It’s 5am and I awake to a friendly voice from Hotel Alto Atacama’s front desk. The day has come for my first hot air balloon ride. I am feeling a little excited, yet anxious at the same time. I often see beautiful balloons flying over my California home but never thought I would ride in one over South America’s Atacama Desert in Chile
It’s dark as I step onto my patio and look up to see the Southern Cross in the sky. It’s breathtaking and the air feels so clean and brisk. I am going to need a warm coat and hat on this chilly spring morning.
We meet in the lobby for our 20-minute drive to the middle of nowhere. I am told there are no bathrooms, so I feel it’s best to hold off on the coffee offered. Everyone is quiet as we drive down the rocky narrow village streets of San Pedro de Atacama. The sun has not quite risen, but a slight glow appears behind the volcanic mountain range.
Excitement is building in our group as we arrive to see the crew busily preparing the hot air balloons for inflation. We are surprised with breakfast of coffee, juice and pastries. I feel mesmerized by the speed and efficiency of the balloon team. There are two balloons and approximately 16 of us.
We gather together for our safety instruction. We will need to use the built in “steps” on the basket to climb inside. Weight is distributed with the pilot in the middle.
As we wait to board our balloon, I watch intensely as the burners heat the air into our balloon. I watch it inflate and can feel a shower of small pebbles falling from the sides of the balloon as it grows larger. Wow, I can’t believe I am doing this. I am not sure if I am shivering from the chill in the air, or the excitement. Our pilot announces it is time to board.
The sun is now up, along with the balloons, and I am now inside the basket. It is tight quarters but I am happy for the
warmth it provides. I see the other balloon take off and can’t help feel competitive to race them. Suddenly I can feel our basket drag the earth and away we go.
This feels amazing and unbelievable. There is a beautiful landscape desert as far as my eyes can see. I notice small green patches of grass and am being told these are small farms. The colors of the rock formations glow with the rising sun. As we float above the landscape, I can see the remains of ancient ruins now mostly covered with sand. We start to descend and I comment how quick this trip has been. Our pilot laughs and tells us that half the fun is going up and down for perspective. Excellent, this ride isn’t over yet!
He then points out an active volcano that is puffing smoke in the distance. I take in a deep breath of fresh air and cannot help but smile.
It’s so quiet up here. It feels like we have been floating forever, but suddenly, I see our balloon crew driving towards us in the distance. We do not end where we started because balloons can only travel one direction and where the wind takes them.
I hear the pilot tell us to be seated and prepare for landing. Suddenly, I feel another shot of adrenalin. This might be a little more exciting than the take off. As I sit inside the balloon bracing myself for landing, I remember that the pilot told us the basket will occasionally drag on its side before stopping. I find myself secretly hoping this happens but our pilot performs a perfect landing.
As I climb out of the basket, I notice that another table has been set up with glasses of champagne to greet us. Wow, what an experience! The only thing missing was my husband to share this with; however, I am thankful I am surrounded by my co-workers. I notice the pilot and explained that I am used to balloons flying over my house but never dreamed I would be in one way out here. He tells me that last year he was flying balloons over Napa Valley. I can’t believe my ears! He was one of the pilots flying over my house last year. Who would ever imagine that encounter happening way out in the Atacama Desert on the other side of the earth. It really is a small world.
Contact Tracey Kleber
to begin planning your Atacama Desert vacation with potential stays at our favorite Explora and Hotel De Larache luxury hotels.