Paragliding in Pana

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

Jim's Thermals.....

I wish I would've brought some. Lake Atitlan has been chilly to say the least. Really didn't take the hippie's literally when they said it was a chill place. So when Alisa asked at 8 a.m. if I wanted to go paragliding at 11:00;  I looked outside, saw the clouds, felt the cold and went right back inside to get some hot coffee, leaving her with a growling "No!"  The previous tuk-tuk protests disrupted the delivery of firewood which was our only source of heat, besides leaving the oven door open and "forgetting" to turn it off, so early cold mornings aren't the best time. 

I found the website to Realworld Paragliding a couple of months ago while looking for things to do in the area. It seemed reasonable, cost wise and what's the worst that could happen? After coffee and checking the weather, I told her to book it for Wednesday.

On Wednesday, I woke to clear blue skies and after being notified our reservation was pushed back an hour, I relaxed in anticipation of jumping off a perfectly good mountain. We stopped for a quick drink and walked to the pickup point. Shortly thereafter we were driven to the landing pad and watched the two previous fliers land successfully. After a short 25 min drive up to ear-popping altitude, we were ready. Our guides were speaking with their German friend who was going solo but was waiting for the right wind. 

I went first, fully expecting to run off a cliff as instructed. When the wind caught the chute it took us both back, fast. I started backpedaling on his feet, he watched the chute above while telling me to keep looking forward. I landed dead on my ass fully prepared to get up and try it one more time. The wind had different plans. The hot air rising off the cliff, which I later learned was a massive thermal, lifted us both up and over the side of the mountain in an epic anticlimactic spectacle. One that of course Alisa caught on video. 

My pilot Christian was the owner of Realworld Paragliding. He came to Panajachel in 2012 and never left. He told me we had all the time in the world and we could stay up as long as we liked. I saw the clouds starting to roll in and wasn't quite sure what he was talking about. He was a very friendly, eccentric guy that obviously loved to fly, so high in fact he might have forgotten about the law of gravity. 

Between frequent periods of silence, calmness and solitude, Christian compared thermals to a lava lamp, the bubbles slowly growing in size until they release in a massive burst of warm air straight up. He searched for and found many during our flight. I also searched for and found many power lines which I didn't hesitate to relay to him along with our close proximity. He just laughed and said, "Yeah, we don't want to hit those, that would be shocking."

What I thought was going to be a quick 20 minute glide to the landing pad, turned into an almost two hour adventure of "Find the thermals!" Up and down and all around. We drifted across entire villages in seconds as the air cooled and we dropped then flew in search of another thermal. 

I saw another paraglider close by. They were nearly upside down, twirling back and forth. I said, "Oh your friend must have found the wind." Christian let out a huge laugh and said, "That's your wife!" I could almost see the pee running down her leg, and was glad we weren't below. She also took a video of that.

We watched the cruising black vultures below as they too found the thermals and drifted upwards, effortlessly. A pair of Red-Tailed Hawks flew alongside us with their legs lowered, talons extended, knocking each other off balance and causing the other to drop quickly before starting all over again. 

Christian's longest ride was over six hours. There is nothing I know that compares to riding the thermals and defying gravity's pull. I will be forever grateful for the knowledge and experience I was given by a passionate professional and expert reader of the wind. 

Back on the ground, my quest for warmer clothes, thermals to be exact, ended in defeat with the purchase of a cheap pair of orange, blue and pink socks made for a child. But hey, no more cold feet.  The experience may be finished, but the flight will definitely not be forgotten and we arrived back home to find an entire wall stacked full of wood. 

Why Not Alisa.......

Paragliding was something Jim mentioned we should do when we first started looking into things to do in Panajachel. I remember getting that sinking feeling in my stomach and replied, cool.  On Monday, not sure why, I decided to take the initiative and make arrangements to go paragliding. The company immediately got back to me and said great, how about in two hours…well that’s not a lot of time to process, how about Wednesday.  The day before I started contemplating all the what if’s,  if I thought Parasailing in Mexico was too dangerous, what in my right mind would make me think paragliding in Guatemala would be any safer. 

After a text to the “Mi familia thread,” excluding mi papa, no need to worry him, we were on our way to the office of Realworld Paragliding. Arriving a little early we decided to make a quick stop at Pana Rock for a beer, to relax the nerves.  Then it was the waiting game, I don’t do well waiting when I am anxious so we sat outside the office in silence.  I believe we both contemplated what we were about to do right after we signed the waiver and saw the jump off spot way up on the side of the mountain. The van arrived 15 minutes late and raced through the streets of Pana to pick up our pilots, Christian and Marteen, at the landing spot. 

The twenty-five minute ride up was quiet.  I remember looking out the window thinking, what on earth are you doing? My heart began to beat in my ears and my hands were so sweaty I couldn’t even hold Jim’s hand for comfort.  Once we stopped I immediately headed for the bushes to exit my body of all fluids. As I walk back I see Jim at the edge looking over, he walks towards me, with wide eyes and mumbles you should go look. Yeah… Nope! 

I'll stand back here and continue to watch Christian and Marteen get the chutes ready, making sure they inspect them properly, making myself even more nervous. 

Marteen approaches and explains that Jim will be jumping with Christian (10 years experience jumping in Pana, native to Guatemala) and I will be jumping with Marteen (younger, first time in Guatemala, second jump here). Good news Jim goes first! I watched them prepare and get ready. I vaguely remember Marteen giving me instructions on how we will take off. I watched as their parachute kept bouncing up and down each time, giving me a quick glimpse of Jim. All of a sudden the chute flies up and Jim starts running forward, nope backwards, wait is he sitting on the ground, is he backing out…..nope just a rough take off. So Marteen, how do we take off again?

We sat at the edge overlooking the “runway” as my heart pounded and I watched Jim peacefully glide through the air. I was jealous that he was done with the hard stuff.  Marteen said on three, I was to run three long strides and then lift back…something like that. One, two, oh shit…three and we were jerked back hard enough that I didn't remember running.  Up, up and away!  I made myself keep my eyes open!

I was in such awe of the breathtaking views and the sense of peace I felt paragliding through the air. I was surrounded by volcanoes and a beautiful lake below. It was the closest I’ve ever been to the sun which warmed me from the cold and powerful wind that also gave us the freedom to glide with the birds through the skies and clouds. Paragliding was worth the mental challenge and yes I would do it again!


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