Travel Writers: Flying Like a Condor

by David Geddes

Location: Merida, Tropical Andes, Venezuela, South America

My Tropical Andes experience started with a quick lesson in Venezuelan driving as I was met by my arranged jeep with driver, which apparently doubled as an Indy racing team. My plane landed in Merida just after 8:30am from Caracas along with the rain. The wet mountain air was thick like a soggy blanket. Those of us who are familiar with the tropics can easily relate.

My guide for this portion of the trip was a young well spoken man named Alvero. He became a partner in a small tourism company located out of Merida. Merida sits at about 6000 ft and consists of a population of around 40,000 in the surrounding hills. Several colleges and language schools bring a wide variety of young people to the lively town. Alvero was about 28 yrs old, no kids and obviously understood the importance of his mission.

On day three, after a few nights in quaint high altitude mountain lodges, accompanied by hiking and biking, Alvero asked if I wanted to fly with the condor. The elusive Andean Condor was a prize that I wanted to capture on film, but had only seen photos in my bird books. I replied with a curious “Yes”. Although I had no idea what I had just roped myself into, we set off on our next adventure. At the end of a short drive, we appoached a little dirt road where I noticed a small Toyota van with four or five X Games looking guys, who obviously did not fit in wearing Bolle shades and Suunto watches. Their Toyota van was piled ten feet high with bags and ropes. We came to a sudden stop Alvero jumped out and began the greetings with large smiles and long hand shakes. These guys had “adventure” pasted on their foreheads.

Following a minute of Andean high altitude Spanish, they asked me if I was ready. I reluctantly replied “Sure”, while I slowly approached their gathering. Immediately as if perched on that one word, they began to jump in the van. Alvero motioned for me to get in the Jeep. As I dashed to the jeep, the Toyota van had already peeled out and zoomed up the little dirt road creating a cloud of dust. Looking at the angle of the road I realized that we were going up.

Up, Up, and Up we went, one cut back after another. Along the way I had to change my North Face diapers more than once. One close call after another I thought “I’m gonna die if he doesn’t slow down”. I yelled out to Alvero over the whining engine, “What’s the hurry and Where are we going?”. He began to explain the conditions were worsening for the jump and that time was of the essence. “Jump?” I yelled. He briefly glanced at me with a smile, “Yes, paragliding”.

Paragliding, or parasailing, also known in Latin America as “parapente”, is the adventure sport of riding the winds and thermals on a large wing type structure that resembles a parachute. Very popular in the Alps and Western USA, and always extreme. Once reaching our ridge top destination, the valley below looked like a redish sandy Arizona desert. This is becasue the valley is a desert. The Andean mountains are so tall on the Western side that the rain has a very difficult time making the voyage over the mountains to this valley, giving way to an unusual desert like climate on the valley floor. The baking floor creates conditions for Europe’s and America’s best paragliders, a top three destination for year round paragliding.

Once the van was unloaded and I had marvelled at the view, I began listening to the broken English from my Swiss-French pilot. With universal hand signals and my broken French and Spanish, we began making progress on the procedures for take off. Our “chute” was a bright yellow pillow flapping in the wind as Alvero and the others spead it out over the grass. I had been fitted with my harness and made sure my helmet was working (knock, knock). Strapped to my pilot, we hobbled over to the laid out lines. After snapping into the tandem harness, my new extreme friends along with Alvero held us down so the wind would not blow us off the mountain. Only a second or two later we were running with the small group of handlers… WAIT! We are running right up to the edge of a cliff! Jump!

The air was cool, and the wind was lightly blowing over my face. I opened my eyes. There I was, flying out over the valley below and climbing altitude. My pilot was not making a sound, and neither was I. Feelings of peace and relaxation fell over me. While circling in a thermal to an unknown height I began looking around out over the multitude of peaks, lakes, and forests. My pilot pointed at one time, yelling “Humbolt!” The glacier’s ice and ancient snow reflecting the afternoon sun, like a mirror, brought great satisfaction. I was in heaven.

The quiet, smooth, beauty of gliding on the Andean winds made me think I could be a Condor. “I am a Condor”, I thought to myself. Then just over my shoulder as if to tease me came the black monster swooping by in all its glory, fast enough to give me my only a glimpse of what it must be like to be an Andean Condor. Disappearing into the rocky mountain back drop, I still dream of a day when I can fly again with the Andean Condor.

Now, What about landing……..?

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