The man who flew with vultures: how virtual travel is unlocking the world


SHORTLY before 3.50pm on Monday, tourist guide Santiago Lopez took a leap of faith – off the side of a mountain overlooking the Colombian city of Medellin.

It was a tandem hang-glider flight on which Santi was accompanied by pilot Juan David, myself and some 300 people clinging to his jacket.

Yes, you read that right … three hundred. More of that later.

As we soared alongside vultures over the valley below,  Santi – now a veteran of four flights – voiced his joy. “I feel like a condor!” he whooped. “Guys, it might sound like I’m high, but I am high!”.

Indeed, we were. All of 2,400 metres above sea level, the city sprawling far below in the Aburra Valley.

We watched vultures riding the hot air currents, and saw tumbling waterfalls and white trees among the countless shades of green as we descended.

This was freedom in the face of the pandemic gripping Colombia, where up to 97 percent of ICU beds are full of Covid patients. It was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.

But I joined trained architect Santi, and his 300 other guests, on the aerial adventure from the comfort of my armchair back home in the UK.

It was live streamed in real time on the heygo.com platform. The birdman of Medellin even had time to answer our questions via live chat during the flight.

Although admission to the trip was free, in common with all tours on the platform, we could leave tips if we wanted, helping the Children of the Sky foundation which takes kids off the streets.

“The aim is to take young people off the streets, where they might be doing drugs, and teach them to fly, eventually becoming pilots themselves,” explained Santi.

It is an important crusade in Medellin, once the hub of Pablo Escobar’s drugs empire and dubbed ‘Murder City’ before reinventing itself in recent years as an arts and culture centre.

All too soon, we were back down to earth, the live feed capturing the moment Santi’s boots hit the ground.

Not to worry. He’ll be flying again soon – watch this space.

Santi is one of many guides streaming trips from 250 destinations worldwide on heygo. What started with a simple stroll round London’s Borough Market on June 13, 2020 has grown rapidly, from one location a week to as many as 40 a day.

Walking city tours still have their place on the platform but the range of experiences has steadily expanded, adding all manner of adventure.

So it was that within 15 minutes of touching down at Medellin, I was galloping across the Theban desert in Egypt, sharing the saddle with Lesley Hammam.

Lesley, who has been living in Egypt for 22 years, specialises in taking guests off the beaten track. A week ago, I sailed with her on a less-visited stretch of the Nile, navigating the rapids.

This time she gently trotted out into the sands, detailing wildlife such as the black winged kite, desert foxes, wild quail and the fearsome Nile Monitor lizard, “our closest thing to a crocodile”.

Then there was a wonderfully wild gallop back to our starting point to end a memorable trip. We, quite literally, rode off into the sunset. Was that Indiana Jones I spotted?

Later the same day, I clambered up to the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland with Albert Armannsson, something of a legend among the 4,000-plus members of the heygo voyagers Facebook group.

This was the most spectacular visit yet as the vents spewed molten lava, slowly but steadily filling the valley. You can see more pictures from the night here.

It was my seventh visit to the volcano with Albert. On one occasion, finding the area closed off, he simply found a pilot and flew 800 of us over the drama below.

In recent months, I’ve travelled by gondola through Venetian canals to discover a backwater Banksy, sailed a catamaran off the Cape Town coast, ridden a bicycle in Amsterdam, skied down the slopes at Lake Louise and been out to sea, whale watching on a fishing boat out of Husavik.

I’ve ‘flown’ to Roosevelt Island in a New York cable car, ridden a vertiginous funicular in Kiev, strolled through the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, and spent a delightful breakfast time at the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala, Sri Lanka.

I’ve been up, close and personal with China’s terracotta warriors, inside the Cathedral of Spilled Blood in St Petersburg, strolled under cherry blossom in Japan, and – in the early hours of the morning – met the pandas in Chengdu.

Closer to home, I’ve discovered bridges, brewers and brawlers in Birmingham, where I spent many years editing the city’s main newspapers but still learned fascinating facts and shared anecdotes with inspirational guide Ian Braisby on my virtual visit.

The most remarkable place I have visited is a hidden treasure – the spectacular stepwell in the Indian village of Abhaneri, where Batman Bruce Wayne famously climbed out of Bane’s prison pit in The Dark Knight Rises movie. Unlock its secrets here.

Specialist options now include salsa lessons in Colombia, cookery demonstrations in several countries, virtual wine tastings, visiting schools in Africa and more. Coming full circle, teachers worldwide are increasingly joining tours with pupils to broaden their horizons.

But, a word to the wise. Virtual travelling can be addictive. Since discovering the platform late last year, I’ve notched up seventy trips – and even that makes me a novice. Some members of the Heygo Voyagers community proudly boast of 200-plus tours.

It is, say John Tertan and Liam Garrison, founders of the Brit start-up success, a far cry from the early days when they had to trail behind a guide, clutching their laptop and praying that the signal would hold out.

“We started out doing just one trip a week,” recalls John (pictured right), whose parents are Romanian but who grew up in Toronto. “It’d be 50/50 as to whether it would work. We had fuzzy pictures and the signal kept dropping out. Once, we lost the London guide we were following. That was a moment of panic.

“From there, we stretched out to Paris, then Copenhagen, New York and Tel Aviv, rotating the destinations. We were part-time, researching local guides when we could, then cold-calling them and trying to persuade them to sign up.

“Luckily, enough guides agreed to join us and now we’re in hundreds of locations, taking thousands of people on tours every day. It’s a full-time business.”

Liam, whose mother is Canadian and father Texan, grew up in the UK and is the brains behind the tech, which usually delivers crystal-clear HD streams from all manner of places, even as remote as Machu Picchu.

“Both John and I love meeting people from different places,” he says. “Lockdown meant that travel was all but impossible, and we realised how special that interaction was. That’s why we included the facility to chat with the guides and your fellow travellers.”

Tips, which are not obligatory, are split between heygo and the guides. Here in the UK, guests pay as little as a fiver for tours with experienced local guides who would otherwise be out of work because of the global coronavirus catastrophe.

“Tourism evaporated in just two days last Spring,” says Icelandic guide Albert Armannsson. “I took on coronavirus myself and spent six weeks trying to get over it. For ten days I was not belonging to this world. I did not know what was day and what was night.

“It took me six weeks to realise what my feet were for, and that I could walk. I was just sitting there, staring at nothing like a zombie. Everything stopped when the pandemic hit, and the virtual trips have been a lifeline for many of us.”

The sprightly 66-year-old, whose story you can read here, currently takes virtual guests to 30 locations across Iceland, sometimes singing lullabies during late night drives in search of the Northern Lights.

I could detail many more of the trips I’ve taken but I must dash. I have an appointment with Dilip Fernando in Sri Lanka to squeeze in before I board a boat with Albert Armannsson in Iceland.

And that’s before I spend the evening with the lovely Anna Levina in St Petersburg…

For current destinations and a tour calendar see www.heygo.com.

Categories:Africa, Asia, Europe, Film & TV, Long haul, UK Breaks, USATags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 comments

  1. As a heygo voyager I have been on some of those tours but those I’ve missed I’ll be checking out for sure. It’s a fantastic platform for sure.

    Like

  2. I have been on 150+ trips since February and many of the ones mentioned. I can confirm that they are just as remarkable as described and you begin to get to know the guides too which is great – especially if you ever visit their country in the future.

    It is a whole new world family. Absolutely terrific.

    Like

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