blue and green hot air balloon, inside

The wind did its best to thwart my attempts to fly in a hot air balloon but I finally got the chance to make one of my dreams come true at the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Elvas in Portugal’s Alentejo region.

hot air balloons on the ground and in the air, Alentejo
Balloons at different stages of flight

After a last-minute dash across the Portuguese countryside from Alter do Chão to Fronteira, I arrived just in time to watch the balloon being inflated. It took me right back to my childhood, I used to love watching the balloons flying through the sky. If you haven’t been in one of these beautiful balloons before you need to check them out! I am even looking at booking to ride in one on my next vacation! 

It surprised me how much effort is involved; it took several people and a considerable amount of pushing and pulling to hold the sides open while air from the fan gushed inside. Happily for me, my offer to help was turned down so I busied myself taking photos. 

people hold a hot air balloon open to allow air in. Hot air balloon festival, Elvas, Portugal
It takes several people to hold the mouth of the balloon open
inflating a hot air balloon
Nearly full!
blue and green hot air balloon, inside
From inside the balloon

When the balloon was full of hot air and upright, it was time to see how easy it is to get five women into a space not much bigger than a phone box. I was secretly relieved to be spared an undignified clamber over the sides of the basket; I didn’t realise they have doors.

Now that it was pumped full of hot air, the balloon tugged the basket impatiently, trying to free itself from the Land Rover that served as an anchor. The basket rocked from side to side, causing a flutter of panic at one point when we thought it would topple over.

The team of pilots and ground staff soon stabilised the basket and once it was released from the car, we climbed, smoothly and quickly into the sky. The brightly coloured balloons below us were fat with air and ready to follow us.

Row of hot air balloon ready to take flight
More balloons ready to follow us
hot air balloons ready for take off
Leaving the rest behind

The flat, green fields and jagged lakes of the Alentejo spread out below us. After a while, the plains developed waves, adding depth to the landscape. Acres of vineyards and olive and cork oak trees formed geometrical patterns. The warmth from the sinking sun and the intermittent blasts of the burner kept me toasty.

Happy? You bet!

aerial view of a farmhouse, Alentejo
Geometric patterns and farm house
hills and countryside, Alentejo, Portugal
The wavy hills of the Alentejo

When the burner wasn’t roaring and Hervé wasn’t shouting into his walkie-talkie, there was silence. At least until we got closer to Fronteira, where every dog in town was barking its alarm at the scary objects floating past. As we watched cattle scatter then heard the crazed clanging of fifty-odd sheep bells, it became clear that animals aren’t that keen on hot air balloons.

hot air balloon pilots
Tiago controls the balloon while Hervé takes time out to admire the view

The farmers we passed gave us a wave from their tractors although I’m not sure how pleased they were to have these giant balloons landing in their fields. In my excitement and anxiety over whether or not I would be able to fly, I hadn’t given any thought to where or how we would land.

As our pilot Tiago explained, the balloon is totally at the mercy of the wind making it impossible to know where it will end up, which is why Hervé kept shouting directions via the walkie-talkie so that the guy who was driving the Land Rover could find and meet us when we landed.

There’s not a great deal that can be done to make the landing soft, either. We obediently clung to the ropes and crouched down but my knees crashed against the side of the basket as the basket hit the muddy field. Just as we thought it was safe to get out, the balloon started dragging and jerking us across the lumpy field in an attempt to fly again until the ground team managed to hold us down.

shadow of a hot air balloon landing in a field
Landed safely!

After piling out of the basket, all that remained was to deflate the balloon by crawling around on all fours to force the air out and picking bits of dried thistle off the material before stuffing it into a sack ready to drive back to the launch site.

My very first hot air balloon ride was certainly worth the wait and best of all, it was free!

And not just for me…

The 16th International Hot Air Balloon Festival took place in and around Elvas from November 10th to 18th, attracting over 50 teams of balloonists from all over Europe. The organiser, Aníbal Soares of Publibalão, persuaded the festival participants to allow members of the public to fill up any remaining spaces in their baskets in a bid to promote hot air ballooning in crisis-stricken Portugal.

With a usual price of €150 or more for a one hour flight, this was my best chance of riding in one so I’m really glad my perseverance paid off.

I’m not the only blogger to get lucky – Kathryn’s hot air balloon experience in South Africa looks every bit as thrilling as the one I had, with even more spectacular scenery.

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20 Comments

  1. Hello Dawn. Excellent write up for this amazing fairly recent sport in Portugal. I am happy to say my office is in a hot air balloon and thank you for mentioning our company as the Algarve operator. http://www.algarveballoons.com I and can clarify the door in the basket. Balloon baskets do not have doors except the basket for disabled passengers, which there is only 1 in Portugal – which you flew in. It is much more comfortable for wheelchair users but not prefered by comercial operators as reduces the safety features and more sturdy on fast landings like Fernanda had. You should come visit us at the Aerodrome of Lagos …. call anytime 91 453 2300 for a coffee. Once again thanks for sharing your positive experience …. ballooning is hard work but worth every effort … Happy New Year

    1. Author

      Hi Helena,

      Thanks for clarifying the door situation – I had no idea they were only on baskets for disabled passengers. It’s good to be forewarned that next time, I will have to clamber over the sides!

      Happy New Year to you too.

  2. Great shots! I did a balloon ride with my husband in New Zealand. It was quite simply phenomenal! Will never forget the moment when we burst through the clouds. Thanks for the memory!

    1. Author

      More than happy to oblige πŸ™‚ It was such a wonderful experience, I really hope to do it again some day. New Zealand would be a great place to do it – I did a parachute jump over Lake Taupo and the scenery was incredible.

  3. wow! and wow again! so glad you made it up there in the end – and the photos are spectacular!

    1. Author

      Thank you! I enjoyed taking them, too. Judging by the number of flights they’ve had to cancel this week due to bad weather, I really was lucky to get to fly on Monday.

  4. A door in a balloon? That’s very “advanced”.. I’ve done it 3 times and none of them had doors!
    First time at Coruche, same type of landscape as you’ve had, very smooth climb and first landing (but the car couldn’t reach us so we had to take off again and search for a new landing ground), 2nd landing not so smooth, but ok; 2nd time in Cappadocia (Turquia) very different landscape, the smoothest takeoff and landing ever (but the wind was so moderate that we didn’t go far); 3rd time last year at the 15th International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Fronteira, an odyssey… too strong winds in the morning, delayed to the afternoon, after much debate they decide to do to flight, the takeoff was ok, the flight was fine but the landing was a disaster because the wind was too strong. The basket fell down on one side and was dragged for quite a few meters, we were all over each other inside it (I was with my back over the gas bottle), but at the end no one was hurt. But then we had lost contact with the car so they didn’t know were we where… luckily a local farmer was doing his rounds to his cattle before sundown and saw us in the middle if his field and gave us a ride back to Fronteira… Would I do it again? OF COURSE.

    1. Author

      Wow, Fernanda. I’m glad my first ride was smoother than your Fronteira experience. You won’t forget that in a hurry though, and if that didn’t put you off, nothing will.

      I went to Cappadocia on honeymoon and really wanted to do a balloon ride there but my husband is afraid of heights. It seemed a bit inappropriate to abandon him on our honeymoon so I just got up early to watch as the balloons glided over the rocks. That was special, and I’m sure it was amazing from the sky.

  5. Fantastic, Julie! I would love to do this. Such a photo opportunity too! Good job you warned me about the door. I’ll try not to lean on it too hard if I ever make it.

    1. Author

      It’s pretty safe, Jo, unless you pull the rod that locks it in place out, which you wouldn’t! I hope you get to do it, it really was worth waiting for.

  6. Lucky you. Shows how with some information; planning and perseverance you can do some amazing things. Definitely one for the Portugal bucket list…. They will have a few extras from your blog followers next year. X

  7. Wow! What photos! And beautifully written-up. I feel like I was up there with you!

    1. Author

      I wish you had been!

  8. I so, so, so want to do that!

    Wonderful photos!

    1. Author

      Thank you! It was truly amazing so I hope you get the opportunity to try it yourself one day.

  9. Julie, I’m so pleased for you – and thank you for sharing such wonderful photos!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Vivienne. It was wonderful – can’t wait for my next flight! πŸ˜‰

  10. Oh how wonderful that you finally managed to fly! IΒ΄ve never done it, but I love the vivid colours of the different balloons. Well done, you πŸ™‚

    1. Author

      Thanks, Marianne. It was fascinating watching them all being inflated, as well as gliding through the air, of course πŸ™‚

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