The biggest event of its kind in Latin America, the International Balloon Festival in Leon, Guanajuato, takes place in the middle of November. Attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors over the four-day festival, and some two hundred hot air balloon teams from all over the world, it is a spectacle that justifies the early morning wake-up.
Despite living in an age where complex and high-tech gadgets and machines are the norm, there is something about the aerostatic balloon that still fascinates. Since the first official passenger-carrying flight in 1783 (the passengers, by the way, were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster), the hot air balloon has held a romantic mystique that has not lost its charm over the years. The simplicity and nostalgic whimsy of witnessing a sky full of wicker baskets held up only by brightly colored nylon and hot air is one of those things in life that delights the senses and makes you feel like a kid again.
Visitors start arriving at the Metropolitan Ecological Park of Leon, Guanajuato where the event takes place at around 5:30 a.m. A small train takes somewhat groggy passengers the fifteen minutes or so from the park’s entrance to the open area where the balloons are laid out in a colourful patchwork. Signs around the area remind guests not to smoke and to use caution when walking around the balloons.
Just before 7 a.m., the first pilot lights up his burner. The balloon begins to inflate, filling out its massive shape and the crowd murmurs with excitement. It gracefully lifts off the ground with its pilot and two crew members and the spectators break into a cheer. Soon dozens upon dozens of huge balloons in a medley of colors and sizes fill up the north-central Mexican sky.
Floating alongside the traditional style balloons, which are my personal favorite, are at least 20 others designed in more unconventional shapes. A butterfly, penguin, devil, and even a glitzy white-suited Elvis cruise through the skies above the park.
Apart from the main attraction of the morning lift off, during the day — when the balloons are grounded — other events fill up the park. Spectators brave the hot Mexican November sun to take in a rodeo, dog show, dancing horse demonstrations, and concerts.
After dark, the pilots fire up their aircraft as part of a synchronized show where the propane burners illuminate the balloons in time to a music program.
Entry into the Metropolitan Ecological Park of Leon where the event takes place is 55 Mexican pesos (around $4.50) and tickets can be purchased at OXXO stores in Leon. Mass ascension of the balloons begins at 7 a.m. but it is recommended to be there early. The nightly balloon show begins at 6 p.m. Pets and alcohol are not allowed in the park and it is advised to wear clothing in light layers and comfortable footwear.