Greetings from far above my mystery location. Read on to find out more.

Where in the World Is My 51st Country?

Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” I could not agree more. Life truly should be lived on purpose. Don’t just be a passive observer. Go out and aggressively engage with the world around you. Travel to new places, especially those places that challenge your assumptions or are outside your comfort zone, is one of the most essential ways to live on purpose.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury or even inclination to travel. So quite some time ago, I started taking family and friends along vicariously on visits to exciting and out of the way places around the world. These vicarious travels have evolved into a contest in which I drop clues along the journey, and the first person to correctly guess the exact location wins a small gift card. I suppose I should start calling this contest something else since “Where’s Waldo” is most likely a copyright infringement, but I do still take along a small Waldo figure that a friend gave me a while back. When folks see Waldo looking at a map, they know a trip is coming.

The opening quote is relevant for this trip, especially as it was something of an adventure aside from the aspect of travel to a new country. The purpose of the trip was to participate in a “thermaling” clinic with a group of other paragliding pilots. Some of the other pilots there were quite experienced, so this was not new to them. I, on the other hand, only started paragliding six months ago. So launching from a cliff, then going higher and higher until reaching the clouds, was quite anew experience.

I will first share the clues, then a bit more about paragliding in general, and thermaling specifically, and finally return to an explanation of the clues. See if you can guess where this all took place. I may be getting better at offering challenging clues. Or perhaps I was just too cryptic. Because for the first time, no one guessed the exact location. No correct guesses, in spite of one clue I considered to be a dead giveaway.

The clues: l came here to fly and landed last night on a big bird. They have 2.5 times the neighbors as we do in the US. Not just diverse but megadiverse. They love their holidays here. Amazing Salsa. Later I’ll fly off a mountain, but this is just a small hill. The entertainment culture here is more significant than I realized. A little light reading on the trip was Jorge Isaacs’ novel, María. Two amazing and unique coastlines.

Before explaining the clues and revealing the location, let me share a bit more on the purpose of this trip.

For those not familiar with paragliding, a few of the basics. A paraglider is classified as a personal, ultra-light aircraft in which two layers of light, durable material, commonly ripstop nylon, form a wing. The wing is connected to a set of risers by support lines, usually made of a high strength material such as kevlar. These lines are very thin, but each one is capable of supporting far more than my body weight, and there are many of these lines. The risers then connect to a harness, which is where the pilot sits while flying.

Paragliding is considered an extreme sport, but I would offer that it doesn’t have to be that extreme. As a retired Army paratrooper myself, I would say that jumping from airplanes is for adrenaline junkies, whereas paragliding is for endorphin junkies. Accidents can and do, happen but with proper training and risk mitigation techniques, the danger can be reduced, though never eliminated.

Again, the primary reason for this trip was to learn “thermaling”. Thermaling is a technique where the pilot rides currents of rising, warm air to go higher and higher on the paraglider rather than just from the launch site to the landing zone. This video doesn’t quite do the process justice, it had to be edited for time, and the flight was almost two hours, but I hope you’ll get some idea what it was like.

In this case, the launch site was 5,817 feet above mean sea level (MSL), the flight in the video went as high as 7,897 feet MSL (several times), then landed at 3,996 feet MSL. The process even took me and the trusty glider into cloud base, and more importantly, out again when the lift started to suck my wing, and me with it, up into the clouds! The flight training was an exciting and rewarding learning experience. The ability to fly multiple times a day, with no distractions from work or other obligations, allowed progression at a very accelerated pace.

Of note, one of my fellow pilots got sucked into the “white room” (meaning he was stuck in a cloud), and even though trying to come down was still going up at several hundred feet per minute. For several reasons, this can be very dangerous, so most pilots avoid actually entering the heart of a cloud and only skirt along the edges and immediately aim for blue skies once reaching the cloud base.

I found paragliding to be a consciousness-raising endeavor. When I first started paragliding lessons, my instructor assured me that I might never look at the skies in the same way, and he was right. Now, when driving down the highway and I see birds circling, going higher without flapping their wings, I know they are thermaling. When I see specific types of clouds, I know they were formed by thermal updrafts. By comparing the location of these clouds with wind direction and speed, I can make some estimation of where the thermal began. Now, when I see these things, I imagine riding that thermal up to the cloud then leaving it for the next cloud. I admit it, I’m hooked.

OK, back to the country visited, any ideas where this might be?

The location was El Cerrito, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

Many guessed the country. Some also guessed the “state,” but no one guessed the town.

By the way, I’m putting “state” in quotes because, in Colombia, they call this political/geographical division a “department.” So, it was the town of El Cerrito, the department of Valle del Cauca, and the country of Colombia.

Before getting into the clues and explanations, I just have to say the country was beautiful, the people were warm and charming, and the flying was terrific. If you have the chance to visit, I highly commend it. Some family and friends cautioned me about visiting Colombia because of lingering fears that crime and violence related to the narcotics trade or guerrilla warfare may be an issue. I can’t say this has gone away, but my personal experience was consistently positive. In fact, on one launch, my wallet fell from my pocket, and I didn’t realize I had lost it until landing several miles away. The person who found it at the launch site, a local Colombian, could easily have just kept it (and the several hundred dollars in both US and Colombian currency), but he didn’t. He went to some trouble to find me and return the wallet. He even refused my repeated attempt to offer him a reward.

Now for the clues and the explanations of them. Of course, I never share the answers until after someone has won or the game is over, and that time has passed as I am now back home in NYC.

Clue: l came here to fly and landed last night on a big bird.

Explanation: Have you ever seen a Spirit Airlines plane. They remind me of Big Bird from Sesame Street. It’s not just a big airplane, that yellow color is pretty distinctive. “A big bird” was actually a better clue than some may realize since if you knew when I was leaving and on which airline, you could narrow it down quite a bit with just this information.

Clue: They have 2.5 times the neighbors as we do in the US.

Explanation: The US has two land-border neighbors. Colombia has five — Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, and Brazil. Fun fact, China has the most neighbors of any nation with sixteen. A quick Google search reveals twenty-four countries with five land-border neighbors.

Clue: Not just diverse but megadiverse.

Explanation: Colombia is classified as one of 17 “megadiverse” countries. It ranks as the 2nd most biodiverse country in the world. It has the highest amount of species by area in the world, including the most endemic species of butterflies, the most orchid species, the most amphibian species in the world, and more species of bird than all of Europe and North America combined. Fun fact, Brazil has the highest biodiversity on Earth, and the United States also makes the list of 17 megadiverse nations.

Clue: They love their holidays here.

Explanation: Colombia has 18 national holidays. The only country with more is India with 21.

Clue: Amazing Salsa.

Explanation: Not the dip, the dancing. It is extremely popular here, especially in Cali, the arrival location to Colombia.

Clue: Later, I’ll fly off a mountain, but this is just a small hill.

Explanation: El Cerrito literally translates as “little hill”.

Clue: The entertainment culture here is more significant than I realized.

Explanation: OK, I admit that Shakira was the only Colombian entertainer I could name, but she was scheduled to (and did) perform at the Super Bowl halftime show. Also, the world’s largest theater festival, the Iberoamericana, is hosted in Colombia.

Clue: Two amazing coastlines.

Explanation: Colombia is the only country in South America with coasts on both the Pacific and Caribbean.

The real giveaway clue was the light reading I’m doing. I posted a photo of “Waldo” reading a book that is somewhat out of character for me. I love reading but not normally “romance” novels. El Cerrito has within its jurisdiction the hacienda “El Paraíso,” where the writer Jorge Isaacs lived and set his book María. There are several reasons I thought this was the clue that would lead someone to the answer. Even a very brief online search for the book reveals that both the author and the main characters lived in El Cerrito (and also in the same house). The house is now a museum. While catching thermals on the paragliders, we circled over El Paraíso many times.

By the way, the book is great, and the locals take immense pride in it. I didn’t meet a single person who wasn’t eager to discuss the book and the tragic love of Efrain and María. There is even a statue of Efrain and María in the public square in Santa Elena, near where we were staying. I guess María is required reading in the schools there and is considered one of the most important works of 19th-century Spanish American literature.

On balance, this ranks among the best trips of my life. Travel never makes me better than anyone else, but it always makes me better than I was before. Get up, get out, see the world, and live life on purpose! Mark Twain opined, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Truth!

Tony Davis is a professional writer, adventure travel junkie, and author of God Loves You: Some Restrictions May Apply (and Many Other Christian Dilemmas)