It is still well before dawn and thousands of people have packed into Parque Metropolitano in the central Mexican city of Léon.
If you thought they had been here all night partying, you would be mistaken. Families, youths and adults of all ages crowd the pathways as they make their way to the fairgrounds to watch the launch of hundreds of brightly coloured, uniquely shaped hot air balloons into the morning sky.
The Festival Internacional del Globo, or International Hot Air Balloon Festival, is the largest festival of its kind in Latin America, and one of the most important in the world. Every year in mid-November, around 200 balloons from 15 countries as far away as Spain, Turkey and India gather in the Guanajuato city to entertain up to 400,000 visitors who attend the four-day festival.
It’s not just the traditionally shaped oval balloons appearing at the festival, either. From frogs to owls, Van Gogh to Darth Vader, the creativity of the designs knows no bounds. No matter the shape, the balloons work the same way; by filling the “envelope” portion of the vessel with hot air fueled by the propane burner below, the aircraft becomes lighter than the surrounding environment, allowing it to take off from the ground.
In addition to the hot air balloons, the festival packs together several of Mexico’s top musicians, bands and DJs, a wide variety of foods and beverages, and plenty of entertainment for the entire family.
Now in its 17th year, the 2019 festival takes place between November 15 and 18. Musical acts set to perform include the popular Mexican band Banda MS, María José and Yahir, and Dutch DJ sensation Martin Garrix.
With the gates opening at 5:00am, the crowds arrive early to grab the best viewing spots around the Presa. Most people head right to the launch area in the northern section of the park, where visitors can also find the main stage, food and beverage stands, and the numerous vendor booths that are set up for the event.
For a more secluded spot to witness the launch, find a location along the seven-kilometer stretch of paths that surround the Presa, and venture down to the edge of the water.
The roar of the propane heaters reverberates on the lake, accompanied by the pleasant chirp of the more than 200 species of birds found in the park. Gradually the sun peaks over the mountaintops, exposing a bright yellow hue to the morning sky. Like being in a Disney movie, the scene unfolding in the air is breathtaking.
Around 8:00am, the balloons make their way back to the landing area, carefully navigating through the crowds of people and other pilots as they descend expertly back to terra firma. The skill and expertise of the pilots are incredible, as they delicately touch down to bring their morning journey to an end.
Following the morning show, spectators can get up close and personal with the balloons, chat with the pilots and wander the grounds. The opening acts of music start to play, as the daily activities for the whole family continue.
As the balloons deflate, the energy in the crowd wanes. The spectators spread out and relax while waiting for the main event of each evening.
While the last light of day fades away, the intense blaze of the propane-fired flames replaces the golden glow of the setting sun, and hot air envelopes the balloons once again. This time, however, the balloons stay grounded, and a dazzling show of light and sound takes place as the giant vessels work together in a coordinated manner to entertain the audience.
Throngs of onlookers watch in amazement as the power of the burners contrasts against the blackened sky.
If you go: camping is available on site to make your early mornings a little easier. From downtown Léon, it takes about 30 minutes by car, taxi or Uber or one hour by transit to reach the festival grounds.
Although there are plenty of accommodations in Léon, it is recommended to book early as hotels book up quickly for the festival.
While in Léon, be sure to check out the Zona Piel, where you can browse and shop for a wide selection of locally made leather goods, for which Léon is famous.
Mark Locki is a Canadian writer and a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily.