City life and office work take their toll on me… My adventurous spirit begins to scream out for an adrenaline fix. What better ‘medicine’ than a dose of paragliding? And one of the best places to fly in Ecuador is Ibarra…
I am not someone who fears heights. But we climb, climb, climb, climb… and finally reach the “runway”, the steepest side of a mountain called El Pinar (the pine tree grove), about 2,900 meters above sea level. It’s summer. The sky is completely cobalt clear. The sun shines over Ibarra, imposing Mount Imbabura, majestic Mount Cotacachi and awe-inspiring Yaguarcocha Lake far below. “Now I’m getting heeby-jeebies,” I say, as a feeling of fear tingles in my spine and sweat spreads across my palms. Everyone laughs. “Calm down Claudia,” teases Bolívar Cevallos, who has been flying for some 15 years, “you’ll never know a sense of freedom like this!”
In July, the summer winds are strong. You need to get out early to seek out the calmer currents. The pilots of the paragliding club of Ibarra know all the tricks. Washington Baca, “Washito,” is the club’s president and will be my flight instructor. Today, six pilots, three beginners like me and a 3-year-old, will be paragliding. Miguel Yandún, with 14 years’ experience, is now a father and his son Miguelito, with his few babbling words, is already asking to fly. He has his baby harness and is not afraid of heights at all. There’s also “Caregallina” (chicken-face) Jason Palta, Olguer Imbaquingo, Edison Castillo and Bolívar. In addition, “Vichito”, Vicente Herrera, is the official driver, in charge of checking thermal conditions, helping out with the equipment and acting as the paramedic.
The paraglider is composed of three basic parts: the wing, harness (or saddle) and the emergency parachute. After getting ready on the grass, Washito adjusts my harness and stresses that “there is nothing to fear”. He places a helmet on my head, a GoPro camera on my chest, hands me gloves and another GoPro to carry in my hands. He explains that the team is in constant communication, as every pilot has his radio to ensure a safe flight and landing.
The wind is strong. We sit calmly before the arching sky, as if hunting for the ‘perfect wind’. We wait anxiously until, suddenly, everyone gets excited. The time has come. I breathe deeply. The wind has calmed… you have to wait for at least 10 minutes to know it is calm enough to fly safely.
We tie our harnesses. The adrenaline races a mile a minute in my veins and I hear the signal to run. Everyone shouts “good flight”, the words that every paraglider utters so that everything goes well and you enjoy the experience to the max. But it is actually a signal for distress… as you feel you are going to fall into an abyss. And indeed, we do fall. We slip and roll downhill. How scary! But nothing serious. Isn’t this all about overcoming one’s fears? “If you do it with fear, it’s worth double,” I think to myself and take another deep breath, while the other pilots continue their take-off. Miguelito, the 3-year-old, along with his father; Caregallina, who alights backwards; Bolívar and Edison with their beginner passengers. I was not about to be left behind.
We get the paraglider ready again and are back in position. This time, Olger will help me. And again, the yell: “Good flight!”… and off we go… The feeling of falling disappears as we rise. And it is incredible. We’re like angels floating off into the sky. My heart seems to be leaving my body. I scream from my gut: “Yeees, I did it!” and am overcome with a feeling of freedom that I cannot describe. I am truly flying. Like a bird. Miniature people wave at us from below. The sensation causes tears to flow from my eyes… perhaps it’s only the wind on my face… but what feeeeeeling! I lack eyes to take in the entire landscape. The sun casts on the waters of Yaguarcocha in silver, reflecting all its splendor against the outlying hills and valleys.
Washito explains that we have a barium, which is used to measure height, speed and distance. It beeps as it accelerates, which means we are approaching a good gust of wind to turn or lift. Since it is summer, good winds are few and far between. We move at 60 km/hour and descend slowly, advancing 10 meters and then dropping one.
The ride, in fact, is soothing, smooth. There are no sudden movements, although looking down does cause one’s stomach to turn inside out. Washito asks me whether I want to take the controls of the paraglider, but I don’t feel up to it. I prefer to be the passenger and relish the peace. Soon, we spot the airstrip. We pass it and head to the lake. We fly over it. It’s so beautiful.
To land, we must make several small turns that stir my stomach up a little. But Washito tells me to stay calm and raise my legs, and we gently fall on the grass. The parachute wings collapse and joy fills me. I did it!
We wait for the others to land and carefully rearrange the paragliders. Vichito is ready with the car. Now, to celebrate with some Andean chochos.
In the town of Yaguarcocha, we take a moment to share our thoughts about the flight. Washo confesses that although he has been flying for so many years, he is still afraid. “To do it fearless makes no sense,” he tells me. The pilots like to compare themselves with birds: eagles, condors… Everyone agrees that this sport is not as dangerous as it seems, and that the sense of freedom it awakens makes it unique. As Leonardo da Vinci, the great sixteenth-century parachuting pioneer, put it: “once you’ve tried it, you will walk on land with your eyes in the sky, for you have already been there and you will always yearn to return.”
And so, we all must return to our realities. Washington is an electrical engineer. Olger is in construction. “Caregallina” has a natural products shop. Edison is a baker. And I am off to write my article, with my eyes in the sky.