The best way to enjoy the Algarve’s panoramic views is on a hot air balloon
The hot air balloon is the oldest airborne vehicle in history. Watching a magnificent sunrise or sunset, whilst gently floating across the sky, guided by the breeze and admiring the Earth’s curves from above is undoubtedly the experience of a lifetime.
The town of Lagos is home to Helena Sá, founder of Algarve Balloons and the region’s sole balloonist, who knows the Algarvean winds like no other. She started flying hot air balloons at 27 years old, in South Africa. At the time, she worked at a hotel near Kruger National Park, when a gentleman asked her to promote his balloon rides there. By her third voyage across the African skies, Helena was completely in love but she had no idea this new hobby would forever change her life. She later travelled to Europe and lived in Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom. In 2005, she moved to the Algarve and created her own company, which promotes hot air balloon flights in Lagos, Alvor, Portimão, Silves and Monchique, as well as the lower Alentejo region, in Castro Verde and Évora.
Helena has 800 flight hours and two balloons available, which can “fly anywhere in Portugal”. The South African woman was recently certified by the UK Civil Aviation Authority to “provide initial instruction to future pilots”, from the Aeródromo de Lagos airbase. Currently, one of her students is her 16-year-old son, Daniel Sá. “People can get their licence starting from that age,” she assures. One of the main requirements for flying is waking up early, since “balloons don’t fly in uncomfortable thermal conditions”.
The flight lasts around an hour, but, before taking off, the weather is carefully analysed and the place of departure is decided only at the last moment. The balloon is inflated with cold air, and only then is the air inside heated by the propane gas burners. In the Algarve, the winds blow predominantly from the north, towards the sea. “We get different winds at different altitudes,” Helena explains. “The challenge is finding them and, with their help, guide the balloon to where we want to go.” The wind dictates the destination.
While Helena guides the hot air balloon in the sky, a rescue team follows close by on the ground, never losing sight of it. Once back on land, Helena says it is traditional to “drink a glass of champagne”. Windpassenger also operates in the Algarve, in close collaboration with Helena Sá. Guido Santos has been an instructor for two years and is an experienced balloon pilot with 3,000 flight hours. According to him, during his incident-free career, he has already flown over 30,000 passengers.
At Windpassenger, founded in 2002, the trips almost always end near the sea, with “flights that showcase the best landscapes, from the mountains to the ocean. Depending on the occasion, it’s even possible to finish a flight with a picnic on the landing site”. For geographic reasons, flights in southern Portugal usually have a capacity for up to seven people, however, the company will soon welcome “the world’s largest hot air balloon flying passengers commercially”.
With capacity for 34 people, this balloon will be presented to the public on October 29, during the next international ballooning festival, in Coruche, central Portugal. As Guido says, the idea behind the festival is to “keep growing every year”, with increasingly more balloons and participants. The Algarve also hosted a festival, in October 2018, during which around 24 balloons from all over the world flew between Faro and Lagos during five days.
“We will try to organise another similar initiative again in the Algarve, in 2020, but we’re finalising the details,” he reveals. “Flying over the south of Portugal on a balloon is a beautiful and surprising thing,” Guido says. “Up in the air, we have already had several wedding proposals, we often sing ‘happy birthday’ to someone, and I have even had a customer who wanted to have breakfast up there. We try to adapt the flight and the experience to clients’ tastes.”
What most impresses those who take part in this experience is still “the way the balloon moves and floats in the air. They are not expecting something so stable, calm and safe. It’s almost like therapy,” he reveals. “This year, I believe October and November will be the best months to fly,” Guido states. “So bring a camera and live this experience, you will not regret it.”