I love camping. Snuggled in a camp chair in a sweatshirt, belly full from a dinner of hot dogs and burnt marshmallows, the clear night sky overhead, and the smell of wood smoke cutting through the crisp evening air. I barely sleep when we camp because I’m scared a bear will rip open one end of our tent and drag a child out (I read about that happening once and, of course, will never sleep soundly again in the woods), but I love climbing in, tired and ready to warm up in a poly-filled sleeping bag. Coffee in the morning by a crackling campfire is the best and the kids spend their time doing old-fashioned things like making weapons out of sticks, picking the bark off of trees, and getting poison ivy. It’s magical.
We usually camp in forested campgrounds, with lots of pine trees and barely any people. Ours is the camping stereotype that involves hauling too much gear and enough food for the apocalypse that we tie up in a tree or lock in the car at night so we don’t attract kid-stealing bears.
I’ve been told this is quite different than festival camping. My only festival camping experience was my senior year of college when I went to a Bob Dylan/Joni Mitchell/Van Morrison concert at The Gorge, a few hours from Seattle. My fuzzy memories consist of amazing music, the spectacular natural beauty of the setting, being really hungry, getting separated from my friends and falling asleep in a stranger’s empty tent, and realizing people do a lot of drugs I’d never heard of. I was 22, so I probably went home, took a nap, drank a diet coke, and went to class the next day bright-eyed and not feeling like crap.
Which leads me to festival camping, almost 20 years later, in Mexico, with kids.
We heard about the Festival Internacional del Globo de Leon (or the International Hot Air Balloon Festival of Leon) from new friends of ours who asked if we wanted to join them. They are an American couple who moved here recently from Costa Rica with their two boys, who are 11 and 5, and the kids and adults all enjoy each other, so it’s an easy friendship; which, little did we know, was about to be tested.
Our first reaction to the festival was “ugh, that sounds like a lot of work.” After brief consideration, though, we decided we don’t often get the chance to see hundreds of hot air balloons in the sky at once and that sounded kind of cool. The website was pretty and the festival sounded great – live music, food, drinks, and hot air balloons. We decided camping at the festival was the best option because 1) the festival grounds are a 3-hour drive or so from SMA, 2) the highlight of the festival is the nighttime light up and the early morning launch of the balloons, and 3) they have a special campground for families. And we love camping!
After scrambling to borrow a tent and some other basic supplies, packing a cooler with snacks and beer/wine, and loading our car with every blanket in the house, we met up with our friends and started the drive to the festival on a Saturday morning. The drive was uneventful, although it took nearly four hours to reach the festival grounds because of traffic and not quite knowing where to go when we arrived (lots of guys waving colorful flags in different directions). After a few turn-arounds, we found the “family camping” entrance. We were told the parking lot had been full for hours and to park a ½ mile or so ahead on the street. As we drove away from the entrance and parked, we noticed a very long, thick line of people carrying sleeping bags. After a few minutes of weighing the pros and cons of carrying loads of stuff in a long line with six children to sleep with thousands of other people vs. going home and sleeping comfortably in our own beds, we decided to go for it. YOLO, I guess? We loaded up with whatever we could carry (which was about half of what we brought) and hauled ourselves, a bunch of blankets, two coolers, and bins full of not sure what, into the line.
After three hours (emphasis mine) of standing and walking in line (summarized, we: ate three packs of chocolate chip cookies and a bag of popcorn; talked/complained/joked around; dragged blankets in the dirt; repeatedly answered our kids’ question “How much longer?” with “I don’t f-ing know”; burned our necks due to a lack of shade; did our best to get UTIs through dehydration; stood in total silence for stretches because we weren’t sure what the hell we were doing there; and watched the kids play games because they were less encumbered with gear and regret) we arrived at the entrance of the festival. Like any place where humans live on Earth, there are inevitably jerks who cut in line ahead of people who’ve been waiting for hours, and when we reached the entrance we discovered an entire crowd of people cutting in line. Over 90% of the thousands of people waiting to get into the festival were waiting in the same excruciatingly slow line, but another 10% were cutting in from the side, partially explaining the sloth speed of the 90% line. It doesn’t take someone who earned a solid B- in physics to explain how the line jumpers mess with the mass flow rate of a crowd entering the gates of a festival. Thankfully. Because I don’t think I can explain it.
This is where Mexican culture comes into play. Mexicans are rather conflict-averse and tend to value politeness over correctness. No one in the big line seemed bothered by this crowd of people shoving their way in. There were even police and festival officials at the entrance watching it happen. In the US, there would be full-blown fights, definitely some elbows thrown and yelling, and depending on the crowd, guns/nunchucks drawn if, after hours of waiting in the heat, everyone realized there were a large number of line jumpers. I appreciate the lack of violence, and Americans can definitely learn a huge lesson in patience from Mexicans because honestly, we were the only ones who appeared remotely annoyed by the long line or the line jumpers. But at that point, we were all grumpy and sort of pushed/rode the crowd into the festival.
Upon entering, we had to pass a police inspection point where they confiscated most of our beer and wine because lying to a guy with an automatic weapon goes against our morals. Then, when we reached the family campground, we were told it was full and we had to find a spot in the “Juvenil” campground (aka, the party campground). The place was packed, an endless sea of tents. We walked for what felt like an eternity, but was probably more like ½ mile, until we found some space at the far end of the campground.
We quickly set up our gear with as much space away from other tents as possible and decided to walk to the main festival area (although this all took about 45 minutes because we didn’t have those cool, modern tents you just unfold and toss in the air; our tents involve a lot of pole assembly and arguing). We grabbed some hot dogs and beers on the way (discovering that the festival was sponsored by Tecate, hence the alcohol confiscation), and went to check out the main stage. We still don’t know why they didn’t do an evening balloon light up, but it didn’t happen, or we missed it. But there was no balloon action that night. Instead, there was a Steve Aoki concert. Those versed in electronic music know him, and he’s a pretty big deal in that scene, so there were thousands of people there for his concert. We hung out for a bit, bought some donuts, listened to music, and the kids ran around. This was definitely the brief highlight of the day.
After a very long day, though, we walked back to our tents at about 11pm, but not before I twisted my ankle badly on the uneven asphalt and fell completely to the ground in a not-at-all humiliating display. Despite the cold (it goes from 75° to 45° quickly in this climate), the music in the distance, and my throbbing ankle, we all fell asleep quickly. We were awoken, though, around 12:30am when the concert was over and all the revelers returned to their tents. Music was everywhere around us. Parties were in full effect. There were fireworks. A group of guys grabbed three huge metal trashcans and ingeniously used one as a chair, one as a drum, and one as a fire pit, right behind our tent. They enjoyed a raucous night of laughter, booze, cigarettes, impromptu drum jams and other things we couldn’t quite decipher from our freezing hovel directly behind them. But many people had a lot of fun all around our tents throughout the night.
All night, Scott and I just laid there, freezing, and spooned Pickles between us. The boys were left to spoon each other and, apparently, would rather freeze than spoon. We finally fell asleep when the parties died down around 5am, and woke when we heard the distinct puff-puff of hot air balloons at 6:30am. We crawled/rolled out of our tents and watched them overhead. It was pretty cool. There were all kinds of shapes and sizes and they flew close to the treetops and all around. During this time, we also realized Chief had left his Adidas high tops outside our tent the night before and they were stolen overnight. To his credit, he usually camps in the woods and bears don’t generally take your shoes, just your children. From inside your tent.
We tried to walk down to where they light up the balloons but the crowds were so dense we gave up and ate Dominos pizza and tamales instead. Then we walked back to our tents, broke everything down, loaded up and started the ½ mile walk back to the entrance of the festival grounds and additional ½ mile walk to our cars. Sleep-deprived, Chief in his socks, me limping with a swollen ankle, and everyone carrying heavy loads on tired shoulders, we got back to our cars, loaded up, and drove three hours home.
I realize we were on the wrong side of the festival and maybe the family campground enjoyed a more pleasing camping experience. If I saw people with kids camping at The Gorge back in college, I would’ve thought they were crazy, so maybe we were. Obviously, our expectations were off and we learned important lessons that weekend.
- Camping in the woods and festival camping are not the same thing.
- Mexicans have a cultural level of patience unfathomable to Americans and therefore a different expectation for organization of large festivals.
- They clean the porta-potties constantly at the hot air balloon festival. Nearly pristine porta-potties! Downside – the stench of poop being pumped from porta potties is in the air.
- If you drive for four hours, then stand in line for three hours to festival camp with new friends and six kids, and don’t hate each other at the end, then your friendship is probably solid.
- Don’t leave your Adidas high tops outside the tent.
- “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy Don’t go ill-prepared to a crowded festival in Mexico and camp with a bunch of kids.