Monday, March 18, 2013

The Guatemala Experience

The Guatemala Experience
By Matt Henderson

The sun on your face; the wind in your hair; breathing in the dusty and smokey air, while riding in the back of a pickup truck. This is, The Guatemala Experience. It's the way people get around there; sometimes 10 strong precariously seated in the bed of a small pickup. It's also how we got around, if we so chose. The option was always there to ride inside a vehicle; but a few of us usually opted for the back of that pickup truck. It just enhanced the experience of taking in everything I was seeing as we drove past cane fields, through impoverished towns, and up mountainsides on dirt roads. But we didn't travel 3500 miles just to ride in the back of a pickup truck; We came to paraglide!
Not only did we come to paraglide, be we came to paraglide off a 13,000 ft volcano! So, first order of business was to scope out our main landing zone for said flight off Volcan de Acatenango, which was the La Reunion Golf Resort. Not many country clubs or golf resorts would open their doors and just hand over golf carts to a group of paragliders to go drive around the course, spread their wings, and kite in the middle of a fareway. But in Guatemala, where the saying goes that a bottle of scotch and $20 can get you what you need, anything is possible. A good part of that first day was spent at the golf course; a little kiting, Andrew Kern had an unexpected short flight off the fareway, and we all enjoyed a pleasant lunch out on the patio taking in the views. The weather wasn't cooperating for afternoon flying, a poorly positioned convergence meant the north wind site and south wind site we visited were both blowing over the back. Such is the game of paragliding.
Later that evening (as with all evenings), the weather forecast for the next day was reviewed. It appeared that the weather gods were going to be smiling upon us for a flight off the Volcano. The cool thing about Volcan de Acatenango, is that it is shouldered up next to the very active Volcan de Fuego. We woke bright and early the next morning, shuttled to the Golf Course, and awaited the arrival of the helicopter that was going to fly us to the top. However, it wasn't meant to be this day. Gusty winds at the golf course and the smoke signals coming off Fuego didn't paint a pretty picture for the conditions up top. It truly is amazing, to be able to stand in the landing zone and gauge conditions at launch 10,000 vertical feet away... courtesy of an active volcano simply doing it's thing.

With the volcano attempt postponed, we hopped back in the vehicles and took a short 30 minute drive to another paragliding site, Santa Elena. It is situated just a bit south of Lake Amatitlan on a ridge facing away from the lake; providing both ridge soaring and thermals. It is a beautiful area; however, standing on launch surveying the lands below, it's easy to get intimidated viewing the landing zone off in the distance... a 7 to 1 glide into the wind away. It is imperative to catch a bump in order to make it to the landing zone. One glider fell a bit short, giving them an up close and personal perspective of rural Guatemala. But, redemption was had on their second flight. After a day of flying, we headed back to the Casa to relax and plan out the next day.
The weather forecast again showed promise, so we repeated the same song and dance of waking up early and heading out to our staging grounds at the golf course. Conditions at the golf course were already many times better than the prior day. Clouds were building up around Acatenango and Fuego causing a bit of caution, but viewing them relative to Volcan de Agua across the valley kept us optimistic. Our helicopter ride to the top was delayed due to a fog layer at the airport, putting a hold on air traffic. But that fog layer gave more confidence in the forecast holding true.
After anxiously awaiting, word came that the helicopter was in the air and on the way to the golf course. The anticipation of waiting for the helicopter to arrive was agonizing though. An idle mind is the Devil's playground, and every passing minute gave more time to wonder to myself, "wow, am I really in this situation? Am I really about to do this?!" People think I'm crazy as is doing this thing called paragliding; now to add to that a 13,000 foot volcano, in Guatemala! That is simply, ridiculously amazing!!
To cut a long story short... we came, we saw, we conquered!

Somehow, we all managed to get off the volcano in one piece without incident. So much could have gone wrong, but didn't! Words simply can't describe the feeling of flying off a 13,000 foot volcano into buttery smooth air, dropping down into the white room, and emerging 5 minutes later as the golf course appears directly below through a hole in the clouds. It was perfection!
Unfortunately the days following, the weather didn't play to our best interests and we didn't get any other flying in. But it was an absolutely amazing time exploring Guatemala in the off days, and just relaxing at the Casa... soaking in the sun, drinks, and good company. A huge thanks to Drew, Marc, Lan, and the A-FIN-ITY crew for doing everything they did to make this a fun, successful, and safe trip.

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