You drift in silence at 3,000 feet. You glide at 20 mph, yet you feel no motion. Hot air ballooning in Catalonia is a must-do experience. And outside of Barcelona is a perfect place. Verdant, green farmland mixes with mist drenched Montserrat Mountains. The sun glistens down.
I was part of a nine person group comprised of travel bloggers. We were picked up early at the hotel by the three person team at Kon-Tiki and brought to a field. As a group we unfurled the hot air balloon and participated in filling up the balloon.
The balloon topped out at over 100 feet, in fact, this balloon is the largest in Spain. The burner teamed with two industrial fans powered the hot air into the envelope of the canary yellow balloon. The wicker basket was laid on its side, so the heater could project the flames into the inert balloon. As the balloon lazily inflated, we strolled into the cavernous balloon to snap photos.
Angel Aguiree, the pilot, briefed us on our upcoming experience. The basket was now right-side up and the balloon hovered above. The group quickly hopped into the 14 person basket, which was divided into five compartments. The central compartment was for the equipment and the pilot. Within moments, we began to drift.
Despite having flown hundreds of times in airplanes the sensation was somewhat eerie. Hot air ballooning has a nearly a 250 year history of flight since the two Frenchman took to the skies outside of Paris. The balloon ascended to 3,000 feet and the group absorbed the early morning skies, wheat-filled fields, and windmills populated the horizon. The 12,000 feet Montserrat Mountains rested in the distance. We drifted effortlessly. We alternated between taking GoPro group selfies and enjoying the majestic views.
Angel, the pilot, dropped the balloon to a height of 100 feet and literally danced the basket on the tops of pine trees. My compartment mate reached over the basket’s edge and plucked a pine cone. The large wicker basket scraped the trees.
We took to the skies again and sailed off. Shortly later, our hour plus ride came to an end. Angel silkily landed the balloon on the edge of a wheat field. The group helped roll up and pack the balloon. The morning ended with a hearty, Catalonian breakfast known as esmorzars de forquilla, or fork breakfast.
During my brief time with Angel I realized he had a lot of stories to share. I spent a little time to learn more about him. Here is our conversation with a world-class adventurer.
Tell me a little about yourself and how did you develop a passion for piloting hot air balloons?
Angel Aguiree: I developed a passion for adventure as a child. This was a direct influence from my father who was a professional diver. In 1987, I went to Africa for a rock climbing expedition with my friend Miquel Mesegué. During this trip, we decided to start an adventure company. Initially our focus was on climbing, scuba diving, and rafting. Eventually we added ballooning to the mix. And after two more years we decided to focus solely on ballooning. Our passion was ballooning
I heard there is an interesting story about the history of your company’s name, Kon Tiki, can you share that story with me?
When we came back from our first rock climbing expedition in Africa we started brainstorming about our new adventure company. Of course, one decision we had to make was the name of the company. Miguel and I realized we had been reading some of the same adventure books. One of those books was Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdal, a Norwegian explorer. He tried to demonstrate that the first Polynesian people originated from Peru. He replicated the expedition sailing only with the wind in a simple raft crossing the Pacific Ocean. We thought his spirit represented what we were trying to do with our new company. Hence the name, Kon-Tiki.
Can you tell me about the most exciting balloon adventure you have had?
It is so difficult to just name one adventure, all of them have been amazing and unique. The first time we flew in the Amazon it was a shock to our system. We could never have imagined such large expanse of green, wild nature. After that expedition, we decide our goal would be to balloon and experience the colors of the earth. We wanted to balloon over the most vast and untouched areas of one single color. Three of those adventures were the Sahara desert of Mauritania, the pure white in Greenland and the blue of the Pacific Ocean. Greenland was an amazing adventure, besides from the flights at -35ºF. We were able to share the experience with the Inuit people, travelling with them in dog sledge for 5 weeks, hunting, fishing, camping, and flying. Another fantastic ballooning experience was watching the total solar eclipse from 10,000 feet while ballooning in the Svalbard Islands (Norwegian islands located in the Arctic Circle). It is difficult to begin to explain the beauty of the eclipse.
In 2012, we decided to celebrate Kon-Tiki’s 25th anniversary with an epic quest. Our plan was to recreate Thor Heyerdal’s Pacific Ocean crossing in a standard sailboat. To personalize the adventure we also brought a small hot air balloon with us. And to increase the challenge, we also decided to circumvent the globe and arrive back to Costa Brava, our home. Along the way during our 18 month journey, we ballooned in beautiful places like Tonga and Polynesia.
We also enjoy gas ballooning. This is a bit different than hot air ballooning since it uses helium. Gas ballooning uses a gas that is lighter than helium. For us, this is “pure” ballooning. Absolute silence, long distance, and duration. We play with the sand bags as a ballast. We can remain airborne for a couple of days. The sensation makes you feel like you have left earth’s orbit and even taking a break from reality.
What adventure are you planning next?
I’m always dreaming. I always have three or four potential adventures in my head. I hope do all of them, but maybe it will only be one! Now we’re preparing for two gas balloon races. First, in August, at the famous Gordon Bennett race, which will be in the south of France. The next one will be in New Mexico. We’ll try to break our record and fly more than three days and three nights non-stop covering over 1200 miles, competing against the best gas balloon pilots in the world. Apart from this we are preparing a possible balloon expedition in Svalbard next spring and another expedition for ballooning in Madagascar in May 2016.
Check out this cool video of our adventure from my friend Dutchified.
After you are done floating in the skies … check out Extreme Eating with my friends at With Husband In Tow.
Disclaimer: This trip was provided gratis by Kon-Tiki and Marketing Office at Tourism Management Services and Barcelona Province Tourist Board. The opinions expressed are my own.