$400?! That can’t be right? You sure that’s not 400 Pesos?! But no, it does cost about 400 clams USD to take flight at the annual Hot Air Balloon Festival in Pampanga in the Philippines. Even so, I filled out the online registration, paid, and clicked send, a special treat just because:
1) The festival started on my birthday this year so it would be the perfect birthday present to myself, and
2) Going up in a hot air balloon is on my bucket list
Uh oh, problem. My online registration was denied. I came to find out that there is a weight limit of only 90 kilos (about 195 lbs.) for each person, and I’m about 196 lbs. (OK, I’m 206!)
All About the Hot Air Balloon Festival in Pampanga
I started to panic since I’d heard a rumor that this – the 21st annual Hot Air Balloon Festival – was also going to be the last. (Although I heard another rumor that the event intentionally spread that first rumor every year just to drive up ticket sales!)
But luckily, I emailed them, and they said just to put in the maximum weight and run my registration again and I got my ticket.
For those of you that don’t know, Pampanga is about 1.5 to 2 hours north of Manila here in the Philippines, and home to the notorious Angeles City, or Sin City as it’s known. This den of girlie bars, male partiers, and foreign expats has been around and doing dirt for decades, but Pampanga is actually growing up a little bit and now an enjoyable place to stay even if you’re not a heathen. For one, Angeles has its own decent sized airport, so you can fly in and out from Cebu, Boracay, or even Manila if you were so inclined. Consistent with its growing Las Vegas flare, there are great restaurants, really nice hotels, golf courses, and other amenities around even if you’re not a bar star.
And bars were definitely not in my itinerary since I had to wake up around 330am for a 4 am taxi to arrive at the festival by 430am. Even though it was ungodly early and the whole operation was incredibly unorganized (it took me half an hour to even find someone who knew where I was supposed to go, and then the workers at that sign-in booth hadn’t shown up yet), it was well worth all the waiting.
I was assigned to an 8-person balloon, and we were all briefed on how it works, driven over to the balloon, and climbed aboard in the claustrophobic-sized basket. Our pilots were Turkish and had just got in the day before, and told me how this hot air balloon festival was truly international. It was an amazing experience to just float like that above the air field and then the neighborhoods and out into the countryside, watching the sun come up. We cruised so silently that we could hear the confused dogs barking and the enthusiastic kids cheering and waving to us below. After about 40 minutes, we touched down in a farmer’s field, and soon after the support vehicle came and picked us up.
ALWAYS try to book the first flight of the morning on the first day because the balloons can only go up in perfect weather conditions. If the wind is blowing the wrong way, they can’t fly, since there is no real steering, and flights are canceled all the time in the late afternoon (they’re only scheduled for a couple of morning flights and one afternoon flight I believe). Also, you might want to wear a baseball cap because the balloon’s mechanism of emitting flame to rise higher (I don’t know the technical term) is REALLY hot and felt like it was scalding the top of my head. It’s definitely dusty in there so dress casually, wear your sunglasses even if you come pre-dawn, and in typical Filipino fashion, there are tons of places to eat, but public bathrooms and trash cans are few and far between. Throughout the weekend event, there are hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, very few of them actually flying but just taking in the view of the sky filled with balloons, the demonstrations and flights, fireworks, and fairgrounds atmosphere.
The last bit of advice is to arrange for a driver to either come pick you up once you land and get back to the Clark air field or have them wait in the parking lot, because there were no public taxis, jeepneys, or trikes to take me home. I didn’t mind at all, but I had to hoof it about half a mile to find a trike.
Enjoy – and make sure your batteries are charged because you’ll want to take a million photos!