Paragliding in Paradise: High on Thermal Updrafts

January 6, 2006

ON any given weekend, a kaleidoscopic game of connect-the-crescents might wheel in the sky on the outskirts of the Pacific port town of Caldera. Anywhere from several to a dozen paragliders drift on rising thermal currents, glide over the ocean, forest and town, and perform aerial acrobatics such as spins, cannonball plummets and careening side-to-side plunges.

 

Paragliding – the mostly relaxing pastime of stepping off a cliff with an open parachute-like contraption and lounging in a soft chair strapped to the chute – has been around here for 10 years, nurtured by the transitory but steadily holding, 45-strong membership of the Asociación de Vuelo Libre (Free Flight Association), ASOVUELI for short.

 

“Words aren’t enough to explain the sensation – you have to live it to understand how it is when your feet leave the ground,” ASOVUELI president Erick Mata said. “It’s very relaxing. There’s no rush of adrenaline like in kayaking or parachuting – it’s relaxing. You can see the birds, the trees; one guy smokes while he’s soaring.”

 

THE association hosts contests that mirror international competitions in the skills they test. The three international categories are cross-country, in which the gliders try to fly as far as possible before they land or the farthest in the least time; maneuvers, which are falling stunts that can involve spins, deadweight falls, dropping leaf-like to lower altitudes and dozens of others, limited by the imagination, nerve and skill of the pilot; and precision, which involves either landing on a target or dropping bean bags on one.

 

Flying conditions in the Costa Rican tropics vary from those in other popular paragliding destinations, such as Mexico, Colombia and Europe. The rainy season and its low-lying clouds, afternoon showers and trade winds six months of the year put a cap on the length of cross-country flights, but there is action all year round. Riding thermal currents is especially easy during the dry and transitional seasons from February to June and October to December.

 

The danger factor is always one of the first concerns beginners have, but, according to Mata, paragliding is safer than riding a motorcycle, for example. “There have been accidents, but nothing serious – twisted ankles and wrists or people stuck in trees, but it’s not common,” he said.

 

TWO schools offer courses with certification, for those who want to learn to fly on their own, and tandem flights with a certified pilot, for beginners looking for a one-time thrill. The Escuela de Parapente de Costa Rica (Costa Rican Paragliding School), headed by Rodney Campos (395-5843), trains students in Spanish and English roughly three times a week for a month, but the weather dictates the schedule.

 

Most students begin to fly within 15 days and perfect the basic skills they learn during the last 15 days, Campos said. The course costs $550, and for an additional $75 students can become licensed members of the U.S. Hang Gliding Association, authorized to fly in countries that require such licenses – which Costa Rica is not, by the way.

 

The school takes curious one-timers on tandem flights both in Caldera and at a site in the Central Valley city of Alajuela, northwest of San José. The Caldera flight is a peaceful, scenic ride at about 400 meters in altitude, while the one in Alajuela is a speedy, technical adrenaline rush upward 1,200 meters. The thrill level is reflected in the cost: Caldera flights are $65 for foreigners, $55 for Costa Ricans and residents, and the Alajuela ride is $100. Both flights last about 20-30 minutes.

 

DEDALUS Fun and Sport – named for the mythic, wax-winged escapee of the Labyrinth of Greek mythology, and father of the ill-fated Icarus – headed by Venezuelan transplant Miguel Dib (842-9644), also offers training and tandem flights. The courses are about a month long – four weekends of theory and practice – and are taught in Spanish, English, French or German.

 

They begin in Cartago, east of San José, where light winds and a short hill help beginners float aloft for a few minutes at a time, guided by radio; then they move to the more advanced, longer flights in Caldera. The $550 courses are catered to the ability of each student, and end with the delivery of a diploma in basic paraglider piloting.

 

Dedalus also offers 30-45 minute tandem flights in Caldera for $60, and is a distributor of paragliders and accessory equipment from the German brand Firebird and the Brazilian brand Sol. A basic set of equipment that includes a glider and a backup chute costs about $2,000.

 

For information on ASOVUELI, call Mata at 395-1298 or visit www.parapentecosta-rica.org.

 

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