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Cleared to Climb: Hot Air Balloon Adventure Over Marrakech

“X-Rey you are cleared to climb,” I heard come over the radio. I was standing with 20 other people in the basket of a hot air balloon a few hundred feet in the air over the red desert of Marrakech, Morocco. Then we started to rise.

This was the final day of my G Adventures tour around Morocco and what a way to end it. When I was booking the tour and saw that a hot air balloon ride was an optional add-on, it was a hell yes from me. I’d had “ride in a hot air balloon” on my bucket list for years and this would be the first real chance I’d have to do it. So I was all in on the idea of a hot air balloon adventure over Marrakech.

The idea might be scary to some folks but part of the reason why I travel is to push myself out of my comfort zone now and then. I get comments like “you’re so brave!” and “aren’t you scared”. Am I scared? Sure, sometimes. But I won’t let it stop me. I just do it scared. And that’s how I found myself 100+ meters over the Moroccan desert on an early morning in April.

Hot Air Balloon Marrakech

Getting Up At Dark O’Clock

Out of the fourteen in our tour group, only five of us were perhaps foolish enough to be waiting in the hotel lobby just before 5am for our shuttle. The only time I will voluntarily wake up before 6am is for flights of some sort.

Despite the heat during the day, the air is cool in the desert before sunrise so I was bundled up in socks & sneakers, long pants, t-shirt, sweater, down puffer coat, and scarf. The temperature had dipped down to around 8C (46F) so layers were needed. I was feeling grateful that I’d found a pretty scarf in the souks earlier in my trip.

Before we go further, while you might be imagining a balloon floating over the maze that is the old medina of Marrakech, let’s set the record straight. To launch and land a balloon you need a lot of space so we were headed to the outskirts of the city limits.

We drove in the dark for about 40 minutes heading northeast to get to Adventure Balloon Marrakech, who would be our balloon guides. As we pulled up I could see five fires burning, each ringed by low wooden stools, in front of several three-walled tent-like shelters. Each shelter was draped inside with textured fabric in deep colours. A long cushioned bench ran along the walls, punctuated with pillows. The concrete floor was covered in thick, overlapping rugs and big, low, round silver tables dotted the space.

We were directed to one shelter and given fleece blankets to stay warm while we waited. Tea was being served up next to our tent so of course I had to have a glass or two. I figured the sugar would keep me awake for the flight.

Pre-Flight Briefing

Not long before go-time our pilot, Rego, came to introduce himself and give us our pre-flight safety briefing. Our balloon was named X-Rey and was one of the largest in Morocco, holding 20 people. We were told about how to get in and out of the basket and that we’d need to sit and hold on during take-off and landing. Can’t have anyone getting tossed from the basket. While the basket is made from wood and wicker, it still weighs a couple hundred pounds, and would seriously injure you if you got hit by it or run over.

While the safety briefing was happening we could see the balloons being prepped in the distance. Gas-powered fans are used first to cold inflate the balloon about 75% of the way but you can’t get the balloon vertical without some hot air. Gas burners are lit and fired for that last 25% of inflation before take-off. To position the burners properly for this, X-Rey’s basket is laid on its side, secured by a heavy strap to an SUV. As the balloon rises, the SUV is used to right the basket.

Now it’s time for us to get in!

Prepare for Take Off

Climbing into the basket was pretty straightforward, even though I’m not the most graceful person out there. They bring over a portable step and then it’s a bit like getting on a camel – swing a leg over and lower down onto the bench/seat in the basket.

For take off we had to sit on the bench, lean back, and hold onto the straps across from us. As we sat on the ground and I could hear the ground crew and the pilot talking back and forth in Arabic I started to get nervous. We were sitting here awhile. Is that normal? Whatever they’re saying sounds urgent. Is that normal? I took a few deep breaths and calmed my nerves. These are pros.

The actual take-off was so gentle I also didn’t realize it was happening. Before we knew it our pilot gave us the green light to stand up. And what a sight I saw when I stood up. The red, arid landscape stretched out below us with dark hills off in the distance. It was calm and silent except for the occasional burst from the gas burners.

Attempted Sunrise

The plan was for a sunrise flight. I can imagine how magical it would’ve been with the sun rising over the eastern hills. It’ll have to stay in my imagination though since it was a bit overcast that day. Can’t win ‘em all I suppose.

While there was no magical sunrise, the flight was still awe-inspiring. We got a few very cool beams of light through the clouds and it was amazing seeing all of the other balloons around us. It was quite surreal to be floating among them.

I see small clusters of brick and clay houses and wonder about their inhabitants. What must they think every morning seeing a dozen colourful balloons in the sky filled with happy visitors to their country. Or maybe the sight is so common for them they don’t think of us at all. It’s far from common for me though and I feel immensely privileged that I get to have this experience.

While paragliding in Slovenia might be the closest I’ve truly felt to flying, being a passenger in a hot air balloon is right up there – with nothing between you and the sky, propelled only by the power of hot air and the wind.

Coming in for a Landing

During our almost hour long trip we travelled about 20 kilometres because of the breeze. Our pilot was in close communication with the ground crew who were following us for landing. Since you can’t really steer a balloon, we had to go with the wind. Thankfully there’s a lot of empty space in this part of the country and Rego managed to drop us not too far from a road. Before we even got out of the basket vans were waiting to drive us back to camp.

When I realized we were starting our descent a quick wave of disappointment washed over me. I could’ve stayed up there all day. Alas, our gas burners could not. As we got lower to the ground our speed was much more noticeable and it was an unexpected treat to skim along, a dozen feet in the air and see the vegetation and contours of the land. Rego was in a good mood after a successful flight and decided to play a bit of We Will Rock You on the burners. Psst psst psssst. Psst psst psssst.

During our safety briefing our pilot told us there are three types of balloon landings. First the Moroccan landing – smooth and easy. Second, the American landing – a bit bumpy. Third, the British landing – the one where you get dragged along the ground for a bit first.

While we were all hoping for a Moroccan landing, it was actually a British landing in store for us. While we sat in our landing position, we briefly touched earth before bouncing up again. Then we touched again. On the third time the basket dug in and started to tip forward while being dragged along the ground. This is why you hold on. We came to a rest on a bit of an angle but the expert ground crew got right to work tipping us back upright and beginning to secure the balloon. Once the balloon was deflated and contained the step was put in place and we were able to get out of the basket. I decided I would try and do some sort of two-legged balance to sit on the basket edge in order to lower myself to the step and almost fell arse over tea kettle back in. Graceful, as always.

Ballooning Works Up a Hunger

After everyone was loaded up in the vans, we headed back to basecamp, where we were greeted by a full buffet breakfast. By now the sun was fully up and the air was warming. I was sure to secure a couple more cups of Moroccan tea to go along with my eggs, pastries, and yogurt.

While we ate our breakfast our pilot, Rego, came around to hand out our flight certificates. On each one he wrote our name in Arabic script. A pretty cool souvenir from a pretty cool adventure.

Despite the early wake-up call and the long drive in the dark, I’d give this experience a five out of five. While G Adventures chose Adventure Balloon Marrakech for us, I’d be quite happy to book directly with them in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a hot air balloon ride in Marrakech worth it?

A hot air balloon ride in Marrakech offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Moroccan landscape, including the Atlas Mountains and traditional Berber villages, making it a memorable and serene adventure. The unique perspective, cultural insights, and unparalleled photo opportunities make it a worthwhile addition to any trip.

How long is the hot air balloon ride in Marrakech?

A typical hot air balloon experience in Morocco lasts about 3 to 4 hours in total. This includes pick-up and drop-off from your accommodation, a safety briefing, and the flight itself, which usually lasts around 1 hour. Some tours also include a traditional Berber breakfast or mint tea after the flight.

How safe is a hot air balloon in Morocco?

Hot air ballooning in Morocco is generally considered safe. Reputable operators use well-maintained equipment and experienced, licensed pilots. Safety briefings are conducted before each flight. It’s important to choose a well-reviewed and established company to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Operators adhere to strict safety standards, and flights are conducted under favourable weather conditions only.

What should I wear and bring for a hot air balloon ride?

It’s best to wear comfortable, layered clothing, as early mornings can be chilly, but it warms up quickly once the sun rises. Wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes as you may need to walk through fields. Bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen for sun protection. A camera or smartphone is also recommended to capture the stunning views.

How much does a hot air balloon ride cost in Marrakech?

The cost of a hot air balloon ride in Morocco typically ranges from $200 to $300 USD per person. Prices can vary based on the operator, the length of the flight, and any additional inclusions such as breakfast, transportation, and souvenirs. Some operators offer group discounts or special packages, so it’s worth checking for deals or booking in advance.

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