San Miguel de Allende is unlike any other place in Mexico. Stroll the cobblestone streets of the historic downtown to gaze at the stunning Spanish colonial architecture in shades of terra cotta and mustard, explore the hidden courtyards tucked inside many buildings and the alleyways lined with tables of handicrafts, get serenaded by roving mariachi bands and look for mojigangas, giant sculpted puppets, flopping about.
But the best way to see this enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Site in central Mexico is from above with Live Aqua Urban Resort San Miguel de Allende’s hot air balloon. While a number of hotels can send you on an in-the-air excursion, Live Aqua is the only one in town whose hot air balloon takes off directly from the property for a private tour.
For our trip, we headed out at 6:30 a.m. while it was still dark out in the hopes of catching the sunrise against the surrounding desert landscape and the charming colonial town. We went to the hotel’s second-floor terrace and watched as the team from Vuela en Globo fired up the large checkered balloon on its side. The illuminated yellow, green, purple and orange balloon squares came to life in the midnight-blue sky.
Then we hit a roadblock: the wind descended in the area that morning, which delayed our voyage. But this gave us time to partake in the lovely breakfast buffet that the hotel set out for us. Since Live Aqua has its own bakery in the lobby, the spread leaned heavily on fresh pastries, including chocolatin (the Mexican version of pain au chocolat), chocolate conchas (sweet bread topped with a chocolate shell) and carteras de crema pastelera (pillowy wallets of pastry cream). We passed on the coffee and instead reached for the chocolate Abuelita, an indulgent, frothy Mexican hot chocolate bursting with cinnamon. The comforting, warming cup warded off the chill as we eagerly waited for our first hot air balloon ride.
When the wind subsided, the team quickly filled up the balloon in a surprisingly small patch on the deck. We grabbed our shawls and followed a man in a navy jumpsuit and matching cap that read “PILOTO” in white bold letters. Our Vuela en Globo pilot, Jesus Elizondo, leads the family-run business, which started in 1979.
We climbed into the basket — which holds up to five, not including the pilot — and in minutes, we were floating above SMA’s largest hotel, peeking over its pebbled courtyard and the larger-than-life jacks sculpture from Mexican artist Rodrigo Garagarza hiding within it.
As we rose higher, we were overlooking the Presa del Obraje dam next to Live Aqua and then the desert just beyond the property. Any pre-flight jitters dissipated quickly once we took flight — we were too busy drinking up the vistas. Though, the same couldn’t be said for our translator (one is provided if needed), a Mexico native who momentarily forgot her Spanish when the balloon ascended.
From there, the balloon drifted to the historic downtown. Although Elizondo only spoke Spanish, he mustered a joke in English: “Do you know how to swim?” We laughed, but it made our translator even more nervous.
The balloon soared to a height of 1,200 feet (Elizondo reported topping out at 3,008 feet high on all of his trips) and gave us a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the city. Overall, the town’s concentration of ocher buildings made for a saturated visual. We spotted SMA’s most famous tourist attraction, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, which is easily recognizable with its pink wedding-cake-like towers. The honey-colored dome of the nearby Church of the Immaculate Conception also stood out. Other hot air balloons dotted the sky.
Even though we missed an airborne sunrise, we found tranquility in the morning ride, simply gliding through the picturesque town and soaking up the scenery for 45 minutes.
The plan was to land back at the hotel, but the wind started back up and our pilot had to improvise. He softly landed the balloon in old San Miguel in a large field with grazing brown horses. “Bienvenidos a tierra!” (“Welcome to land!”) Elizondo proclaimed.
Before even touching down, his sons had located us, drove a pick-up vehicle to the site and were anticipating our arrival. Elizondo popped open a bottle of champagne and poured us some glasses. As the team got to work, efficiently breaking down the balloon, we sipped the bubbly, surveying our unexpected final destination, gently laughing at our translator’s nerves and recounting the unforgettable ride.