But when my wife Lorraine, our daughter Chloe, 21, and I were traveling in Northern Spain, we made this very random decision and booked a hot air balloon flight with Globos Estratos.
The idea stemmed from a link I saw on a Basque Country tourist website with a photo of a hot air balloon floating between the rugged mountains and a beautiful, tall waterfall in Gorbeia National Park.
So, after a few days enjoying San Sebastian, Zarautz, and the northern coast, we headed south. We stayed at a casa rural in the tiny town of Murua which borders the Gorbeia Natural Park because from what we understood from the website, the flight would take off from somewhere in the park. Except we were wrong.
The balloon would be taking off from the town of Medina de Pomar a hundred kilometers away—an hour and a half by car. And we had to meet with the pilot and the other passengers at a town tavern, at 8 am.
This meant we had to get up at 5.45 am, something Lorraine and Chloe were not happy about, to the point of questioning whether this mad endeavor of ours was even worth it.
The morning of our flight, things were not looking good. When we checked into our Casa Rural a couple of days earlier, Pilar, the owner, told us it hadn’t rained all summer—very uncommon for the area. But the morning of our flight, it rained. Our hot air balloon ride might be canceled.
Somehow Lorraine and Chloe managed to wake up early, get dressed, and scramble into our rental car where Chloe promptly fell asleep even before I even made it to the end of the driveway.
The GPS on my phone and Lorraine, half-asleep, both guided me through the dark, two-lane, winding roads under constant rain and warnings about deer crossings.
We met Joseba, the pilot, and Valentín, his assistant, and the other three passengers at the tavern in Medina de Pomar.
We all piled into Joseba’s Land Rover and drove out to a field. The rain was letting up, and looking up at the overcast sky, Joseba declared the morning was good for a flight. So we got to work.
Everyone pitched in. We unloaded the balloon and basket from the trailer. Joseba explained that hot air balloons use wicker baskets because they’re relatively flexible and allow for some movement when you experience a hard landing.
Setting up the balloon was a great part of the adventure. It allowed us to bond with Joseba and Valentín, a pair not unlike Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, as well as the other passengers, Basques who had driven down from Bilbao for the flight, and who didn’t complain about the early morning call.
We worked as a team pulling and stretching out the balloon over a field, then Joseba set up a large fan to fill the balloon with air. That’s when I noticed that Chloe, the family’s daredevil, looked worried.
I tried to comfort her by showing her a couple of videos of hot air Balloon accidents on YouTube. I´m being facetious here. But I also showed her an NBC news report from last year stating that only 16 people died in balloon accidents in the U.S. between 2002 and 2012.
Our odds were pretty good even though we were in Spain, not the U.S. I also told her not to show any of the videos to her mom.
With the balloon quickly filling up with air, Joseba turned on the burners on the top of the basket. Flames shot out like the exhaust of a jet and in a moment the balloon took shape and started going up. It happened so fast, it caught me by surprise.
While Valentín held a rope to keep the balloon basket on the ground, we all scrambled to climb inside. Then Joseba gave us a quick safety lecture. “When I say ‘now’, you all crouch down in the basket and hold on as hard as you can,” he said.
We ran through the drill once to make sure everyone got it right. The understanding was that this safety position was not for a crash. It was for an average landing.
Finally, Joseba turn on the burner and we lifted off, floating slowly into the cool morning air. Interestingly, the burners are not on all the time. Joseba would pull a handle and we’d go up. When we asked about our destination his answer was, “wherever the wind takes us.”
The field, Valentín, and the Land Rover got smaller below us as we climbed in altitude. Pretty soon we were sailing in the sky.
The ride was quiet and slightly breezy and warm from the fire of the burners. The feeling of being buoyant inside a wicker basket is amazing. It feels unnatural and gentle, especially at medium altitudes as you float over trees and rooftops.
Joseba turned the burners on intermittently until we were so high up that we could very well have been in a small airplane. Here, we met a different wind current, which Joseba explained was coming over the mountains and leading us in a different direction.
Then, he let the balloon down slowly, back to a few hundred feet where the valley wind changed our course again.
As we flew over the town, Joseba pointed to the different landmarks, the bullfighting arena, the remnants of a fair, parts of an ancient manor, and over the Nela and Trueba rivers.
After about forty-five minutes, it was time to land. Fortunately, we didn’t need to take crash landing positions. Joseba put us down in a field without a bump. It was like landing in a bed of feathers. Well, maybe I´m exaggerating a little.
In classic Spanish fashion, Valentín met us with a bottle of Cava and we had a toast to our successful voyage. We worked together to fold the balloon into its bag and loaded it and the basket onto the trailer.
Afterward, we drove back to the tavern where we had generous portions of tortilla and Joseba presented each of us with a certificate of flight.
I would say it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or maybe not. I would do it over in a heartbeat.
The feeling of floating in the air, quiet and easy over the treetops, moving with the wind like a bird in a contraption that has remained pretty much unchanged since the late 1700s, is indeed magical.