Top 8 Destinations for a Hot-Air Balloon Ride

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We've come a long way since 1783, when King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, along with 130,000 French citizens, watched as a sheep, ducks, and roosters flew over Versailles in the first-ever hot air balloon ride. Eventually, humans became so comfortable in these pockets of silk and gas that they used them to cross oceans, and later, to circumnavigate the globe. However, when the Wright brothers started flying airplanes, the balloons became passé. But this seemingly outdated form of transit is worth revisiting. After all, there's no greater thrill than feeling the wind in your hair as you enjoy stunning 360-degree views. If taking this epic ride isn't on your bucket list yet, it will be after you read our list of the top eight destinations for a hot air balloon ride.

1. Cappadocia, Turkey

Mr Hicks46/Flickr

Mr Hicks46/Flickr

Thanks to its Instagram-friendly landscape, Cappadocia just might be the most famous ballooning destination in the world. In fact, you’ve likely seen photos of the vibrant, multicolored hot air balloons floating among Cappadocia’s iconic fairy chimneys. The surreal rock formations and lush landscape of central Turkey’s Anatolian region may impress from the ground, but they look especially epic from 3,000 feet in the air. But before you climb aboard, explore the area’s lengthy history. Though the natural sculptures were shaped by erosion over the years, humans have lived within them since 1800 B.C.E. The area’s caves and tunnels have served as refuge during Greek-Persian squabbles and Christian persecution. To this day, entire towns still exist underground. You’ll want to see the monasteries, chapels, stables, and storehouses up close after your ride. If you can, stay inside one of the troglodyte dwellings that now serve as hotels. Since the summer gets especially sweaty and crowded, opt for an autumn or spring trip.

2. Albuquerque, New Mexico

Every October, spectators from around the world flock to New Mexico for the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest hot air balloon festival. It’s so remarkable that photographers, painters, and other visual artists attend, too. Do your best to catch one of the festival’s four mass ascensions, when more than 500 brightly-colored globes take flight at once. It’s a magical sight whether observed from the sky or ground. The pre-sunrise Dawn Patrol ride and nighttime Glowedo session are also worth attending. The high elevation, dry heat, and calm winds make for smooth flying year-round. You can also learn about the culture, science, and spectacle of ballooning at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. The equipment and memorabilia on display provide lots of historical context. And before you leave, be sure to choose your side of the city’s chile debate: red, green, or “Christmas.”

3. Queenstown, New Zealand

Graham McLellan/Flickr

Graham McLellan/Flickr

New Zealand is undoubtedly a destination for nature lovers and adrenaline junkies, but it isn’t all about bungee jumping, skydiving, abseiling, whitewater rafting, and canyoning. Take a break from the extreme sports and try something more serene. Though it still provides a rush, a hot air balloon ride offers more time to soak up the lake and mountain views. But these aren’t just any lakes and mountains — they’re the Southern Alps and gargantuan Lake Wakatipu. If they remind you of “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” “Avatar,” or “The Chronicles of Narnia,” it’s because all of these films were shot in the area. The surrounding vineyards, golf courses, and mining towns look like dots as you drift through the clouds at 6,000 feet. Every ride ends with a Champagne celebration. You can indulge in a morning cocktail, tea, coffee, croissants, and muffins as you review your photos from this once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

4. Atacama Desert, Chile

If you want to know what ballooning over Mars feels like, a ride through the Atacama Desert will give you a pretty good idea. At about 41,000 square miles, the area is larger than Iceland and South Korea. Its craggy cliffs and steep, pink dunes are otherworldly. Rainfall is incredibly rare; some parts of the Atacama Desert haven’t had rain in 400 years. And while you may expect the world’s oldest and driest desert to be desolate, it’s quite the opposite. Atacama is brimming with life, from 500 types of plants to small villages honoring ancient traditions. You’ll likely see some Chilean flamingos flying in a V formation during your hot air balloon ride. There are also vast salt flats, active geysers, white-capped volcanoes, and blue lagoons to observe. A sunrise ride offers panoramic views of the high plateau as it transitions through a rainbow of colors. Tip: You’ll want to layer because the mornings start cool and heat up quickly. 

5. Maasai Mara, Kenya

Wajahat Mahmood/Flickr

Wajahat Mahmood/Flickr

An African safari is every animal lover’s dream trip, but they can be even more magical from above. A hot air balloon ride over southwestern Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve include views of grassy plains, rolling hills, and rushing rivers in addition to the wildlife. And even though an open-air safari vehicle will get you close to the creatures, there’s nothing like dancing over the treetops and dipping into clearings as antelope, lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, and buffalo gather and hunt. And when you’re ready, ask your driver to climb to dizzying heights for all-encompassing views of the savannah. You can even see the edges of Tanzania and the Rift Valley in the distance. The weather in East Africa is almost always favorable and wildlife can be spotted year-round, but you’ll want to time your ride with the wildebeest, gazelle, and zebra migration, which takes place between July and October over the Mara River . Several of Maasai Mara National Reserve’s lodges offer ballooning as part of their safari package, so simply inquire at reception. 

6. Loire Valley, France

A hot air balloon ride over the Loire Valley will provide you with a bird’s-eye view of the region’s castles, fortresses, palaces, châteaux, and manors. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Loire Valley is just 200 miles southwest of Paris and packed with stone villages, bucolic vineyards, beautiful sunflower fields, enchanting forests, and meandering rivers await. In addition to its beauty and splendor, you’ll want to leave some time to enjoy the area’s gastronomy (think pears, plums, goat cheese, sausages, and pike in white butter sauce). However, its real claim to fame is Sancerre, Saumur, Muscadet, and Chinon. Pro tip: It’s best to lift off in the spring, when flora start to flourish, castles open to visitors, and winter’s chill has left the air. It’s truly a magical experience as you ascend above Tours, Angers, Orléans, and Amboise in an airborne lollipop. 

7. Bagan, Myanmar

Peter Halling Hilborg/Flickr

Peter Halling Hilborg/Flickr

You won’t be able to visit the ancient city of Bagan without seeing hot air balloons floating in the skies, but you shouldn’t leave without boarding one for yourself. The area’s 2,300 temples, pagodas, and stupas are magnificent when viewed by foot or electric bike, but you can only witness the scale of it all by drifting overhead. These monuments point to the incredible history of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Serving as the capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the ninth to 13th centuries, Bagan was the seat of the rulers that united the regions that now make up the country. Balloons take off from the southern edge of Bagan and follow the wind over some of the biggest and most iconic monuments, like the Ananda and Dhammayangyi Temples. Don’t forget to admire the palm and tamarind trees and mist-covered Mount Popa volcano in the distance. The season in Bagan lasts from mid-October through mid-March, but the winds are softest and the air is coolest from December through February. Do your best to schedule your ride in the soft light of dawn or dusk.

8. North Pole

Few people are able to experience 360-degree views of the North Pole. In fact, few people experience the North Pole at all. Join the exclusive club by boarding an Arctic expedition and signing up for a hot air balloon ride. The balloon is technically tethered, but you’ll still get that wondrous windswept feeling as you look out onto the ice sheets below. You won’t see Santa’s workshop, but keep your eyes peeled for polar bears, ringed seals, Orca whales, and arctic foxes. They usually stay a few degrees lower than due north, but you could get lucky. As of 2018, only one tour company offers this rugged adventure and it’s incredibly weather dependent. You’ll have to plan your trip between June and September, when the North Pole is warmest and receives constant sunlight. And by warmest, we still mean freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit). That may sound bad, but it sure beats the -40 degree temperatures of winter. 

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