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Soar the Skies at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Published by Megan Eaves, Writer

Country: United States

The Experience

It was just after 5 a.m. when I forced myself out of bed, packed on three layers of clothes (to be peeled off later when the desert sun peaked) and sped down Interstate 25 toward the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. When we arrived, the sun was barely starting to peek over the tips of Sandia Peak, which cast a strange glow down the mountain's sheer facade.

All around us, the empty fabrics of hot air balloons lay flat and dormant on the ground awaiting the blazing heat of inflation and the start of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. The high desert air was cool and crisp, and my breath shot out of my mouth in a white puff as I shivered a little. A small wooden stand nearby beckoned me with promises of hot chocolate, and nearby, vendors were grilling eggs, pancakes and New Mexico chilies. Behind me, the loud "shwoooooosh" of hot air balloon fire igniters cut through the morning silence.

After downing a breakfast burrito crammed full of luscious pinto beans, heaps of cheese, bacon bits and gobs of spicy green chile sauce—I felt warmed from the inside out. The sun, still barely making an appearance, cast long bright rays across the mesas (elevated areas of land) when the first balloon took flight.

All around the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, half-inflated balloons were now brandishing colours, and festival-goers were able to get up close as they slowly lifted from the ground.
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta began animating with life as the balloons breathed the inflated air and grew taller. Some were widening into traditional arcs as others splayed out into amazing shapes: cows, milk cartons, ladybugs and frogs with goofy grins. Nearby, Darth Vader was battling his half-inflated mask. All of the balloons were bobbing up and down in anticipation of their first flight of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.

Walking amongst the expanding mass of balloons, I could inspect them closely, and at times I nearly walked inside them as they raised themselves off the ground. Blue, orange, green, black, yellow and bright red—every colour imaginable surrounded me in a rainbow of eerie shapes that bobbed and swayed in the early morning breeze. Balloon pilots raced around the sides of the balloons checking their baskets for the necessary equipment. They would pull on the fire trigger to send a surge of hot air inside the balloons. People looked on with admiring gazes and wide smiles, making small chat as they warmed their hands around cups of coffee. Photographers bent low over their tripods trying to capture the moments of inaugural lift during the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.

Then, suddenly it seemed as if all the balloons were in the air above me, like they had planned their skyward maneuvers in sync. Dotting the sky in every direction as far as my eyes could take me, their brightly-patterned geometric designs contrasted with the now sunny blue New Mexico sky. The balloons, which had seemed so huge just moments before on the ground, were now tiny as they floated up and away. From the baskets, balloon pilots and their friends and families clustered in groups of four, waving, smiling and shouting to those of us left on the ground in awe of this amazing sight. I craned my neck, trying but failing to see them all as they littered the sky with tiny bits of colour.

When to Go to Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta occurs every October for nine days, though the specific dates vary each year. Late autumn is a spectacular time to visit New Mexico, when the high mountain air is crisp and dry and the leaves on the Cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande have changed from green to bright orange, red and yellow. The October sunsets glow pink against the Sandia Mountains and give the mountains the watermelon colour of their namesake. The vast array of colours dotting the sky during the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is probably one of the most breathtaking scenes you'll ever come across.

Beyond the spectacular array of balloons, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta plays host to an amazing range of vendors, including lots of unique New Mexican fare (watch out for the spicy red and green chili sauces!), interesting balloon equipment and all-around great souvenirs. Each evening is rounded off with an exciting fireworks display!


Odds n' Ends

The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta goes on all week, so it's possible to do other sightseeing and still get your fill of all the balloon activities. This is nice because Albuquerque is a soft, laid back city with lots to see and do, including Old Town shopping, hiking the West Mesa and taking the Peak Tram to the top of the Sandia Mountains!

There are several Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta events that you won't want to miss. Set your alarm clock early (at least on one morning) and get out to Balloon Fiesta Park by 7 a.m. for the compulsory Mass Ascension—when all the balloons inflate and fly up at the same time. You'll want to don a sweatshirt or hoodie and grab a cup of hot cocoa, as October mornings in Albuquerque are crisp and cool!

The other Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta event not to be missed is the nightly Balloon Glow—an evening affair where many of the balloons inflate but stay grounded, creating a luminous natural glow emanating from the fire inflators. Perhaps, the most beloved Balloon Fiesta event is the Special Shapes Rodeo, which takes place on only one day of the Festival. For this, balloons of unique and special shapes are the feature of the day, and you are likely to see Snoopy floating next to Darth Vader, while an immense cow hovers just nearby.

Luckily, tickets to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta have remained remarkably cheap over the years. Daily adult admission is a mere US$6, and group/packet discounts are offered. Parking costs US$10 per day. There are also park & ride options that offer cheaper parking and will shuttle you to and from the Balloon Fiesta grounds.

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