There is no real age limit for Ballooning. Providing you can see over the edge of the basket (1.30m) and that you are capable of climbing into it, you can fly! We recommend a company called Glovento Sur (see link below), who fly all over Andalucia. The company has 3 pilots (all authorised by Spain's Civil Aviation Authority) and a selection of balloons to carry groups ranging from 4 to 10. Bookings should be made in advance and preferably early in your trip as the date often has to be changed due to weather conditions. Flights are early in the morning and are followed by a serious breakfast.
Early morning over Arcos-de-la-Frontera
We had been in touch with Santi (Glovento’s pilot for the Cádiz area) several times during the week to keep up-to-date with weather conditions. A gentle poniente (on-shore, westerly wind) was forecast with clear skies, just about perfect conditions for an early morning balloon flight over the historic hilltop town of Arcos-de-la-Frontera. However, a thick mist covered the coast as we left for our 08:30 rendezvous, and it was only when we were quite some way inland that it began to clear. Santi and his assistant, Martin, were waiting for us at the entrance to Arcos and, after introductions and the launching of a child’s helium balloon to check wind direction, we were soon sitting in their minibus with the basket and balloon on the trailer behind, heading off in search of a suitable launch site.
One of the attractive things about ballooning, as Santi explained, is that no two flights are ever the same; that is to say, winds, currents, temperatures, takeoff and landing sites, are for ever changing. This morning provided near perfect conditions, with a gentle south-westerly breeze and a thin layer of ground mist. One of the main challenges for balloon pilots is their accuracy and on this occasion Santi’s plan was to take off to the southwest of Arcos and then fly directly towards the famous escarpment that marks one of the limits to the old town. The idea was to fly up and over this vertical cliff and then between the spires of the town’s two biggest churches.
Having rejected his preferred launch site because it had been seeded with corn, Santi opted for a flat piece of land running alongside a small river and an abandoned mill. Some 100m above us and about 1km away, we could see the suggestion of the towers and ramparts of Arcos through the mist. Santi and Martin soon had the basket off the trailer and on its side with the unrolled balloon stretching across the grass. They then used a small fan to fill the balloon with air and it very soon took shape, its blue and yellow chequered panels in stark contrast to the white mist that was still all around us. It then took only a few blasts from the burners to put the balloon and basket in an upright position and then, with the basket firmly anchored, this was the moment we had been waiting for. Small foot holes in the side of the basket make climbing into it relatively easy (I went with my parents, aged nearly 80, and they had no problem getting in). However, once inside, movement is fairly limited, in a design that has hardly changed since the Montgolfier brothers made their first flight in 1783. We were five (including pilot) in a six-man basket, but Glovento also have baskets for groups of eight and ten.
The first few blasts from the burners are the worst in terms of heat and noise, not only because you are not prepared but also because the blasts needed to get the balloon off the ground and moving up are longer. However, with cold cheeks and warm heads we were soon on are way and before long the river below looked no more than a small stream and the outline of the ramparts above became increasingly recognisable. Although we were clearly rising, we were also moving towards the cliff pretty swiftly. And, although nobody said anything, we were all starting to wonder whether we were ascending fast enough. However, our pilot was spot-on and we drifted over the plaza mayor and between the towers, much to the excitement of the waving tourists breakfasting in the big window of the Parador at the top of the rock and the groups of passers-by who had congregated in the plaza to wave and shout. It is not every day that you see a balloon, and one of the nice things about flying in one is that everyone waves and smiles at you! Even the cows look as you fly over fields, and the barking of dogs, which follows your every move, is often the only noise you can hear (even 500m up!) People in their pyjamas came running out to wave and shout as we slipped over the rooftops of waking Arcos.
We then gained height quickly and soon left the town way below, now a whitewashed island in a sea of grey mist. We were heading towards the Arcos lake, just northeast of the town. Here the mist had cleared and the sun’s reflection glared as if from a mirror. Having grown accustomed to the 50-150m at which we had been flying earlier, our new altitude of 500m was a different kettle of fish. The lake and town soon looked as they would do perhaps from a plane window and the view ahead (to the north and east) was like those one has seen in so many balloon photographs: low white cloud cover stretched away as far as the eye could see with the highest peaks of the Sierra de Grazulema protruding black against the blinding white sun. At this moment I have to recognise that the ballooning bug got me and I would have drifted on for hours! However, a slight breeze on our faces indicated that the wind was changing and Santi started to take us lower (one of the striking things about being in a balloon is that there is no sensation of wind: because you are travelling with the breeze, there is no resistance, and when you do feel air on your face this is the tell-tale sign that the wind direction has just shifted). The other thing you quickly realise is that while the pilot has a high degree of control over the balloon’s altitude (a rope connected to a hole at the top of the balloon enables him to let hot air out when he wants to descend, while a blast on one of the burners takes you up swiftly and a blast on both is almost as effective as a lift), his influence over the balloon’s horizontal movements negligible. For this he needs to rely on the wind, and it was only when we approached the water on the far side of the lake and the balloon made a ninety degree turn as it picked up a new breeze hugging the surface that I realised what a fine art piloting a hot-air balloon is. Exactly as Santi had predicted, the new breeze veered us south and towards a little peninsular where he was planning to land, and where our breakfast was waiting! We came down low and were able to see the balloon’s reflection clearly in the calm water. Lower still, and we were able to lean out of the basket and touch the bull rushes that now separated us from the shore. An added bonus was to see osprey fishing for his breakfast. Then, with extraordinary precision, Santi read the local conditions to steer us along the shoreline and, after a couple of well-timed blasts on the burners to take us over some slightly higher bushes, we landed on a football pitch no more than10m from our minibus and trailer, which had been tracking us throughout our journey and was now parked just behind the goal. Landing involves a bit of a bump, but no more than that providing there is not much wind. Inside the basket there are a series of rope handles for holding onto and we were told to flex our knees, to hold on tight, and to try and avoid falling one on top of the other (which is apparently how you would be most likely to hurt yourself).
Gathering the equipment is even quicker than assembling it (say 20 minutes versus 30 minutes), and we were soon speeding along the road to our breakfast: piping hot café con leche with toasted baps (molletes) and local olive oil with pata negra ham and tomato, overlooking the lake. What a perfect start to the day, and it was still only 10:30!
Glovento Sur organise other flights in the area, including a new one that crosses the Sierra de Cádiz.