Albuquerque's Magical Balloon Fiesta: Up, Up, and Away!
Six hundred sixty-four Hot Air Balloons Paint the Sky in Albuquerque New Mexico
By Tab Hauser
On the first weekend in October and lasting for nine days, the blue skies over Albuquerque become a canvas of pretty colors and shapes.
This is when the city hosts the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. During the 2017 Fiesta, 571 brightly colored balloons along with 93 special shaped balloons converged on a 72-acre field. (Think 56 football fields!).
The annual Fiesta is the Super Bowl of balloon events attracting 850,000 fans in a carnival-like atmosphere.
It is here that balloon enthusiasts get up close and personal to any of the balloons on the field. This event is also a photographers dream come true.
Up Early, But Worth It
The Balloon Fiesta keeps a tight of schedule of events with the highlights being the morning's "Mass Accession" and the "Twilight Twinkle Glow" in the evening. The morning starts early here so it is advisable on weekends to arrive by 5 AM.
This will have you avoid backups near the parking lot and get you a spot closer to the field. Early risers can warm up with New Mexico's best coffee along with a breakfast burrito that city claims to have invented.
The first few balloons to take off before sunrise are called "Dawn Patrol". Their job is to figure out the wind direction for the other pilots who will launch after sunrise. Watching these first few balloons 500 feet above illuminate when they ignite their propane against the dark sky makes a pretty sight.
With Dawn Patrol done, the launch field gets overtaken with pickup trucks and vans unloading balloons. Visitors can get close to any of the balloon crews and watch them put it together.
As the morning progresses row after row takes flight but only after a "zebra" confirms with each pilot that it is safe to launch. Zebras, as they are called, are the air marshals for launches. They all are dressed in football referee shirts but put a little humor in personalizing the rest of their attire.
On day one of our two-day visit we had the pleasure of getting a ride on Jeff Haliczer's colorful "Synchronicity". After being introduced we were happy to lend a hand in their set up. This included laying out the nylon and then holding the lines as it was filled up with air and then hot air.
It was a good experience to learn firsthand how balloons are put together. When the row in front launched we climbed into the basket, next Jeff whistled for his dog Bandit who jumped in. (Bandit has over 100 hours of flight time).
With the thumbs up sign from the zebra, Jeff's crew let go of the basket while he gave long blasts of flames giving us a smooth steady launch over the waving crowds below. After a series of additional blasts of flames, we enjoyed how quiet things were at 600 feet. To get a brief “in the basket” view from the sky click this link
With winds heading south and towards the city our flight, unfortunately, lasted only 20 minutes before touching down with an added bounce in a grassy area next to an office building. Visitors can arrange rides through BalloonFiesta.com
While floating in a balloon the first day was an experience to be remembered, being on the ground the second day was equally as entertaining. On this second morning, pilots and spectators were treated to what is called the "Albuquerque Box Effect".
The box effect is when cold air comes into the valley from the mountains nearby causing the warmer air to swirl around. This box effect is an important reason the Fiesta takes place here. Today's pilots lifted to an altitude that took them south and with a few adjustments had them doing large circles around the field.
We were watching hundreds of brightly colored and shaped balloons floating over us for almost two hours. Of the special shaped balloons, a stagecoach, motorcycle and cow were among the largest.
Some of these balloons are 100 feet wide. Others shapes included fish, birds, dinosaurs, Darth Vader, a frog and a dancing couple to name just some.
When looking skyward it is easy to see why the Fiesta management says over 25 million photos are taken over the nine days.
To see a 32-second video of hundreds of balloons floating against the blue sky click this link
The next popular event to see is the "Twilight Twinkle Glow". To view this you need to return back to the field by 5 PM to get a good parking spot. The twilight glow has hundreds of balloons setting up just before sunset. Each balloon is tethered and filled with hot air. When the sky gets dark the "Balloonmeister" does a series of five-second countdowns.
At zero the pilots all pull their igniters sending bursts of flames inside the balloon lighting them up. This creates the entire field to blink with color. Visitors can walk up and down the rows to take it all in. Depending on the night, you can enjoy a fireworks show after the last balloon is deflated. A 30-second if this sparkling nightglow can be found at this link
Balloon Fest Details:
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place during the first weekend of October for nine days. Everything you need to know about it can be found at http://www.balloonfiesta.com . I recommend visiting on the weekends to get the most of the event. Balloons do not take off in winds over 11.5 miles or in the rain so add an extra day as a backup when you visit.
Between the morning and evening events, we recommend you head into Old Town to take a historical Segway tour with (http://www.abqglidetours.com ) as well as see the old western (and humorous) gunfight in the street by the square. For information on museums and things to do in the Albuquerque area visit this website.
Hotels and Food:
Rooms should be booked as early as possible. We used the Fiesta web hotel link because we had a problem finding rooms on our own due to our late decision to be there. You may find better rates if you book direct several months in advance. The Fiesta has a carnival or fair atmosphere.
There are tents that feature educational issues for adults and children as well as crafts for sale. Other vendors sell souvenirs and all types of fast food. Picnicking is allowed.
For an early dinner before the night glow consider making a reservation at the nearby at El Pinto Restaurant (www.elpinto.com) for their classic New Mexican food that you can enjoy in an attractive courtyard.
Tab Hauser was President of two small family businesses before selling out and embracing his passion for writing and photography. When not at his home in Glen Cove, NY he is traveling the United States and world where he visited 42 countries so far.