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New Mexico: The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Adventures in Color
The vast, blue New Mexico sky is transformed into a kaleidoscope of color
the first full week of every October as the International Balloon Fiesta takes
to the sky. If you have never seen a hot air balloon in flight, you'll be
astounded at the explosion of more than 700 balloons ascending towards the
heavens. This annual event is the world's largest balloon rally, held here
in the ballooning capital of the world, attracting balloon pilots from all
over the globe.
The city will be jam-packed with visitors, but if you are able to visit
during this time it is a spectacular sight to behold. You can come out to
the Balloon Fiesta park and walk among the inflating balloons, watching the
full process of getting one of these "gentle giants" laid out, inflated, and
The airflow in the Rio Grande Valley, coupled with cool, clear mornings
give Albuquerque nearly ideal flying conditions. A phenomenon known as the
"Albuquerque Box" means pilots can ascend, float southward, ascend further
to catch a northerly airflow and float northward, and then land nearly at
the spot from which they ascended.
Throughout the week, pilots compete in flying events for prizes, such as
a key grab, where they try to navigate to a pole on which a car key is placed
- winner keeps the car. They also enjoy a game called "splash and dash", in
which they descend to the Rio Grande, dip the gondola in the water and burn
the propane madly to ascend again, water splashing off the bottom of the basket.
But, the most popular spectator events are the weekend morning mass ascensions,
completed in waves with hundreds of balloons lifting off over the course of
2 hours; and the evening Balloon Glows, where hundreds of pilots light up
the balloon envelopes with the burners, making them glow like giant luminarias.
The mother of all events, drawing massive traffic snarls and crowds, and
the delight of everyone, is the Special Shapes Rodeo, in which the myriad
of giant specially-shaped balloons, from Noah's Ark and a giant flying Harley-Davidson
to a La-Z-Boy recliner and a huge red chile ristra, and so many more,
float upward like a newly-opened giant toy box that has dispensed it's goods
Enjoying the Fiesta
The following tips will help you to enjoy your visit to the Fiesta.
- Cardinal Rule Number One: NEVER smoke on the field. Propane tanks and
lighting up definitely do not mix!
- Watch your feet. Balloonists are thrilled to have you watching, or even
helping, as they inflate their balloons, but your shoes on the delicate
fabric of the envelope can easily cause damage.
- Arrive early. Veeery early. This is an early morning sport. The Dawn
Patrol goes up at 6:30 a.m. By this time, you'll see the twinkling lights
of traffic lined up on the freeways and all other entry roads. It is not
unreasonable to leave your hotel at 5:30 a.m. Arrive very early for the
Balloon Glow and Special Shapes Rodeos as well. Leaving for the field two
hours before the scheduled event is recommended.
- It is often easier arriving from the West Side of Albuquerque, along
Alameda Boulevard. There is generally less traffic and it tends to flow
a bit faster from this direction.
- Take the bus. If you don't want to deal with traffic, the city bus system,
SunTran, offers park-and-ride services from several locations. On the East
Side, it's at Coronado Mall, Hoffmantown Church and Winrock Center Mall.
On the West Side, it's at Cottonwood Mall. The fee includes your entrance
into the park. Services are offered for all the major ballooning events.
- Caffeinate! There are numerous sources of caffeine for the bleary-eyed
arriving at such horrendous hours in the morning, from the food vendor booths
lining the east side of the field to the traveling coffee vendors with the
treasured beverage in massive thermal backpacks dispensing it on the spot
into your desperately out-stretched cup.
- Dress in layers. The mornings are crisp, sometimes even cold, but once
the sun comes up, the dry air begins to heat quickly and you'll be glad
to be able to peel off a jacket or a sweatshirt.
- Don't forget your sunglasses. When you're heading to the field at 5:30
a.m. it's easy to leave them behind, but once the sun rises, you'll be missing
them if they're in your hotel room. Sunscreen is also a good idea.
- Listen to the zebras. The balloon officials, decked out like zebras
in black and white, are all over the field directing the balloonists and
keeping the different sections inflating and ascending in proper timing.
If they yell at you to move, move! They ensure the ascension goes smoothly
- Jump into the action. Many balloonists need extra hands during the inflation
process. If you want to help, speak up! They'll put you to work holding
the envelope or weighting the gondola before lift off. (If you plan on helping,
bring a pair of gloves!)
- Work for a ride. If you find a balloonist who is need of crew, you can
usually gain yourself a free ride by becoming a chase crew member for a
- If you aren't inclined to work, buy yourself a ride. It is of course
more expensive to lift off from the Fiesta field, but the experience will
be worth the price. It is like nothing else on earth to ascend cocooned
within the kaleidoscope of hundreds of balloons.
- Bring lots of film. This is said to be the world's most photographed
annual event, and you'll quickly discover why!
- Follow your morning up as many of the balloonists do, with a breakfast
burrito. Whether you obtain yours on the balloon field or at one of the
local haunts, you just can't beat this wrapped-up New Mexican breakfast
tradition. The many concession stands are open long after the balloons have
landed, and there is entertainment lined up throughout the day. Stick around
the field, and you may be able to join into one of the many balloonists'
- If you prefer to avoid the crowd on the field, or just want to see a
different view of the mass of balloons framed against the Sandia Mountains,
drive out to Albuquerque's West Mesa and find a spot to park and watch the
balloons ascend in all their glory. A few good choices include the intersections
of Coors and Montano or Coors and La Orilla; the parking area at Cottonwood
Mall; and the escarpment above the Petroglyph National Monument.
- Return to your hotel for a nap. After the early morning rising, you'll
need it to face the rest of the day! Events will be held throughout the
city, from arts and crafts fairs to artist signings in Old Town, museum
events, and just general sightseeing.
It's never too early to start planning your excursion into the bountiful
colors of balloons. The hotels closest to the Balloon Fiesta Park fill up
early, some balloon pilots making reservations for the following year as they
depart the current Fiesta. There are no hotels directly next to or in the
immediate vicinity of the Balloon Park, but there are a couple down Alameda
Boulevard. The list below is in order, closest hotels listed first.
Hotels Closest to Balloon Fiesta Park
Holiday Inn Express on Alameda
Ramada Limited North
Comfort Inn and Suites North
Motel 6 North
Courtyard by Marriott Journal Center
Hampton Inn North
Amberly Suites Hotel
Wyndham Garden Inn
Drury Inn and Suites North
There are many hotels throughout the city. These are just the ones that
are in the closer vicinity to the Balloon Park.
Hotels - To Arrive From the West Side
If you are in town for Fiesta and want to arrive early, coming straight
down Alameda Boulevard and avoiding the long lines of backed-up traffic on
the interstate, you may want to look into these hotels and inns. You won't
be in the center of the city's activity here, though there are restaurants,
a large mall and some other shops around the west side and Corrales areas.
There are many B&B's in Corrales and the North Valley if your prefer a
small and charming inn (see resources below).
Wellesley Suites, Rio Rancho
Hilton Garden Inn, Rio Rancho
Super 8 Motel, Rio Rancho
See my Albuquerque Restaurant
List, Dining in the Duke City.
© Valerie Schneider, 2005
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