Thrill-Seekers Soar: Brazil’s Underground Hot-Air Ballooning Obsession

"Local Residents Embark on Early Morning Mission to Fulfill Long-Awaited Dream"

Cats chased shadows through the pre-dawn gloom as the men hit the streets of suburban Rio and set off towards their objective under the cover of darkness. “I’ve not slept,” said one early riser, a bushy-bearded office worker called Arthur Araújo, as he emerged from his home to fulfil a “dream” one year in the making.

The group’s convoy navigated deserted mountain roads and country lanes before stopping at a farmstead in the rainforest-cloaked sierra separating the city from the rest of Brazil. They clambered from their cars, jumped a barbed wire fence and hiked into the meadows as white herons soared overhead.

Uninitiated onlookers might have mistaken the ramblers for landless activists occupying an unproductive ranch, or ravers flocking to an underground event. In fact, they were hot-air balloon fanatics, known in Brazil as baloeiros, who gather once a year to send their enormous kaleidoscopic creations into the skies.

“Balloons are my life – they’ve been my life ever since I was a kid,” said another of the early birds, a 46-year-old balloon freak and kite maker called Márcio Júnior.

Júnior, whom friends call Pão Doce (Iced Bun) because of his fondness for souping up motorbikes so they resemble decorated cakes, caught the balloon bug off his mother while growing up in 1980s Rio. She took him to balloon festivals in a neighbourhood named after the Garden of Eden, where Júnior would sprint after the eye-catching envelopes as they drifted away. “I went nuts … I was head over heels in love!” Iced Bun recalled.

Launching balloons is a decades-old tradition brought to Brazil from its former coloniser Portugal, and was originally part of June festivities honouring the Catholic saints Anthony, Peter and John. It took root in Rio’s working-class suburbs in the 1950s before spreading to São Paulo and cities in the south. Today, Brazil has hundreds, perhaps thousands of competing balloon turmas (crews or gangs), who hold annual tournaments with names such as Boca de Ouro (Mouth of Gold). “It’s the Oscars of the balloon,” said Erika Paula dos Santos, the director of a film about the world of baloeiros.

As the movement flourished, Rio became the cradle of “gigantismo”, the construction of astonishingly large and flamboyant balloons, some the size of 10-storey buildings, others laden with fireworks to ensure they go up with a bang. Santos remembered witnessing the launch of a balloon that had a height of 107 metres, which is 11 metres taller than Big Ben.

After the balloons are released, recovery crews called turmas de resgate give chase in cars and speedboats, hoping to gain prestige or earn a prize by salvaging them before rivals. Guided by GPS trackers attached to the balloons, the rescuers track them, sometimes for days, through the countryside or out to sea during perilous Wacky Races-style adventures. “Sometimes you’ll have 10 cars giving chase but perhaps only three will make it to the end,” said one rescue driver, a businessman in his 40s who asked not to be named.

The driver called his balloon-hunting escapades “an inexplicable love”. “My grandad always used to say: ‘Different strokes for different folks.’ Some people like flying kites. Some people stay up all night boozing … My thing is the rescues.”

Araújo, whose crew is called Balo Céu (Heavenly Balloons), said ballooning was a key part of suburban culture and a family obsession passed from generation to generation. “It’s a passion … we just love it. We love the adrenaline,” enthused the 30-year-old, who said his group’s balloons were entirely funded by monthly contributions from members.

But ballooning also happens to be illegal. It was outlawed in 1998 because of the risk it poses to public safety and the environment, and is punishable with up to three years in jail. A dedicated phone hotline exists for citizens to snitch on baloeiros, whom many consider foolhardy tearaways who put their own pleasure before other people’s lives. Judging by the number of balloons regularly seen drifting over Rio, though, it has done little to curb the craze.

Speaking to the newspaper O Globo last year, the police chief tasked with foiling Rio’s baloeiros insisted ballooning was a crime, not a cultural practice. As well as endangering aircraft and vehicles, balloons had landed on homes, power lines and petrol stations, causing explosions, forest fires and deaths. In recent months, military police helicopters – normally tasked with hunting gangsters in Rio’s favelas – have been put to work shooting down hot air balloons.

Balo Céu’s members played down such concerns as they prepared to launch the group’s largest creation since it was founded in 2012: an 18-metre balloon made up of nearly 150,000 5cm square tiles of tissue paper that had been painstakingly stitched together in a workshop called a bancada. “It’s true there are balloons that might come down and start a fire,” Araújo admitted. “But when a balloon’s released properly … has the correct weight and [flies at] the right height, its flame will have gone out by the time it comes down.”

As with Rio’s annual carnival parades, each balloon has a different theme designed to help it stand out from the crowd: a pop star, a religious figure, a family member or football team or film. Balo Céu’s latest motif was Rise of the Guardians, a DreamWorks fantasy animation in which a tooth fairy, a warrior rabbit and a teenage rapscallion called Jack Frost battle an evil spirit called the Nightmare King. As they marched towards their launch site, the crew’s members sported customised T-shirts featuring that film’s characters and Balo Céu’s name.

Police accuse some baloeiros of having links to Rio’s criminal underworld. In one notorious 2020 incident, shots were fired when dozens of balloon rescuers reportedly stormed the city’s international airport in order to recover a balloon, risking what authorities called “a plane accident of gigantic proportions”.

But there was a family atmosphere as young children and their balloon-mad parents gathered in the meadow one Sunday morning before Christmas to…

John O Mahony

John O Mahony

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