Paragliding in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. My personal story of dancing in the air.
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It’s mid-afternoon on a Friday, and I’m standing on a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The sun is high and hot overhead, but below me. About 550 feet below, panga boats zoom in and out of the cove that houses the village of Yelapa, Mexico; a smattering of palapas and casas, an hour by boat from Puerto Vallarta.
Around me, a half dozen paragliders wearing T-shirts, shorts and hiking shoes, unravel their gear from 45-pound packs, getting ready to launch. Their nylon “wings” are bright colors; turquoise, pink, red and silver.
For me, the beauty seems tangential. I shift from foot to foot, twirling my hair, consumed with nerves. I’m not just here to wish the pilots “adios,” as they fly away. I’m about to launch on my first tandem flight, an idea that came together mere hours ago. Right now, I’m focused on the beach where I will (hopefully) eventually land. I keep looking back at the steep jungle trail I climbed up to get here, and I think about sneaking away and traipsing down.
I’ve always thought paragliders looked cool floating around in the sky like exotic birds. Although I’m not afraid of heights, the idea of jumping off a mountain freaks me out. I envision several moments of terror, sort of like being on a high dive, except there is no safe, sparkling swimming pool down below.
On the edge
Yelapa is a popular gathering spot for paragliders from around the world, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been watching the pilots in admiration from the beach, soaring above the treetops of the jungle. I never imagined myself getting up the courage to become airborne myself.
Then a friend introduced me to John Fullenkamp, a towering 6-foot-7 guy from Breckenridge who’s living in Yelapa with his family for a couple of months. My family is doing the same thing, so we shared an instant connection.
I enjoy meeting people from my own community when I travel around the world. There’s a familiarity in talking with those who understand the landscape of your home, and this feels nice in a foreign place like Yelapa, where I’m struggling to speak Spanish every day, eating foods I don’t recognize and keeping my eyes open for scorpions and boa constrictors.
John told me a little of his “flying” story. He first became interested in paragliding after observing pilots launching from a ski run in France. As a world traveler, the sport had allure, because the necessary gear packs down small enough to check on an airplane. Now he’s a seasoned pilot and instructor, with more than 1,100 logged flights. His 16-year-old son is also a solo pilot. In Colorado, they typically launch from places in Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction and Avon.
As John finished his story, I found myself blurting, “I’d like to fly!”
“Let’s,” he responded.
How could I back out? This guy from my Colorado community would keep me safe, right?
Dancing in air
And now here we are, next in line to launch. I strap on my pack and helmet with slightly shaking fingers. John talks to me in a calm voice. He says it’s a great wind day — there’s a lot of lift — and because we’re tandem, we’ll be doing a forward launch, meaning I’ll be in front and we’ll walk toward the edge of the mountain.
He tells me I only need to remember two things: to keep moving forward, and to try to keep my feet on the ground, even when I’m being pulled into the air. “It’s sort of like a dance,” he says.
John leads me to the middle of the canvas pad and lays out our wing and lines behind us. We stand there for what feels like many minutes as John watches the wind cycles by noting the motion of little plastic flags blowing on strategically placed poles.
Finally, he says, “OK, this is us.” I take a deep breath, move my right foot forward and begin to walk/jog. Within seconds, the wing is pulling me back and up, but I remember what John said. I keep my feet moving. My toes lift and then touch back onto the ground. The edge is still far away.
Suddenly we aren’t on the ground anymore. We’re airborne! I can hardly believe it. There was no jumping necessary. Instead, the launch felt more like a burst of air pulling me up and away. I exhale deeply, relieved and exhilarated. John tells me to settle back into my seat. I shimmy backwards. It’s surprisingly comfortable. It’s like I’m sitting on a swing with the world as my playground. Instinctually, I pump my legs a little and smile like a schoolgirl.
We glide through the air faster than I expected. John says we’re cruising at about 25 mph. He uses the lines to slow down one side of the wing, in order to turn us. The scenery is gorgeous. We fly above the town waterfall, over the village and across the main pier.
A bird floats past, as if to say hello. And then my favorite part happens: John steers the wing toward the bay and we’re gliding over the sea. I look down at the boats and kayaks and scan the surface for humpback whales and dolphins.
After about 10 minute of flying, slowing descending the entire time, we approach the beach. I see my family and friends waiting with big smiles and cameras. The landing is surprisingly gentle. We touch down and then keep jogging as the wing pulls us around a little. With skilled movements, John arranges the wing to let it fall to the ground gracefully.
I smile, triumphant. But before I get too wrapped up in telling stories and sharing the details of my experience with onlookers, I do the most important thing.
I turn to John. “Thank you.”. I mean this in so many ways. For keeping me safe. For calming my nerves. And for encouraging me to jump over my fear and see the world from a new angle.
Written by Carrie Visintainer
Contact Carrie Visintainer at carrievisintainer.com.
Should you wish to experience paragliding in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, contact John Fullenkamp at www.glenwoodparagliding.com.