Airborne in the Colombian Andes

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My toes were the last to leave the ground. I watched as the earth drifted away from the lime green shoelaces on my hiking boots and my feet met the air. I was flying! My bare legs kissed the sky as the paraglide caught a thermal and we started a steady spiral upwards. We were gaining altitude fast. The dogs barking in the canyon below were now small specks, inaudible against the roaring whoosh of the atmosphere around me. We had shed the earth and we were now suspended in air, thousands of meters above the second deepest canyon in the world, a place where humans didn’t really belong. A large bird flew by and it occurred to me that I never thought I would see a bird this close in flight.

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Swooping above the canyon would have been exciting enough, but based on my giggles of excitement, my pilot thought it was appropriate to throw in some tricks too. We caught another thermal sending us even higher. We were now above all the other paragliders, but not for long, because my pilot pulled the arm of the paraglide deflecting wind from one side of the wing and sent us in a fast, downward spiral. I have never felt G forces like that before. Tears were uncontrollably flying out of the corners of my eyes and my cheeks felt like the jowls of a hound dog with his head out of the window of a race car. Halfway down my pilot pulled us out of the spiral to ask if I was “bueno”. I was. This was the most fun and most sick I had ever felt at one time. Two seemingly opposite feelings were bubbling up inside me. One was a very physical feeling of possible stomach upheaval mid-air, and the other was pure ethereal joy. The joy won over and we did several more tricks in the sky before we began our landing attempts. Paragliding is all weather dependent and landing or taking off can take several attempts depending on the weather. My flight lasted 40 minutes but it took at least seven tries to land. When my feet were finally solidly back on earth and I had stepped out of my harness, I looked to the sky again. I never thought I could be so intimate with the atmosphere. Similar to scuba diving, it feels a little like cheating; finding ways to exist in places we shouldn’t be.

 The view of San Gil from our room

The view of San Gil from our room

 Dancers in the San Gil plaza

Dancers in the San Gil plaza

Later, we loaded back into the van to begin our descent down the narrow, winding road back to San Gil. We had gone paragliding with nine of our new best friends from a hostel we were staying at in San Gil, Colombia. We had arrived the night before to the adventure capitol of Colombia and immediately fell into a group of spirited, adventurous travelers from all parts of the world who had converged here to partake in the many wild and crazy activities that San Gil has to offer. It was a lot like summer camp, every morning we would group together with our sunscreen and water bottles and head off for a new activity, and every evening we would hash out the details of the day’s adventure over Bogota beers sitting on the deck overlooking the gorgeous plaza with our new friends. In addition to paragliding, we also went rafting (me on the class III Rio Fonce and Isaac on the class V Rio Suarez) and explored canyons with swimming holes. Other activities to be had in San Gil include waterfall rappelling, canyoneering and mountain biking.

On our last day in San Gil, we gathered a group of friends to travel to Barichara and hike El Camino Real Trail from Barichara to Guane. The ancient stone path connects the two colonial villages and provides a wonderful 2 hour walk with beautiful views of the foothills of the Andes. Halfway through the walk, we stumbled upon a house with a sign that invited travelers in for homemade chicha.

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Never one to say no to bathtub booze, Isaac and our friends from Amsterdam, Australia and Sweden excitedly pushed open the gate. The seven of us were guided into plastic lounge chairs by a sweet older Colombian woman. Isaac assumed the role of communicator and followed her into the kitchen to pick our poison. She pointed out two open barrels (that were literally under the sink) and explained that one was stronger than the other. In typical when-in-Rome Isaac fashion he chose the stronger of the two and we were each served cups of the thick, yellow slurry. It was nothing like the chicha I have had before in Perú, which is purple and carbonated. This was the color of a slug’s underbelly and as thick as oatmeal. Thank goodness they were small cups!

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We bid our hostess goodbye and set back out on the trail. When we arrived in the quaint town of Guane, the bus back to Barichara had just left. We bought chicharron chips and decided to hang out in the plaza to hash out what we should do.A group of Colombians were hanging out nearby, slamming beers and chatting jovially. One of them broke off and approached us asking if we needed a ride. Isaac and I were the only ones in the group who could speak Spanish so it was up to us. We looked at each other and looked at the Toyota Hilux that he pointed to. The back of the truck had been converted into seats that lined the bed with a roll cage to hold onto. The guy seemed honest so we negotiated a price and loaded into the truck. We careened down the wavy road back to Barichara with vaquero music blasting and the sun setting on the Andes. The perfect end to a perfect week in the adventure capitol of Colombia.

 The largest plaza in South America, Villa De Leyva, Colombia

The largest plaza in South America, Villa De Leyva, Colombia

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 Construction workers, Villa De Leyva

Construction workers, Villa De Leyva

 Villa De Leyva is known for its many fossils.

Villa De Leyva is known for its many fossils.

 They appear everywhere...

They appear everywhere...

 even in the cobblestones in the street!

even in the cobblestones in the street!

 The deserty foothills of the Andes in between San Gil and Villa De Leyva

The deserty foothills of the Andes in between San Gil and Villa De Leyva

 Largest intact dinosaur fossil, Villa De Leyva

Largest intact dinosaur fossil, Villa De Leyva

 Petrified pinecone - so cool!

Petrified pinecone - so cool!

Check out this video if you like nauseating, poorly-made home videos!

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 The winding road to Chicamocha Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world where we went skydiving with Parapente.

The winding road to Chicamocha Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world where we went skydiving with Parapente.

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 Leaving Barichara for the El Camino trailhead.

Leaving Barichara for the El Camino trailhead.

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 Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

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 Our lively group from the USA, Australia, Netherlands and Sweden for the El Camino Real hike.

Our lively group from the USA, Australia, Netherlands and Sweden for the El Camino Real hike.

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Below: arriving in Guane.

Where we stayed in San Gil - Sam's VIP Hostel

Paragliding company - Parapente

Rafting - Sam's VIP Hostel set it up for us

Hiking El Camino Real - catch a bus to Barichara from the local bus station in San Gil and ask anyone where the trail head is. They will point you in the right direction.