FIG as it is commonly called, is one of the top 3 balloon events in the world and takes place once a year in Leon (2019 marks 18 years) during November and is spectacular!! Occurring over four days it has an attendance of about 5 million who are dazzled by up to 2500 brightly colored hot air masterpieces.
Balloons are fickle due to weather so please keep that in mind when making plans for your jaunt to see this lovely event.
We have never been to a hot air balloon festival so we gathered up some friends and headed out from San Miguel to check it out. Leon is easy to get to using ETN or Primera Plus bus lines from SMA to Leon. We hopped on to an ETN (our preferred line) for the two and a half hour ride.
We decided to go to Leon a day before our chosen event day and stay at a hotel nearby. We chose the Hyatt Centric Campestre Leon which was a bit expensive but we could see the park from the upper floors so it did the trick and it was the best choice by the event location. We thought it had a shuttle to the festival (they said so on their listing) but that turned out not to be so.
Arriving in the afternoon we got settled and needed something to do since the hotel and park are in the middle of almost nowhere and quite a ride from the bus station or anything else in town. There was a mall nearby (the Plaza Mayor) which we went to check out without a lot of expectations. Boy, were we surprised! This actually worked out well since Phyllis and Kim needed to pick up physical tickets for the following day and there was a store (Innovasport) in the mall to do so. A very nice security guard walked us all the way from the front of the mall about 10 minutes to the other side. This mall is massive!! and pretty nice too. We stopped upstairs for a great dinner at Asador La Vaca Argentina, an Argentinian restaurant with HUGE portions. Our advice is if coming here split entrees!!! That way the price won’t be as shocking either.
We wanted to get to the park very early in the next morning in order to see the balloons take off at sunrise (balloon inflation and take off starts at 6:30am but get there much earlier) and then stay till the evening listening to a full day of bands and eating and finally watch the Night Glow, when there is a show featuring the balloons on the ground operating their burners to the rhythm of lights and music (Friday to Sunday only).
The plan sounded great, however, it just became too long of a day. Here is why. We had to get up about 4:30am to get ready and be able to grab a taxi from the hotel so we could get to the park (The Official Venue of the FIG is the Metropolitano Park in León, México) in time to get a good spot in the crowd. We had arranged for two taxis at 5:30am since we believed the park opened at 6am. It took forever to get to the entrance!!! The traffic was horrible and our taxi was dropping us off on the far side of the park where all the food stands and the stage area was. In stop and go traffic, and the boys taxi behind us, we decided to get out and walk to final bit of the way after meeting up with them.
Making our way through the stalls and throngs of people we arrived at the perfect spot alongside the long strip of land where the balloons would be. We all waited patiently, the excitement and anticipation palpable in the crowd. A while later the trucks with balloons and baskets in the back started making their way onto the field. Blowing off fire from the burners into the early morning sky it reminded me a little of a Mad Max movie.
We were only about 4 people back from the field which was great since we were able to see the crews setting the balloons up and then lifting off right in front of us. And what a beautiful sight it was!!
Once most of the balloons were up our stomachs were starting to rumble since we hadn’t had time for breakfast. Off to the food stalls we went, but we were disappointed to find that besides a fabulous one for Krispy Kreme donuts, most served the exact same fare of tacos and soft drinks, although Glenn had a tasty home style tamale. We really wanted to dig into an omelet and a carafe of coffee.
Deciding that waiting all day at the park for the Night Glow to start in the evening, sitting on the ground because all the tables were full and listening to bands we weren’t that excited about just didn’t thrill us, we took off to Centro Leon thinking we could find a nice spot to breakfast at.
The Metropolitano Park in León is a long way away from central Leon!!! And it took quite a while to taxi there. We had high hopes since Mexican Centros are usually nice spots with a main plaza lined with good places to eat. Wrong on this one! We just couldn’t find a cute restaurant with breakfast fare on the menu and eventually had to settle on the Ramada Hotel. It wasn’t horrible, but the lack of a pretty spot was a disappointment. Personally I would say give this part of Leon a miss. But, as none of us had been to it before, we had to check it out. And to be fair, we did spend just a short time. The Cathedral is worth seeing though and lovely inside.
As a note, our hotel had a very reasonable and varied buffet breakfast available which we partook of the next day before returning home.
Returning to the hotel for some chill out time and for a few of us a little nap, we met on the upstairs terrace for some cocktails afterwards. Then crossed the parking lot to Dos Bocas Campestre Restaurant as we did not relish the thought of another cab ride. The food there was nothing amazing but it was convenient. An early night brought us to the end of a beautiful Balloon gazing day.
If you are planning on taking in FIG in Leon and want to see both balloon events our recommendation is to go to the Night Glow the evening that you arrive and then get up early the next day to experience the morning take off. Unless seeing the event for more than one day (and you must buy a new ticket every time you enter the park) a one night stay in Leon is all you really need. Take a peek at the FIG website to see what bands are lined up to play each day and to get information on prices. The website was a bit hard and complicated to pay for tickets online and we found it best to purchase with PayPal when the website worked.
We were so happy that we finally made it to a balloon festival as it was on the bucket list. And, if in the area when FIG happens we suggest you go and enjoy it for yourselves.