While putting on a paragliding harness, I’m staring down at the meandering skyline of Medellín, shivering from the second thoughts. A couple of brave-hearts are already gliding through the sky, some spinning recklessly, the others gaining altitude firmly. I’m envious of their infinite panorama over the green hills that guard the valley of Medellín and the tapestry of the red-bricked roofs below their feet. The urge to see the world like a bird convinces me to push my boundaries: I’ve come this far to paraglide upon Medellín.
Struggling Against the Fear of Free-Flying
My paragliding instructor wakes me up, telling that the weather is just perfect today, as the wind is “only” 22 meters per second. I ask, still nervous if we’ll use an engine. The answer is negative; we are just free-flying. I’m thinking how much skill it would take to glide upwards more than a thousand meters and not to fall down when a sudden blast takes on the light-weight paragliding wing. There will be turbulence, I’ve heard, and I can clearly see how airborne paragliders struggle. What if a nasty blast whisks us too high, or our paragliding wing collapses?
We’ve been paragliding before, but it was more than six years ago in Romania, and I was as terrified back then, as well. But somehow it felt more safe, as we were backed up by a motor, and just descending from the mountains of Brasov – not free-flying upon an enormous valley, and a city, like the paragliders of Medellín. Maybe my fear of heights has grown bigger, or the 1,5-hour bus trip upon the hills, followed by a short, but grueling climb upon the peak just took its mental toll. My head is buzzing, but in the shadows lurks still the old excitement – I’m pretty sure I’ll love the paragliding experience nevertheless, at least when it’s over.
Taking Off – the Hardest Part
I watch how Piritta takes off, seemingly happily. For the next 20 minutes, I won’t let her parachute out of my sight. But just before the landing time I lost the blue and white paraglider wing behind the trees, and immediately, threat scenarios fill my mind. Then they tumble back on the hill top, laughing out loud. Sudden relief is mixed with a flash of horror, as my instructor says that it’s our time to take off.
We walk to the parachute, and the team runs to us, quickly attaching our harnesses into the aircraft. Strong wind beats us down several times before we even try to run off. While trying to run, I fall bringing down the promisingly kiting parachute. The team calms me down just to make me realize who nervous I am. I decide to keep my legs and get this done. Next time, a hearty breeze helps us to take off smoothly. We’re getting altitude quickly, swinging from side to side. Still pressing the metallic sidebars of our paragliding wing, I’m all smile. Taking off is always the hardest part; now it’s time to enjoy the ride.
Letting It Go – My Triumph Over Paragliding
We are floating on the breeze like a bird. I rest my eyes on the vast urban texture of Medellín that wiggles over a hilly surface, evading from green peaks. From the air, it’s easy to believe that Medellín is the second biggest metropolis in Colombia. The neighborhoods of Medellín have such a pleasant small town feel that the city feels smaller when you walk the streets.
Excelling my limits feels amazing, again. Last time I challenged my fear of heights by jumping a bungee from Victoria Falls Bridge in Zambia. I wasn’t sure if I ever enjoyed the bungee, but this time I’m ecstatic. For a moment, we glide together with an eagle. I’m bursting with feelings of unlimited freedom and joy.
The hillside is peppered with small farms, and at lower altitudes, I can even recognize cows and goats wandering lazily around the pasture. Just when I feel in harmony with the surroundings, my pilot asks if I’d like to have some adrenaline. With a sudden flash of confidence, I nod cheerfully, though I know from experience what’s in store for me.
During the next five minutes, I got a taste of “paragliding acro” like the pros call it. “Paragliding aerobatics” is freestyle paragliding, performing all kinds of tricks in the air. Nowadays the daredevils compete in yearly World Paragliding Aerobatics Championships. We’re spinning in the air, losing altitude quickly, then almost touching down before getting high again – just to do some more spinning. I laugh recklessly, awe-struck. I’m having a blast, but not without my old companion, the fear of crashing down.
How Safe Is Paragliding in Medellín, Colombia?
I’m not the right person to ask, but due to my fears, I’ve studied some statistics about paragliding safety. When you’re taking a tandem flight, an experienced pilot with a proper paragliding equipment serves as your safety net. So choose your paragliding operator carefully. Almost all accidents are caused by the mistakes of the paragliding pilot or poor weather.
Still, there are some risks, which you can avoid though you’re not the pilot. Weather-wise, the best times to fly are the first and 3 last hours of daylight. That’s also the timeframe our paragliding operator in Medellín suggested, though we picked another timing.
Agreeing into “the adrenaline ride” has its risks. Spinning, or spirals, might cause the pilot to black out. Vertical wingovers might collapse the paragliding wing. Paragliding too low is risky because of the wires, though I didn’t see them on our hillside. There’s also a nasty “downwind demon”, a risk of colliding with something due to the illusion that haunts pilots only when flying too low. In Medellín, the landing area seemed huge, making it a secure spot to paraglide even for several paragliders at a time. Still, it might be fatal if you crash into another paraglider in the air, but an experienced pilot knows the risks.
We were paragliding with Ruben Fly, a pioneering paragliding company in Medellín, which has a record of more than 8000 successful flights without accidents. Some companies sell paragliding tours, but we would recommend a straight booking through a paragliding company (just search for “paragliding medellin” or in Spanish “parapente medellin” from Google). That way you know the company you’re dealing with and can also double-check their reputation. The paragliding company will offer transfers if you’d like to book them separately. We used local bus according to their instructions and it was very easy to find the spot. The views are stunning, so the bus ride felt pleasant enough, though it lasted an hour.
According to statistics, paragliding is as almost safe as driving. Paragliding is safer than for example motorcycling. Skydiving is about 4 times more dangerous than paragliding. More than 90 % of paragliding accidents happen within the first 10 flights of the pilot. All tandem pilots are naturally experienced. I find these numbers extremely calming.
In the end, paragliding is not really an adventure sport and your pilot won’t do any “tricks” unless you ask for them. The essence of paragliding is just floating calmly in the air and enjoying the scenery. Paragliding in Medellín is a perfect introduction to the sport of paragliding since it feels safe and adventurous at the same time and the stunning bird-eye view will leave you wanting more!