[Amigo] > [Bob Hurlbett flight index]

Bob Hurlbett
Columbia Trip
Early January 2006

Half a dozen or so Columbian vultures or “chulos” marked strong, towering thermals as we soared together high above Chicamocha Canyon, just minutes from Vuelo Libre, Richi and Annie Mantilla’s incredible property on Mesa de la Santos, forty-five minutes south of Bucaramanga, Columbia.  On this, the 3rd day of our tour, Richi, Annie, Andy Palmer and I launched at 11:00 a.m. from Tumba de Aleman (the “Tomb of the German”) located on a private lot in Chicamocha Doroda, a gated community extending along the northern rim of the canyon. (Randall McCormick missed the window on this day but joined us and the chulos several days later in a flight from the opposite rim).

At least 4,100 feet below, the Rio Chicamocha winds its way southeastward through this impressive canyon.  The view from the top of the escarpment extends for hundreds of miles to towering mountain ranges bathed in tropical greens and blues.

Across the canyon, the Chicamocha National Park extends laterally along the southern rim.  In several places raw construction marks the beginning of a new scenic tram that within a few months will carry passengers from Park headquarters into the canyon, across the river and up the opposite side to the small village of Los Santos, just a few miles west of Tumba de Aleman.  Although intended for tourists, the Park Service consulted with Richi to ensure that the system can retrieve pilots from LZs along the river and carry them to launches on both rims of the canyon.  A boon to commercial tandem operators, the tram, when completed, will enable pilots to fly this site several times a day.

For the present, we return to Vuelo Libre by a more arduous route, a winding but paved, two-lane highway that is the main artery through the canyon connecting Bucaramanga with Bogota, Columbia’s capital city, 9 hours or so to the south.  The main LZ is a broad expanse of sand and gravel along the river.  Hugo (“Ugo”), a commercial taxi driver and chauffer, was our always on hand for a prompt retrieve.

It’s much warmer and more arid in the canyon than at launch where early morning fog often obscured the view.  Because of several days of unusual weather caused by a passing tropical storm, we learned to quickly prepare for forward launches on the grass-covered hillside that gently slopes for 50 or 60 meters before plunging over the rim.  Launch windows were brief as intermittent patches of blue sky were quickly enveloped in cloud.

Chicamocha is Columbia’s Grand Canyon and one of the natural wonders of this beautiful country.  It so impressed my wife, Sara, and me that early the next morning and with Richi’s assistance, we negotiated by cell phone to purchase two lots fronting the edge of the canyon.  An hour after striking a deal, we learned that another American arrived at the site intending to buy the same property.  Several days later, Richi and Annie bought a third contiguous lot preserving a sizeable corner of the development for paragliding.  If all goes as planned, we will soon be able to launch literally from our doorsteps on almost two acres of land extending laterally along the rim.

We plan to call this site “Pico de Aguila” (“Ag-ee-la”) or “Beak of the Eagle,” commemorating a memorable day in Richi’s flying career that occurred above our property.  After launching without a reserve on a clear April morning many years ago, Richi was attacked by an eagle defending its nest on the cliff below.  Approaching at mach speed, the angry bird flew through his lines.  Convinced by the sound of feathers striking Kevlar that his lines were severed and he was about to plunge to his death on the rocks below, it took several minutes for Richi’s addled brain to realize that his wing was intact and he might live to see another day.  Besides, “Aguila,” is also the brand name of a famous and very tasty Columbian beer so it holds considerable sentimental value as well.

Since we first met them several years ago at Big Sur, Richi and his friend, Walter Langhammer, often regaled Sara and I with stories of their native Columbia.  When improving political stability under the country’s new president made it possible to begin scheduling flying tours to the Bucaramanga region, we promptly signed up.  With Andy and Randall, we had the good fortune to be part of the first of the Vuelo Libre tours (see www.eparaglide.com).  It was an incredible experience flying every day from sites that are individually distinctive but similarly beautiful. This area is a recreational paradise; a paraglider’s died-and-gone-to-heaven kind of place that boasts many more flying sites than time permitted us to sample.

We began our adventure flying Ruitoque (Roo-tow-kee), a 4 or 5-mile long ridge site that overlooks the city of Bucaramanga, capital of the State of Santander.  Also Richi’s hometown, Bucaramanga is a sophisticated metropolis with a population of a million or more.  It’s spread across a broad escarpment framed by 12,000’+ peaks overlooking a broad river valley, home to cattle ranches and coffee, sugar cane, papaya and tobacco plantations.

Ruitoque is usually thermic early in the day until 1:00 or so when the wind begins to build.  On one particularly memorable afternoon, a huge, very dark cloud street formed over launch and extended northward across the valley toward the city.  We flew until just before sunset, usually at cloud base.

On our first day, the afternoon winds were light. The morning thermals were strong and the air buoyant, however, and by mid-day, Richi loaded up on the lift and landed in Bucaramanga on the 18th hole of the golf course owned by Hotel Campestre, our home during the first three nights of the tour.  The rest of us waited too long to join him, landing instead in the main LZ or “Antenna Field,” one of many landing areas that were always accessible despite being privately owned.  Reminiscent of sites we encountered in Italy, Columbian landowners are very approving of our sport and they and/or their children often helped to fold and stow our wings.

The Ruitoque launch is 30 or so acres in size, privately owned and clearly visible from the city limits and surrounding countryside.  On weekends, many local residents and tourists congregate to watch and/or fly tandem with commercial operators including Richi and a small crew of very talented local pilots.  We met several young but experienced tandem pilots, including at least two attractive young women in their late teens or early twenties.  The going rate per flight is generally $50,000 to $60,000 pesos ($25 to $30 US).  The local club rents this site under the terms of a 3-year contract that is up for renewal this year.  Richi is leading efforts to buy it and an adjacent farm in an effort to preserve the area from development.

The launch is several acres in size and gently slopes for 200 meters, or so, to the edge of the bluff.  Landscaped with grass and regularly maintained, as many as 3 wings can launch here, side-by-side.  On the weekend, we counted 25 or more wings in the air.  During the week, we sometimes had the site to ourselves.

On day 5 we celebrated Sara’s birthday at Vuelo Libre or the “Farm,” as Richi and Annie call it.  This property of approximately 10-acres is located on the eastern edge of the Mesa.  It includes two attractive residences beautifully landscaped with flowering trees, shrubs and plants with dramatic canyon views.  Richi’s mother, Olivia, visited us from Bucaramanga and organized wonderful meals, including cake and a raucous party for Sara on the night of January 6.

On day 7 we reluctantly left Olivia’s hospitality and, after logging as many as 9 flights and 8 hours of airtime at Ruitoque and Chicamocha, drove two hours south to the picturesque colonial town of Barichara.  We stayed two nights here in a four-bedroom house built in the traditional Columbian style with a small, interior, open-air courtyard.  Conveniently located directly across the road from Barichara launch, we found ourselves perched on the edge of another impressive escarpment overlooking a broad river valley dotted with cattle ranches and small farms.

As we prepared to fly the next morning, a local farmer began grooming the main LZ far below us with a weed-eater.  His hard work, unfortunately for me, was prophetic as I quickly flushed while everyone else soared above the city and beyond.  After a quick retrieve by Hugo, however, I returned for a second attempt and followed the chulos to 1,000+ AGL, across the city and several miles into the countryside.  I landed in a large pasture and was soon joined, first by the landowner and his son, then by Richi and Andy.  Richi landed in the same field an hour or so before me while Andy flew several miles further out of town and recorded the longest flight of the trip.

That afternoon we began our return to Bucaramanga through the village of San Gil (“Hill”) along the banks of the Rio Fonce where we spent the afternoon white water rafting with Aventura Total, a company owned by Richi’s friend, Tigre.  We were driven up stream in a large tour truck fitted with wooden benches and covered by what appeared to be an inverted boat.  Although the engine frequently died and our driver ground the gears mercilessly at every turn, we quickly arrived at the river’s edge.  After a brief orientation by our guide, William, we were soon racing over Class III rapids that increase to Class V during the Columbian winter or rainy season.  Despite the meteorological description of “rainy season,” Richi assures me that he flies year-round in weather conditions remarkably similar to those we enjoy in Santa Barbara and Ojai.

It was great fun to be temporarily earth-bound--an interesting contrast to cavorting with the chulos.  Although most of us had at least some prior rafting experience, there was plenty of challenge to quicken the pulse.  Richi, Andy and Randall left the boat for 10 minutes or so to float downstream through modest rapids.  I didn’t join them.  As the skinniest member of the group, I was also the coldest.  But I vowed next time to bring a wet suit so as to preserve a little body heat in water that I’m convinced was only slightly above freezing.

Our last adventure before returning to Bucaramanga brought us back to Chicamocha, for me one of the most impressive flying sites on the planet.  From the south rim of Chicamocha Canyon in view of our property, we flew from Chiflas launch, perched at 5,300 feet elevation and only slightly less than 4,000 feet above the river.  Several tandem pilots and their passengers joined us and soon all of us were thousands of feet over the river, soaring on strong thermals that took Andy, Randall and me to cloud base at 6,500 feet or more.

Throughout this first tour, we were impressed with Richi and Annie’s impeccable organization.  Our accommodations were grand, the food was superb, and everywhere we traveled, planning was evident in the relationships they’d established with local restaurants, hotels, craft shops and, most importantly, the many landowners who graciously allowed us access.  Every location and personal contact was previously scouted, approved and verified.  While roaming the city of Bucaramanga, Richi was hailed from every street corner.  Andres, an old childhood friend we met in a very upscale bar and restaurant during our last night in town, referred to Richi as the “Mayor of Bucaramanga.” I am sure he was speaking only partly in jest.

Not once during ten days of travel did we feel out of place, threatened or in any way compromised.  The Columbian people are gracious, generous and full of humor, often because of the clumsy but always sincere antics of four gringos with limited language skills in a country where English is sometimes heard but seldom spoken fluently.  Sara--a non-pilot aside from a couple of lessons and an occasional tandem--took photographs, played golf and lounged by the pool in Bucaramanga.  She also explored, shopped and rafted with the best of us, thoroughly enjoying the trip despite her preference for earth-bound pleasures.

We return on or about March 20, 2006, to sign final purchase documents and begin plans for building our home in paradise.  I hope many of you can join us.  In the meantime, some visual memories: