As if traveling to Morocco wasn’t enough, I wanted to do something particularly incredible on the actual day I turned 30. So I convinced my cousin Marisa to join me in something that had been on my bucket list for years: a hot air balloon ride.
Marrakech has a few hot air balloon companies, and we settled on Marrakech By Air for two reasons. First, it’s a local company, rather than the others which, while staffed with locals, are owned by foreigners. And second, it’s the only hot air balloon company that operates in the summer!
At 4:20am on June 18th we met the company’s driver in the La Mamounia lobby. It was early, so early in fact that, as we navigated the streets of Marrakech, we saw men leaving the mosques after early-morning Ramadan prayers. And once we left the city limits, Marisa and I began praying too!
In the darkness the driver sped along down a road which only had the middle half lane paved on each side. Every time another car (or donkey cart!) approached, without decreasing his speed he would pull over to the gravelly side of the road and we would bump along, holding onto the doors and the seats in front of us to steady ourselves. Then once we passed the other vehicle we would be back on the paved portion until we passed someone else and had to repeat the process. Speeding through the desert in the darkness in a rickety jeep was an adventure in and of itself!
I took a picture on the way home in the daylight so you can see what I mean about the paving:
We arrived at a small house in the middle of nowhere just as the sun was coming up.
Marisa, six other tourists and I were directed to a tent, and served mint tea and croissants while we watched the sky lighten.
Once we realized the hot air balloon was being blown up, we left the tents to watch the spectacle unfold.
Then it was time to go! The eight of us (plus the pilot) climbed into the basket and before we knew it we were leaving the ground behind us.
The sunrise was absolutely stunning from the air.
When we were getting ready that morning, I commented to Marisa that I hoped we would be able to get good pictures. Her reply was along the lines of “it’s not about the photographs, it’s about the experience” with an emphasis on “experience” that reminded me of a yoga guru.
She was right, so once we were in the air I made it a point to focus on the experience. I was appreciating the moment, and when I turned to Marisa to see if she was doing the same I had to laugh. She had both hands gripping the basket, her knuckles white and her face pale while she stared straight ahead. How’s the experience going Marisa?
I still wanted to take some pictures, and since Marisa’s hands were occupied hanging on for dear life, I resorted to taking some hot air balloon selfies.
Until Marisa warmed to the experience and we were able to take pictures together.
Even though you’re up in the air, thousands of miles from the ground (rough estimate…) the ride is a peaceful one. It’s quiet and calm, and since you’re moving with the wind you don’t feel much breeze. Everything is still.
The quiet was punctured every so often by our pilot, Mohammed’s, jokes. He had us cracking up with everything he said, and he was by far the funniest person we met in Morocco. When someone asked how he learned to fly, he told her how he used to work for the airline Royal Air Maroc, which assured the woman until he added that it was as a baggage handler! He then joked that he learned the night before on YouTube, and that he thought his first time was going well. Whenever he saw a car on the ground he would point and yell “Taliban!” leaving us all in stitches, and later, when we were back on the ground, he was speaking with a man in Arabic before he turned to us and deadpanned, “We are plotting how to kidnap you.”
We flew over clustered villages as well as homes in the middle of nowhere. Several appeared to be empty, and Mohammed explained that whenever the well runs dry the families abandon the homes and move somewhere with more water. After a few years the mud-based homes are absorbed back into the earth.
It was the absolute coolest way to turn 30.
When it came time to land, the ground crew chased after our descending balloon, grabbing its basket and ropes to guide it down much like how a boat docks.
My first hot air balloon ride was a success!
On the way back to the base, Mohammed asked our car if we wanted to play a trick on the other car. There’s only one answer to that kind of question, and before we knew it Mohammed had abandoned our moving car to run up and scream, scaring the passengers in the other car.
It was so funny, and I got a video of the tail end of it:
When we arrived we were served more mint tea and a traditional Moroccan breakfast.
I passed my phone around so everyone could watch the video, and received several compliments on the Kate Spade phone case I had purchased just for the trip.
It was especially fitting because of our next activity.
On the way back to Marrakech, the crew stopped in Palmeraie, a palm tree oasis on the outskirts of town. There we made friends with the locals.
Before we began our first camel ride of the trip!
Later in our trip Marisa and I rode camels far into the Sahara Desert, which was much more hardcore, so this felt a bit like the Disneyland version: a short, picturesque ride where we looked much more glamorous than we would for the subsequent rides.
It was such a wonderful morning, and we were back at La Mamounia before 9am. And between the incredible hot air balloon ride, the breakfast, and the camel ride, at approximately $200 the Marrakech By Air experience was well worth the price! And you know how we’re all about the experience!
You can book your Marrakech By Air hot air balloon flight here.
Happy 30th birthday to me!
For all of my Morocco travel posts, click here.