The Top 10 Places in the World to See By Hot Air Balloon
By Jennifer Swetzoff
Hot-air balloon rides aren’t a cheap thrill, but the experience will undoubtedly knock you off your feet. When French brothers Joseph Michael and Jaques Etienne Montgolfier launched the first modern hot-air balloon in Paris in 1783, they used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag attached to a wicker basket. Today, the same basic engineering plan is used to carry adventure seekers high above the ground.
Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)
Architecture buffs, history lovers, and theologians will be astonished by this hot-air balloon voyage over Bagan’s sacred sites. On the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, the ancient city of Bagan boasts the world’s largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas, and ruins—many dating to the 11th and 12th centuries. As you coast through the sky at dawn, mist swirls around the pagodas and monks line up for their daily procession.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
For a bird’s-eye view of east Africa’s most acclaimed wildlife park, a hot-air balloon does just the trick. Depending on the time of year, you may see herds of wildebeest and zebra thunder across the savannah; a cheetah lurking in a tree, perhaps stalking its prey; a lion and lioness cuddling in the grasslands; or elephants splashing mud on themselves to keep cool. Serengeti Balloon Safaris donates a percentage of its revenue to conservation efforts in Tanzania’s national parks and primarily employs locals.
Flying over this yellow and pink moonscape is surreal. Ever since Mt. Erciyes and Mt. Hasan erupted here more than three million years ago, the wind, rain, and other harsh weather conditions have molded their volcanic ash and soft rock into a strikingly phallic setting of jagged cliffs, oddly shaped peaks, tall pillars, conical formations, and caves—creating what is known today as the Goreme Valley.
Napa Valley, California
Like a great glass of wine, this region should be savored. As you leisurely float over vineyards, orchards, and fields in a hot-air balloon, your pilot will give you an overview of the area and point out landmarks. Long lines of grapes, apple trees, and mustard seeds blur into a patchwork quilt of bright greens, purples, browns, and yellows outlined by mountains. As you eventually move back toward earth and land in a meadow of wildflowers, the richness of this fertile area comes to life.
There’s only one way to fully appreciate the vastness of Sedona’s vast crimson canvas. You have to rise above it. As you climb into a basket at dawn and float through the air as the sun rises overhead, the craggy red rock formations and deep grassy canyons come alive against an increasingly bright blue panorama. As you drift down, you see a wide variety of wildlife climbing over the jagged surfaces far below. Then you rise higher again, marveling at the rush you get from this slow and peaceful flight.
Balloons take off every morning from the west bank of Luxor and float above the Valley of the Kings—a sort of open-air museum—taking visitors high above the great pyramids, famous temples, and open fields that stretch toward the Nile River. You drift over the Ramesseum, a memorial temple for Pharaoh Ramesses II who ruled during Egypt’s 19th dynasty, and perhaps land somewhere in the desert south of Hatshepsut’s temple, built for one of Egypt’s rare female pharaohs who ruled during the 18th dynasty. You'll also fly over humble homes, such as this one, giving you a peak into the life of modern Luxor.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
It’s easy to speed through this part of the Wild West, but from a balloon’s perch more than 4,000 feet (1,220m) above the foothills, the natural beauty is profound. Watch as the sun rises over the Tetons. You drift over Jackson Hole, Teton Village, a working ranch bordered by Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the Snake River, and seven mountain ranges including the Yellowstone plateau. Keep a look out for elk and eagles.
The Alps, Switzerland
During the weeklong Festival International de Ballons that takes place in Chateau-d’Oex every January, competitors show off with daring stunts like parachute drops right out of their balloons. But for non-experts, simply climbing into a basket and floating over the snow-covered Alps is one of Europe’s coolest things to do. After you take off in Chateau-d’Oex, you travel from Mont Blanc to the Eiger, passing over the Grand Combin, the Cervin, the Jura, the Lemanique, and the Fribourgeouse region.
Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru
A version of a hot-air balloon may have been used 5,000 years ago in Peru’s Nazca desert as a tool to draw the famous ground lines that are still visible there today. While there’s little if any proof of this theory, the idea was enough to inspire the country’s first official hot-air balloon company. Before flying, you make a traditional coca leaf offering to the mountain guides at dawn. Then your pilot will heat up your balloon and off you go from Maras over the Urubamba mountain range and high above its many small villages.
Saga City, Japan
Experience the thrill of hot-air balloons in Saga City during the Saga International Balloon Fiesta. Every year in the beginning of November, more than 3,500 serious competitors gather here to fly nearly 650 colorful balloons along the Kase River. One of the most popular events during this competition is “La Montgolfier Nocturne,” or the Night of Hot-Air Balloons, when more than 50 inflated balloons tether to the ground after sunset and light their burners in a choreographed routine of illumination. Throughout the fall, more than 30 balloons take flight here every weekend.