The Airborne Planet Expedition, Vol 3: Guatemala
After two months of almost daily thermal and soaring flights in Costa Rica, we took it for granted that Guatemala would be alike. We were sure that we’d find many good launches on the multitude of perfectly cone-shaped volcanoes, and we looked forward to meeting the indigenous Mayan families. In the end we realized that in these two respects Costa Rica was far more accommodating, but Guatemala did prove to be an exciting experience. The country is rich in history, and the history is apparent everywhere you go- even in the streets of Guatemala City people still dress traditionally, and it is easy to distinguish the different tribes.
We start our paragliding journey at Panajachel, one of the few official paragliding sites. There we get some nice flights above the lake with views of the volcanoes. However, from what we’ve been told, in the category of beauty this region is nothing compared to the unexplored scenery in the “Far North” of Guatemala where the Cuchumatanes mountain range crosses the country from west to east. Unfortunately, we learn that we need police escorts to visit most of the volcanoes, due to the fact that they are completely infested with bandits!
On our way to the Cuchumatanes range, we attempt to fly from the Tajamulco volcano, which, at 4200 meters, is the highest mountain in Central America. Tajamulco is one of the few volcanoes which are generally considered safe, so we begin the ascent without guides or a police escort. Before our climb, we collect all of the information we need in the village below. It turns out that we might have talked too much! A mere 150 meters from the summit, we see four bandits armed with machetes. Ducking into the bushes, we escape, but spend three hours in terror, absolutely fearing for our lives. We hear them searching the trail and walking the perimeter of our planned launch site while we cower in the underbrush. We swear to each other that we’ll never stray into the mountains without guides again, but also vow to return to this volcano again one day, as the views from the top are beyond amazing, the launch site is perfect, and the flight down would be over 3000 meters in vertical.
We begin our exploration of the Cuchumatanes Mountains at Huehuetenango. There, we fly the lee side of the mountains in nice but turbulent thermals, and land in the fields of some friendly farmer’s who help us find the way back to launch. Just to the east of this flying area we discover a fabulous plateau with great soaring sites, and decide to spend the next week there. With horses, we explore the surrounding terrain and we fly several tandem flights with the enthusiastic natives in one of the more scenic settings of our trip so far. After each flight, we always count at least two gold teeth in the widely smiling mouths of our passengers. In Mayan culture gold teeth are very attractive, and they willingly add gold teeth and gold designs to their smiles—it’s Central American bling!
From Huehuetenango, our journey continues into the very rugged mountains of the northeast. Here, we can only fly in the early mornings, as from about 10am we can see enormous thermals bending the treetops and sending birds into orbit. We reluctantly admit that these conditions are beyond our ability, and it is a very difficult decision to make. The views of the canyons are breathtaking, and we long to be able to top-land on one of the distant plateaus. We find good flying sites at every village on our itinerary, and most of the natives we encounter offer us food and drinks with very entertaining enthusiasm. However, the frequent stories of violent and deadly robbers convince us that we shouldn’t travel too far alone in the beautiful valleys. In one village, we meet the family of an elderly woman who was killed two days earlier for just 50 Quetzal (5 Euros). It’s tragic, and it becomes clear that the lurking criminal gangs will stop at nothing in their quest for drugs, money and weapons, and are now endangering the whole country.
At El Estor, in the Eastern part of Guatemala, we discover a good thermal site above a large lake in a region that is well known for being safe. It’s a much nicer feeling to be in the air, knowing that you don’t need to worry about getting robbed when you land!
Guatemala is a poor country, where many families are self sufficient and live mostly from their small gardens. But their unique culture is of the finest nature. The people, no matter how poor they are, almost invariably invite us in to their homes and serve us their best food.
Also located in the Cuchumatanes Mountains is the Santa Maria Volcano, near Quetzaltenango. The summit of this peak is a perfect launch site, on the rare occasion that it is not enshrouded in a veil of cloud. We decide to attempt it and hope for a clearing, and begin our ascent. On the summit, we meet a Mayan family that had already spent three days in a fasting ceremony on the cold mountaintop. They are praying for their own health and well being. Their prayers sound more like painful cries, but we’re quite sure that their gods will understand everything. As we spread the tandem glider with the hopes of having a clear moment in which we can launch, all prayer activities are stopped and the fasting family comes to look. Moments later, we are unwittingly involved in a traditional ceremony in which the head of the family puts his trembling hands on our heads while casting a series of spells meant to exorcize the bad spirits from our bodies and to protect us from the bad spirits which surround us. When he finishes this, he then asks his god to open the sky so we are able to fly down. Amazingly, the sky clears and we are graced with a terrific view into the valley! Unfortunately, we didn’t explain to him that we needed at least ten minutes to launch, and before we are ready the clouds cover the peak again and shortly afterwards it begins to rain. We have the displeasure of hiking back down this peak, but fortunately we have been freshly exorcised and are protected from bad spirits.
Our advice for travelers and paraglider pilots in Guatemala.
It is very important to talk with the local people before going anywhere off of the main tourist routes, and it is essential to check multiple sources. Watch out for the Colmoyote, a fly that lays its eggs inside your skin! Kris’s leg gave birth to a nice nest of larvae after twenty days of painful and annoying infections.
The Guatemalan population has been terrorized for decades by the military and fully corrupt governmental regimes, and we pray for the people that the situation will improve as this country has great potential for paragliding and tourism in general. We promise to return soon in order to reattempt the volcanoes we missed, and to fly cross country in the Cuchumatanes Mountains.