Paragliding in Valle de Bravo: “¿Quieres chiflar o cantar?”

On my last morning in Valle de Bravo, I decided to go paragliding. After all, this was meant to be one of the prime spots in the world to do it, and I had already done it once before on the Isla de Juventud in Cuba, and if I had not then conquered my fear of heights, I had at least managed to endure the terror.

Besides, I had met Spencer, the young American who would be my pilot, in the hotel where we were both staying and he seemed a steady, balanced kind of a guy, from Utah. When I enquired about the price he directed me to the hotel manager who appeared to be organizing the show – 1000 pesos (about 70USD) all included, which was indeed very competitive with all the other paragliding outfits in the Valle.

So at 9.30am on the appointed day, I met with Spencer in the hotel lobby and we waited for the taxi organized by the hotel manager – the taxi driver was a friend of his – to take us to the point of take off, and to collect us from the landing point. And we waited and waited.

I thought I should ask Spencer about his experience and qualifications for doing this and he quietly reassured me about the number of hours he had in the air, how many times he had taken people with him, his qualifications as an instructor etc.

Around 10.15am, Spencer was at the point of ordering another taxi when the hotel manager rang his friend and assured us he was very close to the hotel, had been delayed because of the volume of traffic, and would be there within minutes. In about another twenty of them, the taxi driver arrived, a friendly voluble young Mexican. We climbed into the taxi, me in the front, and Spencer in the back with his equipment packed into a large rucksack.

We headed slowly out of town – there was indeed a lot of traffic – and turned off the main road heading north out of town to the hill from where we would take off. As the road changed from asphalt to dirt, and my anxiety level started to rise, I thought it would be a good idea to go to the toilet before I took off and interrupted the taxi driver’s discourse on his wife and three lovers to ask if there was somewhere where we could stop so I could go to the toilet.

His reply was “¿Quieres chiflar o cantar?”, which literally translated means “Do you want to whistle or sing?”. This nonplussed me, and I was not certain I had heard him correctly. Though I did have an intuitive sense of what he meant, I asked him to repeat the words and then give a little explanation. It was indeed what I had guessed. He was asking me if I wanted to take a pee or have shit. I have to say it sounds much better in Mexican Spanish. It’s moments like that that I love in Mexico.

We established that I wanted to chiflar which was straighforward. After a short stop to chiflar, there was a steady climb in the taxi to arrive at the top of the hill.

Whilst Spencer unpacked the paraglider, straightened it out on the take-off area, and unravelled the strings, I steadied myself and went to look over the edge of the hill in the direction we would be taking off. It was high, much, much higher than the hill in Cuba and much steeper. There was no margin for error. Once you launched there was no going back, unlike in Cuba where it had been possible to abort the take off.

I noticed one area in the town below that I had not seen before and could not identify from its shape. “What is that area?” I asked the taxi-driver pointing to it. The cemetery he replied. Not a good omen, I thought. People did indeed die here paragliding.

Despite his Mexican machismo about his love-life, the taxi-driver did admit to being scared shitless – I now wonder if that could be translated as sincantardor – of doing paragliding. On the one hand, that made me feel like a fearless Englishman in contrast, on the other hand I thought maybe he was right not to want to do it.

Spencer coached me on the take-off procedure. We would run at a moderate pace to the line that almost marked the edge of the hill and then run like hell. That was simple. Spencer hooked me to him, after putting on my harness, and lifted the sails gently. He said we would wait for a stronger breeze.

When it came, he said run and we ran. Just at the point of the edge, I felt this huge force catching me and pulling us back. The wind had fully caught the sails. “Run!” shouted Spencer again. For a moment, it was like one of those dreams where you try to run but you feel like you are stuck in thick treacle. Then miraculously we moved forward, gathered pace and took off.

Of course, being in the air is a wonderful sensation, and this time I was able to enjoy it more. Unfortunately, there were not strong thermals that day, so we gently glided down to the landing site, a small, green field on the edge of the lake.

Spencer had also coached me on the landing. Again it seemed relatively simple. Ease yourself out of your seat and let your legs slide on the ground. The ground though did seem to be coming up very quickly. Perhaps that was good because there was no time to think – just get out of sitting back in the seat and make the best job of hitting the ground. We landed, slid and both fell down. Spencer congratulated me on the landing, which surprised me, but I took it as real praise.

The final part of the voyage was packing up the sail which reminded me of packing up a large tent. Spencer said that the equipment was increasingly getting better and lighter and new sails had a glide ratio of 11:1 (which means that you can go 11 units along for every one down) in contrast to earlier sails with ratios of 5:1.

Now that we had landed safely, I asked him about his most difficult experience paragliding. He told me of a time in Valle de Bravo when he had been sucked up into a cloud, tossed around by some particularly turbulent winds, which led to him losing control of the sails as the strings became entangled, and starting to freefall. This was the moment to use the emergency parachute which brought him safely down to earth, narrowly missing a group of pinetrees.

I had not realised we had an emergency parachute. That would have been nice to know beforehand.

Anyone wishing to paraglide with Spencer can contact him via the Hotel Posada Familiar Hotel de los Girasoles on the corner of the main plaza. He really is an excellent, experienced pilot.

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