Oi oi oi oi oi, South American buses, you are killing me. I used to find it frustrating in Asia when I was expecting to arrive at 7am and instead it would be 5am, where you would have to then hang around for either the safety of daylight, your hostel to actually open, or your connecting bus, but I think I prefer that to arriving much later than expected in the similarly-unsafe darkness of night when you can’t really go out to explore and you have therefore lost that day completely. Even after the woman at the ticket office told me the 9:45am would arrive at 7pm – for a journey that should take 6 hours – she assured me that was the latest possible arrival time. Well, it WAS the arrival time. Being much further from the centre than I expected, being pitch black and being it pouring down with blinding rain, I caught a cute little yellow cab to my hostel, Moncora Hostal, only setting me back $4,000 pesos (£1.20).
I arrived at my hostel – a gorgeous, modern, quaint building with reading annexes and a garden with orange trees – to find the woman on reception didn’t speak any English (not that she should) so I whipped out my newly-downloaded google translate app and did my best to converse via the use of modern technology. Once my bags were dumped in the dorm room – a room for 6 that only had 2 of us, with beds that had its own plug socket and personal light (hoorah, little travelling luxuries!) – I really couldn’t be arsed with wandering in the dark and wet to find some food so I prepared a soup. And, yes, by “prepared” I mean emptied the sachet contents into a pan, added hot water and put it on the stove. I’ve really broadened my skill set since being on the road.
One of the draws of San Gil is the array of adventure activities on offer – being the adventure sport capital – and I had been particularly interested in paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon just east of San Gil. So when the “joven Chico” (the words of the receptionist, not mine) whom could speak English arrived I enquirer about doing it the following day. He called the company they work with, which I immediately googled and found glowing reviews on TripAdvisor – whom advised that due to a cycle race the following day the roads would be shut from 7am so we would need to leave at a much earlier time of 6:30am to then wait at the canyon for a few hours until it was safe to fly – something about the wind (it’s always about wind!) At $170,000 pesos it would set me back 50 quid and I seriously needed to start reigning in the expenditure…
You can also paraglide in nearby Curiti for only $70,000 pesos (£20) for a shorter flight, where I could have got up in my own leisure and not at ridiculous-o-clock, but most people whom have done Curiti have gone on to do Chicamocha Canyon afterwards and apparently it find it hard to say no to the challenge set by, well, me. So, up at 6am I was, wearing the long trousers, trainers and a jumper (just in case) as advised, leaving my bags in my room as the staff had kindly said I could check out later, and hopping into a minibus at 6:30am for the hour drive to Chicamocha. Great name, by the way. Having only slept 6 hours the night before I admit to dozing off, nodding-dog style for a fair bit of the journey, but I was also enraptured by the stunning mountains that perfectly peaked in an alternate pattern, layering back as far as my eye could see, almost as if you had drawn it to be that way.
At the flight site (not the technical term but it should be, right??) I then napped inside the minibus for about an hour before clambering up the small hill to the top to sit and take in the views below and in front of me. The guy at my hostel, prior to my booking, had told me lunch was included, to then realise after I booked that he had made a mistake but drinks were included. I then found out, after not bringing liquids with me but only food, that actually only one drink was included. I really do need to get better at this whole speaking Spanish thing. I was I was better at picking up languages. Anyway, my point is, my disappointment was softened by the breadth and beauty of this landscape.
At around 11am we received our briefing by Renaldo – the pilot – who first went through it in Spanish while I tried to absorb as much as I could by the few words I knew and by his physical demonstration, and then went through it in a much shorter English version. I only hope he didn’t omit anything crucial. But he stressed the 3 most important things were to first run, later to sit back, and finally to lift your feet when landing. Despite having already done both a skydive and a bungy jump – which are much more terrifying for me – I still felt nervous, namely the part where I run towards the edge of a cliff. However having watched a girl go before me and being used to emotionally zoning out for extreme sports by now, when it came to me being kitted up and running (more like haphazard hopping) towards the canyon edge I just did it. When he told me to put my arms through the straps and sit back, mind, I feebly responded with “I can’t” and, much to my embarrassment, he had to assist me with something I mastered 29 years ago; sitting. I blame the Go-Pro that was in my hand.
And then we were airborne, and I was sitting back as we flew through thee air, circling over the dusty oranges and yellows of the villages below us and the majestic greys and marbles of the peaking mountains. I honestly was a bit stunned by how gorgeous it was, how real and up-close it was that you felt as though you could reach out to touch the lines and cracks, feel the formations, that after a while my pilot actually asked me if I was ok as I had been completely silent for an unusually long amount of time. Compared to skydiving and bungy jumping this was ridiculously peaceful, where I felt as though I was soaring through the canyon and becoming part of its landscape.
Renaldo was really lovely in telling me about the villages below us and mountains ahead of us, and while I wanted to learn about what I was experiencing I also didn’t want to be pulled out of my reverie, one where it was just me gliding in the air by myself. Don’t get me wrong, if I could have any companion it would without a doubt be Renaldo I would choose, it would just be so spectacular to experience something like that on your own terms. But it was really cool when we reached about 2,200m above sea level and Renaldo started to do some tricks where we went looping and twisting through the air, the varied landscape of villages, valleys and mountains merging into one panoramic view as it whooshed past my eyeline. Really exhilarating,although I did at this point start to feel the affects of the altitude.
The landing was a lot softer and more gentle than I expected, although it did feel quite rapid as we approached, and I actually felt quite relaxed when it was all over. It was a great experience and I would recommend Chicamocha as a place to paraglide, but after doing skydiving, bungy jumping, white water rafting, canyoning and now this, I think I might give the adventure sports a rest and stop searching for that euphoric feeling in an organised way and instead allow it to happen in natural, spontaneous moments.
Back at my hostel I had yet another entertaining attempt at conversing in Spanish, with support from Google Translate, before updating my blog, packing my bags and catching a taxi to the bus terminal for $4,000 pesos (£1.20). Here I booked the 7pm overnight bus to Santa Marta for $60,000 pesos (£18), praying that I might for once get a decent sleep on a night bus.