pieces in as well as some fun wacky ones.

So the key to explore the old colonial town is just to wander around and, more likely than not, you would stumble upon something you may unexpectedly enjoy. Like how we stumble upon the caribbean coast that reminded us that there are many things we can enjoy besides paragliding!

Los Nevados, South, Colombia (12-14 January)

Were just catching up on chores and resting today after getting back from our Los Nevados trek yesterday afternoon. I’ve got lots of sewing to do as my clothes are rapidly turning to rags, and XT is doing Spanish classes although she is really very good already – of course!

We thought we’d struck gold when we were shown our “room” yesterday evening. It’s part of the same Plantation House hostel in Salento as we stayed in before, but instead of a room with a shared bathroom, were in a suite with garden, kitchen and our own bathroom. This morning we discovered the reason; were surrounded by building works for a new dorm room and were not supposed to use the very well stocked kitchen. The Italian owner is here and popping in and out to make coffee etc, but she and her partner are really nice so although were still working out exactly our place, it’s still very pleasant.

The trek was really fantastic – we just can’t get enough of paramo, so it’s sad to think it will probably be our last visit on this trip. Although we very quickly realised that Lonely Planet was out of date and we really didn’t need a guide, we were in a fun group; Dominic from Germany and Mia from Dominica as well as our great Colombian guide Chucho (his nickname confusingly meaning both Bogyman and Jesus!). He is a biologist working for Paramo Trek who knows a lot about the park and could speak English well. He was fun, professional, and we were later to find out, went out of his way to make our trek enjoyable.


On the way to Tolima

We arrived in the now rather fake and touristy (take note LP!) little town of Salento in the middle of a parade/carnival. Crawling through traffic to a massively busy and noisy bustle – just our luck after bumbling into the Menizales carnival! Anyway, luckily, our hostel was in the edge of town and quite quiet.

The first day we walked the Cocora valley which is mostly pasture dotted with some wax palms which are native to the area and quite ridiculously tall. We quickly got into lovely jungle following a rocky river and crossing many (sometimes rickety) bridges. The jungle is home to countless birds including parrots, woodpeckers (stunningly coloured), hawks, pheasants and of course being Colombia, a wide variety of hummingbirds. It’s funny to notice how so many garden plants common in UK such as red hot pokers and fuchsias are actually designed for hummingbirds!


Many orchids were flowering in the jungle

It was a long walk to the paramo, but it was fascinating to climb up through the transitions slowly – the other times we’ve started off pretty high already, or the land was farmed. You can really see how the vegetation changes with altitude when you pass through it gradually.

After a brief zone of shorter vegetation, the paramo appeared suddenly and was the most densely packed with frailejones we’d seen yet, and so many were flowering – it was beautiful! The wind was picking up as we were walking and mist was sweeping across us, as Chucho said “like the blink of an eye”. It was very mysterious. Apparently when a particular famous gorilla fighter went to the hills with his force to escape the conquistadores they dressed some frailejones in their wool ponchos and sombreros to trick the spaniards that there was an army on the hills! We didn’t see much wildlife up there except a couple of daredevil eagles trying to fly in the extreme wind and thick cloud! As well as some birds and amphibians, there are supposed to be mammals there including rabbits, deer, foxes, but they are now very rare so it would have been very lucky to see any. Also, there are only 6 condors which have been reintroduced after loss of habitat and persecution by farmers in the past.




Frailejone flower

Though there were quite a few people on the track we were mostly on our own, but the La Primavera farmhouse/cabana where we were to spend the night was packed; hikers like us, guides, the farm family including many children, cows, chickens, and of course dogs. It was noisy but entertaining; for example Choocho luckily found the egg that was laid in his bed in the evening, not the morning!


Cattle farm

The second day, we woke early to have enough time to reach the glacier edge at 4800m on the perfectly shaped currently dormant volcano of Nevado del Tolima. It is a shame that the land around the farmhouse is grazed by cattle. This means that there are no frailejones at all and the landscape reminded me a lot of the moors of north Scotland. After a “short-cut” across a bog of bouncy/sinky moss and wading though a river we rejoined a path which passed by some mountains that form spurs of Tolima and the frailejones started populating the landscape again with avengeance – at a distance they make the landscape spotty with their dark stalks and light yellow green furry tops. As we climbed, the vegetation gets more and more sparse and small, and at about 4500m just a few of the mini variety of frailejones, and mosses and lichens are left. It was hard work climbing, not only the altitude that makes breathing so hard, the path turned steep and sandy so for each step, we slid down half a step!

We’d each been provided with a little coca powder made from crushed coca leaves and bicarbonate of soda. Legally sold in Colombia, coca is the traditional treatment for altitude as it helps the body use oxygen. You simply put a bunch of the bitter, grassy tasting powder in a cheek and hold it there. As a first timer, I can tell you it really helps. I’ve walked at this altitude before without it but with, it staves off my normal headache and gave me more energy to walk – amazing stuff. Sadly despite its non-narcotic effects, its classed in the same category as cocain in the UK, so I won’t be bringing any back with me!

Though there were clouds all around us as we climbed up, they dispersed at times revealing the steep sides of the volcano and glacier. We could also see the wreckage of an aircraft  on on the slopes. A pretty grisly scene – the fuselage and tail (of what looks a bit like a Macdonald Douglass DC-? But I can fun no information on what it actually is) clear to be seen quite a way below the wings. Finally, at 4800m we reached our destination, a peak just below glacier height with a great view of the mountain (or at least when the clouds briefly opened up at times). We’d been higher a couple of times at Cocuy, but this walk was definitely the longest, hardest, and most spectacular!


Tolima glacier and some tired hikers, Left to tight; Al, XT, Dominic, Chucho, Mia



To top it off, Chucho fished in his bag and revealed some bars of some of the best Colombian dark chocolate, one 100g bar each – oh yes! 🙂 He also cooked an elaborate vegetable casserole lunch (so heavy to carry!) by a beautiful laguna (which is home to some native ducks) half way down!


Another frailejone

We returned to the cabana for the night and walked down the next day. Entering a into a stunning valley in sub-paramo (the lower of the 3 main classes) – was such a mass of flowers and humming birds! Its hard to believe that though we’ve been walking in so much paramo, this was still so different to what we’d seen before.


Tolima at dusk

We stopped at a farmhouse for some hot soup to be greeted with the scene of a pig being butchered outside accompanied by some cheerful music – not the best way to stimulate our appetite, but interesting to see how self sufficient these farms have to be! Later, on a grassy ledge overlooking the valley, to complete lunch Chucho exceeded himself by bringing out a bottle of red wine (Chilean of course – we tried Colombian wine once and that was enough!) – nice one! 🙂

The rest of the way was through jungle, but our hopes of seeing a toucan (not pelican Dominic!) as guaranteed by Chucho, were dashed when the dark clouds that had been forming turned into a thunderstorm. I’m sure all the toucans were huddled up somewhere relatively dry. Picked up again by one of the brightly coloured Willis Jeep tourist taxis, tired and wet but happy, we returned to Salento.

We found a book that provides a good overview and stunning pictures of Los Nevados in our hostel room. It also tells a great tale of the hard balance between conservation and the livelihood of farmers in the paramo. La Ruta del Condor (the route of the condor) is published by Universidad de Bogota Jorge Tadeo Lozano.             

Los Nevados, North, Colombia (10 January)

From the town of Menizales, we wanted to escape the carnival and explore the north of the Los Nevados National park which is where the biggest mountains and the most glaciers are, however the restrictions due to the erupting volcano Nevado del Ruiz meant that we just did a day trip to the base of a glacier. Ruiz is infamous for the Armero tragedy—where on November 13, 1985, a small eruption produced an enormous mud and debris flow that buried and destroyed the town of Armero in Tolima, causing an estimated 25,000 deaths, so its eruption shouldn’t be taken lightly!


Nevado del Ruiz erupting (mid-right)

We had a nice but long and tiring day going into the mountains to a glacier. It’s the usual hurry up and wait Colombian tour operator timescale; leave at 4am then pick up some others in the group, fill the truck with fuel, spend 30 minutes at a random shop for coffee, and halfway to the start of the walk, eat a leisurely breakfast. Then at the top, wait for loads of other groups to join us in a big crowd to go up the mountain. I didn’t look at the time we actually started walking but it was certainly not early anymore!

As we started walking the various speeds of everyone soon meant XT and I could walk in relative peace, so it wasn’t too bad. To give you an idea of the kind of people here; one girl in our group was wearing pink wellies and we passed a couple of girls on the way down redoing their makeup at 4000m – somehow I don’t think they’d got to the top! Also the scenery was great as usual with paramo. This was slightly different paramo again, not quite the same mix of flora as we’ve seen before, but not quite as diverse. It can’t be compared to El Cocuy of course, but in Cocuy we didn’t have frequent views of an erupting volcano which is pretty special!


Looking back down to a wall of cloud

It was fairly easy walking and a clear path – definitely no need for a guide, but it seems it’s obligatory for this side of the park. At the top, we got to see what a rapidly receding glacier looks like. It is incredible that the glaciers were at altitudes as low as 4,500 meters in 1985 but have now retreated to elevations of 4,800–4,900 meters. I’d forgotten my gloves and the wind was very strong, so we didn’t hang around for too long. In fact, I only regained feeling in my fingers quite a way down after warming them up on a rock!





Fauna in the park is rare but there was a condor flying near as we drove up – but neither of us got the chance to see it. Some French hikers saw a hare up the mountain and I saw a terrified marmot or fluffy rabbit running from us across a dry laguna. And we all saw some big black and white eagles from the truck on the way back so it can been seen if you’re lucky.

It was rather frustrating that despite specifically checking, we were not provided with the lunch, instead starving, we had an early dinner at the hostel we had had breakfast at. And eventually got back to our campsite at 7 (scheduled time was 4). Anyway, it’s Colombia – what were we expecting!?

Medellín Mid-air, Colombia (31 December)

2015 NYE was my most memorable ever, but for all the wrong reasons.

XT and I were having our second day flying with Juan (our host) from San Felix, Medellin. The conditions were perfect, the wind was not too strong and their were strong thermals, so everyone was talking about doing an XC over the back into the next valley.

The three of us were climbing out and just beneath cloudbase when a young girl we were thermalling with flew into XT!!! It was horrific to watch, I was right there but I couldn’t do anything. I was shouting as loud as I could for XT to throw her reserve as her wing was wrapped around the girl, but of course she couldn’t hear and the girl was so wrapped up she couldn’t do anything. The only luck in our favour was that the girls wing was still flying and we were still high.

Mid-air 0

Click to see the Mid-air Video

All sorts of things were going through my mind (all bad) – I can’t loose my wife. I fought to control my breathing as I found myself getting tingly and dizzy from hyperventilating. It seemed an age, but XT threw her reserve perfectly and when it came out it finally pulled XTs wing from the girl and she started descending under the reserve, though alarmingly fast. The girl entered a fast spiral as her lines were twisted but she recovered ok and landed safely.

I was at least not panicking anymore, but extremely worried about where the reserve would take XT – the terrain being rough, with concrete buildings roads and nightmarish power lines. But I watched as she landed in a high tree and it was reassuring to see a local running towards where she was. I made a tricky landing in a nearby paddock and rushed to help.

The tree was massive and on a very steep and overgrown slope – very poor choice of landing! XT was OK – hanging upside down and mostly unhurt – just her ankle was sprained. And I knew she was ok when she was cursing the girl! 😉 The locals were great getting help from the local canyoning school. I was rushing around showing the police where to go, trying to locate Juan and Lina (his wife) to help assist when the branch she was on broke – people who’d come to help or watch were screaming. I rushed back but thankfully XT was hanging safely by her reserve which was still in the top of the tree.

After what seemed an age the climbers lowered her down safely – I’ve never been so relieved in my life. Many many thanks to all those who helped with the rescue, the locals and especially the two climbers who were calm and efficient and got XT down very efficiently indeed.

Later we watched my GoPro video; by luck I was close and got it all on film – you can clearly see the girl trying to turn inside everyone when she tightened her turn in front of XT. An inexperienced pilot flying in an unpredictable manner – we wish we’d been watching more carefully. By luck and by the good reactions of XT, both their lives were saved.

Mid-air 0.5

 Mid-air 1

Mid-air 2

Mid-air 3

Mid-air 4

Xiaotings Account

Conditions were looking good and a group of us were thinking about doing the big cross country flight into the next valley for the last day of 2014!

I caught a weak gentle thermal and was slowly climbing when I saw Juan and another pilot climbing faster near by so I put on full speed bar to join their thermal. I hit the edge first, a bit rough, then adjusted the turn to be inside more with others.

We are all doing big flat turns in thermal formation. When I saw one girl we met on launch doing erratic tight turns inside the formation. I watched her for a bit to see where she was going: she was just a little higher than me and flying in front of me. After another of her tight turns, she seemed to be flying directly away and few wing spans away from me. I thought that I was at safe distance, so I turned my attention to other gliders including my husband to check if I am still in sync with everyone. The next thing I know when I turned my attention back to the girl, she was flying directly at me on a downwind dash!!!! I was shocked and tried to turn away but it was too late! She flew directly into my lines!!!

After that, everything went in slow motion: She was wrapped around in my wing screaming! I immediately checked our height; we were high and as her wing was still flying and we were not dropping that fast. I tried to pull my wing away from her as she kept on screaming but she was wrapped around by the wing so tight that it was impossible. What the fuck!!! What do I do now??!! All my SIV classes were flashing through my mind and it seemed that there is no other option than throwing my reserve. So I waited until I felt both of us were stabilised under her wing, pulled my reserve and threw it as far as I could away from us. It seemed forever until the reserve finally opened!!! But the girl was still wrapped around my wing and both her wing and my reserve were flying! OMG, she could die or we both could die if we go like this into the ground!!! I started pulling my wing away from the girl as hard as I could and finally I heard a pop sound and the girl was freed (later when I was on the ground, I found that one of my A-lines of my wing was caught in the zip in her harness and the line was shredded with all the friction). As I pulled in the rest of my wing as quickly as I could, I saw the girl spiral down, regain her control and fly away – that was a moment of relief! Then I started to focus on the impossible situation I was in: hanging helplessly under my reserve with no directional control, and my sink alarm on my vario screaming on the top of its voice adding the unwanted dramatic effect. I was at the wind’s mercy: there were concrete houses, countless power lines, green pastures, barbe-wire fences, small pockets of forests in the direction where I was heading. I kept on practicing in my head the parachute landing (PLF) if I hit a flat surface and hoping hard that I won’t end up swaying into concrete walls or power lines. It was a bit turbulent down low and I could feel my parachute wobbling. Eventually a small patch of trees were looming large and the impact happened so fast I did not remember much, but I felt my right foot impacting on a branch and the next thing I knew, I was hanging upside down in my harness, my wing under me and me Iooking up at the blue sky and other pilots thermalling past.

Luckily, some local kid saw me land and a whole village gathered around me very quickly. They tried to rescue me but the tree was more than 10 meters tall and on a steep slope with thorny vegetation below. My husband landed near by and it was really reassuring to hear his voice. The branch that was holding me eventually broke but luckily my parachute was still caught firmly in the canopy. A group of local mountain climbers rescued me swiftly. I was on the ground with a twisted ankle, a broken line and a reserve to reassemble.


After the branch broke :/



Track log

Many thanks must go to the climbers who lowered me to safety, please check out their website for some alternative activities to flying in Medellin:.

Some afterthoughts from XT after the video spread wider than we anticipated: Thanks for every one who took time to analyse the video and gave your candid advice. I have learnt  my lessons in many hard ways. As many of you suggested, better look out and keep bigger distance is very important ! Hope this video can keep a healthy debate on how to thermal going and many can learn from it as I did from the incidence.

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!


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.


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.


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.


how the tandem pilots transport wings :p


Disclaimer: Posted by Xiaoting using Al’s account as she can’t figure out how to sign in :p

It was not until the warm summer Lima sun hit my face that it became all real to me: I soon will be homeless and jobless for the next seven months :p

Preparation for this long-haul trip has been intense and stressful at times and we thought we would write up some our reflections for those who may venture out soon:

Balance planning and flexibility for your trip: Some planning is required especially when you want to paraglide and are on a budget. Like prepping for any flying trip, you need to find out when are the good seasons for flying and plan your trip accordingly. XC Mag’s travel guide is a really good starting reference: If you picked a peak flying season for the area, you also need to plan ahead for accommodation otherwise you may stuck in an inconvenient place or paying for more expensive options. For example, Rodanillo in Colombia and GV in Brazil both require some planning ahead.
But you also do not want to overload your plan; your budget would be tight but you have more time! Have a rough plan but also try to go with the flown so you can enjoy any serendipities! Dont stress too much about each days details.

Be smart about what goes into your luggage: The indispensables are your paragliding gear! Then you can decide whether you want the extra “joys” of camping at the expense of extra weight. For everything else, minimise as much as you can. Many daily essentials can be bought trip when you travel. And you will be amazed how little we need to lives on. 🙂

Get your medicines and jabs: Take advantage of health insurance or the NHS (if you are in UK!) the travel clinic will let you what you need.

Insure your travel: Finding affordable travel insurances that include paragliding is tricky and it is even worse when you do not yet have UK residency but live in UK!
For the lucky Brits: our pick is GoWalkabout. It has comprehensive coverage and the ceiling amount in high for emergencies including rescue.
For everyone: Global Underwriters is a good choice. It insures most nationalities and has low premium for paragliding. You can also tailor the insurance including the maximum insurance level and deductibles (copay/excess).

If you are on a budget, rent out your place: Prepping the house ready for rent was the most time consuming task but would help ease your budget burden for the trip. Finding a lending agent will save you a lot of headaches.

Find a way to connect with family and friends when you are away: Internet signal may not be strong enough for good Skype calls and calling home may not be affordable. So condsider blogging! 🙂

Get the advise and help from locals: Reach out to local pilots and there are always some who are happy to help and share advice – another amazing thing about this sport! we have to thank Juan Pablo in Colombia, Steve Barton and Capra mauricio in Brazil, Lucho, Tessa and Romina in Peru and many others who offered advice for making our planning easier.

Find a partner who shares the passion and dream: It’s a big decision to make! And travel always has its ups and downs, especially when travelling in foreign countries where you do not speak the language. A partner who can share the joys and pains of the trip will make it all less scary and much more fun!

Start preparing early! We started the bulk of our preparation in September and created a shared checked list of tasks to track progress. Spread your workload out to reduce stress level then most planning could be part of the adventure itself 🙂 and finding the right partner in crime, who is crazy enough to go through all this with you, may take the longest time to prepare :p

We are happy to share more details with those interested. And we should have more travel tips at the end of our trip 🙂 Stay tuned!

Utah, Chapter 2: Other SLC Sites

I’m lying under a small juniper tree staving off imminent heat stroke just below the big white “G” some way up the side of G mountain just E of Utah Lake listening to the strong thermals gust through the branches. It was v rough flying from Inspo yesterday and it was nowhere near this strong making me a bit apprehensive about flying here. It’s so hot here and the 500ft walk up from the car was not at all shady. The launch looks nice however, so I’m hoping the conditions will calm down enough and I’ll cool down enough to fly in a bit! Perhaps Ill even get to thermal up over G mountain. Were up here with Hal a local instructor who generously invited us on this adventure, CS Ling and Greg with his son. Greg is going to be wind dummy for us on his Carrera – we shall see…


View from G Mountain takeoff

Well, a few flew, but it was cross-wind, strong and unpleasant looking, which of course didn’t put XT off who had a hairy takeoff narrowly avoiding being dragged over rough terrain while flying sideways with half a wing, however she recovered really well from this unconventional takeoff and had a rough but uneventful flight. For me the potential enjoyment/risk ratio was just not large enough, so I walked down. Greg commented it was fun – “really?”, “well, it was the kind of thing thats only fun afterwards!” Anyway, we all got down safe in our own ways! 🙂

Jim and his wife Terry’s (our great hosts) kindly gave us a lift to V mountain which is N of the centre of SLC and where pilots can fly big XCs not infrequently going S to the N Point and beyond. So I (at least) arrived with rather unrealistic dreams. It was slightly unnerving to find a clay-pigeon shoot going on just behind takeoff and again there was no shade on launch. Our expectations dropped further as there was only a very light breeze and it was rather off to the North – oh dear. I had a frustrating “sledder” (top to bottom) after first getting a bit battered about in a tempting little rotary thermal over a gully which was completely not worth the stress! XT however, managed to make it stick and had a good 1.5hr, 9kft 15k XC ft flight which was very good achievement for the conditions and better than anyone else – I’m only a little envious! }:( We picked her up from a nice big school field on the way home. Jim had a similar flight to me, but had Terry taken some cracking photos of us, see below which made it seem as though we all had a cracking day!


XT and Jim over the V


XT and Al being broiled alive on V launch while waiting for an elusive thermal!

One afternoon XT and I found ourselves in a rather hot school car park in Farmington with an excited gaggle of pilots all with the aim of a rare chance of flying off Frances Peak. This is a high mountain for which the takeoff is up a very long drive up a dirt road and requires some organisation for collecting cars on landing. The weather however doesn’t care of the effort and enthusiasm of 50+ pilots and no sane flying was going to happen as when we got up there we could see a massive cold front encroaching. In USA the weather is a bit bigger than in the UK – we had a panoramic view of a whole line of cunims, each massive with regular lightening flashes and a gust front very visibly kicking up dust and water from the salt lake coming in at 50mph according to weather stations. Was no flying was going to occur, we had a bit of time to look around this beautiful mountain before the gust front hit. The flowers up there were spectacular growing thick amongst the holders – it was like a rock garden. When it hit us, it was truly on of those moments to be thankful we were all on the ground – time to leave. Thanks Hal for the heads up again and thanks Adam for lift up in the jeep, and the exciting tour around the mountain top! A non-flying adventure, but an adventure all the same!

Gust front over SLC from Frances Peak launch

Gust front over SLC from Frances Peak launch