Every little kid wants the ability to fly. I was no exception.
I have many fond memories of my step brother and I leaping off my back porch of my childhood home. We “borrowed” my parent’s largest umbrellas – naturally, believing that, the bigger the umbrella, the more likely it would double as a parachute.
We shared creeping doubts that we’d be able to float to the ground as gracefully as Mary Poppins. Yet we persisted in our grand experiment – our imaginations enthralled by an aeronautical quest.
In the end, bruised knees and twisted ankles were the rewards for our research. But our spirits weren’t shaken. As a wise philosopher once stated, “With little pain comes the most incremental of gains.”
My story is anything but unique. Yet it serves to illustrate an infatuation with aviation that seems almost innate in human beings. From Da Vinci to the Wright Brothers to the scientists who are currently piloting single-passenger drones over Dubai, there’s just something about soaring through the air that captures the human spirit – the freedom, the curiosity and splendid recklessness.
For some, that nagging urge eventually fades – drowned out by the crushing responsibilities of adulthood. For others like me, that tickling feeling in the back of our necks continues to inspire us to do things – that on face – don’t make a whole lot of sense. We jump off buildings and bridges, leap out of airplanes and glide above the earth on a piece of fabric.
As the 10th Doctor so elegantly put it, “It’s not the urge to jump. No. It’s something deeper than that. It’s the urge to fall.”
This summer, I had a unique chance to satisfy that urge while backpacking in Granada, Spain. Granada is an exceedingly historical and culturally rich city with countless attractions for tourists to salivate over. But despite the intimacy of its late night Flamenco shows, the grandeur of its ancient architecture and the succulence of its fresh Andalusian jamón, Granada’s best feature is the nature that surrounds it.
Granada is just kilometers away from the magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountains. The mountains provide a regular playground for outdoor enthusiasts and extreme-sports lovers alike. There are hiking paths, mountain bike trails and lakes and rivers abound. The snow-capped Pico Veleta looms in the distance rising to 3,393 meters (11,132 feet) high. It’s slopes and surrounding peaks and valleys allow for excellent skiing and off-roading.
The Sierra Nevada is also the perfect place for flying – or more specifically, paragliding.
While researching “things to do in Granada” online, I learned that the foothills of Sierra Nevada are perfect for summer paragliding. The slopes are littered with large and powerful thermals (pockets of warm air) that provide lift to any would be paraglider. The cloud bases are typically very high or non-existent, allowing flyers to reach ceilings of over 5000 meters.
I was sold.
I contacted GranAltura Parapente after reading some positive reviews on Trip Advisor. The owner of the company and 15-year pro, Carlos Cervilla, responded quickly to my WhatsApp message and we set up a flying session for the following day – pending good weather.
If you’ve ever been paragliding before, you likely know how the process works. Mother nature can be a bit unpredictable so it’s nearly impossible to set an exact flight time. Instead, companies closely monitor weather forecasts and plan accordingly.
Of course, Granada in August rarely sees poor weather. My plans continued without a hitch. Carlos reached out to me the morning after our initial contact and informed me that conditions were good.
GranAltura Parapente is located just outside Granada, in the smaller suburb of Cenes de la Vega. There’s no need to hire a taxi or a car because Grenada’s public buses (line SN1) can drop you right on GranAltura’s doorsteps.
Carlos met me at a small restaurant a few doors down from GranAltura. He asked me if I’d like a coffee or a soda while we waited for a couple of his students to arrive. He made sure to note that a “pre-flight” beer was not advised.
Carlos and his staff offer four different paragliding courses with varying degrees of difficulty. Courses range from two days for an introductory lesson, to a full four to six months of educational instruction. Students are required to grasp a firm understanding of flight mechanics, aerodynamics, meteorology and more before they are ever allowed to fly solo.
While taking to the skies alone seems like a thrill, I was more than content to go on a casual tandem flight – leaving my life in the hands of the experts.
Once our full party arrived, we departed Cenes de la Vega and headed towards the mountains. Before starting up a winding pass, Carlos offered me a Dramamine (or the Spanish equivalent) to ease any potential motion sickness I may experience. I politely declined.
As we climbed toward Las Rozas – the mountain that would be our launching point – the road went from asphalt to dirt. After about 10 minutes of bumpy off-roading in a minivan, we’d gone as far as we could go. We had to walk the final few hundred meters to our destination.
The view from Las Rozas is stunning even before you leave the ground. Yellow grassy hills and green forests swirl together to form the beautifully uneven landscape of the valley below. Carlos and I made sure to snap a few selfies before we took off.
GranAltura provides customers the option to purchase a video of their flight for a small fee. Carlos even offered me a discount because I’d brought my own Micro-SD card and wouldn’t need to purchase one.
Taking off for tandem paragliding feels remarkably simple. The instructor will handle any of the technical details. All you need to do is look forward and run when you’re told to.
After running downhill for a few meters, the glider lifted us smoothly into the air. I sat back on the mounted chair as we began to float over the vale below.
My photos speak for themselves. Once we rose above 2,000 meters, I was filled with a mix of adrenaline and childlike glee. My smile was so wide that it hardly fit on my face. To my right, the towering white peaks of the Sierra Nevada. To my left, rolling hills lined with rivers and lakes. Granada was just visible – a tiny collage of color and lights on the horizon. I could vaguely make out the towers of the Alhambra that overlook the edge of the Andalusian capitol.
Carlos pointed to the half-dozen other gliders, explaining that his companions will reveal any thermals that might be around. We watched the other gliders for a few moments before I heard a beeping. It was the Carlos’s thermal detection device letting us know that we were about to experience some major lift. We rose higher and higher, eventually topping out at 1,635 meters above the launch point – which was at minimum, 4,000 meters above sea level.
The views were mesmerizing. We were flying well above any of the other gliders, looking down on their colorful parachutes. Carlos asked me if I was feeling sick. Apparently it’s quite common for guests to become sick after about 10 minutes of flying. I felt quite the contrary.
The warm wind and the orange sunlight were soothing as they washed over my face. It felt surprisingly peaceful and pensive at 4,000 meters up. But soon that calm sleepiness turned again to excitement when Carlos let me take the controls of the glider. Of course, he kept his hands right over mine in case he needed to quickly step in. But it felt awesome to be in control of the chute, if only for a moment.
When my first 15-20 minutes were up, Carlos asked if I’d like to pay for more time. There was no way I’d turn him down. We continued to float over the earth for about 10 more minutes before we began our rapid descent.
Carlos asked me if I was still feeling okay.
“Of course,” I responded. I hadn’t felt the slightest twinge of motion sickness. Yet.
Because I’d had a good flight, Carlos said he’d give me a special treat. That treat turned out to be a quick descent where we whipped through the air, zigging and zagging in a controlled chaos. It felt as though we were doing loops as our orientation shifted from vertical to horizontal, and back again. It was an incredible thrill. However, my stomach wasn’t a fan.
I was quite nauseous for the landing process – and for about 15 minutes after the flight. Still, it was worth it. We landed in a field in Cenes de la Vega, less than a kilometer from Granaltura HQ.
And that was that.
It only lasted around 35 minutes, but it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life. Granada has many highlights and paragliding certainly isn’t for everyone.
But for those who can’t silence the voice inside that cries out for adventure, soaring over the Sierra Nevada is an absolute must.
Also published on Medium.